Free will may be an illusion But you must believe in it

by Dan Falk, Monday, January 27, 2003

Joseph B. Clifford, D.C.
Say "NO!" to the development and  production genetically modified foods! Help support the growth of healthy, organic food production.
Protect our Constitution!
You are driving to work. Your mind wanders, and before you know it, you're pulling into your parking spot. You don't actually remember the last five or ten minutes of driving. We've all had experiences like this. They occur because many of the tasks we do every day are nearly automatic. That, by itself, is not very surprising. As a psychologist might put it, consciousness is too valuable a resource to waste on simple, mundane chores. What is more shocking is that many seemingly planned tasks are also carried out on autopilot -- even tasks we would swear we have conscious control over. Scientists and philosophers have long pondered the problem of free will: Do we consciously choose our actions -- or is our behavior dictated by our environment, our genes and myriad other factors that rarely spill over into our conscious minds? Such speculation is now giving way to hard data, with experimental psychology finally equipped to probe the differences between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner argues that free will "is a construction ... something the mind builds in order to keep track of what it's doing" -- an idea he explores in detail in his book, The Illusion of Conscious Will. Consciousness, he says, frequently "isn't the engine on the train." In one of Wegner's experiments, subjects were asked to use a computer mouse to point a cursor at particular icons on a screen. At the same time, they listened to a tape that played a series of words -- some of them corresponding to the icons. In most of the trials, the subject was free to select any of the 50 or so images -- a swan, a car, a tree, and so on. But some of the trials were rigged so that the experimenters controlled where the cursor pointed -- forcing it to rest on the image of the swan, for example. If the word "swan" were heard on the tape more than a few seconds before the cursor stopped, or after the cursor stopped, the subject reported that their selection felt "forced," as expected. But if they heard the word "swan" just prior to the selection, they claimed it was their conscious choice. In other words, the subjects believed they were in control, even when they had none whatsoever. "We basically created a situation where the person didn't do the action; they didn't even have the thought -- the thought appeared over headphones," explains Wegner. "And yet the combination of the two -- having the thought in mind just as they are forced to stop -- makes them feel like they stopped on it on purpose." If our conscious thoughts aren't guiding our actions, then what is? Wegner says unconscious brain processes may be responsible -- processes that trigger both the action and our feeling of "choice" or "will" that accompanies the action. His theory seems to mesh with pioneering studies by psychologist Benjamin Libet, carried out in California in the 1970s. Libet found brain activity could be measured nearly a half-second before a subject moved his arm -- and nearly a half-second before the subject became aware of any conscious decision to initiate the movement. That brain activity, dubbed the "readiness potential," may be the precursor to both events: It may be the sign of an unseen brain process that triggers both the motion of arm and also the subject's "decision" to move it. Here in Canada, psychologist Mel Goodale at the University of Western Ontario recently designed a simple experiment that shows our unconscious minds in action. Exploiting a well-known optical illusion, Goodale designed a set of disks whose size was always overestimated or underestimated by his subjects (a disk surrounded by smaller disks, for example, is always seen as being larger than it really is). And yet, when they reached out for each of the disks, the subjects automatically compensated for the illusion, grasping their targets on the first try. The eye had been fooled, but not the hand. The unconscious mind succeeded where the conscious mind had failed. Goodale's experiment shows our motor systems can be controlled without troubling the conscious mind; an automatic response is all that is required for certain tasks. And, he says, such a "division of labour" within our brains makes evolutionary sense. "Clearly, in the past, if we only had one chance to throw the spear, or only one chance to grab the branch as we plunged off the cliff, or only one chance to ward off the blow from a competitor -- then we had to get it right that first time," Goodale says. The conscious mind is only brought in when a more sophisticated level of analysis is needed. Another UWO researcher, meanwhile, has been investigating the links between visual awareness and consciousness. Ravi Menon's experiments have highlighted the gap between taking in visual information -- which can be done on "autopilot" -- and visual consciousness. In one study, subjects were placed in an MRI scanner, with mirrors above their eyes allowing them to observe a series of black and white stripes on a screen. As the scanner recorded the blood flow in the subject's visual cortex, the experimenter gradually increased the contrast between the stripes. Below a certain threshold, the subjects saw nothing -- just a blank, grey screen. As the contrast increased, they eventually reported being able to see the stripes -- and the visual cortex sprang to life. Intriguingly, though, the MRI scans recorded low levels of that same brain activity even before the subject reported being able to discern the stripes. Menon's experiment, like those of Wegner and Goodale, suggests consciousness is not needed as often as we would expect. When the contrast between those stripes is low, the brain registers the incoming data -- but the information never makes the "leap" into consciousness. "The brain, in a sense, isn't bothering the mind with what's going on," Menon says. "It is simply going about shuttling things from A to B -- and alerting you [only] when something's actually very important to attend to.... I think the vast majority of what we do, we are not in fact conscious of." Of course, we don't expect all of our actions to be explicitly conscious. Where speed is paramount, for example, the conscious mind is simply too slow to play any role. Hitting a tennis ball or playing a concerto can only be done on autopilot -- though doing it well, of course, requires years of practice. The brain would be swamped if it had to make conscious decisions every time it was confronted with a choice. If free will is so rarely needed, why is it necessary to believe the illusion of control? One possible reason is that those who feel they have lost control can become depressed or -- in extreme cases -- catatonic. "It's a very important illusion that we have agency, that we have free will and we're able to control our environment," says John Bargh, a psychologist at New York University. "I think the alternative is to be psychotic. To be really disconnected from the world and not have any access to knowing why you're doing what you're doing -- certainly that's a terrifying state to be in." © Copyright  2003 National Post
BioGeometric Integration's Tetrahedrons
Free will may be an illusion But you must believe in it

