What You’re Feeling When You Decide
If we have free will, why is it so hard to make the changes we consciously want to make? I’ve spent over a decade developing apps and websites to help people change their habits to be healthier and happier. I’ve read the neuroscience research, the psychology research and the philosophers.
In this article I’ll explain the framework I use to make sense of our experience of free will and the realities of habits, behavior and change. Let’s get started.
The Ghost In The Machine
Since Isaac Newton’s day, science sees a universe governed by deterministic laws. It operates like a finely tuned clock. There’s no choice involved.
But when we have several options, we feel we could choose any of them. After the decision, it feels like we made one choice but could have made another. In a mechanistic universe, how can this be?
Is it just an illusion? Researchers have studied electrical activity in the brain leading up to and after a decision is made. From what we can see on an EEG or an fMRI, the conscious mind is not involved until after a decision is made.
But if you reject free will, now you have a different problem. Can we hold anyone accountable if their actions are pre-determined? Philosophers like Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris debate these issues.
Strangers to Ourselves
Researchers have found a clear distinction between our conscious mind and the rest of our mind. In his book Strangers to Ourselves, Professor Timothy D. Wilson at the University of Virginia explains that our conscious mind is only a small part of what’s going on inside our heads. You might have read the popularization of Wilson’s research in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink.
Our conscious mind doesn’t have access to the other parts of our mind that control everything from breathing to sleeping to hearing. Wilson calls the rest of the mind the “Adaptive Unconscious”, but to avoid confusion I’m going to use a term that other researchers prefer — the Automatic Mind.
When an advertisement comes on the radio, your eardrum turns the vibrations into electrical signals that travel down the nerve system into your brain. Your automatic mind turns those signals into language. The Domino’s Pizza ad comes into your conscious mind, whether you want it to or not.
You’re trying to quit, but you have to walk past a group of people smoking outside the entrance to your office building. The smell of fresh burning tobacco enters your nostrils. You start to feel a craving — automatically.
There Are No Conscious Decisions
The automatic mind is something we share with our evolutionary ancestors. They make decisions every day, using only their automatic minds. A lion decides which gazelle to chase. There is no reason to believe they have the kind of higher consciousness that humans enjoy.
As I’ve argued at length elsewhere, it’s a mistake to assume that humans make decisions using their conscious mind when all our evolutionary forebears made decisions using their automatic minds. The burden of proof is on those who say we’re different from all other animals.
What does the evidence say? Decades of research into brain electrical activity show that the automatic mind makes the decision before the conscious mind is aware of it. Then a few milliseconds later, the conscious mind steps up and takes credit for the decision.
“That’s what I decided,” the conscious mind says.
This explains everything
If our automatic mind is the one making the decisions, and is inaccessible to our conscious mind, then everything about our experience of free will is explained.
Your conscious mind perceives and analyzes a set of options. It gives a “recommendation” back to the automatic mind, explained using researcher Antonio Damasio’s Somatic Marker Theory.
It feels like you could decide anything, because your conscious mind really doesn’t know what your automatic mind will decide. You have a wonderful feeling of possibility. It’s not because of free will in the conscious mind. It’s because your conscious mind has to anxiously wait for your automatic mind to make the decision.
A half-second or so after the decision is made, your conscious mind is aware of the decision and starts taking credit or, as Jonathan Haidt’s research suggests, creating a logical rationale.
This explains the feeling that “I decided”. We know the decision wasn’t forced on us by someone else. It’s not a deterministic result of today’s outside incentives or influences. It was you who decided, and you’re rightly held accountable.
It sure feels like Free Will. But it’s just a decision being made in your own head by your complex, inaccessible, automatic mind.
There’s No Magic
The automatic mind obeys predictable, natural laws of cause and effect. But from the outside, it looks like magic.
Over a lifetime, the automatic mind accumulates petabytes of data and experiences. It is wired and changed over time by an incredibly complex set of experiences. It’s an unfathomably complex machine and we have very little ability to observe what’s going on inside.
Of course we can’t predict what the automatic mind will decide. A complex set of inputs into a complex machine whose structure and workings are not observable is going to produce outputs that don’t look deterministic or predictable. It’s chaos theory, not magic.
You could predict human decisions if you had perfect information, but that’s a moot point. The information to model and predict the automatic mind is simply unavailable. Even under laboratory conditions, we can only predict very simple decisions a few seconds in advance.
It’s a bit like predicting the stock market. There’s no doubt that prices are set deterministically as buyers and sellers make their transactions. There’s no magician behind the curtain, there’s no divine intervention in the markets. Yet it’s too complex and opaque for us to lock down the exact price GE or Tesla shares will reach at the end of the day.
The Accountability Problem
There’s a popular argument that free will is necessary so people can be held accountable for their actions. Free will is somehow required so we can enforce a contract or put a bank robber in prison. This is harmful nonsense.
Let’s assume that society overall benefits from enforcement of contracts and criminal laws. Citizens are safer from violence or fraud, business is more efficient, people are happier. And let’s assume people’s actions are deterministic but we don’t have the information to predict them.
