The neuroscience of free will, and OCD
Last week, I introduced you to free will. I considered two main positions: determinism and libertarianism. To summarize last week’s post shortly, the determinist does not believe that there is something as free will, and the libertarian believes that humans can take more than one course of action when having to make a choice. (Please note that I have adjusted the part on libertarianism in the previous article).
Today, I will discuss the neuroscience of free will. Also, I will share some information on the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which in my opinion has a lot to do with free will.
The introspection illusion
The philosophies of the determinists and libertarians already existed long before neuroimaging was possible. Nowadays, neuroscience has shed light on the question of free will.
The most important (and significant) finding is that a person’s brain has already made decisions before the person actually becomes aware of having made them. You probably think that your brain has made the decision maybe a half or one second before you become aware of it, but a study in 2008 predicted that people make a choice approximately 10 seconds before they become aware of it.
It may be that humans have made a wrong connection between being aware of a choice and what it causes – or more clearly put, we have confused correlation with causation.
Introspection illusions are the notion that people wrongly think they have direct insight into the origin of their mental states. This means that in some situations, people are confident in making false explanations of their own behavior. The illusion of introspection is often mistaken for true self-knowledge.
For instance, people often think they are less biased and less conformist than the rest of a group. Even when people learn about other people’s introspections, they are regarded as unreliable (while they treat their own introspections as reliable).
The Bereitschaftpotential (a German term, in English this is called the “readiness potential”) is a measure in the motor cortex of the brain leading up to voluntary movement. It was first recorded by neurologists Kornhuber and Deecke in 1964 at the University of Freiburg in Germany.
In the 1980’s, a physiologist called Benjamin Libet performed a series of experiments to study the relationship between conscious awareness and the readiness potential. He found that the readiness potential started approximately 0.35 seconds earlier before the subject becomes aware of the desire to make a movement. Libet concluded that we have no free will in the initiation of movement, but since we are able to not make a movement after the initiation, we do have a “veto” to stop ourselves from moving.
There is a LOT more to tell about the neuroscience of free will (and decision making), and perhaps I will return to the subject in the future, but for now I think this illustrates the subject sufficiently.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Diagnostic Criteria for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (as per the DSM)
A. Either obsessions or compulsions:
Obsessions are as defined by (1), (2), (3), and (4):
- recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and inappropriate and that cause marked anxiety or distress
- the thoughts, impulses, or images are not simply excessive worries about real-life problems
- the person attempts to ignore or suppress such thoughts, impulses, or images, or to neutralize them with some other thought or action
- the person recognizes that the obsessional thoughts, impulses, or images are a product of his or her own mind (not imposed from without as in thought insertion)
Compulsions as defined by (1) and (2):
- repetitive behaviors (e.g., hand washing, ordering, checking) or mental acts (e.g., praying, counting, repeating words silently) that the person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession, or according to rules that must be applied rigidly
- the behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or reducing distress or preventing some dreaded event or situation; however, these behaviors or mental acts either are not connected in a realistic way with what they are designed to neutralize or are clearly excessive
The person must have recognized the obsessions or compulsions as excessive or unreasonable (this does not apply to children). The obsessions or compulsions cause distress, are time consuming (take more than an hour a day), or significantly interfere with the person’s normal routine functioning, usual activities or relationships. The obsessions or compulsions should not be part of other disorders such as eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder (preoccupation with physical appearance, trichotillomania (hair pulling), substance use disorder, hypochondriasis (preoccupation with having a serious illness), paraphilia (preoccupation with sexual urges or fantasies) or major depressive disorder (guilty ruminations).
In the USA, OCD is the fourth most common psychological disorder – it affects 1 in every 50 people. It is a disease of fears, troubling thoughts that occur over and over. The routines that the OCD sufferer performs are usually ways to alleviate the stress they experience from their fear.
At least half of the adults who get help for OCD already had it as children. Although the cause of OCD is not known, research suggests that it may be due to a lack of serotonin in the brain.
OCD may also run in the family or stress as well as an emotionally traumatic experience could be the cause, but for the majority, OCD can be effectively controlled and treated by either behavioral therapy or chemical therapy.
If we consider that a person with OCD is able to change their behavior through behavioral therapy, this should suggest that the person is able to do this through their own free will. From Libet we learned that we have a “veto” if it comes to stopping our initiated movements, and apparently, this is shown very clearly in the person with OCD. In behavioral therapy, they are taught to first recognize their fears and urges, and then they have to openly confront their fears or learn to resist the urge to perform a ritual. In a study performed by Jeffrey Schwartz, an expert in the field of OCD, 12 out of 18 OCD sufferers responded positively to this kind of therapy. Does this mean that the patients learn to resist their urges through free will, or through the “veto” we all have over our readiness potential?
To conclude this week’s blog: last week, one of the people that commented on “The Concept of Free Will” suggested that free will is an illusion. Neuroscientist Sam Harris suggests the following: “thoughts simply arise (what else could they do?)…The illusion of free will is itself an illusion”.
Please share your thoughts on this interesting topic!