[information taken from this article by Kerri Smith]

The experiment: Individuals were put under a brain scanner.  A screen lay before them, upon which a series of random letters would flash.  The participants were asked to press either the button near their right hand or the button near their left hand for each letter on the screen.  (It seems to me as though they are being prompted to be human randomizers.)

The results? The decision to act right or left was usually made about a second before the action itself, but there were also certain pattern of brain activity leading up to said decision that predicted the choice up to seven seconds before the action.  The brains, it seems, made its choice before the subjects were consciously aware of it.

Why is this disturbing? It threatens free will. Humans “like to think that [their] decisions are under [their] conscious control–that [they] have free will.”

WILL (noun): 1. the faculty of conscious and especially of deliberate action; the power of control the mind has over its own actions.

Thus, neuroscience has a new banner: consciousness is a biochemical afterthought. It does not have ultimate influence over a person’s actions.  Thus declaration isn’t easy to swallow, even for neuroscientists (they’re people, too!): “How can I call a will ‘mine’ if I don’t even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do?”

Enter philosophers…

Many stay unconvinced, questioning the experiment’s structure and even the very basis of the scientists’ understanding of free will.  Some claim the results are too vague: there are physical aspects to decision making to be sure, but the brain scan experiment only captures a caricature of the entire process. Philosophers claim that this is not enough evidence to dismiss free will altogether, for “even the seemingly simple decision of whether to have tea of coffee is more complex than deciding whether to push a button with one hand or another,” claims neuroscience and philosopher Adina Roskies.

The drive behind the nonscientific vendetta might also lie misconceptions about the mind-body relationship…in the messy matters of dualism.

DUALISM (noun): 2. philosophy (a). the view that there are just two mutually irreducible substances.

If scientists can detect an unconscious activity in the brain that prompts decision making, the bundled issues of consciousness, soul, mind, etc., all go out the window.  “Part of what’s driving some of these conclusions is the thought that free will has to be spiritual of involve souls or something.” Is this bout of experimentation a scientific crusade against the supernatural?

However, dualism is a thing of the past for most philosophers these days. In fact, materialism is a favorite theory.

MATERIALISM (noun): the philosophical theory that regards matter and its motives as constituting the universe, and all phenomena, including those of mind, as due to material agencies.

So it seems that philosophers are actually on board with this more scientific approach to the mind-body relationship.  In the end, semantics seems the big issue between…well…everyone. Definitions of free will vary even within the philosophical community. For example:

1. “the ability to make rational decisions in the absence of coercion.”

2.”at the moment of decision, given everything that’s happened in the past, it is possible to reach a different decision.”

3.”a non-physical ‘soul’ is direction decisions.”

Neuroscience experiments could help clarify these philosophical variations, and it seems that philosophers are in fact getting more involved with these experiments.

The article goes on to numerate the disturbing affects of an absence of free will. It’s rather 1984-ish.

Back to Art

Decision-making is a fundamental part of art-making, and this understanding of brain function can be useful to the aspiring artist.  There is physical process to creativity. Ideas do not appear out of the abyss for the “chosen few.”

Quite frankly, I do not care so much about that one-second of choice before action (in artistic decisions, at least).  For me, it’s comforting to think that there is a pattern and reason to a decision, one that is out of my self-conscious hands.  Seemingly instantaneous moments of revelation and creativity appear to painters, writers, and musicians.  Some of them may be serendipitous and some may simply be right because the brain made connections the conscious mind couldn’t fathom.  The information, though, was all there in the brain to begin with.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, claims that writer’s block isn’t so much of a block as it is just being empty, empty of experiences from which to draw.  The solution? Go out the get experiences! Make memories, even simple ones like watching a person walk down the street or listening to a song at a coffee shop.  Give your brain some food and some time to chew on ‘um. At least 7 seconds.


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