Do you still have free will when your unconscious mind is in charge?

Dr. Uri Maoz

Have you ever arrived at your destination with no memory of the journey that got you there? Your unconscious mind has been at work. Does that mean we don't always have free will over our actions and decisions? And what does that tell us about the brain?

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Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Garden. I'm Sophie and I'll be your guide for today's Garden talk. So today I'm delighted to welcome to The Garden Professor Uri Maoz Jury has dedicated his career to answer the question do we have free will? Not through philosophical musings but by looking at the brain and human behavior. He's assistant professor of computational neuroscience at chapman University caltech and U. C. L. A. In the U. S. And he runs a large international project that brings together neuroscientists and philosophers to investigate free will.

Today, he is joining us here in The Garden to help us understand what the cutting edge of science tells us about, whether we're really as free to make decisions as we think we are. I'm really excited for you to hear from him today already. Welcome to The Garden. It's wonderful to have you here. Happy to be here. Now, I know you lead a group that brings together these neuroscientists and philosophers to study free will. These kinds of interdisciplinary studies aren't very common in academia from what I understand.

So how did this project and team come about? Well This was some years ago, maybe almost 15 years ago, I was actually leading a group of philosophers, neuroscientists, sociologists and so on. This was in Jerusalem. And at the time this is what I thought was a very exciting paper came out of the lab of john Dylan Haynes in Berlin. Um That showed that you could potentially predict what a person would do if they're going to raise their right hand or they're gonna raise their left hand Up to about 10 seconds before they do it.

And this was getting a lot of interest from the academia as well as from the lay press and I was reading that paper really excited And one of the philosophers from this group that I was heading came by and try to understand why do I look so excited? So I said hey you know there's this neuroscience research now that says that we can predict your action 10 seconds before you move. You know, I went on about that and he went um so what's so exciting about that? Sorry, I didn't explain it. Well let me explain it again.

I went in like 10 minutes of a long explanation about all the things in the paper F. M. R. I. Machine learning all this stuff, really cool stuff that's happening. And then he said, well I'm still not convinced it's that exciting and within about five minutes convinced me that the results are much less exciting than I thought because of various like philosophical issues if you will with the paper. So that really convinced me that, you know, if you can't beat them, join them and I have to work with these philosophers because they have a point.

And when we talk about something like free will, that's been around for millennia and they've been discussing it for millennia, philosophers, theologians, we should work together rather than just trying to reinvent the wheels as neuroscientists and understand everything ourselves. I imagine the insights you get from sharing your research and perspectives makes your work much richer and more powerful. And we're really looking forward to hearing what you found out so far today. So now it's time for me to hand over to worry for his Garden talk.

Do you still have free will when your unconscious mind is in charge? I think I'll start by telling you how I got into this whole free will and the brain thing it has to do with the conference. The interesting thing was that I was not even invited to that conference. Um I don't even know the name of that conference, but it really shaped my career at the time. I was a teaching assistant. I was a PhD student in neuroscience and I was a teaching assistant to a course on legal thought. And the professor went to this conference that I just mentioned and he said, look, I need you to teach next week.

And I said, what what do you mean? I mean what what should I teach about? He said, well, anything you want, as long as it's related to legal thought. Now I'm doing my PhD in neuroscience. I was trying to think what can I talk about for three hours and I came up with. Well, free will, maybe that's somehow how does the brain enable? Free will something like that. So I started looking into that and very quickly I got fascinated by the neuroscience of volition. You could say I got the neuroscience. Well, the free will or the neuro philosophy of free will bug and it hasn't let go since.

And it's really determined what I've done ever since then. Um Now free will is interesting because it has to do with the interplay between the unconscious and the conscious in the brain. And let me give you an example of that. So I will ask you now a few questions and try to answer those questions to yourself. You can do this out loud if you want to, but try to answer quickly. Hope you're ready. The first question is, what is the color of snow? My second question is, what is the color of a bride's dress? and the 3rd 1 is what is the color of a polar bear? Now, my fourth question to you is what does a cow drink if you answered milk to yourself? Think about it.

