Who is responsible for our actions? MUKUL SHARMA Economic Times FRIDAY, JUNE 30, 2006
What happens when we consciously wish to do something? For instance, we might be sitting at a dining table that’s set with a plate in front and a spoon on the side. Now, say, we wish to pick up the spoon and place it on the plate. That thought is translated into electro-chemical activity in the brain which then sends impulses to the required muscles to carry out the motor activity. This is followed by the actual implementation of the action and results in the transference of the spoon onto the plate. In other words, we did what we willed to do as a conscious act of volition. We think of this as possessing free will.
This neat neurological scheme of things got a rude jolt in 1985 when Benjamin Libet, a pioneering scientist in the field of human consciousness carried out a series of experiments. Libet asked his subjects to move one hand at an arbitrary moment decided by them, and to report when they made the decision. At the same time the electrical activity of their brain was monitored. Now it was already known that consciously chosen actions are associated by a pattern of brain activity known as a “readiness potential”. The surprising result was that the reported time of each decision was consistently a short period after the potential appeared. It seemed to show that the supposedly conscious decisions had actually been determined unconsciously beforehand. So where did free will go? Much scientific wrangling has been going on since then because the experiments give the impression that actions and decisions are made rapidly and only later does the brain weave a story about a self who is in charge and is conscious. In other words, consciousness comes after the action; it does not cause it.
Eminent psychologist and writer Susan Blackmore, however, has a different take. “This is just what some meditators and spiritual practitioners have been saying for millennia; that our view of ourselves, as conscious, active agents experiencing an external world, is wrong,” she says. Instead, she believes we live in the illusion that we are a separate self and that in mystical experiences this self dissolves and the world is experienced as one — actions happen but with no separate actor who acts. Long practice at meditation can also dispel the illusion. Science too seems to be coming to the same conclusion — that the idea of a separate conscious self is false.