Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Having free will, but not being able to use it

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 deliberate actions are preceded by unconscious brain activity. Patients who lose their vision due to visual cortical damage often can correctly guess objects in front of them and can maneuver obstacles. Stimuli apparently can also be recognized without conscious awareness.

The mental operation has been shown to be highly influenced, regulated by the environment. Subliminal stimuli affect the frontal cortex in some cases for an extended amount of time, even without eliciting conscious awareness and emotional stimuli are 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.

Conscious decisions also take a lot longer than the fast, automatic responses. Although the time difference does not seem significant, in the theater our lives, there is no time for deliberations. The overwhelming majority of our actions occur intuitively, in a fraction of a second. Moreover, the conscious focus tires quickly. The automatic mind operates long-term and remains stable in spite of environmental changes. We have to consider that our subconscious 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, specific 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-distance synapses.

It is hard to fully appreciate the extent of motivation in our lives. 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 a natural consequence of neural biology. Although clearly enslaved by their emotional dependence, addicts and other substance abusers claim to be entirely in control of their lives. Making a decision based on emotions is considered a 'conscious' living but in reality conscious decisions narrow mental focus. Stress, which produces a constricted mental state, degrades free will by directing people like 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. At the moment of conflict, attention narrows and eliminates free will. 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.

Picture credit: Chess-king by David Lapetina

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