Do we have free will or is life determined?

23 June 2014


What are your thoughts on free will? Do we have the freedom to make choices or is life already pre-determined?


And very last question for the show, Tracy Morter has been in touch with biggy. She wonders whether there's such a thing as free will. What are your thoughts on that? Martin, do we have the choice to make decisions in our life or is it all pre-determined?

Martin - So, it's a great question. If we could answer it, here and now, we would all be getting a Nobel Prize. For me, the Holy Grail of basic neuroscience research today and that pun was intended for centuries of the study shall we say of free will. It has really been confined to the area of philosophy and theology, but I think now, it's almost impossible to think about the actual free will without some sort of neuroscience and put without some sort of physiological appreciation of decision making mechanisms. And that central question, are our decisions a consequence of simply processing input through our brains resulting an output which would be our behaviour or derived from some sort of internal signal that comes from, where we don't know. And so, as a neuroscientist, the latter seems more unlikely because it seems mythical in a way whereas in internal signal coming from. However, we can absolutely say that that's not the case until we can answer or provide evidence in favour of the former, our behaviour as under external environmental stimuli.

Hannah - My own view and this is just a personal view is that, our brains are neural circuits in our mind are formed based on our experiences. Those circuits change structure based on what we're exposed to and then the structure of those circuits actually decides for us how are we going to react to a given situation. So, we'll react to a given situation based on our prior experience of the world around us and how we perceive the world around us is based on our prior experience. And so therefore, everything almost is pre-determined. That's just my own personal view. I don't know whether you've got anything to add to that.

Roger - It's a great question and I think if will without free and decision making without pure. I for one will be out of a job tomorrow because I think we're not all Bertrand Russell purely chronological beings. I think you see that very much clinically because how we're feeling and what's going on in our lives just go back to your point about prior experiences. In effect, what we want to do and what we think we're going to do in our decision making can affect enormously. One of the things that we see clinically is when we work with issues, both at the current kind of symptoms level and that deep level going back is often, you do with say, past trauma or effectively, it can really free up more effective decision making processes and may help people to think more clearly about actually what they do and want to do with their own free will.

Katie - I mean, I think you only need to look at the things that people working in marketing use to encourage us sort of this nudge techniques to encourage us to buy. I mean, things as simple as - in the UK, we would normally scan a shelf from left to right so you put the product that you really want someone to choose on the right hand side. You know, these sort of very simple things that so powerfully affect even very small decisions that we make. I think you're right in terms of the experiences that we have been exposed to will affect the way our brains develop. That will also affect the experiences that we then go on to have in the future and the situations that we choose to be a part of - and yeah, it sort of has a cycle.

Martin - Without trying to be controversial, from a purely neuroscience perspective, as conceivable that what we have developed through evolution with the complexities that have developed in the human brain have produced the illusion of free will, this idea that we have free will which sort of drives us forward and gives us things like hope. Maybe to put that more on a physiological basis, our prefrontal cortex is the most evolved part of the human brain compared to other species. What we have evolved that other species don't have is things like appreciation of beauty and creativity, and we can produce beautiful music and works of art, and argue with personality. Again, it's conceivable that this could be a consequence of this very complicated, intricate network of neurons and the brain. So, it's again conceivable that the input, the environmental information that we receive from birth or even pre-birth is processed in such complicated manner that the output that we see as behaviour is simply an output of a very, very complex piece of machinery. I mean, that would be the deterministic argument against the existence of free will. But whether or not that's the case, we really don't know.

Hannah - And so, this big prefrontal cortex that humans have evolved to have is basically just a big processing unit that allows us to bring in lots of information from prior experiences and prior environment and current environment, and process that quickly in order for us to come up with a decision outcome.

Martin - That could be the case.

Katie - I mean, I also think it depends at the level that you want to analyse this question or look at this question in terms of things like vision. I mean, we don't see every single thing that enters our visual field and we use some sort of quite high level expectations and impose these expectations and predictions to actually see things sometimes that aren't - that make the most sense in terms of what we're expecting, but aren't quite exactly what's there. I mean, the hollow mask illusion which you can see on YouTube is one of them. I mean, yes, these things might have huge influence on the decisions that we make. But we still have that feeling that we're doing things and those feelings and that hope, and that anticipation, and the idea of weighing up those decisions.

Hannah - And to end the podcast and the slightly more positive hopeful note.

Roger - From a clinical perspective, one of the things that we're interested in is increasing people's options and choices because one of the things we know is when we're stressed, low or depressed. We often feel that we've got very constrained choices. At worse, we could feel trapped and that's a very unpleasant way to feel. So, there are various ways of either kind of manually setting up the options that we might choose to follow or using things like meditation that produce changes at a neurophysiological level via which means, we can see that there are different avenues, new and different things that we can do that can also lead us to feel better. So actually, it's taking into account where there might be a process that are in there, but it's actually about looking at the complexity, the whole context to see the available options that are there for us.

Hannah - And that's all we have time for this month unfortunately. Thanks to all those who took part in the programme, Martin O'Neill, Katherine Manning, Roger Kingerlee, Liz Fraser, Kat Arney, and Peter Oliver. I'm Hannah Critchlow and we'll be back again next month with the next Naked Neuroscience podcast to open our minds. I'm going to be reporting from Milan with a breaking hot neuroscience news that's being presented at the Federation of European Neurosciences Conferences. You can subscribe for free to Naked Neuroscience podcasts on iTunes or you can find us on

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