Sep 2, 2009

The Oddness of Thoughts and The Illusion of Free Will

Recently, a colleague said that since I am "very experienced" in writing poems, I must find it "very easy" to write new poems. This is untrue. With more experience, I do find it easier to edit a poem. Editing is a technical skill and one gets better at it, with practice. But the creation of a new poem remains, for me at least, as difficult as it has ever been.

This is because to create a new poem, you need inspiration, which comes when it comes, and goes when it goes. It's extremely unpredictable. Inspiration is not a matter of skill or experience and it is beyond the poet's control. At best, you can spend more time waiting in front of a blank computer screen, so that when inspiration does come, you are ready to seize it, type fast and make a new poem.

Thoughts (not just poetic thoughts, or creative thoughts, but thoughts in general) are very odd things. Most people never realise this. That's because they have never really spent time observing their own thoughts. In fact, the only people I know who regularly observe their own thoughts are people who meditate (and they are a minority).

If you meditate, you will quickly learn that the human mind is one big mess. Most of the time, it does not function in any manner that can remotely be described as logical or systematic. Instead the mind hops randomly from topic to topic, sometimes operating in words, sometimes with images, often moving in circles, often contradicting itself, and easily getting pulled in different directions by sensory data.

On a 20-minute MRT ride, your mind can easily talk to itself about 10 different topics, without producing even one useful idea or one new conclusion. It can flit from past to present to future, from memory to imagination to fantasy, within the space of two seconds. You are not in control. The mind runs itself. It secretes thoughts, much like the way a gland secretes hormones. It's an invisible organic process. Most human beings have as much control over their own minds as they do over their own glands - that is to say, hardly any control at all.

What has all this got to do with free will?

There was a neuroscientist - his name was Benjamin Libet. He hooked people up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, which showed what was happening in their brains. Libet's experiments revealed that a surge of brain activity took place before the person had the conscious intention to do something. This suggests that the intention was not consciously formulated, but rather came from the unconscious, and then entered conscious awareness, and that furthermore, by this time, the decision whether to carry out the intention was already made.

Libet's experiment means that unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiator of volitional acts, and free will plays no part in their initiation. There is no free will. The following excerpt from this article will help to explain:
Coffee or tea with lunch? Which pants to wear to work? Which movie to watch? Your mind might be made up before you know it. Researchers have found patterns of brain activity that predict people's decisions up to 10 seconds before they're aware they've made a choice.

In the 1980s, psychologist Benjamin Libet of the University of California, San Francisco, caught people's brains jumping the gun on consciousness. A few hundred milliseconds before a person thought he or she decided to press a button, brain areas related to movement were already active. The result was hard for some to stomach because it suggested that the unconscious brain calls the shots, making free will an illusory afterthought.
In other words, you never have free will. You can put down your pen, wave your arms, sing a song or sell your shares. But you never get to decide to do these things. You only perceive yourself as making the decision. In truth, the decision was already made, even before you perceived yourself as making it.

By analogy, you are like a robot which falsely perceives itself as having artificial intelligence and decision-making ability. In fact, the robot is completely controlled by a secret software program which the robot does not even suspect exists.

More later, perhaps.


Atensol said...

This reminds me of Jung's concept of the collective unconscious and how mankind goes thru' patterns or archetypes, which are universal in nature in different stages of life.


Interesting concept. Thanks for sharing.

Hmmmmm... so I guess LKY's brain had a surge of activity moments before he stood up in Parliament recently to demolish the "high fallutin" ideas of NMP Viswa!

yamizi said...

I like this subject =)

Anonymous said...

utter bollocks.

but don't blame me for saying it: some 'force' made me do it.

Kelvin Ng said...

Ajahn Brahm on Free will

Anti-Chronic Singapore said...

This is interesting.

Just sharing some thoughts.

In Fengshui and Bazi theories, it is believed that the Qi (energy of the environment and the Universe, which could coincide with our luck cycle based on time we were born and how our facial features were organized) could influence outcomes in our lives.