A cow actually drinks water right now, why did you perhaps answer milk? Well, I mentioned a few things that are all white. Now, what do we associate unconsciously white with a cow milk? Right, so you could see how your unconscious here could have prompted your conscious your consciousness, you know, to say milk. Where you know, if I just asked you out loud or outright what does a cow drink? You would probably said water. Um Now a lot of what's happening in our brain is actually unconscious. We we walk around maybe feeling that we're in complete conscious control of our body, our behavior, our mind, but that's not really the case.

Um, as I sit here and I talked to you, I feel in conscious control of my mouth, my vocal cords, but my brain is doing a lot of things unconsciously at the same time I am, for instance, um, my brain is keeping my posture, you know, I don't slouch and I don't fall over. Um, my um, I don't know, my, my heart keeps beeping, right, My digestive system keeps working. Um, my, I mean, my brain keeps my temperature at around 36.6°C, right? And all those things are happening unconsciously. Now, if I had to keep conscious control of all those things all the time, I mean, where would I have time to, you know, to think to dream, to love to do all those things that we see is so human, right? So it's kind of good that my brain does all these things unconsciously.

And if you actually still think that it's good to be conscious of everything that happens, try walking around and being conscious of every step, every angle, every contraction of every muscle or actually maybe don't try to do it because there's a good chance you would fall over. So I don't recommend doing that. So there is this interplay in our brain between things that our brain does consciously or that we do consciously and things that happen unconsciously? And that balance is good? That's how we roll.

So yeah, it's important. I think now you might even ask yourself, I mean, I'm invested in free will. I'm invested my career and my life into it. But you could ask yourself well, why would I care about free will, whether I have it? How much of it do I have? Why is it important? So, I think it's important for a few reasons. First of all, it is one of the oldest questions in human thought uh, in in Western society. This goes back to the ancient Greeks, if not before, it's also of importance in chinese philosophy, in an indian philosophy and and elsewhere, more specifically in Western thought.

Originally, the question was more about, well, if the gods or if God knows the future. So if God knows what I'm about to do in five minutes and in 20 years, how am I free to make my choices? My own right. And that has puzzled humans for thousands of years. More recently, when science became more and more of an important thing and we were talking about a universe that is governed by rules that science is discovering it became more about well, if the universe is discovered, sorry, if the universe is run by these rules by these laws of nature and if we are part of the universe, that these laws of nature govern us as well.

And if we are governed by the laws of nature, well, how are we free? Can we somehow break the laws of nature and then come back and then act according to the laws of nature again? How does all of this work? And that's really been the free world debate that's been going on for a while. So that's from the more philosophical thought aspect. There's also a clinical aspect, the, the idea of volition, what we want and how that translates into our behavior. That is also clinically relevant. For example, there is something called Julia, which is a clinical condition where people basically, they lack.

Will they lack initiative? It sometimes happens as part of Alzheimer's disease and other situations. Um Now, if we would understand better, what happens in the brain, what are the neural circuits that govern volition, then perhaps we could help people with Julia. Let's take another example here. Over the past 20 years, we've understood more and more about Parkinson's disease, How the interplay between the basal ganglia and cortical structures, um, how that is disrupted, which led us to be able to offer some type of therapy and make the lives of those suffering from Parkinson's better.

So, if we understood more about volition, we could perhaps do something similar to Apulia right now. Some people with Parkinson actually have electrodes implanted into part of their brain typically someplace in the basal ganglia and that part of the brain is not active enough. So we put in an electrode and we make it more active and now many of them, many of their symptoms go away. If we could do something similar with Julia, then that would be very exciting to very many people around the world and that's just one clinical condition.

Um, you could think about, um, other things that are important there. Let's talk about the law, right? In the law, we say that you are responsible for things that you do typically, consciously. So when you do things unconsciously, you may not be as responsible. Okay. If you're not free to act, you may not be responsible. So if you were, um, if somebody puts a gun to your head, right and tells you to do something, then it's not your fault. If you're walking down the street leisurely walking down, somebody comes and pushes you over, okay? And they push you into a, I don't know, a window of a shop and the window breaks, it's not your fault.

