Neuroscience and free will

I was at a loss of what to post for my first entry so after some debate and discussion, my roommate went ahead and you-tubed “neuroscience” for me as a joke.  We were laughing as we watched the first entry; a video from the BBC entitled “Neuroscience and Free Will.”  However, as we continued watching, I quickly realized how relevant the video was to the first chapter of Synaptic Self.  The narrator, Marcus Du Sautoy, was on his way to participate in an experiment about decision-making that used brain imaging to reveal that his unconscious brain made a decision about six seconds before he was consciously aware of his decision.

Du Sautoy initially found this thought very distressing, saying that he felt he was ‘being held hostage’ by his gray matter.  I found his apparent distress somewhat amusing not only because of the accompanying background music and because I could see his polka-dotted socks as he was in the CT scan, but because he failed to realize that the “unconscious gray matter” that was holding him hostage was not some foreign power but a part of himself.  Just his decision appeared in image of the brain before he clicked the button did not mean that he didn’t make the decision.  Unlike the narrator, I don’t find it mindblowing that my conscious mind is a little behind compared to the actions of my unconscious brain because the brain is so complex.   Similarly, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the finding that the actions of my neurons dictate my conscious thoughts because it seems to me that they both come from the same place.  Without my neurons, how could I think?  This related to the main point that I got out of chapter 1 of the Synaptic Self, which is the idea that our personalities stem from our synapses because without our synapses, we don’t have the ability to exist the way we do.  Where else could our thoughts come from, if not from our incredibly complex neuronal pathways and structures?  I recommend watching the video, if for nothing else than to appreciate the intensity of the narrator and his polka-dotted socks.

One thought on “Neuroscience and free will

  1. Yeah, that’s a pretty good point. I wanted to respond a bit more to this in class but there’s only so much time. I agree that what we’re talking about is some basic neuroscience and really about as startling to us (in broad conceptual terms) as a reminder of how sad trench warfare was in WWI (and by that I mean it’s been discussed widely for like 70 years), but I was surprised by another facet too – 6 seconds? Man that’s a long time. It’s an even longer time in terms of neuronal activity. Big delay means complex processing before the conscious interpretation is formed. I wonder what was going on in that meantime?


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