We all kind of go
around with this feeling that we are the authors of our lives
and we are in control, that I could've done otherwise.
To what extent is the
conscious we are we in control?
The subconscious is a
force that looms large below the surface of our conscious minds,
and it's controlling our lives much more than we're aware.
Free will is at the
basis of a lot of our social pillars.
Our legal system
presumes some kind of freedom. There are economic theories that
assume that people are free to make their decisions.
So for all those
things, understanding how free we are, the limits of our
freedom, how easy it is to manipulate our freedom and so on I
think is important.
If we understand the
interplay between conscious and unconscious, it might help us
realize what we can control and what we can't.
My name is Uri Maoz,
I study how the brain enables things like consciousness and free
Okay, Uri, what is
Sure, that's easy.
have a sense that they control themselves and sometimes their
environment more than they do.
You don't try to control every
contraction of every muscle in your hand. And if you did try
(laughs) to control that, well good luck to you because if you
try to concentrate exactly on how it is that you're walking,
it's even hard to walk.
So there are certain places in the brain
that if you stimulate there a person begins to laugh.
You ask them,
"Wait, why are
you laughing?" And they say, "Oh, I just remembered this
really funny joke."
The brain kind of
puts together some reasons for something that you did while we
think they are under our full conscious control they are not.
There is a famous experiment made in the early '80s by
The idea is that a
person is holding their hand and they're told whenever they have
the urge to do so, you flex whenever you want.
However at the same
time, there is this rotating dot on the screen and your job is
to look at the screen and say where the dot was when you first
had the urge to move.
So then you have this
weird situation, only 200 milliseconds before you move do people
"I'm aware that
I've decided to move."
But if you look into
their brain, you can see something there a second before they
So what happens in that interval?
Some kind of nefarious
neuroscientist that would an electrode on you would say,
about to move now."
But you would not be
conscious of it, and some people interpret the Libet experiment
to suggest that all of these big important life decisions are
proved controversial, but inspired subsequent tests.
Dr. Maoz's own
research attempted to observed the brain signals Libet measured
in real time by directly monitoring the brain of epilepsy
We approach some of
these patients and we say,
"Would you please
play something like a two choice version of rock, paper,
At the go signal
we each raise a hand and, let's say, if we raise the same
hand, I win, if we raise different hands you win."
We had a system that
was processing the whole thing in real time, and just before we
got the go signal, I got a beep in my earphones telling me which
hand to raise so I would beat the subject.
We could predict them
about 80% of the time. Even if we, let's say, we don't have as
much free will about raising my right or my left hand right now,
to some extent who cares?
It's just, I mean,
nobody's going to take you to court because you raise your right
hand and not your left hand for no reason and for no purpose.
Now let's say that I say to you, there's a burning car and you
have to decide whether to run in and try to save your friend or
Okay, now you're
making a decision that matters.
So how do you take
control back from you subconscious?
The trick may be
found in a fable about Ulysses, the ancient Greek warrior who
while sailing home was told about the sirens. The sirens were
monsters posing as beautiful women who would sing to passing
ships hoping to lure them closer and ultimately to their death.
Ulysses was warned of
the sirens ahead of time and knew that his subconscious would be
unable to resist the siren songs.
So Ulysses made a
conscious decision ahead of time to have his crew fill their
ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast.
Ulysses and his crew
sailed past the sirens unharmed.
You could think about
this as a struggle between like the later unconscious and
current conscious because later on I will not be in a position
to control myself in the way that I want it.
Neuroscience is a
newcomer to the field of free will.
What are exactly the kind of
questions that are worth asking?
What different kinds
of experiments that can say something about conscious and
unconscious decisions could help us be more modest in what we
realize we can control and what we can't, and then also be a bit
more forgiving towards ourselves about our decisions and our
Not everything is
within our control as much as we would think or maybe even would
Do I have free will
depends, of course, on the definition. In the sense that the
world could go one way or another way depending on my decision,
no, I don't think I have that power.
But to the extent
that I can act according to my desires and my wishes, yes, I... I
think I can. I wish to be here and here I am.
To learn more about
challenging ideas like this, visit us at
The debate over whether or not humans have free will is
centuries old and ongoing.
While studies have
confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious
effort, there remains the question of how much we control and
when it matters.
According to Dr. Uri
Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and
to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is
ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and
"If we understand
the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz,
"it might help us realize what we can control and what we