by Dan Falk, Monday, January 27, 2003

                        Joseph B. Clifford, D.C.
Say "NO!" to the development and  production genetically modified foods!
Protect our Constitution!
You are driving to work. Your mind wanders, and before you know it, you're pulling into your parking spot. You don't actually remember the last five or ten minutes of driving. We've all had experiences like this. They occur because many of the tasks we do every day are nearly automatic. That, by itself, is not very surprising. As a psychologist might put it, consciousness is too valuable a resource to waste on simple, mundane chores. What is more shocking is that many seemingly planned tasks are also carried out on autopilot -- even tasks we would swear we have conscious control over. Scientists and philosophers have long pondered the problem of free will: Do we consciously choose our actions -- or is our behavior dictated by our environment, our genes and myriad other factors that rarely spill over into our conscious minds? Such speculation is now giving way to hard data, with experimental psychology finally equipped to probe the differences between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner argues that free will "is a construction ... something the mind builds in order to keep track of what it's doing" -- an idea he explores in detail in his book, The Illusion of Conscious Will. Consciousness, he says, frequently "isn't the engine on the train." In one of Wegner's experiments, subjects were asked to use a computer mouse to point a cursor at particular icons on a screen. At the same time, they listened to a tape that played a series of words -- some of them corresponding to the icons. In most of the trials, the subject was free to select any of the 50 or so images -- a swan, a car, a tree, and so on. But some of the trials were rigged so that the experimenters controlled where the cursor pointed -- forcing it to rest on the image of the swan, for example. If the word "swan" were heard on the tape more than a few seconds before the cursor stopped, or after the cursor stopped, the subject reported that their selection felt "forced," as expected. But if they heard the word "swan" just prior to the selection, they claimed it was their conscious choice. In other words, the subjects believed they were in control, even when they had none whatsoever. "We basically created a situation where the person didn't do the action; they didn't even have the thought -- the thought appeared over headphones," explains Wegner. "And yet the combination of the two -- having the thought in mind just as they are forced to stop -- makes them feel like they stopped on it on purpose." If our conscious thoughts aren't guiding our actions, then what is? Wegner says unconscious brain processes may be responsible -- processes that trigger both the action and our feeling of "choice" or "will" that accompanies the action. His theory seems to mesh with pioneering studies by psychologist Benjamin Libet, carried out in California in the 1970s. Libet found brain activity could be measured nearly a half-second before a subject moved his arm -- and nearly a half-second before the subject became aware of any conscious decision to initiate the movement. That brain activity, dubbed the "readiness potential," may be the precursor to both events: It may be the sign of an unseen brain process that triggers both the motion of arm and also the subject's "decision" to move it. Here in Canada, psychologist Mel Goodale at the University of Western Ontario recently designed a simple experiment that shows our unconscious minds in action. Exploiting a well-known optical illusion, Goodale designed a set of disks whose size was always overestimated or underestimated by his subjects (a disk surrounded by smaller disks, for example, is always seen as being larger than it really is). And yet, when they reached out for each of the disks, the subjects automatically compensated for the illusion, grasping their targets on the first try. The eye had been fooled, but not the hand. The unconscious mind succeeded where the conscious mind had failed. Goodale's experiment shows our motor systems can be controlled without troubling the conscious mind; an automatic response is all that is required for certain tasks. And, he says, such a "division of labour" within our brains makes evolutionary sense. "Clearly, in the past, if we only had one chance to throw the spear, or only one chance to grab the branch as we plunged off the cliff, or only one chance to ward off the blow from a competitor -- then we had to get it right that first time," Goodale says. The conscious mind is only brought in when a more sophisticated level of analysis is needed. Another UWO researcher, meanwhile, has been investigating the links between visual awareness and consciousness. Ravi Menon's experiments have highlighted the gap between taking in visual information -- which can be done on "autopilot" -- and visual consciousness. In one study, subjects were placed in an MRI scanner, with mirrors above their eyes allowing them to observe a series of black and white stripes on a screen. As the scanner recorded the blood flow in the subject's visual cortex, the experimenter gradually increased the contrast between the stripes. Below a certain threshold, the subjects saw nothing -- just a blank, grey screen. As the contrast increased, they eventually reported being able to see the stripes -- and the visual cortex sprang to life. Intriguingly, though, the MRI scans recorded low levels of that same brain activity even before the subject reported being able to discern the stripes. Menon's experiment, like those of Wegner and Goodale, suggests consciousness is not needed as often as we would expect. When the contrast between those stripes is low, the brain registers the incoming data -- but the information never makes the "leap" into consciousness. "The brain, in a sense, isn't bothering the mind with what's going on," Menon says. "It is simply going about shuttling things from A to B -- and alerting you [only] when something's actually very important to attend to.... I think the vast majority of what we do, we are not in fact conscious of." Of course, we don't expect all of our actions to be explicitly conscious. Where speed is paramount, for example, the conscious mind is simply too slow to play any role. Hitting a tennis ball or playing a concerto can only be done on autopilot -- though doing it well, of course, requires years of practice. The brain would be swamped if it had to make conscious decisions every time it was confronted with a choice. If free will is so rarely needed, why is it necessary to believe the illusion of control? One possible reason is that those who feel they have lost control can become depressed or -- in extreme cases -- catatonic. "It's a very important illusion that we have agency, that we have free will and we're able to control our environment," says John Bargh, a psychologist at New York University. "I think the alternative is to be psychotic. To be really disconnected from the world and not have any access to knowing why you're doing what you're doing -- certainly that's a terrifying state to be in." © Copyright  2003 National Post