It's the person who pushed you. It's their fault, right? You weren't doing this freely. So, if we were to better understand the internal constraints. So, for instance, people who are addicts, to what extent are their actions up to them or not. If we were better if we were able to better understand that, we would be able to better understand when people are responsible and when they're not, so for all these reasons, understanding free will is important. So okay if I've hopefully convinced you it's important.

Well what does neuroscience, what a neuroscientist like me have to, how can we add to what's been done? Well, let me tell you what's been done before and what we're doing now. So back in the sixties, um this is the early to mid sixties to german um researchers, neuroscientists, corn huber and DK did a simple experiment. They had people sit there in front of an empty screen looking at it and whenever they had the urge to do so they would press the button so they would sit there from time to time they would press a button.

Okay then they looked at the same time they measured their brain activity using what's called E G electrons and photography which basically measures electrical potentials or electric fields coming from your brain. And they were able to see that before people move again people move whenever they wanted to but before they move they were able to see some kind of electrical potential building up in their brain. They called it the potential in german or readiness potential in english. And um this readiness potential is there when you move whenever you want to.

So people were excited about this because for the first time something that was subjective until then right you move whenever you want to. That was something that we can now see in your brain, we could see it even before you move. So about 20 years later in the, early to mid 80's Benjamin Libit came into the picture. Um he was studying things like unconsciousness and consciousness in the brain. So for how long does an unconscious perception need to be, how long do you need to pick it up in the brain before you become conscious of it? And he thought it was around 0.

5. So then he took this readiness potential results from corn huber and DK and he said well let's see if we can do more with that. So he had people again sit there there again looking at the screen and again they move whenever they want to. But he added something that we now call the limit clock and in this limit clock, I mean it's it's just like a dot moving quickly, it makes a rotation every 2, 2.5 seconds. And um he told people move whenever you want to actually flick your wrist whenever you want to.

But remember where the clock was when you first had the urge to move. So what did he, what did he get? What were his, his results? Well he saw this readiness potential as before and this readiness potential starts about a second before people move. Now he also saw when people report saying, hey I had an urge to move. Now that happened only about 200 milliseconds or 0.2 seconds, 2/10 of a second before people moved. So there is almost a second there from the onset of the readiness potential until until people actually consciously were aware that they were about to move.

So what's going on there? It's it's a weird period of time because it seems like unconsciously the decision has been made. If you look into somebody's brain, you can see that they're about to move. But consciously you don't really you don't really see much right? So people were quite puzzled by that and people were thinking, okay, that suggests that at least in the Liberte experiment, decisions are made unconsciously. So does that mean that all decisions are made unconsciously? And we talked about it before.

If things are made. If decisions are made unconsciously, Are you even responsible for those decisions? And some people went as far as to say, Well, the Liberte experiment suggests that nobody is responsible for their actions. Let's just get let everybody out of jail, Nobody's responsible anymore for what they do. It's all unconscious. Maybe the decision is made unconsciously and only later on does consciousness become aware or whatever. You become aware of it? And your consciousness goes something like, oh yeah, that was me all the time.

Yeah, kind of like taking credit for something that happened unconsciously. At least those were some thoughts. Um, so this is where actually our work comes in. This is work with leon modric Gideon, jeffy and christoph cock collaborators with with me on this. And um what we were wondering was specifically about this idea that the limit results were done on these very, very trivial movements. You go like this or like this. Something like, I mean, there's no purpose, there's no reason for you to move or not to move.

The movement is meaningless. It has no effect in the world. And um well, what happens when you make more meaningful movements in particular? We we thought about donations, donations to nonprofit organizations, to charities. Because donations say something about our values where you donate to say something, say it says something about who you are and what you value. So what we did is we came up with this paradigm where we gave you um Let's say two nonprofits in front of you. And we said let's say would you like to donate to a charity? That about ending homelessness or another one about art, education for Children.