There is a theory of Cosmic Trinity of Heaven, Eath and Man, which each contributes to 33.3% on the outcomes of our lives. Based on this Cosmic trinity of Heaven (our destiny based on day we were born), Earth (the environment we were born and living in, including its Fengshui) and Man(our decisions at different points in time), it is believed our decisions to act has about 33.3% influence on the outcomes in our lives.

For example, sudden death from catastrophe cannot be determined by our will to act or our own actions.

I am still learning. I have been reading the IChing (IChing - the unchanging truth by Hua-Ching Ni), which I find in many ways, interestingly, very similar to Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism.

Anon said...

The study merely shows that there is some brain activity before we make a decision.

It doesn't mean that the decision has already been made for us, or that we didn't make the choice at the point of decision.

It boggles my mind to see you extrapolate wildly to saying there is no free will.

Then again, you're not trained in scientific thinking. You might consider sticking to writing poems and social commentary from now on.

cy said...

If what you said about there being no free will were true, no one can be held responsible for actions that are not truly theirs. This means we should stop hanging murderers, jailing rapists or fining litter bugs since mens rea cannot be proven.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Anon 9:36 am:

You need to read Libet's experiment more carefully. Give the man some credit - his paper is widely regarded as one of the most significant papers in the history of neuroscience.

I want to elaborate a little, for your benefit.

Suppose at 10:00:00 am, you are in a seated position and you are deciding whether to stand up or not. You will either decide "yes" or "no".

If you decide "yes", then at 10:00:01 am, you will be standing.

If you decide "no", then at 10:00:01, you will still be sitting.

What Libet's experiment (and the follow-up experiment reported by Harvard) demonstrates is:

If at 10:00:00 am you had decided "yes", then at 9:59:58 am, your brain had ALREADY started to send signals to your body to start moving.

If at 10:00:00 am you had decided "no", then at 9:59:59 am, your brain does NOT send any signals to your legs to start moving.

Furthermore, Haynes' follow-up experiment demonstrates that the brain signals (for your body to perform a certain action X) can start as far back as 10 seconds before you are aware you are making a decision to carry out X.


I fully understand what you're trying to say, when you said this: "The study merely shows that there is some brain activity before we make a decision."

As explained in the article, at an earlier stage of research:

" ... there was room for doubt. The time lag was so short that it might have been an error, and the brain activity might have reflected preparation for a decision rather than the decision itself."

Haynes' experiment is directly designed to investigate that doubt. Click the link for more details. The conclusion is stated by Passingham here:

Dick Passingham, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Oxford in the U.K., says the paper clears up one of the major concerns about the original Libet experiment. "This activity that occurs earlier is ... not just general preparation [for a decision], it really is a proper decision," he says.

Mr Wang Says So said...

More reading materials, for those of you who are intrigued.

Brain Scanners Can See Your Decisions Before You Make Them - from Wired.

The Volitional Brain - Towards a Neuroscience of Free Will

Free Will? Not as Much As You Think - Boston Globe

Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain - published in Nature Neuroscience.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Two quotable quotes I found from Wikipedia.

“ Many philosophers and scientists have argued that free will is an illusion. Unlike all of them, Benjamin Libet found a way to test it." - Dr. Susan J. Blackmore, visiting lecturer at the University of the West of England, Bristol

“Benjamin Libet's discoveries are of extraordinary interest. His is almost the only approach yet to yield any credible evidence of how conscious awareness is produced by the brain. Libet's work is unique, and speaks to questions asked by all humankind.” - Dr. Robert W. Doty, professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Rochester

Mr Wang Says So said...

"If what you said about there being no free will were true, no one can be held responsible for actions that are not truly theirs. This means we should stop hanging murderers, jailing rapists or fining litter bugs since mens rea cannot be proven."


Yes, the ethical and philosophical implications are enormous. On the other hand, whatever approach we may decide to take, we probably did not really "decide" it.

Anonymous said...

That sounds depressing.

