There’s nothing more dehumanizing than realizing that you are beholden to a part of your brain of which you have no control–the unconscious. For years, philosophers have squabbled over whether or not there’s free will, or, rather, are we just an amalgamation of neurons being shot off and transmitted throughout our prefrontal cortex thereby mitigating our sense of self. It’s quite evident that we aren’t always the drivers of our bodies and the authors of our thoughts, but astonishingly, the observers. This concept of a lack of free will is somewhat arcane, but is being uncovered slowly by neuroscience. Most of the decisions we make on a daily basis are derived from our unconscious (once dubbed as the “subconscious;” both terms are interchangeable.) Our predispositions and predilections are primarily out of our control; it’s only at the moment they arise that we feel we’ve created these feelings–which of course is illusory. Moreover, we’re plagued by cognitive biases that we generally fall victim to in the midst of quick-thinking. But, we aren’t robots (as far as i know) and we do waffle over choices ad infinitum until we stumble upon an answer that is most conducive to our wellbeing. However, if something is unbreachable, such as the aforementioned unconscious which makes up the majority of our actions, aren’t we not truly responsible for most of our wrongdoings, missteps, and negative behavior, given that we had no other choice? Aren’t we just playing to the beat of our own brain? If we were able to choose differently, wouldn’t we need a different brain that doesn’t constitute a potential predictable outcome of which you had zero choice in developing?
Brain processes that happen automatically with little to no conscious effort surprisingly occur more than we think. Experiments conducted at the University of Columbia asked participants to perform a set of tasks under functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI). One of the tasks was pressing a specific button with their right or left hand, which seemingly would be unpredictable to onlookers and one’s self. However, what the participants didn’t know was that whatever choices they eventually chose, it was already decided by their unconscious 7 seconds before with 98% accuracy! The FMRI was beaming with blood flow to that specific area in the brain which would press the right or left button. This stood as a clear indicator that our unconscious is in the driver seat and we are just the presenters of what it chooses, in the end. As soon as consciousness kicks in, it’s by that point we are duped into thinking we’ve actually, consciously, made the decisions ourselves.
We are constricted and influenced by our genes, environment, and evolutionary upbringing, all of which we had no conscious modifications toward. When you really inspect your thoughts, you’ll come to a stark realization that thoughts arise out of nowhere. We tend to witness our inner lives so frequently that we aren’t jarred by the outcomes of things that happen solely because we think we’re always in control and it was our fault for choosing this or that. Causes and effects that happen systematically in the universe make things irreversible or unchangeable; if you were given a chance to redo your final decision on something, as long as the universe is configured the same way (mostly your brain & body) then you’ll choose that same exact choice the second time around.
Think of all the chemicals that propel you into a merry temperament or a testy mood. These emotions are sustained through a myriad of brain functioning variables that are mostly out of our grasp. If we really have absolute free will, wouldn’t we all be in great shape, happy as a clam, smart as whip, and in deep love? Our brain dictates our behavior and we can’t tap into our most profound facet of our brain that’s responsible for most of how we act. Thus, as disconcerting as it may be, we are, which Sam Harris so elegantly states: “You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm”
Cognitive biases also have their way of manipulating us into using shortcuts as survival tactics developed through years of trial and error. The confirmation bias–a bias which tends to favor the preconceived beliefs a person thinks are true no matter how much opposing evidence is provided– is what keeps inveterate traditions around. I find myself conforming to the confirmation bias sometimes by looking up something that favors my outlook on a particular subject, but usually things that are opinionated and trivial. This bias can be detrimental when people start believing in unrealistic things and devise their life around something that’s extraordinarily farcical such as thinking UFO’s are hovering over your house every-night, for the odd and narcissistic sake that they want to abduct you and no one else. Blocking out contrary evidence can hamper someone’s mental development and ultimately affect those around you. Conspiracy theorists and the like tend to gravitate toward conformation of their irrational notions rather than the dis-conformation of what lies beneath the veracity of that belief. We are preprogrammed to act this way in order for the brain to make sense of things in an easier fashion and to fill the gaps in our logic. Overcoming this bias takes practice and an open-minded attitude to see things from both sides and recognize that empirical evidence supersedes belief no matter how near and dear that belief may be to you.
I think the for most part our brains have been molded over years and years of evolution to act a certain way. And since we don’t exist in an era where survival is urgent every single day, we’re burdened with these subtle glitches in our thinking that leave us swayed toward one side rather than the other. Our will is finite; it can only go so far. Some people can wake up tomorrow and decide to go on a strict diet, while others will vacillate the idea until they’ve essentially run out of time. Our brains are plastic and we can mend them to some degree, but we cannot replace them (not yet at least.) So, whichever way your brain is constructed you have to realize your strengths and weaknesses and act accordingly because your brain has an uncanny way of misleading you towards conclusions that may be good for you in the moment, but harmful for you in the long run.