And you're going to make a decision between those two, pressing the one on the button on the left for the one on the left, the button on the right for the one on the right and whichever one you decide se gets $1000. And we actually did give $1000 to 1 of these charities. So this was this was this was real. Okay, So these are these deliberate decisions that people make according to their values at the same time. We also had them make arbitrary decisions. We said the same thing. You might get to charities in front of, you could even be the same ones.

Okay. The, um, the, the ending homelessness versus Children's arts education, but now, whichever button you press, Both of them get $500. Does't matter which button you press. It's arbitrary. Now, what did we get in these arbitrary decisions? We saw this readiness potential that I described before that that corn huber and DK saw that libbets saw in deliberate decisions. We did not see anything. I mean if there is a readiness potential, it's much, much diminished. So this suggests that the limit results as they are.

Do not just generalize to all kinds of decisions and those really important affirming decisions. Life changing decisions may not the limit results may not generalize to them. So we have to be a bit more careful about um, what we say, It doesn't mean that we should empty the jails because of the living experiment. Um, we spoke a bit about the interplay between the unconscious and the conscious in the brain. And I'd like to talk a bit more about that and explain more about that. Um, and in particular should show you that that interplay is not so easy to study in the mid nineties, john barge and colleagues, um, did the following experiment.

They brought participants and they told them, okay, people, we're going to give you words and this is an experiment about making um about making sentences out of words. And that's what people thought that they were doing. So they're sitting there, half of them just got neutral words and they were making sentences out of them. The other half God words that are associated with the elderly words maybe like old walking stick, bingo florida. Which in the U. S. Is a place where a lot of people go to retire.

So then after the experiment they said thank you very much for participating. And you see that door at the end of the hallway that's the exit. That's how you leave the lab. Now actually came the most important part of this experiment because the experimenter timed with a stopwatch how long it took the people to walk towards that door at the end of the hallway, the exit door. What did they find? Well people who were given these words related to the elderly walked more slowly. It took them longer to reach the door than the other group.

The ones with the neutral words. So it was known before that that if you give somebody you know words related to the elderly. It makes them think more about the elderly. But this experiment suggests that it makes them act more like the elderly. And that is quite interesting. So interesting experiment. However 20 years go by and somebody decides to test to kind of see if they can replicate these results. Um So let's say one more thing. The original experiment perhaps shows you the power of the unconscious, right? These people did not.

I mean, they were just looking at words to finish sentences and it affected their behavior, supposedly at least. So what happened in this replication? Well, in this replication, the authors had the experimenters, the people there with a stopwatch running the whole thing, They didn't know the real reason for the experiment either. They were just told this is an experiment about making sentences out of words. And in the end, just do me a favor, measure how long it takes it takes, the subjects two go to the end of the hallway.

Lo and behold, no difference existed between the two groups when they try to replicate this with what are called naive or sometimes it's called blinded. Um experimenters, experimenters that didn't know what to look for now, is it that the first experimenters were were cheaters, did they try consciously to get the result that they wanted? No, but unconsciously as they were measuring things they really wanted to see that result. So something happened and they mean, they measured the wrong thing, so see what's happening here because it's I think it's interesting this experiment was supposed to show you what well, it was supposed to show you that the power of the power of the unconscious on these participants, that's making them walk more slowly.

But with the replication, I think it shows us something else. It shows us about the power of the unconscious on the experimenters and how it made them create a scientific result, that's not there. Unfortunately, these types of experiments on the conscious and the unconscious are very finicky. They you have to do them just right. And there were several times that these kinds of experiments were not able to be replicated. So you have to take them with a grain of salt more generally speaking, when you think about things that are conscious, um conscious behavior in the brain or conscious activity in the brain is activity that lasts longer.

You see it in the brain lasting longer and it's more widespread in the brain than unconscious activity. And while unconscious activity does affect us, there are clear indications of that. Their experiments that were replicated many times, that showed that the unconscious does affect us, it seems to affect us more like at the edge not these perhaps really big decisions in life, but even that comes with a grain of salt because there were quite a few experiments on voting. Most people would say that they vote perhaps rationally, perhaps with their feelings, but still they consciously decide how to vote.

