4 minute read

Mark Thoma links to a study discussing the limits — or "origins" might be more correct — of free will. I'll just highlight the snippet on implications:

[The findings] indicate that some activity in our brains may significantly precede our awareness of wanting to [act]. Libet suggested that free will works by vetoing: volition (the will to act) arises in neurons before conscious experience does, but conscious will can override it and prevent unwanted movements. 

Other interpretations might require that we reconstruct our idea of free will. Rather than a linear process in which decision leads to action, our behavior may be the bottom-line result of many simultaneous processes: We are constantly faced with a multitude of options for what to do right now – switch the channel? Take a sip from our drink? Get up and go to the bathroom? But our set of options is not unlimited (i.e., the set of options we just mentioned is unlikely to include “launch a ballistic missile”). Deciding what to do and when to do it may be the result of a process in which all the currently-available options are assessed and weighted. Rather than free will being the ability to do anything at all, it might be an act of selection from the present range of options. And the decision might be made before you are even aware of it. ...
Thoma himself is sceptical about whether this actually says much about free will. Among the more interesting comments on the thread, from my perspective, are those pointing out the mistakes of trying to separate the conscious from the subconscious.

Now, I'm no neuroscientist (clearly). However, I have read a fair bit of research related to neuroeconomics.[*] My understanding is that many of our decisions and actions are formed at a level that involves very little conscious cognitive thought. Indeed, our brains tend to shift activities from the cognitive, "thinking" cortex... to the affective, "instinctual" cortex as we become familiar with repeated actions. In other words, there's a deeper truth in the meme "practice makes perfect": Our minds (bodies) begin to respond to external stimuli in a far more efficient way over time, simply because we spend less time thinking about our best course of action and instead just react according some (pre-) programmed optimal response.

In this regard, there is a fascinating body of research on the psychology and mental processes of chess players. In particular, what separates the top-ranked players from the rest of us? The answers are rather surprising. Grandmasters, for instance, spend far less time thinking about their moves than simply recognising patterns in play. For their part, players of lesser rank typically analyse and consider a wider variety of possible moves (and their consequences) at each stage of the game, but this is unfortunately much less efficient. The superiority of top chess players does not lie with intelligence per se, but in the ability to recognise meaningful patterns and respond accordingly. [An interesting side note: Grandmasters and other top-ranked players have a tremendous capacity to memorise a multitude of "plays" and board positions. However, arrange chess pieces in unfamiliar positions and their memory advantage regresses to that of ordinary punters.]

Added to all this is the fact that humans are fantastic rationalisers. We naturally seek order. Not only do we have an innate ability to seek out patterns and coincidences, but we look to provide (ex post) justification for our actions and even the actions of others. Along these lines, one of the most interesting findings to come out of hypnosis is the phenomena of rationalisation under post-hypnotic suggestion. A hypnotised patient can be made to (unwittingly) perform an action on a given cue; for example to open a window when the hypnotist claps his hands. Unaware of the true underlying causes, when the patient is asked by the hypnotist why he opened the window, the former will strive to provide plausible — yet invalid — reasons (e.g. "I was getting hot"). I believe that the subject of ex post rationalisation also underpins a lot of research in area of addiction studies...

Anyway, all this reminds me of a great Derren Brown clip that I saw a while ago. The influence of subliminal advertising is well publicised (if not entirely understood), but this is perhaps the most impressive exposition that I've seen of it. What makes it all the sweeter is that he is turning the tables on advertising execs here:

(I note that there is a US version of the same set-up here.)

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Fascinating stuff. Somewhere, Don Draper is smiling. And boozing. And womanizing. Damn his smooth ways!

"Yes, I believe you heard me correctly. I own your mind.
And I slept with your wife."

[*] If you're interested in reading more about neuroeconomics, this paper by Camerer and Lowenstein (2004) is the standard reference point in the literature.