What Neuroscience Is Saying About Free Will

Recently I’ve been posting clips here on my site to accompany my posts, some of them being from Baroness Susan Greenfield, an eminent neuroscientist.   I searched to find out what sorts of books and other materials she’s made and found out that she was involved in a six part television series called Brain Stories.   It’s six hours jammed packed with the fascinating inner workings of your brain.  Here is the introduction to the series.

If you want a basic primer into the workings of your brain and the research that’s currently being done, you definitely want to see this series.  In one episode they talked about “phantom limbs”, where a woman whose arm has been amputated continues to feel as if she has a hand.  She even sometimes tries to pick things up with it and finally remembers, “Oh, I don’t have that hand anymore.”  Then Professor Greenfield explains why this is and shows what areas of the brain generate the sensation of having a hand.  She shows how the brain changes in traumatized individuals, in particular we witness the damaged brain of a Vietnam war veteran.  We later witness a man who had shrapnel go through his frontal cortex, leaving him with the inability to plan and assess risk.  From then on, his life went downhill as he made one bad decision after another.  It’ll really make you think about what it means to be a human being.

In the introduction clip you see the woman who can’t perceive motion.  I find that particularly fascinating because I think understanding these sorts of disorders is the key to understanding our subjective sense of time.  Currently I’m studying vision science which tells how the brain builds up a conception of space.  Next I’ll be trying to figure out how it registers memories and the time-line of our lives.  The plan is to take all this information and combine it with modern physics research and see what view of reality I come to.  The deeper I go down this rabbit hole, the more bizarre it gets.   Even more bizarre is learning how and why I feel bizarre about it!

The best episode is the sixth one which  deals with the generation of consciousness.  She goes to a circus and interviews men who subject themselves to terrible pain yet feel nothing, and goes into how they’re able to do it.  She talks about anesthetics and gives her personal theory into why they dull the mind and why we start to hallucinate.  She talks about alcohol and how it too dulls the mind.  This is a clip from the sixth episode where it goes into free will, and shows an amazing guy whose corpus callosum has been severed allowing him to do some strange things.  Just watch it for yourself.  This user has posted the entire Brain Stories series on Youtube.  Just go to his channel.  It’s research like this that makes me speculate that free will isn’t what we think it is.  Lately I’ve been amassing a small library of neuroscience books, reading them in my free time  (along with physics, of course!).

I think her idea of consciousness is definitely close to the truth.  You see that the the brain is a wave generator, and we’re conscious once it generates waves of certain intensities and patterns.  She compares it to watching the surface of a lake when it’s raining.  You see the drops falling creating ripples.  She compares those to sensory inputs from say our eyes and ears.  Those then ripple through the brain, a wave is generated, and then we feel a conscious experience.  We feel we’re in control of this body as we move it about, yet as research is showing, the decision seems to have taken place quite a long while before we have a conscious experience of having decided to make the decision.  It’s almost as if the conscious mind is aware simply of other areas of our brain justifying why our subconscious made a decision.  A sort of rationalization.  Either way, there’s strong evidence that free will doesn’t exist, at least not as people commonly think of it.  Then again, there’s a lot of mysteries to this problem as well.

This sort of thing profoundly changes how I view the world and how I treat others.  Ever since I began studying neuroscience two years ago, I look at everything differently.  That’s how powerful studying neuroscience is.  It will change how you view everything.  When I combine these sorts of things with what I’m learning from modern physics, I feel like I’m peeling back reality and seeing the deeper aspects of what’s going on.  I don’t understand it, but what I am realizing for sure is that we’re not what we think we are.  I feel like a stuck record saying the same thing, over and over, but it’s true.  I feel like I’ve been finding out things which are truly amazing and I want to run around telling everybody.  Some people seem interested, but others feel their religion and other worldviews explains the world for them, and they don’t care.  I wish I could tell them, “The way you view the world is completely wrong on so many levels.”  Science like this though isn’t convincing until you dive in and learn more and more.  I can’t quickly summarize it for you and say, “Oh, here’s the gist of it.”  You have to actually watch a video of a surgeon stick an electrical probe on a woman’s brain as she’s counting and then watch her lose her ability to continue.  Then you study all the literature and see what each brain function is doing and see the machine aspects of who we are – the living robot.  We’re a conscious machine, a mixture of determined biological chemistry and possibly free will of some sort.

2 thoughts on “What Neuroscience Is Saying About Free Will”

  1. Jason, free-will is a fascinating subject. The more I’ve thought about it, the more it seems to me like a meaningless or nonsensical concept.

    Most people probably don’t think about it that deeply. They seem to think “free will” simply means being able to do what you will without anybody or anything stopping you from it, or being able to refrain from doing something one wills to refrain from without being forced by someone or something to do it anyway.

    But to me this is only free action and not free will. Free will is being able to will other than what you will at the time you will it, despite the conditions inside and outside your brain and mind when you will it.

    I don’t see how this can possibly be, and it seems to me that the neuroscience to which you allude is progressively confirming this. That is to say, neuroscience and, more broadly, cognitive science, shows us that all human mentation, including volition, is the inevitable effect of neural and other causes such that when we have those causes, we’re going to have precisely the effects and only those effects that we observe.

    I was very struck by your comment about how studying neuroscience can change your whole worldview. I think you’re right, not only about studying neuroscience or physics but any science, philosophy, or other discipline deeply enough that pertains, at least in part, to “the human condition.”

    Speaking for myself, I see the deep study of the free will vs determinism issue as a potential portal to what is known in spiritual circles as “enlightenment.” In other words, I think that if one studies “free will” deeply enough, one may come to understand, as you suggest, that there is no central “I” or “homunculus” inside my brind (brain-mind) controlling me, but that I, as we discussed earlier, am an organism-environment field in which there’s no ultimate, ontological separation between myself and the unified totality of existence.

    This is already my intellectual understanding of the key insight of so-called enlightenment, but I hypothesize that a deep enough study of free will vs determinism could produce a transfiguring understanding of this on a more profoundly holistic level. In other words, I’m talking about a kind of intellectual yoga.

  2. I don’t know. Intellectual discussion on free will/action are interesting, but practical implications are few.

    I am my brain. I am the various chemical reactions that go on in there. That is me. I feel happy because happy chemicals are released. I tell happy chemicals to be released because something makes me happy.

    Let us suppose we find something that makes a person more inclined to violence. Does that excuse that person? No… because that is that person. Their personality, everything… is shaped by it.

    Should we change how we treat people? I don’t think so either. Life is a feedback system. You are not solely a product of your genes, but also your environment. So a person could have a gene that inclines them to violence, but society helps control that by having a law punishing violent crime.

    If we changed the law removing punishments, it changes who people are.

    Now we can most certainly change people, drug them up, alter their brains… plenty of sci fi shows have dealt with this.

    I think Babylon 5 did an episode showing this is how they handle criminals. They just reprogram them to not be who they used to be.

    So the practical impacts of freewill/free action are almost non-existent due to the feedback nature of reality.

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