However, there are quite a few experiments that have shown that various things affect your voting, how attractive the candidate is, the smell in the room as you come in to vote. Um the weather and um whether your sports team, your favorite sports team won or lost, if if your favorite sports team loses, it seems that you tend to blame the current government more. Why? I don't know, some kind of unconscious process. So all of these things come into play. Now, you maybe came to this talk wondering, well, do I have free will? What what is even free will? So one way to think about free will is this capacity to make decisions and, and carry out actions that are up to you that are really yours, right? And they're not, you're not being, um, perhaps manipulated or constrained by either external or internal constraints.

So, an external constraint, let's give an example. Think about those two charities, homeless, ending homelessness, art, education for kids. You're deliberating between the two and you learn that for one of these charities, they're actually under investigation. There is some kind of fraud embezzlement, Something bad is happening. Well, I'm not going to donate to them. I'll donate to the other one. Right? Um, that's an external constraint. You can think about internal constraints. Somebody who is an addict, they don't want to take the next dose of the drug on the one hand.

And on the other hand, they needed, there's this internal fight with their internal constraints. Um, so regarding more generally free will, I would say that there are two big views on Free will. One of them emphasizes more this, that the free will settle something. You could have gone in one direction, You could have gone in the other direction. Now, it's settled, you could have donated to one charity, you could have donated to the other charity, but now it's settled the Free will thing. The, sorry, the decision settles the um, the deliberation and that's an important aspect of free will to these people.

Um Now that's that that perspective is sometimes called incompatible is um, it has to do with this idea that if you really have two choices and you can go one way or another, that seems incompatible with what we know about physics with a deterministic universe, but we don't need to go there. Maybe that's for another talk. Um, but um, Free Will here is more like all or none. You either have free will, you could have done this or the other thing or not. Another approach has aligns free will more with your values with your beliefs, with your desires.

So here, if somebody puts a gun to your head and makes you donate to a charity that you don't support, you didn't do that freely, right? This is not according to your values. So this time it's it's more that free will, it's not all or none. It's you could have degrees of freedom. You could have, you could be this is more aligned with your desires and beliefs. And this thing is less aligned, but it's not all or none. Um, This view is broadly called compatible is um because it seems to be more compatible with what we understand about physics and and so on.

Um And those are really the two the 2 big views. Another thing that is worth mentioning is how we as humans seem to associate um consciousness or conscious influences on us as okay as part of our freedom but not so much unconscious influences. And let me give you an example, let's say that you went into a restaurant and you saw that there was a wine there that you really ah that looks to you interesting, it's organic, it's been sourced from from reputable sources and ethically grown grapes and so on and it's more expensive and you decide you know what, I'm willing to pay more for that wine that feels fine, nothing has been, you know, you don't feel manipulated here, but if I told you that you're going into a restaurant and you look at the wine menu and actually there are some really expensive wines there that the restaurant doesn't expect you to buy.

They know it's it's above your price range given the meal in the restaurant and the kind of clientele that they have, they expect you to then look at the other wines and go, oh compared to those, those are not really that expensive, I'll get those. So now you're shelling out more for the second most expensive wine perhaps. So if that happens you might feel a bit manipulated, what if I told you that? You know, there's a tv in the, in the restaurant and um that tv is actually broadcasting subliminal messages, messages you can't see that's actually creating a craving in you for expensive wine.

Now you feel really manipulated. What I wanted to highlight here is that um in the in the first case of the organic wine, you're happy to pay more because you don't feel it's some kind of an unconscious influence on you. The 2nd and 3rd 1, you're feeling somebody's trying to unconsciously influence you and that is problematic for you. So we feel like we're being manipulated now, by the way, the first thing with the menu and putting more expensive wines happens a lot in restaurants. It's the other thing about these subliminal effects on our behavior with subliminal messages and so on.

There is actually no evidence that that, I mean, first of all, it's illegal, but there's no evidence that even works. So just by the by so to finish up, um I'll tell you a little bit about my, my own perspective and it's I mean, it's not that radical I think, but so I don't think that we, as humans have the freedom to just ignore all the rules of physics or all the laws of physics and all the laws of the universe, stop the universe, make a decision, then go back into the universe and see how it plays out.

