"I'm free, to do what I want, any old how" K. Richards and M. Jagger
Would you jump off a mountain in good faith that a parachute will spring open and convey you gently back down to the ground?
What would it take for you to make that step out into the void, eyes screwed shut, and your fate thrust forth into the lap of the gods...?!
Just how much of a decision would you be taking consciously to do this? You have free will, you are in control, the decision is yours and yours alone...right??
You might be a little surprised if I told you that actually the decision you would be making would actually be already decided upon BEFORE you actually decided to do it! Confused? You should be.
The scenario of jumping from a clifftop is an extreme example but serves also as a metaphor for taking risks, making commitments, pushing boundaries in life. So substitute a more relevant contextual challenge that fits with your lifestyle and read on with that in mind...
The question of free will is a contentious one, debated by philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists and their ilk. But delve down into the human brain and you will find some intriguing propositions about how it works, how the thoughts that appear to be our own, and the actions that we choose to take, may rest upon the foundation of an illusion.
A position that is increasingly gaining traction in the scientific community concerns the ambiguous nature of human agency, and veridicality of 'reality' being called into question. By this I mean what we think of as true, or real, be it from the perspective of cause-and-effect, our capacity to determine our fate through our actions and decisions, and how we exhibit control over an environment that we can define clearly all around us, is in fact just the tip of a shimmering iceberg whose constitution is far more complex. The nitty-gritty is somewhat hidden below the surface of a realm we take for granted as being 'how things are'.
The brain in its infinite complexity, computes and processes a vast amount of information that we can not hope to comprehend or keep track of from a conscious standpoint. Motorically speaking, the information flooding in from the environment continuously and impinging on our senses, demanding adjustment moment-to-moment from our bodily position in space, is just mind-bogglingly incomprehensible (to paraphrase an observation from Douglas Adams upon the scale of the Universe, but which could equally be directed at the brain itself). It is said that the brain has evolved to the size and density that it has, in order to accommodate the computring power necessary for ambulatory functioning (i.e. moving about, including fiddling with implements called 'tools'). We might surmise proudly and smugly that we sit atop the food chain with our weighty grey (and white) matter on account of our superior intellectual capacities, our amazing perceptual abilities including the propensity to make grand art, send our kind to the Moon, create huge shopping malls and invent reality TV. But actually that most likely betrays a false sense of what our cerebral machinery is all about. Why is it that we stuggle to make robots that can perform the fluid movements we take for granted, and that exponential advances in computing (following Moore's law) only now decades later are yielding some developments in 'lifelike' motor coordination? It's 2019 and I don't see Replicants standing on every street corner, so Ridley got that one wrong. But computers have been able to beat people at chess for some time now...
Ironically the most metabolically demanding component of the brain seems to be lodged in the very structures that give us this grandiose sense of our own importance, and can in fact get in the way of producing great achievements as mentioned above. And when movement is effected in a most efficient way, or when boundaries of human endeavour associated with refined movement skills (eg. leaping from great heights, whizzing about at high speed, and so on in athletic pursuits), it is believed that these areas of self-indulgence are in fact turned 'off' (tuned down). Arne Dietrich (2006) talks about this, referring to it as the transient hypofrontality theory. So in that sense whilst the components of movement are computed and implemented 'effortlessly', i.e. efficiently by an complex infrastructure, the 'self' and it's luxuriant ramblings put a strain on resources and give rise to feelings of fatigue and perplexity at the hard work of it all...go figure.
Returning to the questions posed at the start, let us bring to bear on this argument a point about free will or it's potential absence in the proceedings. The brain's mechanisms below the surface of conscious awareness manifest algorithms and heuristics that rely on past experiences, encoded in memory and motor cortices, predict outcomes probabilistically, and feed forward courses of actions (also 'decisions') to the higher centres of awareness that then inform what 'I' will do (or say) next.
A marvel of discovery in the neuroscientific canon around 1964 was the so-called Bereitschaftspotential (Kornhuber and Deecke, 1964). This measure concerns activity in the motor cortex and supplementary motor area which precedes voluuntary activity in muscles. That it can be identified in experimental situations prior to an apparently conscious act being made raises a near metaphysical challenge to the notion of conscious decision making based in volitional agency. Instead we may postulate a decision as representating the sum total of unconscious proccesses from which an outcome is determined and made accessible to the conscious agent ('me'). Benjamin Libet (Libet et al., 1983) found that this response would occur abour 0.35 seconds before an experimental subject reported awareness of a desire to make a motor action.
