Deluding ourselves:
Many years ago I was interviewing a woman who some time before had been in a traffic accident.  The accident had little to do with the business at hand, but it seemed important to her so I let her talk.  She had made an ill advised move and her car had gone skidding out of control.  She told me that she tried to skid so that the side of her car hit the front of the other car, so it would have been their fault.  But the body English school of motoring failed her and the front of her car hit the side of the other car as had been predestined from the moment she lost control.

I didn’t go into such details as telling her to steer into the skid so as to gain some modicum of control.  But the words did cross my mind, “You’re kidding yourself.  As long as the car is in a four wheel skid you have no control at all.”  Of course the fault was hers.  That was not my concern.  But it haunted me ever after the degree to which she was sure that she was in control of the machine when in fact she had no control at all.

We fool ourselves.  That has been obvious for eons.  But the phenomenon has now been put on a more evidential basis.  (The Unconscious Will: How the Pursuit of Goals Operates Outside of Conscious Awareness. Ruud Custers and Henk Aarts SCIENCE vol. 329 no. 5987 July 2, 2010 page 47, a review article) The iconic experiment is to do a brain scan on somebody and ask that person to make a movement at the time of his or her own choosing but to move immediately, say move a finger, as soon as the moment is chosen.  The brain scan will show activity in a part of the brain that is associated with finger movement at some time before the finger has moved and presumably the decision has been made.  In other words the brain chooses the moment, lays the groundwork for the action and then informs the conscious mind, “Now you can make that decision.” 

It sounds right to me.  The easiest way to choose an action, and generally the safest, is to do what everybody else seems to be doing.  This of course requires learning something, and we speak quite comfortably about a “learning curve,” which is a nice way to say you are going to get it wrong a lot when you first try.

But sometimes an action is called for that nobody has ever done.  One is in a position that nobody has ever faced and one must do something.  I am in that position a lot.  In my case the action is usually, although not always, to write something.  But I am writing about subjects nobody has ever considered. 

The sensation is not all that bad.  It is usually nothing like as bad as programming in C language, which pretty near kilt me.  But it is mildly uncomfortable.  I find I stare into space or do something utterly mindless for a period of time.  Then as if on cue I start to write and find that for better or for worse the words come out in an orderly fashion.  I contrast that with the sensation of trying to plan what to write.  I go over what I have to say and try to memorize the words.  Then I sit down smugly and produce utter hash.  My conscious mind just can’t compose.   

Again, whenever I have the sense that I have worked everything out and it now is just a matter of working out the details, usually within an hour I am forced to make a fundamental change in what I am doing.  The pattern is so standard it’s almost funny.

So it does not trouble me to find that there is indeed evidence for people preparing for action without realizing that is what they are doing.  It does not somehow challenge my sense of having free will.  I simply have certain tools that run on autopilot. 

The real issue arises when I approach people about why people have children.  The answer is almost invariably that it is a matter of choice.  People don’t have children because they decide not to.  And yet the evidence belies such a comfortable assumption.  When the numbers have actually been examined, the number of children a couple has has nothing to do with their income or education and has everything to do with their kinship and that of their ancestors. 

Of course reproduction is so vital to species survival that if there was even an issue in which something other than the conscious mind was going to make a plan and then put the conscious mind to work on it, this is that issue. 

There is an experiment I wish somebody would do.  Hook up something to the scanner that is able to predict when the person is about to move.  Have this device then turn on a red light when the person prepares for the action.  Then the challenge would be to press the button before the light comes on, allowing of course for a split second in which to accomplish the physical movement.  I wonder how people would manage.  It might drive one mad.  In that case, I would be happy to volunteer.  After all, what’s to lose?

I must hasten to write the authors of the review article and implore them to consider fertility as a case in which the decision is being made by something other than the conscious mind.  I shall not post that letter here.  It will have nothing you don’t already know, and I have provided ample opportunity for you to read other people’s mail.

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