But on the other hand, I I do think that as long as we act according to our wishes and our desires, we are acting freely. So as long as we don't, for instance, if we don't get addicted to some things that then make us act in an unfree way. So to some respect, we do have free will, but perhaps not as much as we sometimes think, maybe wish, maybe even experience to have, and that's it for me hurry. Thank you so much. You really stretched my brain there. I sort of trying to grapple with with some of the decisions that I've made and whether or not I actually have free will, I'm sure other people are grappling with the same issues.

So thank you very much for sharing that and um I have lots of questions for you, but I can see that we've already got questions from a number of our members. So I'm going to go to those straight away. So we have a question here from rob and rob says now that that experience just sort of relies on social media and digital content. Has that has this actually impacted our ability to discover a world outside of our own and in fact we now operate more in the digital space just as a prelude. I'm not an expert on on social media.

Um I think that, I mean one thing that seems to have changed to some degree and I I think that's what rob is alluding to is that we've become more ingrained, right? We have our our devices around us. Um as an educator, as a university professor, I sometimes worry about whether that um hurts our curiosity, but I think it's more of a question of what are you watching? I mean most people are watching this or not. Most people everybody, unless they happen to be in this room are watching this on the screen.

Um and I would hope that you're actually learning something and this is not a useless experience for you. So I think it's more about the content of what it is that we're watching, but like a lot of other things, almost like what the conscious and the unconscious. You need a balance between those. So it's probably also a balance there between not spending 20 hours a day on the screen and um and you know, so balance between what you do in your virtual life and what you do in your actual life. And I think there is some evidence that suggests that we need, I mean we've all seen it during this pandemic, right? We need these in person interactions.

Um So yeah, as always balanced. Well, Jessica has a question about your example at the beginning about priming us for two to say white when you gave us all those different examples she says, is it true that people answer water if you don't prime them with things other than examples of white things Because obviously people associate milk with cow's so much, they may answer milk even then. But is it true that people answer water if you don't prime them with examples of white things. So the first time I heard this example was actually as a kid, I was probably like six or seven years old, I was playing outside and one of my friends did this whole series of questions and I said, what does a cow drink milk? And so on.

Later on, I realized the, you know, the process behind this, now, you're right. Some people would say if you just ask them outright, what does a cow drink there would say milk. However, if you try to do this priming, then let's say maybe, and I mean, I don't remember The exact numbers here, and I'm not sure this was done about this specific question, but you could get something like the following, maybe, you know, 30, of the people would say, what does a cow drink milk? And the others would say water.

But if you prime them with this, I've done this a few times with colleagues and friends and so on. I actually don't think of, I can't think of a single time that after doing this priming with white things and then associating back to cow, I don't think I can't think of a single time that somebody said water. So I think this Again, this is the interplay between the unconscious and the conscious here. Right? So the unconscious pushes you even more in the direction that you might have, you might have said that anyway.

But yeah, I'm not saying it's 100 versus 0%, but I think it does give you that extra push. Very interesting. Well, Louise has a question about religion, She says, how have different religions affected the way that we understand the conscious and unconscious mind. Yeah, I mean, it's, it's interesting there at least in relation to free will, the unconscious and the conscious in relation to free will when you have these god or gods who are supposedly, you know, they know everything, they're omniscient, right? They know the the future.

That's where it gets a bit strange because how can that work if I am supposedly free? Right? Um, but for instance, in this is less of a conundrum in in chinese and indian philosophies because while free will was assumed it was not assumed so much, at least. And again, depending on whether and so on, you have to be careful here, these are complex things, but it was less assumed that you have some, I mean that the buddha knows all or that in Confucianism or something like that, there is an all knowing God or gods that, that know what's going to happen in the future.

So there's less of the conundrum um now more specifically regarding the conscious and the unconscious you have some in many religions, there is this idea that for instance, you might have, if you're praying, you have to do this in a conscious manner that, that maybe God is looking into into your soul and making sure that you really mean it, that you're not just doing this, you know, you're not just playing lip service, you're not just doing that while thinking about something else. So, I mean this does play because we tend to think of things that are unconscious as less important and less associated with us with who we are with ourselves to some extent.

