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Free Will versus Free Won’t

written by Theodore C.K. Cheung 18 May 2011

Theodore C.K. Cheung, MSSc (Clin Psy), MSc (Cog Neuropsy), is a clinical psychologist based in Hong Kong. Currently he is covering more than 30 schools (elementary, high, and special) for a major charity organization responsible for well-being promotion and interventions in both individual and policy levels. He received clinical training in Hong Kong (The Chinese University of Hong Kong) and also got neuropsychology training in the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (University College London) attaching to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.

Contact Theodore. His articles are here.

Editor’s note: Theodore is a member of Global Chinese Positive Psychology Association (GCPPA), Senior members of GCPPA have decided to alternate with Timothy So in writing articles for the 18th of the month. This is Theodore’s second article for PPND, and the first in the GCPPA series. We look forward to hearing from other members of GCPPA. Learn more about GCPPA.

Does our mind tell our body what to do, or does our body tell us what to think?

The Mind Depends on the Body

In 1983, Benjamin Libet and colleagues performed an experiment that is well known within scientific circles, but not to the wider population, possibly due to the sensitivity of the finding. Participants were invited to sit calmly and look at a one-arm clock. Their scalps were wired to pick up bioelectrical signals in the cortical area responsible for motor commands. All participants needed to do was to report the position of the turning clock’s arm (such as pointing at 120°) whenever they felt the urge to move their index fingers.

Common sense tells us that the temporal sequence of the events would go like this:

  • We feel the urge to move our finger (our will).
  • The motor area of the brain gets activated.
  • The brain sends neuronal signals via our spine to the muscles in our arm to cause our finger to move.

If I were there, I would bet 20 bucks on the common sense sequence.

Luckily, I didn’t make this bet because the results were quite different. In fact, the sequence was observed to be:

  • Neural spikes were recorded in the brain motor area about 1 second prior to action.
  • Participants felt like moving their fingers about 206 milliseconds prior to action.
  • They moved their fingers.

Conscious intentions were detected after neural spikes in the motor cortex. People first demonstrated a neural spike, and only then demonstrated the intention to move their fingers.

Perhaps this suggests reasons why relapse in alcohol and substance abuse is so common, why we are more prone to fall in love when we are aroused, and why we always want to start our diet after a large meal. This experiment illustrates that we take action only once our mind has willed it.

The experiment was a bombshell for philosophy, religion, politics, law, and related disciplines on the question of human free will and responsibility. In fact, this led to further research about what goes on in the brain.

What We Need to Know about the Biological Correlates of Well-being

Thanks to the industrious work of generations of scientists and psychologists, we now know a great deal about the neuro-chemical mechanisms of ill-being, including what’s behind fear, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However psychology has known little about the neuro-chemical mechanisms of well-being until very recently.

Why do we want to know about those neurochemicals and hormones? What do norepinephrine, glycosylated hemoglobin, and urine DHEA-S have to do with me and my well-being? Here are two reasons we want to know:

  1. As Libet demonstrated, thought is determined by the state of our bodies. If we want to have thoughts and feeling of well-being, we have to understand the physical states that co-occur with well-being in order to maximize the occurrence of those states. We know that feeding our stomach with home-made blueberry cheesecake would likely trigger dopamine, endorphin, and other neurochemicals, and we then benefit from feelings of contentment, and perhaps even experience flow. For others, a good read will have a similar effect (though definitely not a handbook of affective neuroscience, I can promise).
  2. We’d like to understand why some positive interventions work and others either do not work or work less well. For example, how can a gratitude visit both enhance well-being and decrease depression, but describing yourself at your best has a less lasting effect, as described by Seligman, Steen, Park, and Peterson? Aked and colleagues found that some interventions benefit both well-being and buffer for ill-being but others don’t. It couldn’t be by chance, could it?
  3. The development of a new field depends on understanding both the ‘how’ and the ‘why.’ In positive psychology, the ‘how’ includes the positive interventions and the ‘why’ includes the reasons that the interventions work, including the underlying biological basis. Carol Ryff and her colleagues have done a wonderful study which addressed the biological ‘why.’ From there we may make some good guesses about why the gratitude visit has such a strong effect.

    The team recruited a group of 135 elderly women and took samples of various neuroendocrine measures (such as the norepinephrine, cortisol, and urine DHEA-S) and cardiovascular indicators (such as weight, waist-hip ratio, blood pressure, cholesterol level, and glycosylated hemoglobin). A battery of psychological measures was also collected covering both well-being and ill-being. The well-being measures included both hedonic (positive affect) and eudaimonic (autonomy, growth, positive relations, purpose in life) scales while ill-being measures included negative affect, depression, anxiety, and anger. The interrelations among those indicators and scales were carefully examined. The findings are summarized in the table below.

