The Brain, Free Will & Eastern Philosophy
This is not a typical blog for me because it is not clinical; the focus is not on diagnosis or treatment. But it’s still about the brain and a topic I’ve been interested in for years—free will. In this blog we’ll start with the brain, move on to free will, and then end specifically on how free will is seen differently in Eastern and Western views. This is probably the first time that these three aspects—the brain, free will, Eastern philosophy—are together in the same article.
Until the 1980s, the topic of free was discussed and contemplated primarily by philosophers. To the rest of us who are not philosophers, we never thought about free will—it’s obvious that we have it. Free will is part of what makes us human. Free will is so pervasive and self-evident that, like the air we breathe, it’s essential it does not occur to us to think about it. That we have free will is so obvious that we take it for granted without ever considering whether free will really exists. We decide what to wear in the morning and what to eat for breakfast. We decide what route to take to work and what space we want to park in. We decide what calls we want to take and which ones go to voicemail, whom we want to befriend on Facebook whom we want to un-friend. Finally, we decide when to call it quits and go to bed.
In the 1980s a series of experiments were performed by Dr. Benjamin Libet that called into question everything we thought we knew about free will. Dr. Libet sat his test subjects at a table in a room. He put sensors on their scalps to measure the electrical activity of the brain. The subject would choose to move his finger when he wanted–while Dr. Libet and his researchers were tracking brain activity. What Dr. Libet found was a huge surprise to everyone, and it turned the discussion of free will on its head.
When a subject exercised his free will and decided when to wiggle his finger, it was very simple and straightforward. No one told the test subject when to move his finger; he decided on his own. What the EEG recorded, however, was that a half second before the subject made up his mind to move his finger, there was already electrical activity in the brain. And this activity was in the portion of the brain that would be aroused by wiggling his finger. Free will has to involve conscious choice. If a choice is not conscious—like a knee reflex or crying out when in pain—it’s not free will. And if a conscious decision is initiated by unconscious brain processes a full half-second before the choice was made, can it be free will? The brain is already activated and working (now called the “readiness potential) on the movement before there is even a conscious decision to move the finger. Is that free will or is it pre-determined? But how can there not be any free will when it is so obvious that we use our free will all day long. The question to consider at that point is whether free will exists or just the feeling of free will. And it can be quite unsettling to consider all this. (For a good introduction to the topic, see Free Will by Sam Harris, a neuroscientist.)
But now a new study adds another dimension to this discussion of free will. Researchers from Berlin studied the decision-making processes involved in voluntary movement, but from a different point of view. The question they asked was: Is it possible to cancel a movement once the brain has started preparing it? They were testing whether people are able to stop planned movements once the readiness potential for that movement has been triggered. Can a person exercise free will by cancelling a decision? (The results of this study have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.) The conclusion the researchers reached was: Yes, up to a certain point.
It appears there is at least limited free will after all. A person’s decisions are not completely at the mercy of unconscious and early brain wave processes. People are able to actively intervene in the decision-making process and interrupt a movement. Previously people have used the existence of preparatory brain signals to argue against free will. This new study shows that freedom is less limited than we thought after Libet’s experiments. However, there is a ‘point of no return’ in the decision-making process, after which cancellation of movement is no longer possible.
So what does this have to do with Buddhist Philosophy? Just as some neuroscientists argue our thoughts are an expression not of free will but of unconscious brain processes, Tibetan Buddhist philosophers state that we are not responsible for our thoughts. Instead of saying that our thoughts are the result of “unconscious brain processes”, Tibetan philosophers claim our thoughts are the result of “past karma”. That the actions and thoughts we currently experience are the result of the actions and thoughts we have already experienced from our past. However, there is a vital area where freedom does exist. It’s not in the content of thoughts that arise, but in being able to say “no” to that thought, to “let it go”. The Buddhists say that there is a brief critical point where there is freedom, where we do have at least a possibility of control over our brain, our mind and our life. The Sanskrit word for “wisdom” is “prajna”, which means “what to accept and what to reject”. Too often in the West we struggle and try to change the content of our thought or the kind of thought we are we are experiencing. We want to have “better” thoughts, kinder and more generous thoughts. Buddhists say this is a fruitless struggle. Freedom lies in knowing when to say “yes” and when to say “no” to our thoughts. The practice of meditation is the largely a practice of letting go, of knowing which trains of thoughts are worth following and which should be released. Cultivating a healthy skill of “restraint“ is an area where Buddhist philosophy and Western science can now agree.
Which brings us back to Direct Neurofeedback. By stabilizing our nervous system, by reducing our anxiety and depression and overall reactivity, we are in a better state of brain. We respond appropriately to our environment and even to our own thoughts. Life becomes less of a struggle. And that in itself is an excellent parameter for wisdom.