Right? So I think many religions want want us to be conscious when we are interacting with deity and that that's relevant there? It must be very interesting in these conversations that you have with theologians and philosophers bringing your neuroscience background. It must be very interesting. I'd love to be a fly on the wall in some of these conversations. Now, Christine has a question, Christine says, can the conscious and subconscious be located in the brain biologically, this is now an active area of investigation.

I so in recent years, sometimes you see this on the news, on television or something, you see these brain pictures of the brain with these flashing colors or these highlighted regions, which has made people ask more about like where is it located, Is it here, is it here is it deeply here or something like that? There are some things that we know, we know, I think I mentioned briefly, right that um if it's a conscious activity or activation in your brain, it takes up more of the brain. I mean, usually things are not just active in one part of your brain, it's some kind of a network phenomenon.

If you if you're looking at something then it might start from, I mean it comes from your eyes, goes back to the visual cortex here and then goes perhaps towards more like motor cortex. Then you're looking you see a glass, I see a glass of water here and then I raise it and I drink from it so you can see the flow of information in the brain from from more sensory perceptual regions to motor regions. And so if you do these things more consciously, you see more of this activity. It's more there. It stays on for longer and so on than unconscious.

But it's not so much that if it's in this region it's unconscious and in this region it's conscious. But there is now an ongoing effort specifically to understand conscious an unconscious perception and as well as conscious and unconscious action, which is that the latter is what we are involved in more. Um, so hopefully I'll be able to give you a better answer in a few years or maybe not so few. We'll have to see. We hope you'll come back and share some of that research with us. I'm gonna move on to another question from Jessica Jessica wants to know a bit about the, the comment you made about people's responsibility for their actions.

And she says, even if the decision to do a crime is unconscious, can't the use of punishment in the legal system still be justified to modify the perpetrators behavior, for example, instrumental conditioning. Yeah. This is these are ongoing debates by ethicists, right? I mean, you could say something like the following. Let's say that the person did something unconsciously. And uh, I mean, there is this terrible example that that was once in the in the US where there was a guy who acts, who was on all accounts on very good terms with his, with his in laws and he also was prone to sleepwalking.

His wife would find him in the middle of the house in various in the middle of the night and she would walk him back to bed and this one time he gets up and he drives to his in laws and he kills them with an ax. Now everybody agreed that this was uncharacteristic. He had no motive to do it. There was no financial gain or anything else. And he claimed that it all happened during sleepwalking and he convinced the jury of this right and he was actually, so he he was um, innocent. I mean, he, they pronounced him innocent of the crime.

Now you could still wonder whether that person should be near axis when they're sleeping right in a similar way. You could say that perhaps if if we do things unconsciously and even if we're not, if we're not completely freely doing them, it might say something about our character. And even if we're, if this is not supposed to be what's, you know, sometimes it's called retributive justice, right? We're going to punish you because you were bad. Um, you still want to, you still might want to keep people from doing things and you might want, for instance, other people to see that they are being punished and you might want to just get them off the streets.

If you're somebody who for whatever reason, whenever somebody gets you angry, you lash out and you start being violent, then we might send you to some kind of anger mitigation course or something like that. Um, not perhaps it's not your fault. Perhaps there's some reasons maybe there's a tumor in your brain that's, that's pushing on your amygdala or whatever. But still we don't want you walking the streets and hitting people. So there are various reasons to um, to put people to take them away from society.

But you have to ask yourself to what extent some of these are punishment. And to what extent it's just, you know, we want to take you off the streets both for society is good, maybe your own good. And so that others would also see that this is happening and think twice before maybe acting, acting like that themselves. I think the sleepwalking example you just gave But also the medic. You know, if somebody has a medical issue like the tumor that you raised, these are these are really interesting points about how much, how much free will we have.

