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The illusion of perception & free will

Many years ago, my wife wanted to buy a new car. We had talked about which cars she might like and eventually settled on a mini. The new shape mini had just come out so were made a plan to go to the showroom on the weekend to have a look. The next morning, I drove to work and to my surprise I saw mini's everywhere! I saw them in driveways, at junctions, even in the car park! What was going on? Had everyone suddenly gone out that night and bought a mini? Of course, not. It was simply that mini's had become important to me and so they were moved up on the list of things to be aware of. It passed the awareness threshold in my anterior cingulate cortex and so now all of these minis could be pushed up to my consciousness.

What was going on here? Why had I not seen the minis before that night? Was I blind to them or did my subconscious simply keep them from me as they were unimportant for my survival and daily life?

This poses an interesting question. Is my conscious in control of what I perceive or my subconscious?

It proves a more relevant question when you consider two other things. The first comes from a set of experiments carried out at the Max Planck Institute, where they ran experiments to detect if they could predict peoples decisions based on the activity in the brain. The experiment consisted of sitting in a brain scanner with a button on your left and on your right. You are told not to decide which button to push until a bell goes off. When the bell is sounded you then make a decision and push the relevant button. What they found was that up to 6 seconds before the bell, your brain has already decided which button to press; then when the bell goes off, it pushes that decision up to your consciousness where you then 'choose' to push the button.

"Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done," said study co-author John-Dylan Haynes, a Max Planck Institute neuroscientist.

The second comes from the question, if our subconscious only shows us the things it thinks we should see or perceive, and if the brain makes decisions without the need for our consciousness to be involved, how much free will do we actually have?

I know that we can point to our prefrontal cortex and say, 'this is the higher level thinking area, the bit that can control what/how I think, but in Sam Harris's book, 'Free Will', he says that, 'I, as the conscious witness of my experience, no more initiate events in my prefrontal cortex than I cause my heart to beat ... What will be my next mental state be? I do not know - it just happens. Where is the freedom in that?'

Before it gets too depressing and nihilistic, we should also consider an alternative. When we speak of our conscious and subconscious we are not talking about us and someone else in charge. Both of these things are still 'us'. They are a combination of automatic and non-automatic responses and reactions to perceptions and events around us, to our internal states and neural processes. It is all still us, we just may not be as consciously aware or in control as mush as we initially believe we are.

You are still you, but maybe, a large part of you is hidden below the line of consciousness! If we look back at decisions we have made we can probably come to understand what led us to make them. What internal emotions we had, what previous experience we drew upon to choose what we did, but does that help us in the moment or with future choices? Maybe.

As the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, 'Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards'.

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