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Is Free Will a Farce?

Our childhood may prompt our body to respond before our brain can process.

Key points

  • Research shows conflicting results as to whether people tend to think first or act first based on past experiences.
  • Learning to pause before responding can help people overcome unhealthy patterns.
  • The brain can be rewired through neuroplasticity.

What is neuroscience?

Neuroscience is the study of how the nervous system develops and how this development impacts both behavior and cognitive functions.

(If what I just said kind of sounds like a mouthful of big, slightly familiar words that leave you nodding your head in only the vaguest of understanding, rest assured that you are not alone.)

The truth is, neuroscience is a big umbrella under which a lot of concepts can be placed. First, we need to explain the physical anatomy of the brain under that umbrella. Your temporal lobe controls speech, sound, and visual information. Your temporal lobe also is responsible for your sense of smell, which is closely connected to your memories and emotional responses. The frontal lobe is responsible for your more complex reasoning, also known as your executive functions. The frontal lobe is the last part of the brain to fully develop and is strongly related to morality and the ability to learn from new experiences.

Also under that umbrella is how our past experiences affect our current actions and reactions, our impulse control, and our conscious associations and unconscious neural connections and pathways in the brain.

Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb has famously said, "neurons that fire together, wire together." This means that the more any behavior is repeated, the more hard-wired that behavior becomes. Think about your childhood. Were your scholastic achievements rewarded with candy or ice cream? Did Dad cheer you up after a bad day with a greasy cheeseburger? The more this behavior is repeated, the more you begin to associate food as the solution to your unhappiness.

Johan Walter Bantz/Unsplash
If your childhood was filled with violence, your body may be trained to act before your brain can think through the consequences
Source: Johan Walter Bantz/Unsplash

Or maybe you grew up in a house that was slightly less "rainbows and unicorns." Maybe the sounds of your father's footsteps and the smell of alcohol on his breath were a sign of danger that made your adrenaline spike and your fists clench.

Over the past few decades, more and more researchers argue that human actions are trained, and therefore driven by external stimuli.

In other words, we are not responsible for our actions, we do not have free will, and we are merely the product of our experiences, trained to react in the same way that kept us alive in the past.

In the 1980s, several studies by Libet et al attempted to answer the question, "Which comes first, the planning, preparation, and initiation of an action, or the intention to act."

The experiment was relatively simple. Subjects were asked to move their right wrist and to note the time on the large clock in front of them when they had made the decision to move their right wrist. Each participant was hooked up to an electroencephalogram, or EEG, which measures brain waves.

The researchers were looking at two types of brain waves in particular: the decision to act brain wave, or Spontaneous Voluntary Movement (SVM) brainwave, and the measure of the Readiness Potential (RP) which is the planning and preparation of the action.

Most of us, with good reason, would expect the decision to act in a certain way, or in this case, to move our right wrist, to precede the planning and preparation of moving the wrist. First I decide to do this, and then I figure out how.

It seems quite logical, considering that we are men, not mice who can be trained to press a lever or navigate a maze.

However, in Libet's experiments of 1983, 1985, and 2004, the wrist moves before the participant has consciously decided to move his or her wrist. If Libet is correct, and our actions are not the result of a decision that is the result of our free will, then it seems as if we have less control over our decisions than we would have thought.

So, act first, think later. Of course, the "later" is measured in seconds and milliseconds, so how much of a difference could it really make?

It depends on the person, their past, and their mental health.

Doug Noll is the co-founder of Prison for Peace, an organization that teaches murderers mediation tips to de-escalate violent situations, with the intention of later training the prisoners to become instructors themselves. Doug proudly boasts that of all the thousands of prisoners who have completed the Prison for Peace program and been released, not a single one has re-offended after release.


Well, the answer may lie in switching up the already-established neural pathways of criminals, most of whom grew up in hostile homes where abuse was common and violence was the norm. In a home where safety is the exception, rather than the rule, the person who acts first may be the person who lives to tell the tale.

Although there is currently much debate as to whether free will exists or does not exist, it seems as if the real focus of the issue is turning to the question of how can we rewire people's brains, or, in more classical cognitive behavioral terms, how can we insert a pause between the action and the behavior in order to avoid a negative consequence?

Maybe the answer is simple: Pause.

Next time you feel scared, angry, disappointed, or impulsive, take a breath and pause.

Do not act.

Do not react.

Give your brain the opportunity to create new neural pathways, rather than relying on old habits based on a fight or flight desire to survive, no matter who gets hurt.


Free Will and Neuroscience: From Explaining Freedom Away to New Ways of Operationalizing and Measuring It. Human Neuroscience, June 1, 2016.

Morse, Stephen J., "Neuroscience, Free Will, and Criminal Responsibility" (2015). Faculty Scholarship at Penn Law. 1604.

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