If you were to answer the question “What differentiates humans from other organisms on Earth?”, you would probably list a number of things, including the ability of humans to make “free choices” dictated by their consciousness, rather than by something organic. Am I right?
What if someone told you that this is not actually the case? I mean, what if instead of making decisions out of your own will, your brain is “deciding” for you and only after the decision has been made the brain offers you the illusion of conscious act, making you believe that you were the one who made the choice in the first place. But how is it possible that such a dichotomy exists within ourselves, between us and our own brains? Aren’t we our brains? Apparently not!
Now that I (hopefully) managed to capture your attention, I’d like to bore you a bit with some brain structure names and functions, which are necessary in order to begin to understand what’s going to come next.
The frontal lobe contains a few areas, which are involved in planning our movements, decision-making, emotions (usually associated with the decisions we are about to make), repeating previously memorised motor sequences etc. These are the areas involved in voluntary motor control, more specifically, these are the areas that make the difference between reflexes/automatisms and movements or actions we want to pursue. Moreover, all these motor areas are interconnected and also linked to areas that are part of the sensory pathways, such as the parietal , visual, somatosensory and temporal regions (which store different components of visual, auditory and somatic stimuli and are associated with many diseases, such as the inability to feel your own limbs, or recognising faces/objects etc.).
- The primary motor cortex (PMC) is mainly involved with the execution of movements. Populations of neurones there encode for the direction and amplitude of the movements we make, prior and during the execution.
- The 6 pre-motor cortices, the ventral, medial (supplementary) and dorsal areas are mostly involved with planning our movements. They receive inputs from the cerebellum and basal ganglia, which play very important roles in motor learning (like acquiring new skills) and motor planning. Interestingly, different neurones in the pre-motor areas fire action potentials during execution and are inactive during planning of movements and others vice-versa, while some populations of neurones are active for both planning and execution.
- The prefrontal cortex controls reasoning and decision-making and it is crucial for emotion as well: recall Phineas Gage’s story and how the damage to his prefrontal cortex resulted in a complete change in his personality (article here) as well as how the prefrontal cortex regulates the activity in the hypothalamus and is disrupted in major depressive disorder (article here).
- The limbic system (amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, hippocampus) , which are located at the subcortical level and behind the frontal lobe, are involved with emotion, fear and the formation of memories, which are so important in our decision making. And these are just the main players, but there are many other areas, including sensory, which contribute to the planning of our actions and the choices we constantly make.
In a rather groundbreaking paper, Libet and colleagues showed that the neural processes leading to the initiation of voluntary movements begin several hundred milliseconds before the reported time of conscious intention to make the movements, as in before the subject is aware of the intention to move. They demonstrated using the readiness-potential (negative electrical potential recorded at the scalp) that brain activity involved in decision-making starts before our brains is conscious of the actions. This is also known as ‘preparatory set”.
Dick Swaab proposed that the unconscious brain areas are active before the conscious ones, in order to enable us to make decisions rapidly and effectively, as the conscious systems require time to process and analyse the pros and cons of every decision. And although it is good to consider the consequences of your actions, there are many other decisions about apparently insignificant things, which we make and need to be fast (like for example, running away from a car you see coming). In a dangerous situation, for example, the parts of the brain involved in consciousness might consider the state of your legs, how capable they are of moving fast at that point, your heart rate, blood pressure, levels of energy needed for that action…Well, by the time your brain finishes analysing all these, you will be most certainly dead.
Another interesting idea Swaab suggested was regarding the reason why we have consciousness of our actions and the things that happen to us in the first place. We need to be conscious of our own experiences so that we learn to avoid negative things in the future and also act upon things that require intervention, such as a wound that needs to be treated. Although the brain seems to be able to plan an action independently of our awareness of it, other brain areas are involved in the execution (as previously mentioned) and the communication between these different parts which fulfil different roles results in consciousness. Exactly why and how evolutionary biology has managed to make us more than just some purely mechanical creatures remains a mystery and still poses many challenges to this field of research, inviting philosophy to have its take on this matter, which many times has proved to be useful.
Swaab also wonders to what extent are criminals, pedophiles, murderers to blame for their bad actions, when it is in fact not them, but their unconsciousness/instincts that dictate them what to do. When considering that people with brain damage resulting in impaired or lack of consciousness (schizophrenia, dementia, multiple sclerosis etc.) sometimes hurt other and are not convicted, you might think that it is right to assume that all criminal acts should be tolerated. However, the difference here is that people not suffering from such disorders are aware of their actions and are capable of stopping them. Although pedophilia is considered a psychiatric disorder, unlike the neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative ones, it can be controlled by the individual, so that the individual is able to refrain from acting according to his/her instincts. Libet and his team of researchers mention in their study that individuals, although only aware of the intention to make a particular action after the intention has been formed in their brains, are able to “abort the performance” of the action, meaning that they have a conscious “veto”.
They also emphasise the difference between spontaneous, rapidly performed actions, and actions in which a preplanning of the experience occurred (taking into account alternative choices, for instance). This second type of voluntary movements, involving conscious deliberation prior to the act, might actually rely on conscious initiation and control, rather than non-conscious commands. However, this hypothesis has not yet been proved experimentally, in a way the “unconsciousness before consciousness” one has.
So, as it turns out, most of the times we are aware of our brain’s decisions only after they have already been made, and free will seems to be an illusion.
Antonio Damasio,1995. Decartes’ Error. Vintage Books, pp. 71-73
Dick Swaab, 2014. We are our brains – From the womb to Alzheimer’s. Penguin Books, pp.326-338