Freewill and the Brain: Choices, Constraints, and Community

2d-neural-map-image-cropped
Cropped from Two-dimensional brain. Copyright: Radu Jianu/Brown University

Have you ever had that slightly disturbing experience of arriving at work and realising that you have very little recollection of how you got there? The human brain contains around 100 billion nerve cells[1], each of which makes multiple connections. This biological hardware is used to integrate signals from our own bodies and surroundings, as well as our memories and predictions for the future. Most brain activity actually happens without our being aware of it – our consciousness only needs to get involved when the outcome is not determined. In other words, the more routine our actions become the less we need to think about it. Continue reading

Free to choose?

Traces within – © Dr Lizzie Burns 2009

Neuroscientist Bill Newsome is grappling with a question that has perplexed scholars for millennia. Do we have free will? That is certainly something to wonder about. At the Faraday Institute summer course, philosopher Peter van Inwagen refused to speak about ‘the f___ w___ phrase’, for fear of becoming embroiled in debates over definitions, and instead chose to speak about determinism. But Newsome finds himself in a profession where the question of free will is more immediate, and both his scientific and his spiritual instincts have led him in an interesting direction for answers.

‘What people have the capacity to choose, they have the ability to change.’
Madeleine Albright, 2006 Snowdon lecture

‘We become that which we love.’
Attributed to Saint Bridget, popularised by Jason Mraz

The central dogma of neuroscience is that all of our behaviour and mental life is inextricably linked to the brain. That’s all very well, but most people would believe that much of our behaviour is a choice resulting from our unique beliefs, values, and aspirations. How do the two fit together? Continue reading