TCS Daily

Free Will Hunting

By Kenneth Silber - August 28, 2002 12:00 AM

Science has long had an uneasy relationship with free will. Many scientists and science-minded philosophers regard the human sense of autonomy and choice as an illusion. Rather, in this view, mind and behavior are fully determined by neurophysiological, genetic and other physical causes. Your choices of what to do for a living, or what to have for dinner, are generated by mechanistic brain processes. You clicked into this article because electrochemical impulses in your neural circuitry required that you do so.

But a significant challenge to such scientific determinism is emerging from recent developments in neuroscience, psychiatry, and quantum physics. A key figure in this countertrend is Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D., a research professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. Drawing on various lines of research, including his own work treating patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Schwartz has developed a scientific case for free will. He and science columnist Sharon Begley spell out this argument in their book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, to be published by HarperCollins in October.

Beginning in the late 1980s, Schwartz developed a treatment program for the intrusive thoughts and ritualistic behaviors characteristic of OCD. His approach drew upon both Buddhist "mindfulness" meditation and high-tech methods of brain imaging. It required patients to recognize their obsessive thoughts as arising from errant brain circuitry, and to focus their attention instead on non-pathological activities - to go work in the garden, say, rather than engage in compulsive hand-washing. Getting patients to thus "will away" their disorder had a high rate of success. Moreover, imaging scans revealed significant changes in the patients' patterns of brain activity. Their minds, it seemed, had altered their brains.

Such an outcome, in Schwartz's view, cannot be explained in purely mechanistic terms. The treatment requires conscious effort by the patients, and a belief in the efficacy of will. Plus, it is hard to see how brain mechanisms alone would allow the new neural pattern ("go work in the garden") to gain dominance over the deeply entrenched OCD pattern ("go wash your hands again").

The OCD findings came amid a growing body of evidence that the adult brain retains considerable neuroplasticity - a capacity to form new neural circuits or even reallocate sections of the brain from one function to another. Over the past decade or so, accordingly, neuroscientists have dropped a long-held belief that such rewiring is possible only in childhood. The brain can change dramatically in response to changes in sensory input (as when a blind person's visual cortex forms circuits to process sound).

Moreover, paying attention to a particular task or idea appears to play an important role in facilitating neuroplasticity. Schwartz follows in the philosophical footsteps of 19th century psychologist William James, who identified attention as central to volition. Free will, in this view, is a capacity to choose what to pay attention to - for instance, this article that I'm trying to write, or the possibility of wandering off into Central Park.

Schwartz also draws on experiments, performed by neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, that showed brain activity rising half a second or more before a person formed an intention to make a move (such as lifting an arm). Some scientists have regarded these findings as undermining the idea of free will. But others (including Schwartz and Libet himself) note that a half second or more is a long time in neurophysiological terms, and argue that this interval is what enables the conscious mind to veto (or allow) actions initiated by brain processes. Free will, conceived this way, is sometimes referred to as "free won't."

And what is it that makes such autonomy possible? In Schwartz's view, the answer lies in quantum mechanics, and especially in an interpretation thereof developed by physicist Henry Stapp, who became a friend and collaborator of Schwartz. Stapp emphasizes the importance of the "quantum Zeno effect," in which frequent observation of a quantum system prevents it from evolving in a normal way. Beryllium atoms, for instance, do not decay at their normal rate if experimenters conduct repeated measurements on them. Similarly, according to Schwartz, the act of attention allows a particular line of thought - a series of electrochemical impulses, subject to quantum effects - to attain a degree of stability, rather than dissipating in the brain's electrochemical noise.

The Mind and the Brain does not provide a conclusive case for free will. (It would be surprising if it did, given that the free-will debate has gone on, in one form or another, since ancient times.) There remains the possibility that what Schwartz considers the mind changing the brain, as with the OCD patients, is in fact just the brain changing itself, even if the mechanisms involved provide a very convincing feeling of autonomy. There is, moreover, an ongoing and highly arcane debate among physicists over how to interpret quantum mechanics. Stapp's interpretation, as presented by Schwartz, gives conscious observation a role in shaping material reality that would be disputed by many physicists.

But the book's purpose really is to open a debate, rather than to close one. For too long, too many scientists have regarded the question of free will as essentially settled, in the negative. And scientific determinism has seeped into the broader culture, often through oversimplified press reports that a gene or neurotransmitter "causes" some type of behavior. The notion of humans as automata is dispiriting for many people, even though some find it oddly comforting. But the crucial point is that it may not be true.



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