Neuroscience and free will

Interesting conversation between Tom Wolfe and Michael Gazzaniga, in this month’s Seed.


The conversation is wide ranging, but what most struck me was the discussion of free will. It’s often argued that advances in cognitive sciences reveal free will to be an illusion, that our thinking is determined by our neurological processes – there is only mechanism and we can finally lay to rest the ghost in the machine.


Matthew Taylor alluded to this in his recent discussion here. It was also central to a conversation between Ray Tallis and Pierre Magistretti that the RSA hosted at the Cheltenham Science Festival.


For different reasons, Tallis and Maigistretti were both of the view that neuroscience didn’t have to do away with free will. I’m inclined to agree with Tallis that given how evident to us our ability to think and make decisions is (after all it seems to be the thing we know best) it is an odd intellectual gesture to say that because we cannot find it in the brain it simply doesn’t exist.


On one level this is a question of trying to reconcile different levels of reality. Free will is experientially real to us. The empirical and experimental data that tell us about the neural processes behind our decision making are equally real (though of course our knowledge of them is based upon rational and perceptual processes that are at root experiential) – but isn’t the most useful task to accept these different layers of reality and to try and decide how they relate to each other rather than attempt fruitlessly to decide which real is most real….?




Nick Laird writing in the Guardian review’s book column wonders why more poets haven’t engaged with the insights into human behaviour that science gives us.


“In general” he says “modern poets have taken more easily to Freud than Darwin.” But should we hope for a poetry of science and what would it be like? “Will it engage with scientific vocabulary? Or register the possibility of new vistas?”


Laird refers to Miroslav Holub as the great scientist-poet of modern times – but I’m not sure this is right – Holub was certainly a great poet and I’m sure he was a great scientist, but while he draws upon a scientific vocabulary, his use of it is essentially metaphorical.


Take this from his poem ‘Heart transplant’:


After an hour


there’s an abyss in the chest

created by the missing heart

like a model landscape

where humans have grown extinct



Atrium is sewn to atrium

aorta to aorta

three hours of eternity

coming and going


And when the heart begins to beat

and the curves jump

like synthetic sheep

on the green screen,

it’s like a model of a battlefield

in which Life and Spirit

have been fighting


And both have won


The language here is scientific, specifically medical, but it is used to reflect upon love, alienation and the fear of death as conscious experiences not as unconscious processes. Crucially the heart is used metaphorically in its romantic incarnation as the seat of emotion – not literally as a muscle that pumps blood round the body – indeed the latter usage is subordinated to the former….


So I’m still left wondering what a poetry of new scientific vistas would look like. Perhaps it is a category error. Perhaps poetry and science explain us in such different ways that they cannot fully merge. Or maybe there are other examples from Holub or from other poets that come closer?


Cognitive science in the news

There has been a lot of coverage of new thinking in the cognitive and behavioural sciences in the press this week.


Two pieces in the Guardian on Tuesday: in G2 there was a profile of Jill Bolte Taylor, the remarkable American neuro-anatomist who suffered a massive stroke which she analyses with unnerving calm in one of the most downloaded TED lectures of all time. Her most recent book argues that understanding the biochemical processes that underpin our emotional states will allow us to control them better.


Meanwhile, in the main paper there was a fascinating report on how Israeli neurologist Alon Friedman is planning a study on the neurological impact of stress on children in Gaza and the long term damage that this can cause to their brain function.


What lies behind the very different work of Friedman and Bolte Taylor is the belief that understanding neurological mechanisms can help us to plan more effective interventions.


There are two common objections to this which we have often come across whilst planning the RSA changing minds project.


The first is that it is too reductionist or mechanistic an account of human behaviour. We cannot explain everything (or the most important things) about our thinking simply by reference to neurological processes and without acknowledging environmental factors or conscious decision making.


The second is that understanding neurological mechanism does not in reality add very much to our responses to these issues. We do not need to understand brain plasticity to know that living in a war zone will be psychologically damaging to children or to know that we can manage or overcome our emotional states. What value is added by explaining these things in terms of neurological processes?


I think both these objections can be resisted. To claim that neurological processes are an influence on our behaviour and capacities is not to deny that other factors influence them. Indeed both these stories could be seen to be about the interaction between neurological processes of which we are unconscious and external factors or conscious thinking. The real challenge is to understand how all these elements interact to shape the way we think.


The question about added value is harder to answer – but it seems clear that understanding how mechanisms work can be helpful at least some of the time. To take a couple of analogous examples, although we have always had a broad understanding of how comparatively healthy particular environments were, it was only in the nineteenth century as we began to understand in reasonably precise terms how and why contaminated water, insanitary conditions, air pollution etc impacted on physical health that we were able to achieve real progress on public health.


Similarly, we have always known how to improve the body’s performance: that by running a lot, for example, you will become better at running, but as we have come to understand more about the physiological processes involved we have been able to devise more sophisticated training regimes that increase performance to previously unimaginable levels.


So understanding how things work can certainly help us to make them work better in some cases – whether this is true of our neurological processes may be a moot point but it can only be resolved if we do the work to find out what those mechanisms are and how they relate to the way we think.


Friedman and Bolte Taylor are both talking abut the neurological hardwiring that impacts on our behaviours. This is certainly a crucial part of understanding why human beings behave as they do but there are other disciplines that offer equally valuable insights.


On Wednesday Danny Finkelstein’s column in the times was dedicated to the political influence of evolutionary psychology, behavioural economics and social psychology. Behavioural economics has been everywhere this week with piece on nudging by George Osborne in the Guardian causing a big stir (including this response on the Telegraph blog from our own Matthew Taylor). Richard Thaler spoke here at the RSA on Thursday and the room was heaving at the seams so there’s clearly a popular appetite to learn more about this thinking. But as Finkelstein points out its political application is patchy. So while we may talk about behavioural nudging in relation to savings policy, it has not figured in the debate about knife crime (indeed as Finkelstein points out the current hysteria around the subject ignores all the lessons from social psychology about how normalising behaviour tends to encourage it).


It’s certainly true that we need to look across the policy landscape at how insights from all these different disciplines map onto real world problems.

Finkelstein was kind enough to describe the RSA as one of the leading think tanks in this area and it’s definitely one of the things that we want to be doing with our new project. But there’s another way in which it’s also important to bring things together. The disciplines Finkelstein refers to (not to mention all those he doesn’t) are all very different, they start from different places and proceed through different methodologies. Evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists and behavioural economists may have very different accounts of why people behave and think as they do in particular instances, let alone what it means in policy terms.


Obviously there’s a huge amount of work going on in all these disciplines. The RSA wouldn’t claim expertise in any of them – but we can provide a space in which experts from different fields can come together with policy-makers, practitioners and members of the public to share insights ask questions of each other and test ideas for how to use these sciences of thought and behaviour to address some of the key challenges of our time.