So what influences the sub conscious? From the experiences and knowledge gained as a conscious being?

I remember reading somewhere that when we dream, the sub conscious is testing the reactions of ourselves.

Horjiber said...

OH no Wang! You are giving the religious right more ammo to prove that their higher being exists in that 10 sec!

Sigh, but no matter what you write, say, think, prove, they will always find something to prove themselves right one. No matter how logical or illogical.

Because they are stuck in the 8th sec time frame.

Wen Qin said...

In meditation one can stand completely apart from automatic thought processes. Yet only when this self-conscious witness is merged back into these subconciouse process would one be considered an integrated human being.

Tis why a famous series of Zen paintings show the enlightened master eventually returning to the marketplace.

On another point, the finding by the said neuroscientist that people's intention are sometimes unconciously made before their overt expression could be true. It explains why Zen masters have the strange method of eliciting spontanity from their disciples at the risk of a whack on the head with a stool if they but hesitate a second.

Well I once told a friend who is known to be rather thoughtless in his ways at times about the story of a Zen master asking his disciple what is the sound of one hand clapping. He retorted without a second thought what a damn stupid question it was and that if he were the student he would give that master a slap on his face.

Hahahaha, I thought that friend mine could have made a good disciple for it seems he had answered that Master's question quiet correctly and with spontaneity.

The Outer Layer said...

This means we should stop hanging murderers, jailing rapists or fining litter bugs since mens rea cannot be proven.

Disagree. If you read the Chinese school of "FA" or legalism, which origniated as far back as 2,000+ years ago during the period of Warring States, law, or enforcement of law is not for correcting or regulation intention. Law and enforcement is to correct behaviour.

Once the law has been clearly articulated and communicated, the subconsciousness can and will take the rewards and penalties into consideration prior to making the decision. Hence, whatever intention the brain makes, it will take into consideration the results of that decision first. And the law will award its decision based on the action, not intention.

A bit into the philisophy of legalism school of thoughts. Instead of believing that humans are born innocent, as is the central belief of "RU" school or Buddhism/Confusianism, "FA" believes that all humans are born evil. Or human nature is "evil" at its base. That human actions are driven by the need for survival, for self, and ultimately for greed.

That intention is difficult to establish, and easily argued for, the "evil" human nature can be corrected and brought towards the desired "good" state throught regulation of actions or behaviours.

Hence the legalism school of thoughts believes in stating a clear set of rules, and regulating actions, not thoughts or intentions. Through ensuring that people act/behave in certain ways or not act/behave in certain ways, the society can be brought towards the desired state or order. The brain/intention can be cultivated towards the desired state of function when considering the price of deciding on the action.

Anonymous said...


Btw, is Zen\Fengshui\NewAge the religious left?

focus ... focus ...

quick question to Mr Wang ... as ur kid would tell u ... living things respond to external stimuli and evolution\or God(if He loves us) would have ensured that any creatures around today (eg us) will respond as fast as our brain and bodies allows too.

Feel thirsty ... drink water. See pretty/fertile gal ... make plan to mate/breed... see queue ... join queue ...

Are there any actions that require "free will"?

Ah Wang
(pardon the engrish)

Mr Wang Says So said...

Ah yes.

The choice to eat the apple, or not to eat the apple.

(Pssst, in LHL's recent metaphor of Singapore as the Garden of Eden, who do you think should be the serpent?)

Anonymous said...

Serpent -> group of creatues with long bodies and scaley body.

Dragons -> one of the creatures classified as "serpent". A large one.


Anonymous said...

this is a very interesting post but it doesn't surprise me seeing that it is very natural. All living beings have these biological mechanisms which works so fast and furious that it may be beyond the understanding of the brain.

but what distinguish us from animals is the concept of mindfulness where we are able to exercise our will to understand and control our thoughts.

as such, it may be more accurate to say some people are more adept at exercising their will while others follow their biological impulses (which may be shaped by the environment around them)

Anonymous said...

