Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Having free will, but not being able to use it


Chess-king by David Lapetina


The common belief that our life is governed by conscious thinking and intellect has been challenged recently. As early as 1983 Benjamin Libet questioned the existence of free will by showing that thinking, and conscious actions are preceded by unconscious brain activity. Patients who lose their vision due to visual cortical damage often can correctly guess visual stimuli and can maneuver obstacles. New and old stimuli apparently can be also discerned without any conscious involvement.

Mental operation has been shown to be highly influenced, regulated by the environment. Subliminal stimuli influences the frontal cortex in some cases for extended amount of time, even without eliciting conscious response and emotional stimuli is processed automatically, irrespective of the focus of attention. A flood of shocking and even unnerving reports from leading laboratories demonstrates that conscious free decisions are preceded by measurable unconscious neural activity. Since perception automatically connects action outcome to self-agency, free-will belief is reinforced whether action occurs due to conscious or unconscious stimuli. In addition, the sluggish conscious decisions have vastly different time requirements from the fast automatic responses. The overwhelming majority of our actions cannot wait seconds for conscious processes to take place, they occur in a fraction of a second in an automatic fashion. Although the time difference does not seem significant, in the theater our lives, there is no time for deliberations. Interaction requires fast, immediate response. In addition conscious focus also tires quickly. But the automatic mind operates long term and remains stable in spite of environmental changes. We have to consider that our automatic mind operating behind (sometimes against) conscious awareness determines the course of our lives.

According to traditional understanding the working brain generates brain frequencies. The book, The Science of consciousness suggests the opposite possibility, that shifts of brain frequencies are the modus operandus of the mind. During deep sleep, certain drug actions and coma only simple brain activity is present. Consciousness requires complex mental activity, made possible by long range cortical connections. Shifts of the energy balances of the mind, which also give rise to emotions, primarily activate such long range connections. Yet, it is hard to fully appreciate the extent emotions play in directing our life. Parasites exploit their host and can fully manipulate host behavior in support of their lifecycle. For example, Toxoplasma gondii infection will spur a feline attraction in rodents which, assuredly deadly for the rodent, helps to complete the parasite’s life-cycle in the body of the cat. The fact that simple animals, rats for example can be directed by implanted electrodes seems natural consequence of neural biology. Although clearly enslaved by their emotional dependence, addicts and other substance abusers claim to be fully in control of their lives. Making decision based on emotions is considered a 'conscious' living, but in reality conscious decisions narrow mental focus. The constricted mental state produces stress, which degrades free will by directing people as puppets on a string. Free will is only possible for the open and relaxed mind, but this is the satisfied, happy state, when there is no emotional incentive for change. In the moment we decide to conflict with the flow of things however, attention narrows and free will is lost. We might play the leading role in our lives; but the play is written and directed by the universe. The perfect cinematic spectacle gives the illusion that we are in control.

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