Under this set of rules, there is an unknown set of people who will break their contracts for no good, externally observable reason and will lose their business or bank account as a penalty.
If we could predict exactly who would breach a contract for no good reason, it would be better to prevent them from signing than to punish them afterwards. But it’s a moot argument. We cannot make that prediction.
If we could predict exactly who would be undeterred by the rules against bank robbery, we might intercept them on the way to the bank and harmlessly prevent the crime. Punishment would be unnecessary and therefore unethical. But it’s a moot argument. When we create the rules, we cannot know in advance whose automatic minds will run afoul of those rules later.
When we agree on the rules to govern our society, or the terms and conditions of a contract, we are acting from behind what philosopher John Rawls called the Veil of Ignorance. We don’t know who exactly will follow those rules in the future, and who will break them. We don’t know if we ourselves will be the unfortunate rule-breaker who faces punishment later.
We all have skin in the game. That’s what makes it fair. Free will is not required.
What Freedom Do We Have?
If the automatic mind is operating in a deterministic way, and makes our decisions, how can we reconcile that with our experience of freedom of thought? I can spend the next minute thinking about microchips or mandolins, or whatever I choose. This experience must be explained.
I like to think of the relationship between the conscious mind and the automatic mind as a relationship between a boss who makes the ultimate decisions, and a junior analyst who can process information and make recommendations. The automatic mind is the boss, and the conscious mind is the junior analyst.
The boss can set the agenda and interrupt the junior analyst. If you’ve ever heard a loud noise or stubbed your toe while deep in thought, you know the automatic mind can interrupt you with a new priority or an intrusive thought.
But in between those times, your conscious mind can follow whatever thought paths you want. You’re free to think anything, and come to any conclusions you want. You’re free to “decide” (intend, really) on what you’ll do tomorrow or next year.
But the automatic mind is the boss, and it doesn’t have to take the conscious mind’s recommendations. So many of us find we’re not able to quit smoking, start exercising, or change other behaviors that we know would be good for us. All the conscious mind can do is make the recommendation.
Training the Automatic Mind
The conscious mind can use its influence to train the automatic mind iteratively, over time. It’s a feedback loop.
In trying to eat healthier, your conscious mind finds a new kind of food you intend to try. At the grocery store, your automatic mind makes the decision to buy it and try it out. It’s delicious and satisfies your hunger.
The automatic mind decided to try the new food, and was directly rewarded when the food was delicious and satisfying. The automatic mind is trained to seek out that food again next time. That’s the feedback loop between the automatic mind and the outside environment. We share that with our evolutionary ancestors. It works the same for us and them.
But I believe there’s another feedback loop that’s unique to us humans. The conscious mind suggested an action to the automatic mind. The action turned out well, and the automatic mind was trained to give more weight to the conscious mind’s recommendations.
Self-Control, Addiction and Meditation
People who have achieved “self-control” are ones whose automatic mind is well trained to listen to their conscious mind’s recommendations. When they’re hungry or tired their self-control diminishes as the automatic mind stops listening and takes matters into its own hands.
You can picture a person struggling with drug addiction as the collision of these two feedback loops. There’s a battle for which one can train the automatic mind more effectively. Taking drugs is a powerful bodily experience that trains the automatic mind to want more. Consciously, the person is trying to train the automatic mind to quit. This kind of change is hard.
Meditation is the process of slowing the feedback look between the conscious and automatic brains by stopping the output of the conscious mind.
Let me explain with an example: I often talk to people who feel swamped and overwhelmed by the amount of email they have to process at work. Usually we find that they are also sending a lot of email. When they stop sending so much email, they stop being interrupted by so much email.
In the same way, if we use our freedom of conscious thought to meditate, we’re slowing the feedback loop and get fewer interruptions from our automatic mind.
If not free will, what kind of freedom do we have? We have freedom of conscious thought, in the spaces when the automatic mind leaves the conscious mind alone.
That matches our actual experience. It’s not an absolute kind of freedom, but it’s been enough for mankind to write beautiful music, invent tools and medicines that make our lives better, and organize ourselves into relatively just forms of government.
The Automatic Mind at the Center
This framework puts the automatic mind at the center of our explanation for human behavior. The conscious mind is only one of the planets in its orbit.
In the early 1500’s astronomy had become hopelessly complex and confusing. Astronomers imagined circles within circles of stars and planets, and struggled to explain how Mercury could go backwards in the sky.
It was easy to imagine Earth as the center of the universe- it’s all we’d ever known. It took a daring feat of imagination for Copernicus to put the Sun at the center of the solar system. It was controversial. But once you put the Sun at the center, all the math started to work. The experiments matched the data. The confusion disappeared.
In the time since Benjamin Libet’s famous EEG studies on free will, we’ve been in the midst of a similar Copernican revolution in psychology. It’s hard to accept that we (the conscious mind) are not at the center of our behavior. But it’s true. And it changes everything.