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Thoughts On Apathy

October 22, 2013

I’d like to briefly tell all of you about an interesting medical disorder which I think sheds light on the problem of free will.  If a person suffers brain damage in their anterior cingulate cortex, they will suffer from what’s called akinetic mutism.  And what is that?

These people will simply lie in bed, not saying a word.  They’re fully aware of everything going on around them, but they have absolutely no motivation to do anything.  As far as I know, they exist in the deepest, purest form of apathy humans can experience.  They’re even indifferent to pain.  You could probably start cutting them up with a knife and they wouldn’t resist or make a fuss.

That particular area of our brain is heavily involved in reward anticipation, and without this area estimating how much pleasure we’ll get from different actions, we go into this deep state of, “What’s the use.”  We’ve all had a depressed friend who didn’t want to get out of bed.  This is like that, but way more intense.

In certain cases you can give these people drugs and they’ll temporarily snap out of it.  They’ll then lean forward and respond to questions you ask them, but otherwise, they just lay there, indifferent to whether they live or die.

This is interesting and important to note in any discussion of free will.  Without your brain’s reward anticipation system functioning, you go into a state of pure apathy.  Your ability and desire to exercise “free will” vanishes.

Free will is a tricky, slippery idea.  Even the quantum mechanical interpretations are hard to understand.  How would that work when these reward anticipation processes are ultimately dictating what we do?

It’s almost as if damage to that area of the brain leaves a person in a state where they’re unable to have faith.  Without a belief that there’s something good waiting for you in the future, you just shut down.  Your whole brain is wired on that premise.

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