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Are We Responsible For Our Actions?

Last month, I tried to explain the process by which our daily experiences are constructed by our brains based on a neuroscience book and an example I read. You can refresh your memory here.

At the end of the post, I had mentioned about my intention to make a little series on this topic and emphasized two key things to remember. So here is the second one of the series, welcome! ☺︎


So let's start where I left off: All the actions we perform throughout our lives, from the simplest to the most complex, are carried out on a predictive principle of our brain according to our past experiences and the current situation we are in.

So in fact, our actions are under the control of our memory and the situation we are in. In this case, do you think can we talk about free will?


Philosophers and academicians have debated free will pretty much since the invention of philosophy. It is not likely that we will settle that debate here. However, neuroscientist Dr. Barrett's perspective is really interesting.

On the one hand, we clearly experience ourselves as able to make choices and freely act on them and it feels totally natural. If we fancy some crisps, we can choose to walk into a shop, buy a packet and eat them. You can adapt this example to all your daily actions and this certainly feels like free will.

On the other hand, neuroscience evidence clearly shows that the brain usually initiates our actions before we’re aware of them. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s remember the principle of how our brain initiates our actions: Our brain receives ongoing information about the state of the body and the world – ‘sense data’– from the sensory surfaces of the body, but these sense data are outcomes of events in the world and inside your body. But brain does not have access to the events or their causes, it only receives the outcomes. Here is an example of Dr. Barrett: “A loud bang, for example, might be thunder, a gunshot, or a drum, and each possible cause means different actions for your brain to launch.” Then how does brain figure out the causes of sense data, so that it prepares the best actions? It predicts. Without direct access to those causes, your brain has to guess. Guessing is more efficient than reacting from scratch.

“These predictions are, in effect, your brain changing the firing of its own neurons to prepare your body to act, a second or so before the movements actually occur.”

This predictive process happens completely outside our awareness, but it is continuous throughout our life. Dr. Barrett also says that a growing number of scientists are now pretty sure that this prediction based process is a primary driver of your actions.

After refreshing our minds about prediction, from this perspective, it means our brain’s decision to eat a packet of crisps was launched as a plan for action before your brain made itself (you) aware of this plan. So this simple action, like most of your actions, was guided by predictions that were under the automatic control of our memory and our current surroundings. This description of your brain’s inner workings certainly seems to suggest an absence of free will, doesn’t it?

But Dr. Barrett says there is one important puzzle piece that is often ignored. Brain predicts (in large part) by reassembling our past experiences that are similar to the present moment. Meaning that, if we can magically reach back in time and change our past, we might act differently and experience the world differently as a result. But this is impossible. In this case, how can we impact on the process? By doing something you are probably all familiar with: By changing our current experiences. Every new experience we cultivate for yourself – every new thing we read, every new person we talk to, every new thing we learn – is an opportunity to change what our brain will predict in the future, and which actions we may take. Everything we learn today seeds our brain to predict differently tomorrow. Therefore we can create new behaviour patterns, new experiences in our lives. You are continually cultivating your past as a means of controlling your future. Good deal, ha?

When I talked about "now" a lot, I thought of Eckhart Tolle's book "The Power of Now." In that book Eckhart says: "The past does not have the slightest power over the present."

If we go back to free will: The point is that we can choose, to a certain extent, what we expose ourselves to. Whether it's riding a bike, driving a car, or tying shoelaces, the more we practice a skill, the more we hone our brain's predictions, so to speak, until that skill becomes automatic and is likely to be repeated. With practice and a little investment of energy, you can make some automatic behaviours more likely than others and have more control over your future actions, Feldman says. More control means more responsibility. If our brain not only reacts to what's going on, but also actively predicts the world and even shapes its own circuits in this way, then who is responsible for our bad behavior? “Us” says, Barrett.

Of course when she says responsibility, she emphasizes that she’s not saying people are to blame for the tragedies in their lives or the hardships they experience as a result. What she says is sometimes we are responsible for the things not because they are our fault, but because we are the only ones who can change them.

Not everyone has broad choices about what they can hone, but everyone has some choice.

If we have more responsibility on our actions and experiences than we think and we want, what might our life be like? What kind of person might we become? Dr. Barrett leaves us with these questions at the end of this chapter.

Until next time




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