I'm a big non-believer in free will. OK, more simply put, I don't believe in free will -- even though, like almost everybody, I feel like I have it.
Today I listened to a guided meditation by Jeff Warren on my Calm iPhone app. It starts off this way.
There's a famous neurobiology finding where a test subject is told to push a meaningless button whenever they feel like it. And meanwhile, scientists are watching the subject's brain activity on an EEG machine.
And here's the weird thing. A full six seconds before the person has the thought, I'm going to push the button now, the brain has already begun pushing the button. It's like the body was already doing it. The mind only jumps in afterwards.
So, I have no idea what to make of this finding. But it did give me a cool idea for a meditation. In this Daily Trip we're going to let go of all sense of being the doer. It's an opportunity to just relax into the weird spontaneous flow of life.
I'm not aware of the study Warren is referring to. But the general phenomenon of the brain appearing to make a decision well before conscious awareness has said I'll do this, is well established.
For example, check out "Neuroscientists can read brain activity to predict brain decisions 11 seconds before people act."
Free will, from a neuroscience perspective, can look like quite quaint. In a study published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers in Australia were able to predict basic choices participants made 11 seconds before they consciously declared their decisions.
In the study, 14 participants—each placed in an fMRI machine—were shown two patterns, one of red horizontal stripes and one of green vertical stripes. They were given a maximum of 20 seconds to choose between them. Once they’d made a decision, they pressed a button and had 10 seconds to visualize the pattern as hard as they could. Finally, they were asked “what did you imagine?” and “how vivid was it?” They answered these questions by pressing buttons.
Using the fMRI to monitor brain activity and machine learning to analyze the neuroimages, the researchers were able to predict which pattern participants would choose up to 11 seconds before they consciously made the decision. And they were able to predict how vividly the participants would be able to envisage it.
Lead author Joel Pearson, cognitive neuroscience professor at the University of South Wales in Australia, said that the study suggests traces of thoughts exist unconsciously before they become conscious. “We believe that when we are faced with the choice between two or more options of what to think about, non-conscious traces of the thoughts are there already, a bit like unconscious hallucinations,” he said in a statement.
I find this to be really positive, even inspiring.
During the 35 years I believed in God and a guru who was God in Human Form, who managed a disciple's karma in a fashion best suited for spiritual development and God-realization, I enjoyed the thought that what was happening to me was God's will. Or, guru's will.
That took the pressure off of me when I did something wrong. Also, when I did something right. Either way, it was a relief to not feel like the responsibility for either good or bad actions fell upon me. I believed that a higher power was guiding what I did.
Now that I'm an atheist, modern neuroscience is showing a different reason for why I'm not responsible for the decisions that I make: the conscious "I" which thinks it is in control appears to be subservient to unconscious brain processes that lay the basis for my actions before I consciously decide to do them.
So "As God wills" is replaced by "As Brain wills."
Sure, I realize that religious people much prefer feeling like they're being guided by God than by the unconscious aspect of their own brain. However, the end result is pretty much the same. What we do and think and feel springs from a deeper source than our conscious awareness.
Sam Harris often refers to this sort of thing in the guided meditations on his Waking Up app. Harris will point out that in sitting meditation, there's no need to do anything.
Thoughts come on their own. Emotions arise on their own. Bodily sensations appear on their own. Sights and sounds are present on their own. He urges that we become aware of that open space in which all of these contents of consciousness arise and pass away.
Today I experimented now and then with feeling less like a doer of my actions and more of an observer of them. On the whole, it was a pleasant experience. Life goes more smoothly when I'm not anxiously trying to make everything happen the way I want.
For example, this afternoon I went to our athletic club to exercise before my Tai Chi class.
I didn't have much time to spare in the circuit training weight room. I wanted to use every machine, but saw that a young guy had settled into a leg machine, where he was doing multiple sets and spending a lot of time looking at his phone in between the sets.
That started to irritate me. But I was able to relax and say to myself, "Let's just see what happens." Well, what happened was that the guy got up and walked out of the weight room. After I'd finished the machine I was on, I went over to the now-available leg machine.
The guy suddenly appeared again. I said, "Oh, so you're still using this." He said, "Yes, but you can go ahead." I told him, "Thanks. It won't take me long." Which it didn't, since I just do 20 repetitions with no break.
When I finished I thanked the guy. We'd had a pleasant encounter. And I really didn't have to do anything other than wait and see how the situation played out without me trying to force anything.