You can have free will if you accept that you are smarter than your brain.
One of my favorite books is Who’s in Charge? by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga. The book brilliantly describes what goes on in your brain that directs your thoughts and actions
Gazzaniga concludes that we have little control over the neural circuitry that has developed since birth. Your non-conscious brain is constantly processing and making decisions about how you should act and respond to others. Consciousness lags far behind.
The non-conscious brain is the master and humans mostly defend their mindless actions rather than scrutinize them.
AND, you do have consciousness. You can awaken your awareness to what your brain has done.
The skill is not to change your brain. You need to master Reflective Intelligence so you can:
- Emotionally detach from your brain.
- Observe the results of the non-conscious processes.
- Consciously choose what to do next instead of defending what you had no control over.
Your brain’s prime directive
Your non-conscious brain wants you to feel safe and good. It will direct your actions to protect and seek pleasure without regard to your best interest. This prime directive will also make you avoid risks, silence your creativity, and argue with people without thinking.
This doesn’t mean you will act lawlessly or without morals. Your brain doesn’t want you to get in trouble or lose what you most value, which differs for each person.
The rules your brain lives by stem from the groups you identify with based on your upbringing, communities, religion, and even science. Raw desire or disgust will be tempered by what you hold to be right or wrong. Shared meaning gives you a sense of belonging and safety which your brain wants you to feel.
Conversely, if what you experience runs counter to the framing in your non-conscious brain, you feel anxious or angry. If someone suggests you are wrong, your brain sees this as a personal attack, making you even angrier. You label their argument as absurd, ignorant, or biased.
The lazy executive
Even knowing you have bias, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman says it takes work to activate your conscious mind, known as your executive functions. You’re busy and this feels hard; but if you don’t, you’re a slave to your non-conscious mind. If you choose to think about your thinking, you are the master of free will.
Reflective techniques to activate free will
You are not your brain. You can separate your awareness – your conscious mind – from the automatic responses triggered by your brain. You can say, “Oh look at what my brain has done,” and then choose to act differently if you want to.
You can counteract your brain’s tendency to react out of discomfort or convenience. If you are willing and courageous enough to accept a different reality might exist from what your brain construed, you will be able to make better choices in the moment.
First, you must deliberately analyze your reactions when your emotions have settled down. If you do this regularly for a few weeks, you will begin to develop the habit of detaching and discerning during a conversation so you can either shift your position or give a clear explanation for your reactions. To activate free will:
- After an uncomfortable or heated interaction, write down your thoughts without censoring them.
- Read your words as if someone else wrote them. Circle the emotionally-charged words and judgments of people’s character instead of their actions.
- Ask, “What is causing me to think this way? What beliefs are forming these thoughts? What assumptions am I holding that are keeping me from opening my mind. Until you speak them, you are rarely aware of the assumptions behind your thoughts, just as you ride a bike or drive a car without thinking. Emotions can be a window to your values and beliefs.
- Don’t condemn your reactions, especially your impulse to defend, convince, or shut down. Be curious about why they occurred.
- Hear the story you are telling, “They are out to get me” or “He’s a selfish idiot.” Ask what else could be driving their behavior. What are they afraid of? What do they value that their brains might be protecting such as respect, credibility, belonging, appreciation, safety, order, or control? The more you can suspend what you claim is true, the more clearly you can see what else could be triggering the actions you disagree with.
- Practice interpreting with a beginner’s mind. Say to yourself, “If I had never seen this situation, or knew this person before, what might I perceive?” If you already know why people do what they do, there is nothing new to see. Are you willing to look from a different perspective?This doesn’t mean you should accept disrespectful behavior by others. Questioning yourself opens you to seeing other perspectives. What you do next is your choice, not your brain’s.
- Hire a coach to ask you the questions that will help you stop, think, and create a new awareness.
You have an amazing ability to observe your brain at work. You can even laugh at your brain, and then activate free will to do, feel, believe, and behave differently.