In July of last year, I published an entry detailing some of the most recent brain research having to do with philosophical questions relating to the relationship between our conscious awareness and our unconscious processes. I am not an ethicist. Nor am I especially interested in legal or moral definitions of what constitutes free-will and human responsibility.
As a student of the mind, however, I am fascinated by the fact that we seem to have a great need to believe we somehow consciously control our decision-making, our behavior, and our lives in general. And it is in this area where we encounter some of the more contradictory evidence science can offer regarding just why we behave as we do.
As a background to the current discussion, May I direct you here:
In the ARTology entry linked above, I present evidence for the notion that our actual physical behavior can be demonstrated to be initiated unconsciously and that our conscious mind follows as a sort of explainer of our behavior – primarily to ourselves and then later to the social contexts within which we operate.
It is obvious why we would feel a great need to explain our actions to others. Why we are so obsessed with explaining ourselves to ourselves is another question. No matter how we try to understand this fact of human psychology, we don’t evidence much ability to simply accept ourselves as we are – nor do we seem very secure in our behavior without having to create elaborate explanations and justifications for why we do what we do.
Currently, the evidence for unconscious decision-making has reached another milestone. I’ll quote in full a brief report appearing in the current issue of Scientific American Mind:
What are you going to do after you read this story? You may not know that yet, but your brain probably does. A new study shows that patterns of brain activity can reveal which choice a person is going to make long before he or she is aware of it. A team led by John-Dylan Haynes of the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin scanned the brains of volunteers who held a button in each hand and were told to push one of the buttons whenever they wanted to. The scientists could tell from the scans which hand participants were going to use as early as 10 seconds before the volunteers were aware that they made up their mind.
Previous research has shown motor-related brain activity preceding conscious intent by a fraction of a second, but this study is the first to show unconscious predictive activity in a region associated with decision making—the prefrontal cortex—according to Haynes. The results support the notion that unconscious brain activity comes first and conscious experience follows as a result, says Patrick Haggard of University College London, who was not involved with the study. “We all think that we have a conscious free will,” he says. “However, this study shows that actions come from preconscious brain activity patterns and not from the person consciously thinking about what they are going to do.”
“Unconscious Decisions,” by Nicole Branan, from Scientific American Mind , July, 2008.
How comfortable are we with the implications raised by these findings? While we’re mulling over the salient points here, allow me to move us toward a direction I find particularly fruitful for consideration.
If it is in fact the case that we are mostly living through the results of unconscious decision-making processes within ourselves and others, wouldn’t you agree that it is ever more important for us to be very clear about what goes on within the deeper reaches of our minds? And if this is indeed the case, then the preceding months of ARTology entries dealing with ways we can attend to effecting positive mental change can be key to improving the various situations we find ourselves in – no matter when, where, or how they arise.
Don’t you agree?