Weird experiences: free will mishaps

This has been moved out of the Vipassana post.

Why do feel like I have free will? Well, for instance, I can pretty reliably control my body, e. g. I want my hand to move and it moves. If I couldn’t control my body or my thoughts at all – e. g. when heavily drugged – I would probably say I did not have much free will at that moment.

Furthermore, if I lost my internal monologue as well and could only process sensory data – had awareness of what I see, hear, etc, but no thoughts about it – I would say that perhaps I still had some degree of consciousness, but no free will at all.

Here are some weird experiences that rather complicate both of those intuitions. (For me, they render the whole question of “do I have free will?” rather meaningless. Your take might differ.)

Alien hand syndrome

The alien hand syndrome goes like this: you are trying to light a cigarette and your left hand actively prevents you from doing so. There’s no observable thought process, either – it just moves against your will. Or rather, it is certainly controlled by your brain, but you no longer feel like it’s true.

From Arin Bhattacharya’s An Overview On Rare Diseases, Volume II:

[...] patients frequently exhibit “intermanual conflict” in which one hand acts at cross-purposes with the other “good hand”. For example, one patient was observed putting a cigarette into her mouth with her intact, “controlled” hand (her right, dominant hand), following which her alien, non-dominant, left hand came up to grasp the cigarette, pull the cigarette out of her mouth, and toss it away before it could be lit by the controlled, dominant, right hand. The patient then surmised that “I guess ‘he’ doesn’t want me to smoke that cigarette.” Another patient was observed to be buttoning up her blouse with her controlled dominant hand while the alien non-dominant hand, at the same time, was unbuttoning her blouse.


It gets worse. Anosognosia: you want to move your hand, it doesn’t move (e. g. it is paralyzed), and your brain immediately make up a justification for why you actually didn’t want or didn’t try to move it after all, preserving the belief that you are in full control of your body. When called out on your bullshit, you make up another one, and another, and another.

Apparently, the only way to wake up from anosognosia is to get cold water sprinkled into your ear (?!), but it doesn’t last for long.

From The Apologist and the Revolutionary:

Anosognosia is the condition of not being aware of your own disabilities. To be clear, we’re not talking minor disabilities here, the sort that only show up during a comprehensive clinical exam. We’re talking paralysis or even blindness. Things that should be pretty hard to miss.

Take the example of the woman discussed in Lishman’s Organic Psychiatry. After a right-hemisphere stroke, she lost movement in her left arm but continuously denied it. When the doctor asked her to move her arm, and she observed it not moving, she claimed that it wasn’t actually her arm, it was her daughter’s. Why was her daughter’s arm attached to her shoulder? The patient claimed her daughter had been there in the bed with her all week. Why was her wedding ring on her daughter’s hand? The patient said her daughter had borrowed it. Where was the patient’s arm? The patient “turned her head and searched in a bemused way over her left shoulder”.


If somebody severes the connection between your brain’s hemispheres, tells one hemisphere to do something, and ask the other hemisphere “why did you do it?”, it will make something up – and, again, be completely convinced that this is the true justification. No matter what your actual actions are, you can still find a way to believe that “you” caused them, even when you didn’t:

[...] a split-brain patient was shown two images, one in each visual field. The left hemisphere received the image of a chicken claw, and the right hemisphere received the image of a snowed-in house. The patient was asked verbally to describe what he saw, activating the left (more verbal) hemisphere. The patient said he saw a chicken claw, as expected. Then the patient was asked to point with his left hand (controlled by the right hemisphere) to a picture related to the scene. Among the pictures available were a shovel and a chicken. He pointed to the shovel. So far, no crazier than what we’ve come to expect from neuroscience.

Now the doctor verbally asked the patient to describe why he just pointed to the shovel. The patient verbally (left hemisphere!) answered that he saw a chicken claw, and of course shovels are necessary to clean out chicken sheds, so he pointed to the shovel to indicate chickens.

Persistent non-symbolic experiences

Even given all these aberrations, it is still hard to believe that all of our actions, not just some, could be post hoc rationalizations. And sure, I cannot prove it.

But I can throw one more stone into the bucket of doubt. Here is a man who has no inner monologue at all and seems to function exactly as he functioned before he lost it, Gary Weber:

For the next 25 years, as Weber finished his PhD, married and raised two kids and made his way through a string of industry jobs – eventually culminating in a senior management position running the R&D operations of big manufacturing business – he got spiritual. He read lots of books, he meditated with Zen teachers, mastered complicated yoga postures, and practiced what is known in Vedic philosophy as “self-enquiry” – a way of directing attention backwards into the center of the mind. To make time for all this, Weber would get up at 4am and put in two hours of spiritual practice before work.

Although he says he never had the sense he was making progress, Weber kept at it anyway. Then, on a morning like any other, something happened. He got into a yoga pose – a pose he had done thousands of times before – and when he moved out of it his thoughts stopped. Permanently.

“That was fourteen years ago,” says Weber. “I entered into a state of complete inner stillness. Except for a few stray thoughts first thing in the morning, and a few more when my blood sugar gets low, my mind is quiet. The old thought-track has never come back.”

[...] What he cared about was that in an hour he needed to go to work, where he was supposed to run four research labs and manage a thousand employees and a quarter of a billion dollar budget, and he had no thoughts. How was that going to work?

“There was no problem at all,” Weber says, which he admits may say more about corporate management than about him. “No one noticed. I’d go into a meeting with nothing prepared, no list of points in my head. I’d just sit there and wait to see what came up. And what came up when I opened my mouth were solutions to problems smarter and more elegant than any I could have developed on my own.”

This sounds a bit / a lot like enlightenment. However, if you are curious but don’t feel like reading about spirituality much, you can search for “PNSE” instead. Scott Alexander’s review of _Clusters Of Individual Experiences Form A Continuum Of Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences In Adults_ is a good place to start.


Are our actions determined by our brains? Not always and not entirely, but often enough that I feel comfortable saying “yes”.

Is it hard to predict what we will do? Also yes. (And if you want to drag quantum uncertainty into it to upgrade the status from “hard” to impossible, Scott Aaronson’s The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine is a good read.)

Are we more complicated than, say, worms? Hell yeah, even though worms are pretty complicated too.

Where does the strong feeling of having free will come from? I don’t know, but perhaps it is simply because we observe the correlation between our thoughts and our actions so often, that it seems that correlation must imply causation. An interesting read: neuroscience of free will on Wikipedia. Perhaps also Baer, Kaufman, Baumeister – Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will, but I haven’t read it yet.

Finally: do we have free will? Eh.

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