Neuroscience research reveals the
hidden aspects of even our most rational and conscious decision-making to be comprised
of mostly unconscious processes, in which our conscious mind is often evoked
after the fact. In other words, there is a substantial body of evidence, which
indicates that our brains are, for the most part, involved in automatic
processing of perceptions and behavior, even while we feel we are deliberating
and consciously controlling our actions.
The pivotal experiments done by Benjamin
Libet set the stage for the neuroscientific version of the unconscious,
referred to currently as the “new unconscious” to distinguish it from previous
conceptions, notably Freud’s.
As my previous entry on this very
significant topic is unavailable in its complete form, I’m reposting it here
for our future reference and discussions.
My aesthetic work currently involves conveying experience that reveals the
absence of conscious will as it relates to our actions and behaviors.
While this may seem a preposterous position – even aesthetically, I wouldn’t
propose it unless I could demonstrate interesting and entertaining ways in
which one may have first-hand experience of this mysterious phenomenon.
To preface this specific thought experiment, I offer a quote from Albert
Einstein on the subject at hand. In a speech given in 1932 Einstein stated his
unequivocal disbelief in free will:
“I don’t believe in the freedom of the will. Schopenhauer’s saying, that a
human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants,
accompanies me in all of life’s circumstances and reconciles me with the
actions of humans, even when they are truly distressing. This knowledge of the
non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much
too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals.”
(Albert Einstein (1932). Einstein’s Credo. Courtesy of the Albert Einstein Archives,
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.)
Libet’s experiment – Demostrating
that we are only aware that we have made a decision AFTER the movement has been
*There is an abundant amount of
research results in recent scientific literature that points quite clearly to
the notion that we think about what we are intending to do AFTER we do it – not
work of Daniel Wegner
goes a long way toward synthesizing the history of counterintuitive findings
that seem to prove our conscious minds are something like backward-looking
monkeys riding stumbling tigers through a perilous present holding steering
wheels connected to absolutely nothing.
*Here is a historic New York Times article
on this paradigm-shaking subject:
Again, however, as my work
consists of aesthetic projects, it is not solely dependent upon the results of scientific research. As art, my work contains an irreducible experiential component. I prefer to
directly communicate experiences to others rather than simply theories, explanations, or formulas.Here is a thought experiment anyone can do at any time, in which it becomes
increasingly clear that one of the most complex, crucial, survival-oriented,
high-level, human-specific behaviors is executed automatically and without
being preceded by volitional thought.
next time you find yourself talking to someone, note that you do not think the
words you will say before you say them. We speak automatically and then reflect
upon what we have just said.
And all the while, of course, we continue to speak.
This experiment demonstrates the strong case that we execute complex and
survival-critical behaviors without thinking of the exact behaviors until after
we have executed them.
A few secondary principles must be experienced in order to answer without
personal doubt that we do indeed act BEFORE we think about the exact nature of
an executed act – its moment, manner, specific content, trajectory, and
The first objection deals with a reductio ad absurdum argument regarding time. One may
say that one has pre-planned the action (raising one’s hand for example) and
therefore it matters not that the exact moment of action may not be immediately
preceded by the conscious thought to execute the action.
However, any measurable time value between the thought and the action does not
demonstrate that the act was pre-planned and therefore executed by virtue of a
conscious thought. Notice that even though you may have a general idea about
raising your hand, the exact moment, manner, and context in which it is raised
is executed spontaneously – without the intervention of conscious will.
By extension it makes no difference if we make a plan to say something specific
to someone the next time we meet them. When that meeting takes place, we may
observe ourselves speaking automatically as it were – guided only vaguely by
our pre-planned speech. The exact moment, the exact words, and the exact
intonations are executed physically (by our bodies) without being pre-formed in
The findings of neuroscience (especially by Libet and Wegner) are fascinating –
and can be used to buttress the positions I take above. But to my aesthetic
mind, it is more astonishing that we may directly observe the absence of
preformed thought preceding words, sentences, and paragraphs during the actual
process of speaking!
The implications of these thought experiments are truly mind-boggling. We act
before we think – even in the most crucial and survival-focused activities of
Our mind – our consciousness – is at best a record keeper attempting to catch
up, keep track, and make fine adjustments to the ongoing stream of our words,
actions, and behaviors after they have been executed by our bodies without the
intervention or guidance of conscious thought or volition.
First Image: “MindBrain” by Tullio, 2012
Second Image: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/fig1.jpg