If Singapore is the Garden of Eden.
MM Lee = God.
LHL = Son of God.
Adam = Mr Wang (class/level)
Eve = Mrs Wang
Snake = Potential rebel in PAP.

Mr Wang wants to rewrite history and catch snake instead of eating the apple?

Ah Wang

Anti-Chronic Singapore said...

If anyone got the time, I recommend the book, "Survival of the fattest - the key to human brain evolution," by Stephen C Cunnane (Research Center on Aging, Canada).

This is a biochemistry perspective.

Anonymous said...

But Mr Wang

The choice to eat the apple, or not to eat the apple...

would depend on
1. Hungry?
2. Do you like apple?
3. Did you have a traumatic exp with apple when kid?

So certainly by the time u see the apple, the decision would already been made pending ...

4. reacting to the Apple's condition? eat or not?

Is that "free will"

U know just like Mr Wang waving the red flag at Christians (aka flat earth society members) to answer a question on "Garden of Eden" ... among us low IQ folks the term is called "pushing the buttons" ...

Ah Wang

Anonymous said...

the only thing this experiment suggests is that we do not understand the functions of the brain well enough at all. we are but pawns in this game of chess.

angry doc said...

Long-time readers of Mr Wang's blog may know that I often disagree with him when it comes to 'scientific' topics, but this time round I agree with him.

You can read more about this topic in this book:

Mr Wang Says So said...


Angry Doc agrees with me.

Must go and buy 4D this week. :P

angry doc said...

Ah, but there is more to this! Go read the book, Mr Wang... ;)

angry doc said...

Come to think of it, Leng Hiong and I discussed this earlier:

Or maybe we did not, but we think we did. I'm not sure about anything anymore...

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang

so far u have been talking about consciousness and instinctive actions. even animals have that.

What about actions that have more variables?
Would u say that those would be where the "veto" comes into play?

i.e the classic example of who to save: drowning mother or wife...

or moral decisions like adultery: to do or not to do ... or if u prefer ... to sin or not to sin?

(I am giving u rope to hang me)

Ah Wang

onlooker said...


But I still believe in free will :P

AcidFlask said...

Cognitive psychology is fascinating.

Here's another summary of the Libet study from Cognitive Daily, one of my favorite psychology blogs.

"Free choice" may not be as free as it seems

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang,

For people with momentary forgetfulness, like wanting to do something and then forgetting right away, maybe its alzheimer's or not, but consider this thought expriment.

If the idea that free will is an illusion, whatever subconcious initiation will be lost when one forgets his decision in the above situation.

Although not the same argument as one which the conscious mind would deliberate the merits of a decision, the failure of the conscious mind to "remember" the subconscious mind's decision is just as enough to suggest the conscious mind does act as a filter to ideas popping into your head, or rather one head to another since we really do have "2 heads".

Anonymous said...

Hey Mr Wang

angry doc is of the opinion that "free will" all electrical impulses in the brain.

Given ur religious-spirituality leanings, your stance cannot be identical right?!

Ah Wang

Anon said...

Hi all,

How do we know when a decision has been made?

This point of "conscious decision" is self-reported by the subjects (I mean, participants). It could simply mean that it takes much longer to be aware of our decision, than to actually make it.

But it doesn't mean that we didn't exercise deliberate choice.

Also the studies use very simple decision making choices, how about complex decisions e.g. which partner to marry? Which course to study?

But what's more fascinating is how quick people are to speculate on the implications of such preliminary findings.

I think that says more about the people and their values. Instead of letting studies shape our thinking, we are molding the results to fit into our current mindset.

Chen said...

The Nobel prize winning "Split brain experiment" in the 1970s actually provide strong hints that our conscious mind is not in full control of our actions. (Here is a link to a flash game that demostrate the experiment:

Basically, after the left brain and the right brain are split to cure epilepsy, each half of the brain have no idea what the other half learn. When an image is shown to the left eye of the patient, the image will be sent to the right brain, which is not capable of logical thought. Hence the patient will not be able to tell that he/she had seen the image. However, when given a group of items, the patient will be able to pick up the object corresponding to the image shown. When asked why, the patient will have no idea why that object is chosen. (Not in the flash game: if pressed, the patient will invent excuses as to why that object is choses, eg, if shown a can of drink and pick up a can of drink, reason will be that he/she is thirsty)

What this show is that at the minimum, some of our actions are influenced by our unconscious mind. Our logical conscious mind, our "Free will" is not as free as we would like to think.

