In “The Mind’s Biology,” Amy Ellis Nutt reports that some doctors are reaching past the symptoms of mental illness to identify and fix the brain circuits underlie the problems. One of those doctors is Hasan Asif. “Asif says that a person’s mental makeup is a kind of hierarchy, with personality on top, which is created by brain states that arise from circuits firing in a certain pattern below. With psychotherapy, you tweak the brain from the top down, dealing first with a patient’s personality and temperament. But with neurofeedback, combined with qEEG, he said, he tweaks his patients from the bottom up, identifying the brain areas involved and then retraining those circuits to fire differently, resulting in changed moods or mental outlooks.”
Which happens first … a conscious decision to do something or the brain activity associated with doing it? Thanks to experiments Benjamin Libet conducted in the 1980s, it seemed that “the timing of … conscious decisions was consistently preceded by several hundred milliseconds of background preparatory brain activity.” It seemed, that is, that our brains had already acted to carry out what we only later consciously decided to do. But in “Neuroscience and Free Will Are Rethinking Their Divorce,” Christian Jarrett says that may be changing. As researcher Dr. John-Dylan Haynes puts it, neuroscience may actually show that “a person’s decisions are not at the mercy of unconscious and early brain waves.”
Is it your fault you’re addicted to Facebook, Candy Crush Saga, or whatever? Or are the web and all those apps scientifically designed to break your will? If so, shouldn’t they be regulated? These are questions Michael Schulson addresses in “User Behaviour”: “‘Much as a user might need to exercise willpower, responsibility and self-control, and that’s great, we also have to acknowledge the other side of the street,’ said Tristan Harris, an ethical design proponent who works at Google. (He spoke outside his role at the search giant.) Major tech companies, Harris told me, ‘have 100 of the smartest statisticians and computer scientists, who went to top schools, whose job it is to break your willpower.’”
Arthur Brooks explains in “Choose To Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier.” that it’s up to you whether to be thankful and that you’ll be better off if you choose to do so. “… we are more than slaves to our feelings, circumstances and genes. Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practice gratitude — and that doing so raises our happiness.”
Neuroscientist Joe Herbert asks why we can’t unite neuroscience and psychiatry. “Most of our organs can be treated as repairable machines. Why can’t we treat mental illness by simply fixing the brain?”
In “What Art Unveils,” Alva Noë says that art makes things strange. “Art unveils us ourselves. Art is a making activity because we are by nature and culture organized by making activities. A work of art is a strange tool. It is an alien implement that affords us the opportunity to bring into view everything that was hidden in the background.”
Seven philosophers discuss seven movies that address some of philosophy’s big questions: How can we do the right thing? What makes a life worth living? Can anything really be justified? Is there more to us than biology? Are the things that we imagine real? What is the enduring self? Is the quest for good a road to evil?
As Terry Eagleton notes in his review of Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained, “Rarely has the idea of freedom been so popular in practice and so disdained in theory.” But we are neither completely autonomous nor completely determined. “What … if our beliefs and desires lead us to act in a way that feels inevitable? Can we still be free if we could not have acted otherwise? Baggini is surely right to claim that we can. In fact, most of the things that matter – being in love, composing a superb sonata, detesting Piers Morgan, feeling horrified by the slave trade – have a smack of inner necessity about them … . What define the self most deeply are the sort of commitments from which we could not walk away even if we tried. The point, however, is that we don’t want to. Freedom from such engagements would be no freedom at all. True liberty lies in being able to realise such a self, not shuck it off.”
The state of our body affects how we think the world works. For example, belief in free will is negatively correlated with the desire to urinate. Daniel Yudkin explains some recent research leading to this conclusion.
Maybe it’s your brain that tricks you into preferring more expensive things? Or is it your mind? How foodies were duped into liking McDonald’s.