Magic, Fiction, and the Illusion of Free Will part 2

Part 1 of this essay.
Johansson and Hall, in their studies of choice blindness, are building on a tradition harking to the lab of a neurophysiologist working in the 1970’s in San Francisco. Benjamin Libet, in an era before fMRIs, used the brain scanning devices available to him, EEG and EGM (or electromyograph, which measures electrical activity in muscles), to pinpoint when his subjects were physically set in motion by a decision. Macknik and Martinez-Conde explain “Libet found that participants had the conscious sense of willing the movement about 300 milliseconds after the onset of the muscle activity. Moreover, the EEG showed that neurons in the part of their motor cortex where movements are planned became active a full second before any movement could be measured” (180). We all go about our business blithely assured that we decide to do something and then, subsequently, we act on our decision. But in reality our choices tend to be made outside of our conscious awareness, based on mechanisms our minds have no conscious access to, and it’s our justifications for those choices that really come second in the sequence of events. We don’t even know that we’re confabulating, just making stuff up on the fly to explain ourselves, that we’re not being honest. Our confabulations fool us as much as they fool everyone else.

In the decades following Libet’s work, more sophisticated scanners have put the time lapse between when our brains make decisions and when we feel as though our conscious minds have made them as high as seven seconds. That means people who are good at reading facial expressions and body language can often tell what choices we’ll make before we make them. Magicians and mentalists delight in exploiting this quirk of human cognition. Then their marks weave the clever tricksters into their confabulations—attributing to them supernatural powers. Reading this section of Sleights of Mind sent me to my bookshelf for Sack’s The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat because I recalled the story of a patient with Korsakov’s Syndrome who had a gift for rapid confabulation. In a chapter titled “A Matter of Identity,” Sacks narrates his meeting with a man he calls Mr. Thompson, who first treats him as if he’s a customer at the delicatessen where he worked, then shifts to believing the doctor is the butcher next door, then it’s a mechanic, then it’s a doctor—another doctor. In fact, due to neurological damage caused by a fever, Mr. Thompson can’t know who Sacks is; he can’t form moment-to-moment memories or any sense of where he is in time or space. He’s literally disconnected from the world. But his mind has gone into overdrive trying to fill in the missing information. Sacks writes,

“Abysses of amnesia continually opened beneath him, but he would bridge them, nimbly, by fluent confabulations and fictions of all kinds. For him they were not fictions, but how he suddenly saw, or interpreted, the world” (109).

But it’s not Mr. Thompson’s bizarre experience that’s noteworthy; it’s how that experience illuminates our own mundane existence that’s unsettling. And Sacks goes on to explain that it’s not just the setting and the people he encounters that Mr. Thompson had to come up with stories for. He’d also lost the sense of himself.

“Such a frenzy may call forth quite brilliant powers of invention and fancy—a veritable confabulatory genius—for such a patient must literally make himself (and his world) up every moment. We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative—whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs, and lives, a ‘narrative’, and that this narrative is us, our identities” (110).

Mr. Thompson’s confabulatory muscles may be more taxed than most of ours, but we all have them; we all rely on them to make sense of the world and to place ourselves within it. When people with severe epilepsy have the two hemispheres of their brains surgically separated to limit the damage of their seizures, and subsequently have a message delivered to their right hemisphere, they cannot tell you what that message was because language resides in the left hemisphere. But they can and do respond to those messages. When Michael Gazzaniga presented split-brain patients’ right hemispheres with commands to walk or to laugh, they either got up and started walking or began to laugh. When asked why, even though they couldn’t know the true reason, they came up with explanations. “I’m getting a coke,” or “It’s funny how you scientists come up with new tests every week” (Pinker How the Mind Works, pg. 422). G.H. Estabrooks reports that people acting on posthypnotic suggestions, who are likewise unaware they’ve been told by someone else to do something, show the same remarkable capacity for confabulation. He describes an elaborate series of ridiculous behaviors, like putting a lampshade on someone’s head and kneeling before them, that the hypnotized subjects have no problem explaining. “It sounds queer but it’s just a little experiment in psychology,” one man said, oblivious of the irony (Tim Wilson Strangers to Ourselves pg. 95).

Reading Sleights of Mind and recalling these other books on neuroscience, I have this sense that I, along with everyone else, am walking around in a black fog into which my mind projects a three-dimensional film. We never know whether we’re seeing through the fog or whether we’re simply watching the movie projected by our mind. It should pose little difficulty coming up with a story plot, in the conventional sense, that simultaneously surprises and fulfills expectations—we’re doing it constantly. The challenge must be to do it in a way creative enough to stand out amid the welter of competition posed by run-of-the-mill confabulations. Could a story turn on the exposure of the mechanism behind the illusion of free will? Isn’t there a plot somewhere in the discrepancy between our sense that we’re in the driver’s seat, as it were, and the reality that we’re really surfing a wave, propelled along with a tiny bit of discretion regarding what direction we take, every big move potentially spectacular and at the same time potentially catastrophic?

Until I work that out, I’ll turn briefly to another mystery—because I can’t help making a political point and then a humanistic one. The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat is, pardon the pun, old hat to neuroscientists. And presumably magicians know something about the trick behind our conviction that we have free will. Pen and Teller in particular, because they draw inspiration from The Amaz!ng Randi, a celebrity in the world of skeptics, ought to be well aware of the fact that free will is an illusion. (All three magicians feature prominently in Sleights of Mind.) So how the hell can these guys serve as fellows in the Cato Institute, a front for fossil fuel industry propaganda pretending to be a conservative policy research? (For that matter, how can research have a political leaning?) Self-determination and personal responsibility, the last time I checked, were the foundations of conservative economics. How can Pen and Teller support politics based on what they know is an illusion?

Macknik and Martinez-Conde cite research in an endnote to Sleights of Mind that may amount to an explanation. When Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler prompted participants in what they said was a test of mental arithmetic with a passage from Francis Crick about how free will and identity arise from the mechanistic interworkings of chemicals and biomatter, they were much more likely to cheat than participants prompted with more neutral passages. Macknik and Martinez-Conde write, “One of the more interesting findings in the free will literature is that when people believe, or are led to believe, that free will is an illusion, they may become more antisocial” (272). Though in Pen and Teller’s case a better word than antisocial is probably contemptuous. How could you not think less and less of your fellow man when you make your living every day making fools of him? And if the divine light of every soul is really nothing more than a material spark why should we as a society go out of our way to medicate and educate those whose powers of perception and self-determination don’t even make for a good illusion?

For humanists, the question becomes, how can avoid this tendency toward antisocial attitudes and contempt while still embracing the science that has lifted our species out of darkness? For one thing, we must acknowledge to ourselves that if we see farther, it’s not because we’re inherently better but because of the shoulders on which we’re standing. While it is true that self-determination becomes a silly notion in light of the porousness of what we call the self, it is undeniable that some of us have more options and better influences than others. Sacks is more eloquent than anyone in expressing how the only thing separating neurologist from patient is misfortune. We can think the same way about what separates magicians from audience, or the rich from the poor. When we encounter an individual we’re capable of tricking, we can consider all the mishaps that might have befallen us and left us at the mercy of that individual. It is our capacity for such considerations that lies at the heart of our humanity. It is also what lies at the heart of our passion for the surprising and inevitable stories that only humans tell, even or especially the ones about ourselves we tell to ourselves.
(Pass the blunt.)