An article by the author of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century on Free Will, in which Harari explores the political consequences of the scientific consensus that free will is illusory. He argues that we would be better thinkers if we came to terms with the fact that we don’t have free will.
Harari holds that if we grip on to our belief in free will, it makes us too selfish. We are constantly focussed on ourselves. If, on the other hand, we accept that we are slaves to the stimuli around us, then we focus on those instead. “It is like when you have a conversation with someone. If you focus on what you want to say, you hardly really listen. You just wait for the opportunity to give the other person a piece of your mind. But when you put your own thoughts aside, you can suddenly hear other people.”
“Governments and corporations will soon know you better than you know yourself. Belief in the idea of free will has become dangerous.”
“How does liberal democracy function in an era when governments and corporations can hack humans? What’s left of the beliefs that ‘the voter knows best’ and ‘the customer is always right’? How do you live when you realise that you are a hackable animal, that your heart might be a government agent, that your amygdala might be working for Putin, and that the next thought that emerges in your mind might well be the result of some algorithm that knows you better than you know yourself?”
The Myth of Freedom, by Yuval Noah Harari.
The Guardian, Saturday 15th September 2018, Review p. 32-35
Nick Chater believes that the “hidden depths” of the mind are illusory. If we perceive our actions to have motivation, or suppose ourselves to have beliefs and desires, then we are wrong. He holds that we generate our beliefs, values, and actions as we go along.
“Thoughts, like fiction, come into existence in the instant that they are invented and not a moment before. The sense that behaviour is merely the surface of a vast sea, immeasurably deep and teeming with inner motives, beliefs and desires is a conjuring trick played by our minds. The truth is not that the depths are empty, or even shallow, but that the mind is flat: the surface is all there is.”
This position rejects psychodynamic theory, and validates cognitive behavioural therapy which, in attempting to change behaviour and belief in the now, is attempting to manipulate something more fundamental that an imagined unconscious self.
Chater has written an entire book (The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and The Improvised Mind) on this idea. This article for the Observer is a neat summary.
Sleeping helps us to consolidate our procedural memories. This Canadian team managed to get people to go to sleep inside an fMRI scanner. They observed how the brain actually stores away memories.
This online paper also gives a great insight into the peer review process. If you scroll down, you can read the exchange between the editor of the journal and the author, which shows how peer review has improved the work prior to publication.
Network-wide reorganization of procedural memory during NREM sleep revealed by fMRI
Expert interrogators know that torture doesn’t work, but until now, no-one could prove it. Two psychologists at the University of Liverpool have conducted a detailed content analysis of 878 hours of taped interrogations, and have developed a training programme for interrogators called the Alycone Course. Using role-play to simulate difficult interviews, it is widely regarded as one the best interrogation training programmes ever.
The Guardian, 14th October 2017, p.29-31.
We have ways of making you talk.
In 1913, the early behaviourist John Watson wrote a piece which was to influence psychologists throughout the twentieth century.
“Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness. The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute. The behavior of man, with all of its refinement and complexity, forms only a part of the behaviorist’s total scheme of investigation.”
Read the whole thing here:
This is a very readable account by someone with a brain tumour, about what it is like to be on the receiving end of various brain scanning techniques. Harry Stawson has a tumour in his right temporal lobe. He is left handed. The surgeons need to find out where the “eloquent” areas of his cortex – the parts responsible for language – reside in his slightly non-standard brain.
We tend to regard brain-scanning as a rather dry and academic topic, full of long biological words that are difficult to revise. This short article brings it down to earth in a very humane way.
You will have to go to a proper library to track down this issue of the London Review of Books.
London Review of Books Vol 39, No. 19, 5th October 2017, p. 42-3.
New research has shown that reducing peoples’ noradrenaline levels boosts their metacognitive insight. Propranolol, a noradrenaline antagonist, increases peoples’ estimation of the accuracy of their decisions, without affecting the actual of accuracy of decision making.
There are potential applications in the treatment of OCD and schizophrenia.
New Scientist No. 3129, 10th June 2017, p.12.