Free Won’t

“Free Will, and Free Won’t” – so goes the title for chapter 9 of Jeffrey Schwartz’s (2002) book “The Mind & The Brain”. Research there suggests that volition may not just be the result of a conscious intent to do something but, and perhaps more likely, the direction of attention to not do something. Experimental timings show that neurophysiological activity is at play to prompt the host to perform an action even before the notion surfaces into conscious awareness. This is the concept of “free won’t”. Volition expressed as the making the deliberate choice to expend attentive effort to effect inhibition.

Now couple this proposition with fMRI based evidence that indicates increased activity in the RVLPFC when the subject applies himself to inhibit a response – which in turn appears correlated to a decrease in the amygdala domain. Conversely heightened amygdala activity with a relatively weak or impaired RVLPFC is symptomatic of subjects exhibiting poor self-control. Mixing such an explanatory model for free will together with what neuroscience is discovering – and measuring – about the RVLPFC raises a number of neuroethical issues.

Individuals vary in their RVLPFC capacity. Is responsibility diminished for those who, whether for nature or for nurture, have less resources to draw on to inhibit socially unacceptable behaviour? Could the Defence rest its case with “my amygdala made me do it”. Conversely, should those individuals with superior functioning RVLPFCs be dealt harsher penalties for the same crime?

The ethical plot continues to twist when considering applications such as lie-detection. Expressing a falsehood requires inhibiting the truth. An action which some suggest requires deliberate and therefore measurable engagement of the subject’s RVLPFC domain.

Consider, too, the famous marshmallow experiments. Success in later life correlated strongly with those subjects choosing deferred gratification – an even better predictor than IQ. Is measuring mental braking capacity a surrogate for EQ? Are we entering an age of neuroscreening job applicants for their RVLPFC potential?

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