In human discourse the concept of free will is usually taken to mean that, absent external coercion, a human has the freedom to consciously choose a course of action in accordance with the individual’s interests and values. Philosophers have struggled with the implications of this concept for millennia and, as I noted in a previous column, there remains some uncertainty as to what we mean by consciousness. The question of the existence of a “free will” has recently returned to the limelight following research using the technique of functional magnetic resonance imaging (known also as fMRI). This technique is capable of showing which brain structures are involved, and in what order, during different physical and mental activities.
Before I review these recent results I should note that the choice of action we take in any given situation is, in reality, never totally free. This is because our actions are naturally constrained by the way we are constructed as well as by our age, knowledge, experience, skills, culture, and available resources. Although people with certain personality disorders (for example, anti-social personality) may exhibit behaviors contrary to their cultural norms, these individuals remain constrained by the other factors mentioned above. In this sense humans have never had a totally unconstrained will. Indeed, it is unlikely we could survive if we had to consciously think through every action before initiating it.
We’ve also known for some time that many if not most of the activities of our brain (such as regulating our heart rate and blood pressure, as well as initiating instantaneous avoidance reactions to prevent injury) occur without our intention and often without our being aware of them, even after the fact.
Now data gathered using alert humans and fMRI poses a further constraint – that, in fact, we may not consciously choose to do anything. Remarkably, the evidence obtained to date strongly suggests that the “executive” region of our brain initiates an action before we are aware that we intend the action. That is, the action we are about to do has been initiated unconsciously. We then become aware of our actions as they unfold and have only the illusion that we have been conscious of the whole process from the beginning. When asked why we did what we did, we search our brains for those previously known facts, thoughts and experiences that make our recent action seem consciously purposeful.
Obviously, this “executive” area of our brain that is making decisions for us has been conditioned and trained, within the bounds of our innate capacities, by our prior experiences and education. All of which, of course, contribute to our individual uniqueness. If this research is validated will it change the way we treat drug addicts or criminals? Or will these findings be overturned by further research into how our mind works?
Questions and suggestions from readers are welcomed and will be responded to in future editions of this column. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.