What I think is that our conscious mind is something like a head of state. It might have real decision making power or it might be just a figure head rubber stamping decisions that the subconscious mind made.

In anycase, even if the head of state (the conscious mind) have absolute power, to govern the state (the body), the head of state need information collected by its underlings (The sensory data collected by the eyes/ears etc are sent to your unconscious mind, which then decide what is important and bring it to the attention of your conscious mind).

Before making a decision, he consult the advise from his underlings (Should we run from the tiger? The subconscious mind advise YES by sending the emotion fear at the conscious mind) Whenever a decision is made, the head of state need the underlings to carry it out. The underling can deliberately delay performing the order or perform it in other ways than intended.

From the what this blog post say, it is very likely that the conscious mind is just a figure head instead of an absolute ruler, leaving it with even less power.

Mr Wang Says So said...

if it were a matter of preference, i would much prefer to have free will, actually. LOL.

Stephan H. Wissel said...

As Mr. Wang pointed out in the next post, conciousness doesn't need a brain to function. So a conclusion (accommodating Mr. Wang's preference) could be:
Free will exists. It just isn't located in the brain where we try to measure it.

... and I second that preference.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Hello Mr Wissel! It has been a long time.

Mr Wang Says So said...

A "complex" decision is ultimately a series of simpler decisions, which ultimately are reducible to motor movements, which are what were studied in the experiments.

Eg a decision to marry Bob in the end translates into motor movements such as:

(1) in the lungs, throat, tongue and mouth, such that the following sounds come out: "Yes, I love you Bob, and I will marry you"

(2) in the legs, as the couple start walking to the Registry of Marriages;

(3) in the hands, as the person picks up a pen, signs documents etc etc.

Anon said...

"A "complex" decision is ultimately a series of simpler decisions, which ultimately are reducible to motor movements, which are what were studied in the experiments."

You're saying a complex decision is the sum of simple decisions?

Now try telling your wife that your decision to marry her was all down to motor movements. Haha!

Mr Wang Says So said...

Yes of course.

Everything you ever do in your life is ultimately a series of motor movements.

Try to get married, without moving your hands, mouth, tongue, legs, head etc and you will see what I mean.

the virgin undergrad said...

Perhaps the 'perceived' lag is the result of articulating the Yes/No when in fact, the brain signal to act as well as the decision to decide whether or not to undertake an action was formulated concurrently.

The absence of free-will is way too disturbing a thought to contemplate...

Here's a Llama said...

Its not conclusive. Let's not read too much into it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr Wang, didn't read Libet's paper but was there a differentiation between different types of human decisions?

The choice of whether to buy chocolates is substantially different from that of accepting a job offer of equal pay from Company A or B of equal reputation in the same industry. The first involves short-term decision-making and results in short-term implications (at that point in time), while the other two long-term.

For e.g. Girl is a chocolate addict but whenever she has a sore throat, she tries desperately to resist that temptation so that her sore throat doesn't worsen. Sometimes she succeeds, but other times she fails. During the times she succeeds, isn't she in a way exercising her free will over her natural inclinations?

Or Boy who contemplates the 2 job offers, both of which are his dream jobs and are equally attractive. Suppose Boy does his due diligence by seeking advice from his peers or friends working in those companies, reading up on the companies and his job scopes etc., how does the concept of "no free will" come into play here should he eventually choose to join Company B after weighing the pros and cons as best as he can?

By pursuing the idea that biological reactions are the determining factors (as I assume from the post), does it mean the roles of emotions, reasoning, logic and influence from peers & family are subsequently dismissed?