And I think we'd love to dig into that a bit more. I'm going to move on to a question from rob rob says, what can we learn about unconscious decision making from our understanding of reflex and involuntary reactions. For example, if you pull away from something that's hot before the sensation of heat has even registered, right? Um so I would I would say that, I mean, reflexes are certainly unconscious. If you touch something hot by mistake, you're going to see your hand jerked back before you feel the pain and before you've made any decision.

And we know something about that. It has to do with the fact that the sensation from the that hot thing goes to your spinal cord. And then just the spinal cord creates this jerk movement back or I mean, depending exactly where it is in your hand and so on, it could go to the brain stem, but it doesn't really get to these higher level to the cortex, the higher level of parts of your brain where we become conscious of things. So we would become conscious of it later. You know, maybe we burned our finger but the jerking it back would happen very quickly.

Um now, so that's you could say that that's a part type of unconscious decision making. But compare that to another situation every day. You get into your car or maybe you get on your bike and you go to work. Okay? Now it's let's say it's sunday and you're actually planning to um to go to the park. So you get on your bike and you plan to go to the park and then five minutes later you realize that you're actually driving to work, you're on the wrong road, right? So there was some kind of like an unconscious process that happened there.

Or you could call it an unconscious decision that kind of overrode your conscious decision to go to the park where, you know, you just navigated to work on autopilot, so that's different, right? That's that's engaging. If we looked into your brain we would see all these high level brain regions. I mean, your eyes are taking in information, but you somehow I mean, this happens a lot when you're driving right all of a sudden, like, whoa, I'm actually here. I didn't even notice the last five minutes.

It doesn't mean by the way that you weren't really paying attention and if something would have happened on the road, right, you would have maybe jerked out of this unconscious thing. But it's um these are different. So reflexes are different than unconscious decisions that we know more about the neuroscience of reflexes than we do about the neuroscience of these more general unconscious decisions. I always assumed that autopilot was something in your unconscious mind. So it's it's good to know that it's actually you are actually still aware.

Um it's more of a reflex. So thank you for sharing that. We only really have time for one more question. I'm going to try and combine two questions that have come in, one from Solomon and one from brad. So you talked a bit about values and wishes and desires. Um and you said that as long as we act according to our wishes, we have free will. But couldn't you say that these values and desires and wishes are also subconscious, The subconscious affects us. To say that we are conscious of everything from the moment we are born up to this minute that we make this decision, we could trace back everything and consciousness is just not true.

That's um there is this interplay of conscious and unconscious that that moves us and yes, um I mean my values are a product of of the education I was given by my parents, grandparents, by my teachers and and and you know in elementary school and later years by the friends that I have and and so on and much of it is perhaps unconscious. Um but the fact that something is unconscious doesn't mean again we tend to associate the unconscious with like, well, so I'm not free. But if this, I mean you have many of us have worked for years to develop our our abilities, right? Are if you're a trapeze artist and you can do all those things.

And of course you're not conscious of each leg that you're putting on this wire as your, I don't know, walking from one above the thames or something, right? Um, but this is a skill that you've developed very consciously or intentionally and consciously over the years and you're now using it perhaps somewhat unconsciously. I don't think that means you're not free. So if my values, I don't know, I see a baby in a burning car and I run over and I try to save the baby maybe getting burnt and and while doing that, maybe I didn't think about it that much.

But those values were ingrained in me, by my education and so on in a, in an intentional manner. And I think that that maybe matters more than whether it was conscious or unconscious at that specific time. I'll just say this with the caveat that I mean I'm not an ethicist and there are and people who have thought about these questions more than me, but that's my two cents, Thank you so much. That was really interesting. You answered some very tricky questions there and I think we've all stretched our brains hearing you talk about free will and the unconscious mind.

Thank you for joining us in The Garden, and I hope you'll join us again very soon. It was great to be here, and I'm happy to come back. Thank you and thank you to you, our members for joining us. It's great to see so many people returning and we hope you will join us again at your next Garden gathering until then stay curious.

The Unconscious Mind Collection

The unconscious mind is a vast unmapped territory of feelings, thoughts, urges and memories that sit just outside our awareness. Luckily, our intrepid Garden Fellows are at the forefront of exploring it, and they're taking you with them on the journey.