I have talked at length elsewhere about the brain networks that turn on and off (so to speak) based on whether attention is focused outwardly on a task to be performed or inwardly on internal mentation, rumination, mind wandering, or notions aout one's 'self' and its indulgent concerns. And how by focusing outwards and being immersed in 'doing' rather than 'thinking' per se, one in fact loses sense of self, an awareness of being an agent in that sense. So from this we can at least propose that 'self', 'awareness', 'agency' and associated concepts in some respect are dependent upon the state of the brain, how it's resources are managed within this bogglingly convoluted connective system. And could also make further assertions about the availability of resource for 'cognition' (in the higher/abstract sense of the term) being very much down to a prioritisation within that system based on demands for sustenance of the body (and it's brain), and its biological imperatives. A luxury perhaps?
So from this basis, a sense that we are entitled to a free agency, volitional 'will' to do with a we please, to make decisions as we see fit, and to have a vainglorious demeanour about how marvellous this all is that we can do what we want, does perhaps rest on a fallacy.
A final point to make with respect to the Bereitschaftspotential, refers to a recent paper in whcih researchers in Germany and Austria conducted an experiment studying the BP/brains of bungee jumpers. Jumping from a 192m bridge (I know it well having done likewise a couple of years back), the BPs were recorded and conclusions drawn. This study sought to ascertain just 'when' that go-no-go decision occurs vis-a-vis one's propensity to leap forth as if against the mores of sanity and survival. The answer would seem to be that lo-and-behold the potential registers as one would expect, in advance of the decision 'to go'. Interestingly, and as this represents an 'extreme' or 'life-threatening' type of scenario (despite the safety strictures in place), participants will still exhibit fear and reticence and must overcome the tendency to abort the decision 'to go'. But at some level whilst this conflict is raging internally, that potential/tendency has already been set. What has yet to be investigated further (and this is where my own research seeks to bridge gaps, pun unintended) is how the fronto-parietal attentional networks, and the shifting activation in functional connectivity between 'task'focused' and 'task-irrelavant' (or 'self' indulgent) comes into play in individuals taking part in extreme activities, and harnessing their 'willpower' to jump into the abyss...'Free won't', to coin a phrase, perhaps being the order of the day when it comes to a capacity to inhibit a predetermined action. Watch this space as this line of reasoning develops further....!
At the end of the day 'you' will come to a decision as to whether 'you' are going to do the act as posed in the earlier question. But that is not to say that you have full agency over that 'doing'. For within your own makeup there will be a brain network-driven tendency to mitigate impulse, whether that is to do a bold act such as jumping from a cliff, or to not do that act in a month of sundays! Likewise, if taking this metaphor and applying it to your impetus to make a committing decision about a life event, or even to make changes that go against the impulse to stay the same, the fact remains, that motivation rests inside your brain, and to an extent outwith your 'control'.
So rather than sweat it out in the middle of the night wondering what 'you' would do, take some solace in the thought that actually all 'you' can really do is just follow whatever that inner voice tells you to do, as it has by and large been determined in advance by a much more well informed committee in the recesses of your brain's parliamentary chambers!!
Footnote - updated positon on the above
Actually, the validity of the Bereitschaftspotential in terms of claims made with reference to it's status in the debate on free will has been revisited in recent years (Schurger et al., 2012), with the inflation of it's significance attributed to interpretation of signal-within-noise in brain activity fluctuations relative to decision making. If anything, evidence suggests that the brain weighs up 'evidence' based on sensory information in order to make a decision, and the activity corresponding to 'evaluation' of that information accumulates towards a 'tipping point' at which a decision can be assertively made. [Could it fact be that our conscious thoughts are 'echoes' of this underlying activity? Or shadows on the Platonic cave wall? Continuing this analogy, even a projection, an echo, can have physical ramifications and influence the course of events - an Alpine avalanche for instance caused from sound waves bouncing round the mountain ampitheatre, or a shadow demarking an area of shade to escape the suns rays (stretching the point somewhat!) Perhaps consciousness, and by association 'will' is indeed an echoic manifestation of underlying automatic processing, yet who's reverberations as a by-product (waste?) can actually alter the course of actions that have been set in motion. This is an intriguing proposition, as if evolution has bestowed a circular economy upon the neural system such that it's 'waste' generated propels the organism forwards via emergent 'agency', like a bat echolating to navigate, or using that waste to reshape the path ahead...].
