Very recently, I attended the birthday party of a wonderful acquaintance of mine, and had a fantastic opportunity to engage in a lively debate with a stranger. In the beautiful hours of a classic late Copenhagen sunset, this well spoken, Oxford-educated man tried to convince me that we, as human beings, could be reduced to basically nothing more than a series of well-oiled biochemical processes. As a decidedly nonreligious person who's only very warily, very recently (very reluctantly, very skeptically, very slowly, etc.) adopted certain practical principles of Buddhism, the logical side of me--the openly nonromantic, factual girl who grew up loving math for its lack of a grey area and who watches Bones in unhealthy quantities--understood the science behind his arguments. But the secret romantic within, the girl who loves to reread Fitzgerald and Bronte novels on a quasi-regular basis and cries at Kleenex commercials, refused to believe that all of humanity could be boiled down to just epidermis and bodily functions, with bodies ruled by science, lacking free will and that stunning unpredictability that makes living worthwhile. Despite the indisputable scientific evidence presented to me over the course of the evening, despite my logical self comprehending and realizing the facts laid out before me...I would not have it.
There is scientific evidence that our brains actually make decisions before we know about them. Researchers have done studies that show our brains prepare decisions up to seven seconds before we ourselves realize we have made choices. In the seven seconds before test subjects chose to push a button, making a decision, activity shifted in their frontopolar cortex, a brain region associated with high-level planning. Soon afterwards, activity moved to the parietal cortex, an area of sensory integration in the brain. These shifting neural patterns were monitored using a functional MRI machine. Taken together, the patterns consistently predicted whether test subjects eventually pushed a button with their left or right hand: a choice that, to them, felt like the outcome of conscious deliberation. This study means that for those used to thinking of themselves as having free will, the implications are far more unsettling than learning about the physiological basis of other brain functions. However, caveats remain, holding open the door for free will--the experiment may not reflect the mental dynamics of other, more complicated decisions. Furthermore, the predictions were not completely accurate. There is a possibility that free will enters at the very last moment, letting a person override a chemically based, subconscious decision. The co-author of the study, John-Dylan Haynes from the Max Planck Institute, said. "We can't rule out that there's a free will that kicks in at this late point," but he admits he doesn't believe it's plausible.
This implausibility doesn't disturb Haynes, though. He says, "It's not like you're a machine. Your brain activity is the physiological substance in which your personality and wishes and desires operate." And National Institutes of Health neuroscientist Mark Hallett says that the discomfort people feel by the possible impossibility of free will originates from a misconception of self as separate from the brain: "That's the same notion as the mind being separate from the body--and I don't think anyone really believes that. A different way of thinking about it is that your consciousness is only aware of some of the things your brain is doing."
Forget the everyday decisions we are forced to make: What should I get for lunch? What should I wear today? Should I punch this person in the face? If those choices are, in fact, predetermined by biological processes occurring in the grey matter filling the space between our ears, I can totally live with that. But as a closet romantic, and against all logical evidence and better judgment, I refuse to believe that bigger choices, especially regarding definitively personal, undefined areas of our lives, are made by a series of neurons firing. I can't swallow the notion that my father's creative anniversary surprise to my mother a couple of years back was nothing more than a result of science; I hate the notion that some of my favorite fictional heroes were borne from some author's neurons firing a certain way; I refuse to believe that most great art of this and past centuries had its foundation in someone's physiological brain, and not something infinitely more undefinable. Perhaps this is idealistic thinking, perhaps this is a starry-eyed view of how we as human beings function. But while I believe there are, of course, certain undeniable sequences that occur in our brains and bodies every second of every day, I would very much love to believe we are so much more than that. Because can we boil down to simple science great music, beautiful art, even who we choose to love? I certainly hope not.
We do business.
4 hours ago