Many people come to the realization that they don’t have free will and mistakenly conclude there’s nothing they can do about it, so forget it and get on with life. They don’t realize that even though the feeling of having conscious control of their thoughts is illusory, something is controlling their thoughts, and finding out what that something is can have positive effects.
Just this morning I had a gratifying example of the advantage of understanding the causal chain that produces thought. I was doing the first of my Tai Chi warm-ups, which involves rotating the upper torso first one direction and then the other, and I was doing more than recommended, of course—a fairly consistent trait that’s a product of my personal history—rotating as far as I could for twice as many reps. About halfway through I realized I had forgotten to take off my glasses, which get in the way during post-Tai-Chi stretches, and when I stepped forward to put them on the desk I found that the twisting had made me dizzy, which brought on a little rush of fear. Several bouts of vertigo have married dizziness to fear, thanks to the zealous efforts of my amygdala.
I had recently read a column, “Vital Signs” in the April 2011 issue of Discover magazine, in which Mark Cohen discussed the activity of the amygdala and its likely role in the phenomenon of selective mutism. He brought up the possibility that cognitive-behavioral therapy could modify the amygdala’s association of emotion with a particular situation, since it gets feedback from cortical centers.
Primed by the Discover article, when I experienced that little rush of fear this morning it was accompanied by the thought, “Ah, my amygdala is arousing the sympathetic nervous system because it has paired fear with the sensation of dizziness.” That thought brought on a smile, which cancelled the fear.
My brain continued with that line of thought, considering that when I get my next real bout of vertigo/fear, it might remember that the amygdala is at work, and that fear makes the discomfort worse, not better. Maybe the next time I wake up and find the room whirling, my brain will produce the much more helpful phenomenon of smiling.
As the brain comes to understand itself better, a change in perspective occurs; when feelings arise they seem less personal. One part of the brain can monitor what another part is doing, and can alter the sense of self accordingly: I am not afraid, a part of my brain is mistakenly arousing an emotion that is disadvantageous to the organism as a whole.
When the brain realizes it has been bamboozled by society into thinking that it has free will, it gains an effective new strategy for optimizing its organism’s adaptation to reality—the job for which evolution selected it. This new strategy requires some effort, though. To make the best use of it, the brain needs to study its own processes to get at least a basic understanding of neuroscience and psychology. PhD’s in those disciplines are not required; Wikipedia and the popular media offer enough education to allow huge improvements in adaptive skills.
Many of my earlier posts have explored some of the implications of new knowledge in these areas as I’ve encountered it. Other excellent sources of information are Tom Clark’s book, Encountering Naturalism, his web site, naturalism.org, Cris Evatt’s site on Brain Biases and my book High School Zen.
Realizing that we don’t have free will opens a whole new world of adaptive opportunity: a chance for the brain to construct a more effective, reality-based version of itself.