Easter is here again, and just after Easter South Africans also celebrate Freedom Day; both are celebrations with a common theme. But what can neuroscience tell us about freedom and free will?
By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.
Easter is a Christian celebration to remind us that love sets us free, as we recall a man who, 2000 years ago, did not yield to the cruelty and tyranny of the Roman society in which he lived. Similarly, Freedom Day in South Africa is a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s unyielding belief in the day – 27th April 1994 – when South Africans of all colours could live together and vote in a democratic election. Mandela’s love for his country and its people – a love for which he was prepared to die – similarly showed how love can be alchemised into freedom. People are free to choose whether to be motivated by feelings of love or hate, and these two men provide examples to us today that love is what sets us free. As John Lennon famously sang, “All you need is love” and “Love is the answer, we know it for sure”. But what can neuroscience tell us about love and freedom?
Love and freedom are natural partners, because the opposite of freedom – constraint, tyranny, oppression – are often motivated by the need for power and control, and the feelings of hate towards those who appear free. It might be a political group trying to heft its weight over the citizens of the country for selfish benefit; or a toxic family that tries to enforce its values on its members. In both cases, individual members are not free to exercise free will, but are instead dictated to by the values imposed by others. In contrast to this, free will – an area of neuroscientific research that has been extensively studied – concerns a person’s freedom or sense of agency, or the ability to make decisions for oneself. In brain terms, free will is related to activation of the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex and parietal cortex. These brain areas are connected to enable a sense of body ownership, as well as self-directed, goal-oriented behaviours based on autobiographical memories and plans for the future.
For example, even though Jesus Christ and Nelson Mandela were both persecuted and incarcerated
by powerful, corrupt, hateful organisations that eventually fell (the Roman Empire, the South African National Party), they both held in mind important beliefs that were not changed by force, incarceration or the threat of death. These two men could have chosen to react differently to the unjust ways that these powerful organisations controlled them – allowing aggression and hatred to override their behaviours. But instead, they exercised conscious veto, or ‘free won’t’ to gain personal mastery over a terrible situation. The notion of conscious veto is in response to the major criticisms of free will – the idea that we have a mini controller in our heads telling us what to do.
The neuroscientific data from the famous Benjamin Libet ‘half second’ studies showed that our brains actually decide how to respond to a stimulus about half a second before we are consciously aware of our decision to do something like eat chocolate. This seems to suggest that there is no such thing as free will; but instead that our actions are driven by other factors. A rather discouraging thought if we are not really free to control our own thoughts and actions! However, this is where the notion of conscious veto, or ‘free won’t’ comes in. Our brains may already have decided upon a course of action, but the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex can subsequently choose whether we continue to act as our brains have planned, or to inhibit this prior response. Conscious veto is what both Jesus Christ and Nelson Mandela exercised when choosing not to attack or seek revenge against their perpetrators – and lucky for South Africa that Nelson Mandela’s conscious veto did not lead to his death.
So when we think about the story of Easter (no matter what one’s faith) or the wonderful, freedom-promoting legacy of South Africa’s Madeba, consider exercising conscious veto for the purposes of freedom in our own lives. We can’t change injustice and corruption in the world, but we can, for a better future, choose how to react to it.
Happy Freedom Day Harfielders!
Click to read all previous articles by Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.