I used to believe in the notion of free will until the realisation dawned that I was a slave to my brain. This realisation was linked to my experience, at age six, of intrusive thoughts which would appear, it seemed out of nowhere, to dominate my mind.
These thoughts were desperately unpleasant and followed recurring themes – fearing I would: hurt someone I loved, swear in church, shout expletives at God, and worryingly, reveal myself in public.
I have since learnt that these thoughts were not normal. They were the symptoms of a very debilitating condition known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
It was only after a long struggle with OCD – and associated anxiety and depression – and having read the useful books by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, that I started to realise that my brain was the cause of these thoughts, not my mind. I was a ‘victim’ of thoughts created by an unruly brain and as such, at the point of thought generation, I had no free will. This made me feel somewhat better.
In essence, I could choose how I responded to my thoughts but I could not decide what thoughts my brain generated. My brain might tell me to reveal myself in Whole Foods but I could resist the urge precipitated by this outrageous thought. Of course, it might also tell me to reveal myself in Tesco, but this would require a very different coping mechanism!
As John Gray explains in his book Straw Dogs, there are many reasons why the idea of free will should be rejected. He points out: ‘We can be free agents only if we are authors of our acts; but we ourselves are products of chance and necessity. We cannot choose to be what we are born. In that case we cannot be responsible for what we do.’
He goes on to state: ‘…in nearly the whole of our lives, our actions are initiated unconsciously: the brain makes us ready for action, then we have the experience of acting.’ If this is true, our lack of free will provides profound insights into some of the reasons why we act the way we do despite knowledge that our actions could be both stupid and destructive.
Acknowledging our lack of free will could help us address some of the most intractable problems facing the planet, such as climate change. We know that we need to do something to address the threat. Despite this awareness, we seem incapable of changing our behaviour.
Some individuals do try to ‘save the world’ but, overall, as a species, we continue to behave in ways that are going to make climate change worse. Psychologists struggle with this fact; indeed, there is a whole discipline called eco-psychology which explores why, armed with the knowledge that we are doing something very silly, we continue to perpetrate acts of violence against the source of our ultimate security – the environment.
My OCD offered me some insight into why knowledge rarely changes behaviour. The problem lies not in our capacity to reason, but in our brains at the point of thought generation. Our minds allow us to understand, analyse and manipulate knowledge: they can prove that our life-styles are unsustainable, short-sighted and destructive.
We know that driving a car, flying in a plane, eating meat, and consuming ‘stuff’ is creating problems that may prove impossible to address. Those who have used their minds to understand the threats we have created have developed campaigns and other approaches, such as new policies, which aim to address the ills of modernity.
These efforts should be lauded; however, they are doomed to fail because most of our actions, those that are causing the problems, are a result of brain activity over which we appear to have very little control. We need, somehow, to mediate between the narrative created by the brain – the messages that tell us to behave in a certain way – and the behaviour that is precipitated by our responses to our brains.
Why are our brains a problem? They are a problem because they are sending us survival-based messages that are no longer relevant in a modern world. When mediated through the trappings of modernity, these survival messages result in actions that may destroy the human species.
Imagine for a moment that you receive a random brain message that focuses on your lack of security or an imminent or distant threat. This is the type of message that would have been useful when our ancestors were threatened by big fierce animals. Indeed, this type of brain message would have kept people alive.
Today, we still receive the same security based messages but we don’t have a sabre-toothed tiger to respond to; instead, we simply feel jittery, anxious and insecure and we take action to try to make these feelings go away. We may pop some pills, drink some craft ales, or, in a society based around consumption, go and buy shiny ‘things.’
Consumption is used as a way to make us feel better, more secure, more loved, and less fearful. The advertising agencies know this which is the reason why they find it so easy to encourage us to consume. Consumption protects us from the sabre-toothed tiger we are hard-wired to avoid.
The only way we can address the many threats our brains have helped us create, through our material desires, is not to believe everything our brains tell us. Buddhists advise us not to get too attached to our thoughts as attachment leads to suffering. We need to watch our thoughts like rivers running to the sea.
This is all well and good if we are only interested in having a less painful existence but what if we want to change the world and address issues like climate change? Simply watching thoughts is like watching clouds in the sky – a pleasant way to spend an afternoon but an activity that is unlikely to address the cataclysmic threats we face.
It’s definitely a great place to start but once we’ve watched our thoughts we then need to start shouting loudly at people who are actively involved in screwing this little planet for economic and political gain.
In order to solve the environmental crises we face, we need to use our minds as mediators between our brains and our behaviour. We need to question the thoughts that our brains create. Rather like my OCD, where I had to question my desire to reveal myself in a public place, or hurl abuse at God, I also need to question the thoughts that compel me to consume.
Despite the messages I receive from my brain, this endless consumption will not make me happier or more secure. The way forward I believe, is to be mindful by nurturing a skill known as active listening.
Active listening will not change the thoughts created by our brains – as we have no free will in this sense — but it could help us control the urges that are leading to the crises we face. By actively listening to the voice in our heads – we all have one for it is the ‘I’ that suggests we are conscious – we will be able to create a space between our thoughts and our actions.
This space becomes our act of defiance – it becomes our way of manifesting free will and may well prove to be the answer to pretty much every crises we face. We must listen before we act. Imagine the world we could create if our politicians heeded this simple piece of advice!