The BP in itself may be an artefact of the analysis and not as it has been asserted provide a pre-emptive signature of a foregone conclusion, as it were, of decision having been determined prior to conscious awareness of that. The matter is open for debate. Likewise the question of free will is also unresolved. The fact remains though that the brain processes a huge amount of data, and as a 'subconscious' committee of information gatherers, the likely direction of a decision may already have been weighed up prior to a conscious selection of that decision. At which point the conscious agent exhibits so-called free will to decide X vs Y. Up until the moment of say jumping off a cliff one has the capacity to 'change one's mind'. But somewhere deep down there is an impetus to do it or to not do it. And effort may require being expended to counteract that impetus to overcome inertia that has metabolic roots in availability of resource and direction to employ (literally in this case fight or flight - i.e. step into the abyss and 'fly' or 'fight' the urge to do so/not do so depending on the personality and motivational state of being! - turning the actual concept on it's head for a moment!). An interesting take on this to pursue further concerns a biological/physiological impetus to act upon energy stores available to direct in the service of an intention, a goal, a drive to do something when one is engaged and motivated towards an activity (inspired!). Namely, how the underlying neurophysiological/neurocognitive mechanisms organise operationally in order to make that act/final decision to 'go for it' happen. Do we really 'know' that we will do X when in situation Y? We can surmise a probability of likelihood (perhaps approaching but not absolutely certainly 100%) based on past experience, or perceived motivation to do so. But do we really 'know' that we WILL make that commitment in the moment (as opposed to 'choking' at the last minute?). If so then it may be true to say that actually the decision will become apparent when the systems subserving that reach their conclusive judgement and provide the 'conscious agent' with the answer that allows 'it' to decide at the last moment.
Free will if we must use such a vague term in this sense perhaps represents a culmination and a finite time point in an act that has heritage in the build up (to which the conscious agent is not fully granted access) and a 'tipping point' of opportunity to exhibit itself. Perhaps then that moment of time is not entirely 'available' until this build up of sufficient momentum is achieved, and the window of 'free will' is somewhat granted at the behest of the unconscious committee actually providing the energy and drive to empower the agent to finally 'decide'. Finally I might contend, hypothesise, and seek to confirm further scientifically, that a moment of action perhaps coincides with a reconfiguration of brain networks that have a conscious and 'volitional' element yet represent a transitional phase between 'self-referent' processing, and task-focused (and possibly motor-orientated) processing. And as such manifests as a sort of 'meta-conscious' state of being (transitional, enactive, beyond conscious). By this I hypothesise, in the given example of leaping forth into the void, the moment of commitment and 'decision' coincides with a quietening down of self-reflective processing, thus de-amplifiying the 'voice' of conscious awareness in the sense of an introspective dialogue concerning choice, and decision-making. In it's place, a motivated, action-based network of processing puts into practice strongly focused schemas that are directed at performing the task, removing potential interference by these reflective structures which might seek to undermine the smooth, fluid and automatic patterns of behaviour and compromise that performance. And at this transition (and immersion within the task focused state) the 'conscious agent' is somewhat removed from the equation. Again giving over to the effortless automatic system that allows exemplary performance to take place.
Dietrich A (2006). Transient hypofrontality as a mechanism for the psychological effects of exercise.Psychiatry Res. 145(1):79-83.
Kornhuber, H. H. & Deecke, L. Hirnpotentialänderungen beim Menschen vor und nach Willkürbewegungen, dargestellt mit Magnetbandspeicherung und Rückwärtsanalyse. Pflügers Arch281, 52 (1964)
Libet, B., Gleason, C. A., Wright, E. W. & Pearl, D. K. Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential) the unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain106, 623–642 (1983)
Nann, M., Cohen, G., Deecke, L. & Soekadar, S.R. (2019). To jump or not to jump - the Bereitschaftspotential required to jump into 192-meter abyss. Scientific Reportsvolume 9, Article number: 2243
Schurger, A., Sitt, J.D. and Dehaene, S. (2012). An accumulator model for spontaneous neural activity prior to self-initiated movement. PNAS 109 (42) E2904-E2913
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.