A new book on the neuroscience of magic offers many fascinating insights on how perception is put together. One of their conclusions however got me thinking about what William James once said about how we use our information to make theories that explain something we already feel. The authors saw the active brain pattern occurring in a certain region before we actually said we were making a choice as evidence we weren’t really making a choice and concluded that there’s no free will.
Does this mean that the unconscious is not us, that free will is only a product of conscious choice? The part that we are conscious of is a tiny amount of the neural activity at any given time and the fact that we can automate so much, including complex learned skills is one of the remarkable features of the interwoven processes that could be called “mind”. The whole brain/body complex is always adjusting and moving in directions that will balance us. Our friends can read our body language even while we’re unaware that we feel the way they see us. To say we think with our bodies as well as our brains is not just poetic. Pioneer neuroscientist Candace Pert in her groundbreaking work with endorphin receptors and expansion of our understanding of “information molecules” was surprised to find a large percentage of serotonin receptors in our stomach. We have gut feelings that get the attention of our rational minds. As neurologist Antonio Damasio showed, feeling directs thinking. Without the whole mind’s assessment of the big picture, we wouldn’t know where to turn. There’s too much there to sort through piece by piece.
The movements of the unconscious are happening on circuits built by the values of the individual. We shape our whole brain with our experience, and the overview it creates builds the stance we take in relation to what happens in our life. In the I Ching anyone can be the “superior” person by the choices they make in regard to what parts of themselves they choose to cultivate. Overall intentions organize the focus of unconscious decisions. Thus when I think about my intentions for the day before getting out of bed, I later remember that intention when a conditioned response begins that works against it. And then there’s the question of whether the awareness we really mean when we think of ourselves is really ours. Like if the television claimed to be the creative source of the programs. David Bohm used the analogy of separate cameras on the same scene for what we think of as individual consciousness. The different point-of-view feels like the identity shaped by the capabilities and position of the camera. Brain science has not yet found the knower that sees the scene through the separate cameras. Today’s metaphor might be the smart phone, much more connected and flexible in its ways of processing. Our brain is there to be molded. Free choice is the ongoing development of it. Throughout life we can add apps and increase its capabilities and as biological systems our reward system is set up to encourage that.
Nathaniel Branden wrote that awareness is the essence of morality. Once we become aware of something we feel more responsible in relation to it. Modern life has endless ways to escape from awareness, and where we aren’t aware we act according to our conditioning. The first choice in the exercise of free will is the choice to be mindful, to pay attention to the mind we create and condition future choices by conscious values and intentions.