At the moment of decision we all feel we are acting freely, selecting at will from an infinity of choices.
– Richard Restak, The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own
We may prefer to believe we’re acting freely, making our own decisions, determining every little thing we do—but believing doesn’t make it so. And anyone intimately familiar with the Enneagram knows that much of what we do involves little conscious choice. We tend to run on autopilot most of the time—maybe all of the time.
The generally-accepted theory is that we make a conscious decision to do something, and that conscious decision directs our brain to signal our body to perform whatever action we’ve decided to take.
It seems obvious on the face of it. But then along came Benjamin Libet whose experiments proved that our brains know we’re going to do something before we’re consciously aware of our intention to do it.
In The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own, Richard Restak describes the results of Libet’s research:
An inexplicable but plainly measurable burst amount of activity occurs in your brain prior to your conscious desire to act. An outside observer monitoring electrical fluctuations in your brain can anticipate your action about a third of a second before you are aware that you have decided to act.
In Libet’s words:
The brain ‘decides’ to initiate or at least to prepare to initiate the act before there is any reportable subjective awareness that such a decision has taken place.
But long before that, Friedrich Nietzsche said:
The thought comes when ‘it’ will, not when ‘I’ will.
And it turns out he was right.
What About Free Will?
Libet’s findings seem to corroborate the theory behind the Enneagram, which is that each of us is fixated or polarized at a particular point, and our particular fixation leads us by the nose wherever it wants us to go. What I’ve learned is that the more I accept rather than rebel against or reject this idea—the more I pay attention to my own fixation—the more aware I become of just how automatic my responses are. And the more aware I am of my automatic responses, the greater my chances of overriding them—of choosing not to do that thing I always do.
I figured a little bit of this out when I was working as the firm administrator for an accounting firm back in the mid-80s. I got along with everyone who worked there except Mary, the secretary. She could set me off just by standing in the doorway of my office. And once she set me off, it was as if I had been mentally and emotionally hijacked. I was a prisoner until my agitation ran its course. I kept my reactions to myself while trying different ways of dealing or coping with the situation. Then one day I realized two things: Mary was never going to change and my reaction to her was never going to change. From that moment, the hijacking stopped. I’d see or interact with Mary; I’d get agitated briefly; then almost immediately, I’d get over it and move on. It was pretty amazing.
This ability to cancel the brain’s decision is, in Libet’s opinion, the bedrock upon which rests individual responsibility and free will….[F]ree will operates via the selection and control of intentions that, for the most part, arise spontaneously.
We do have veto power. But we only have veto power if we’re aware of what’s actually going on, if we let go of the delusion that our conscious intent is running the show when the truth is our brain is just taking us for a ride.