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11. FREE WILL Previous | Next

Your decisions are not your own

EVERY day, we live under the spell of an illusion: that our conscious mind is autonomous, and in control of our bodies and decisions. We think we have free will, yet as neuroscience digs ever deeper into the mystery of the human brain, that delusion becomes harder to justify. We are, as one neuroscientist told me as he used a powerful magnet to take control of my body’s movements, brain-machines.

This runs contrary to our every impulse. Our gut instinct, our experience, is that we make the decisions to move, to think, to eat, to steal, to lie, to punch and kick. We have constructed the entire edifice of our civilisation on this idea. Is science wrong when it says free will is a delusion? If not, what does it mean for our sense of self? And for our morality – can we prosecute people for acts over which they had no conscious control?

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#1 - Posted: 25/02/2009 11:34


There are many examples where we appear not to have conscious control over our actions. The conclusions we draw from this depends on what we believe to be the function and evolution of some aspects of consciousness. One function of consciousness is to slow down the automatic learned response to enable us to identify alternatives, evaluate them and make an informed decision: we call it thinking. It has immense advantages, but it can be a very slow process. In our evolutionary history speed of reaction determined our survival. For this reason consciousness and the part of the brain that executes activities (the executive) are separate systems. Consciousness fulfils two other roles. Preparation and monitoring.


Consciousness enables us to imagine what we might do if confronted by a metaphorical hungry predator and in the process lays down the neural structures that could execute these alternative possible reactions. Come the crisis our brain executes this alternative strategy. It might be called the Churchill effect. The great orator frequently inserted comments to tease his opponents. When they barracked him he shot back with his carefully prepared riposte, impressing everyone with the apparent lightning speed of his reflexes. This retort would probably have already devastated the PM’s luckless opponent before he was fully consciously aware of what he was saying. Nobody would suggest that the Prime Minister was not firmly in charge of his own will.


Another function is to monitor what the neural executive system is doing and provide feed back. In an argument the executive has its hands full articulating our point of view as robustly as possible. The feed back systems, listening and observing ones opponent’s reactions are located elsewhere. Our consciousness provides the communication between both functions. We have all experienced beginning to lose an argument and hastily switching tactics. We are consciously aware of our own arguments because we dreamed them up, and they stem from our carefully prepared plans and long held opinions. Often we hear only the outline of our argument as our conscious self is too engaged elsewhere, possibly planning a potential line of retreat.


Whether our conscious self decides to get up in a morning, or our executive system activates our muscles is surely a matter of timing and which part of the brain is doing which task. Sometimes, if we have a busy day ahead we get up, shave, and even eat breakfast automatically while consciously thinking about coping with the day’s events. All those actions are still us, and we can interrupt or change them whenever we wish.


Whether we have free will or not may be a theological debate, but the examples above do not constitute evidence to support the argument that we are not in ultimate control and responsible for our own actions.

Charles Ross

Author: Biological Systems of the Brain


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