Without free will, there seems little point in making a New Year's resolution. After all, why bother if we have no conscious control of our behaviors and their outcomes? While there are many philosophers and neuroscientists who dismiss the notion of free will as fantasy or illusion, the best research suggests that, on average, about 80-90% of what our brain does is outside of our awareness, while 10-20% is based in conscious choice.
The first type of brain activity is known as fast thinking (Type I), essentially automated processes that are performed without conscious thought. The second type of brain activity is known as slow thinking (Type II), actions based in deliberation. Daniel Kahneman's outstanding book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, outlines and explicates these ideas.
What often does not get discussed in philosophical or neuroscientific dismissals of free will is that we can increase the percentage of brain function that is slow thinking through mindfulness practices (especially learning to be mindful of emotions that can often generate reactive responses rather than thoughtful or deliberative responses).
Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz advocates for something he calls “self-directed neuroplasticity,” the ability to rewire your brain with your thoughts. While he employs this to help those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) regain control of their behaviors, it also supports the idea that we can develop greater degrees of free will. The foundation for self-directed neuroplasticity is mindfulness.
Neuroscientist Edmund Rolls had revealed, in a largely overlooked study, that the orbitalfrontal cortex (OFC) acts as an error detection circuit. After reading Rolls' study, Schwartz suggested that the caudate nucleus, a tail-shaped structure near the OFC that serves as the habit center of the brain, might also be involved of OCD rituals and compulsions.
The caudate nucleus, he thought, might act as a kind of nexus for OCD — a traffic hub where rational thinking in the cerebral cortex meets the more primitive, emotion-ruled centers of the brain’s limbic system. It would be a natural ground zero for the noxious brew of repetition and terror to collide.
This is where Schwartz brought in his interest in mindfulness:
In this sense, OCD reflects a key aspect of mindfulness meditation — granting the patient a detached perspective from his or her own thoughts. Schwartz speculated that this awareness could enable a mindfulness-based treatment strategy. After all, if the point of mindfulness is to stand back dispassionately from all our ideas and impulses, couldn’t an OCD patient use mindfulness to step back even from mortal fears and compulsions? Perhaps mindfulness could help rewire the OCD circuit in the brain.
Schwartz asked his group of people dealing with OCD to try to recognize an OCD-related thought as soon as possible and relabel it as unreal — merely a symptom of their OCD — without giving in to it. Doing so would allow them to experience the goal of directed mindfulness, to gain experiential distance from their symptoms.
“This region of the brain is hugely overactive,” he said, and then Pop! He saw a change in his patient’s face and the excitement in everyone listening. Paula was one of the patients who experienced this eureka moment and felt liberated. These strange thoughts about her boyfriend’s drug addiction were no longer a sign of insanity. They were no longer even a product of her self. They were just the faulty transmissions of a malfunctioning brain.Schwartz called this process reattribution - defining the symptom as something non-useful or unimportant, just a product of faulty brain wiring.
The next step was to help the group members replace the OCD thoughts with something more healthy, such as going for a walk gardening (refocusing). It helped. The final step, then, was the reframe the OCD thoughts as unimportant (revaluing).
So Schwartz had his four-step model: relabel, reattribute, refocus, and revalue.
We do not have to have OCD to use this model to gain more control of our thoughts and actions, thereby increasing our experience of free will. You can learn more about this model and the research behind it in Schwartz's books, Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior and The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force.
Okay, I did not intend to get so far off track here, since the point of this post is a new article by Steven Handel at The Emotion Machine blog on 5 scientific reasons to believe in free will.
December 30th, 2013
by Steven Handel
One of the most popular philosophical debates is the question of “free will” vs. “determinism.”
Free will is the belief that you have free choice over your actions, while determinism is the belief that your actions are influenced by your biology and environment.
As with most philosophical questions, I find the answer to be somewhere in the middle. It’s true that our biology and environment play a large role in how we choose to act, but I believe it’s also true that we have some degree of choice within these circumstances.
Most psychologists and neuroscientists seem to take a similar compatibilist approach, which seeks to find a healthy middle ground between both “free will” and “determinism.”
Recent studies show that some belief in free will is very important for our psychology and mental health. Here are 5 scientific reasons you should believe in free will.
These are just a few examples of how not believing in free will can negatively influence your behavior. Whether you want to debate about the existence of free will or not, there are definitely some practical benefits to holding this belief.
- It gives you more self-control – One study found that weakening an individual’s belief in free will led to a decrease in self-control and willpower.
- It makes you more pro-social – Another study found that disbelief in free will can also lead to an increase in aggression and reduction in helpfulness toward others.
- It improves job performance – A recent study also shows that a belief in free will predicts better career attitudes and overall job performance.
- It makes you more honest – Another study shows that weakening a belief in free will leads to more dishonesty and cheating.
- It makes your brain less automatic – One interesting study reveals that a belief in free will makes our brains less automatic.
Think about it: if you believe you have no real control over your circumstances then there’s nothing motivating you to try to do something positive. You just sit back and passively watch life happen.
Overall, a belief in free will is very important in taking more responsibility, power, and control over your behaviors, and the results you get in life.