Who is Responsible for Our Actions?

Imagine you plan to write on a piece of paper. You have a pen and the paper on the table. If you were asked to describe the event the logical sequence would be:

  1. There is a thought in the brain that you wish to write.
  2. Associated with the thought, there is an electrochemical reaction in the brain called as the readiness potential.
  3. Based on the readiness potential the brain sends a signal to the hand to perform a desired action of writing.

Man has a free will and when he makes a conscious decision, the sequence of events would be first the thought or the decision, then the brain getting ready for the implementation of the thought through readiness potential followed by the impulse to the organ culminating in the desired action.

This theory of free will received a rude shock when Benjamin Libet, a pioneering neuroscientist performed a simple experiment in 1985. While performing an experiment on his participants, he asked them to take a simple action of raising their hands and also indicate the time when the decision to raise the hand was taken. While monitoring the brain activity, he found that the readiness potential had occurred in the brain not after the decision was taken but about 200 ms before the decision was taken. The decisions we feel we are taking consciously are actually not taken by us but already by our unconscious mind. A number of psychologists and scientists questioned the validity of such an experiment. A series of such minute readiness potential -thought –action sequence happens so rapidly that we feel that there is someone inside our body termed as the self who has a free will and takes conscious decision.

23 years later, the April 2008 issue of Nature Neuroscience has published a research paper on similar lines. The experiment was simple. There are two buttons. The participant has a choice to press any button, in a random fashion. He was asked to indicate the time at which he has taken a decision and the subject was asked to press the button. While the experiment was going on, the brain scan was carried out by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. (FMRI) which can record the activities happening in the different parts of the brain.

The patterns generated does not tell what a person is doing. However different parts of the brain were getting brightened depending on which activity was being performed. .The surprising observation was that the computer was able to predict which button the subject will press based on the FMRI scan. And the brightening of the specific part was happening at least 7 seconds before the subject said that he was taking a decision. The experiment was repeated 100 times and the computer was able to predict at least 70% of the time which button may get pressed, based on the part that glowed corresponding to  the decision whether it was right or left. Prof John Haines and his colleagues who conducted this experiment in Germany came to the startling conclusion that when we feel that we are consciously taking any decision, the unconscious mind has already taken the decision 7-10 seconds before and the conscious mind just has to follow its unconscious counterpart.

In another experiment, Prof. Eric Candel and others conducted an experiment to see the linkages of the conscious and the unconscious mind A group of 17 participants were shown a series of pictures with associated with different emotions fear, anger, hatred, disgust etc. While showing the pictures the brain activity was similarly monitored. Let us assume 100 pictures which can evoke such  emotions were displayed at a normal frame speed of 5 seconds. In between these 100 pictures 2/3 pictures at random with extreme emotions were shown for a fraction of a second. The participants were not able to recollect that they have seen such pictures. Amygdala which is the seat of emotion in the brain used to get brightened when such pictures were shown. However a specific part of amygdala used to get brightened depending on whether the fear was experienced on a conscious level ( picture shown for 5 secs ) or at the subconscious level.( picture shown for 0.1 sec) The amygdala is the seat of primal emotion like fear, anger etc. and the response is used to trigger the fight-or-flight response used for the survival of the organism. The responses are instantaneous.

There are some people who get panicky for trivial reasons or flare up on small issues. This can be correlated with their  amygdale make up. In the same event of traffic jam A may get easily angry whereas B may not get too upset. For sake of simplicity we can say that a short tempered person may operate at a higher level of amygdala arousal say at 900. wheras a cool and composed person may operate at a level of 200. So when a picture  was flashed for a fraction of a second both A and B got panicky but at their respective levels. So A gets angry at a level of 900 and B at a level of 200. However when the same picture is shown at a lower speed the level of arousal corresponding to fear is not proportional to the base level but at a constant level . A goes from 900 to 1000 whereas B goes from 200 from 300. Stated otherwise,  when confronted with an emotion like anger or fear at an unconscious level, the panic response dependent on the individual genetic makeup and while facing the same at a conscious level it was not that terrible.

This research has some interesting fallouts. When people face irrational fears of closed places, air travel or swine flu, they need to bring that experience into the conscious level  where the unwanted emotion is seen and felt in real time and by doing this exercise, the amygdala arousal can be reduced.

Sigmund Freud had propounded the same thing by talking oneself out and thus reducing the unwanted emotions.

Gautam Buddha has proposed the same technique in his Vipassana meditation where such emotions are faced head-on by watching one’s breath continuously and by doing so, the impact of the irrational fears comes down.

The conventional wisdom propounded by the motivational speakers, and evangelist says that one should always think positive and if one gets negative thoughts they should be driven away or rather put under the carpet. And then we tell our children , “you should be seen not heard”, “don’t act like a sissy, boys don’t cry” etc. .But such facades of confidence actually crumble over a period of time making the situation worse. Let me give another example: Let us say at night you are not able to get the sleep and you are tossing from one side to the other. Under such conditions it is logical that most of us get negative thoughts like Why I cannot sleep and try to make the maximum efforts like counting the numbers etc. On the contrary if you just watch your thoughts and then say, “ At this moment I am not able to sleep and that is the current reality. If you go on watching the breath and focus on the process without bothering about the end result there is a greater possibility that you may get  quality sleep much faster.

The conclusion of the above research as corroborated by Gautam Buddha is:

  1. You can handle your irrational fears by bringing them into the conscious mind.
  2. The impact of the fear reduces drastically by repeating such exercise.
  3. The subconscious mind does not have the word NOT in its dictionary, as such whenever unconsciously we say a negative thing the subconscious mind rebounds in an opposite manner. For example, The more you say I will NOT get angry you tend to feel more angry. The more you resist, the more it persists.

One of the greatest hoaxes of life is to feel that that there is a self which goes on directing ourselves. However the truth is otherwise. Most of the conscious actions which we feel we do by choice are actually done by the unconscious. As the difference between the action and the readiness potential is  small, and such actions are happening at such a rapid pace that first we take action and a conglomeration of such rapid actions make us feel that   there is a self inside that that I am doing an action.

Let us see what the ancient Buddhist text say on this subject which has now been confirmed by the latest neurological research:

  • There is no Self as the agent of any action..
  •   There is no Self as the feeler of any sensation..
  •   There is no Self as the experiencer of any perception..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any bony frame of body..
  • There is no Self in or outside any shortly sensed feeling..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any experienced perception..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any remembered memory..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any constructed intention..
  • There is no Self in or outside any momentary consciousness..
  •   There is no Doer experiencing any effect of any action..
  •   There is no Definable Entity transmigrating at Rebirth..
  •   There is no Stable Identity lasting even for a moment..
  •   There is no Owner of anything, whether material or mental..
  • Yet beings, since an endless beginning, passionately maintains this mere IDEA of a stably enduring yet invisible entity, supposed to be the Self, I, Ego, Me,  Identity or Personality, with which they fall deeply & dramatically in love.

Assuming such an IDEA, constructing such an Imagination, Defining such an Invention is more than FATAL, as it causes the constructer to come back to  birth, ageing, decay & death & thereby suffering again & again for aeons.

2 thoughts on “Who is Responsible for Our Actions?

  1. aarpee

    Shankaracharya says that the world is an illusion,
    Buddha says that the self is an illusion.
    So who the hell am I, and where the hell am I?

    Reply

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