    Simplified Presentation of Well-being Correlates

    Here are several highlight from the research:

  1. The mind and the body are connected. Subjective well-being has biological bases that are not due to chance correlation.
  2. Well-being and ill-being are related to some of the same factors. Certain indicators are associated with both well-being and ill-being, namely, epinephrine, weight, and glycosylated hemoglobin. The interpretation warrants caution, yet the indication is that lower weight (within normal BMI I should stress) correlates with better relationships and lower probability of depression.
  3. Some self-reported feelings were more related to the body than others. Certain subjective scales correlated more pervasively than others with the biological indicators. For example, positive relationships were significantly correlated with four studied biological markers. Whether that explains the larger beneficial effect of the gratitude visit deserves further study. It does suggest that this could be a fruitful way to investigate existing and upcoming positive interventions.
  4. Well-being and ill-being are often related to different indicators. Three indicators contributed to both well-being and ill-being, but the majority were related to either well-being or ill-being, but not both. The mixed results suggest that neither a bipolarity hypothesis (well-being and ill-being are the two ends of the same continuum), nor an independent hypothesis (well-being and ill-being have different biological signatures) tell the whole story. Kringelback and Berridge show that hedonic and eudaimonic well-being may have distinct biological pathways, which makes the analysis even more complicated.

This is a correlational study, and one conclusion could be that the body rules the mind and feeling, but it will take more research to uncover causation. The good news is that scientists can study the biological basis of well-being because of advances in neuroscience. For example, Charney is studying resilience, and Lutz and colleagues are studying compassion.

The measures in the study were not exclusive, and the participants were all women of a restricted age range. Nevertheless, it did uncover some ideas for academics, practitioners, and regular people who are interested in making their lives better and want to understand the relevant mind-body connection.

So Who’s the Master?

At the beginning of this article, I argued that there’s no free will, and in the middle, I argued that the body is in charge of the commands to the mind. But in closing, I still hold the ground that humans are responsible for their own actions in most circumstances. The reason is simple: even though we may not have the “free will” to cause a finger to move, evidence suggests that we have the “free won’t” to not move the finger.

Perhaps we can’t stop feeling the impulse to buy another pair of shoes or eat some ice cream or lie on the couch. Yet we can say “No!” to those impulses and to toxic environments that hamper our psychological and physical health.



Free Will
Haggard, P. (2005). Conscious intention and motor cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(6), 290-295.

Libet, B., Gleason, C.A., Wright, E.W., & Pearl, D.K. (1983). Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). Brain, 106, 623-642.

Smilansky, S. (2000) Free Will and Illusion. Oxford University Press.

Correlates of Ill-being:
Fear: Sahand, P., & Westbrook, R.F. (2008). The circuit of fear. Nature, 454, 589-590.

Anxiety: Foa, E.B. & Kozak, M.J. (1998). Clinical applications of bioinformational therapy: Understanding anxiety and its treatment. Behavior Therapy, 29, 675-690.

Depression: Beck, A.T. (2008). The evolution of the cognitive model of depression and its neurobiological correlates. American Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 969-977.

PTSD: Brewin, C.R., Gregory, J.D., Lipton, M., & Burgess, N. (2010). Intrusive images in psychological disorders: Characteristics, neural mechanisms, and treatment implications. Psychological Reviews, 117(1), 210-232.

Aked, J., Narks, N., Cordon, C., & Thompson, S. (2010). Five Ways to Well-being. UK: New Economic Foundation.

Charney, D.S. (2004). Psychobiological mechanisms of resilience and vulnerability: implications for successful adaptation to extreme stress. American Journal of Psychiatry, 161, 195-216

Kringelbach, M.L., & Berridge, K.C. (2009). Towards a functional neuroanatomy of pleasure and happiness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(11), 479-487.

Lutz, A., Greischar, L.L., Perlman, D.M., & Davidson, R.J. (2009). BOLD signal in insula is differentially related to cardiac function during compassion meditation in experts vs novices. Neuroimage, 47, 1038-1046.

Ryff, C.D., Love, G.D., Urry, H.L., Muller, D., Rosenkranz, M.A., Friedman, E.M., & Davidson, R.J. (2006). Psychological well-being and ill-being: Do they have distinct or mirrored biological correlates? Psychotherapy & Psychosomatics, 75, 85-95.

Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T.A.S., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.

Brain signaling courtesy of Kai Schreiber
Brain connections courtesy of Adam Crowe

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oz 18 May 2011 - 2:06 pm

Theodore article – great article. I’d suggest that people read Descarte’s Error (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Descartes%27_Error

I remember in psych looking at research that says we emote first and then apply a cognitive interpretation. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. It sort of challenges lots of psychology that tends to overlook our fundamental emotional drives.

As an aside I suspect you should have a look at the research on Heart Rate Variability – there is lots of interesting work being undertaken by Barbara Fredricksosn lab suggesting its a gateway to the good life

arik 18 May 2011 - 7:49 pm

I am not sure I understand the potentially significant implications of this study.

Does this mean that the body rules the mind & where do emotions fit into this list of responses.

So does a thought arise from the body, that thought then leads to an emotional response and then action.

Knowing the initial source of our behaviour is absolutely critical to changing our habits.

'Trick Slattery 20 May 2011 - 11:32 am

Exactly, excellent post.

An even more up-to-date experiment was published in nature neuroscience(Soon, C. S., Brass, M., Heinze, H.-J. & Haynes, J.-D. Nature Neurosci.) in which the scientists were able to determine a choice of a button up to ten seconds before the person felt they had made the decision.

Of course this is not needed to understand that free will is an illusion. We only need logic to determine that. 😉

Take care,
‘Trick Slattery

Mark Baddeley 23 February 2012 - 10:45 pm

I like the article but are you aware that David Rock and /or Jeffrey Schwartz have written about free will vs free won’t?

Theodore 24 February 2012 - 10:25 pm

Thanks Mark for the comments and you helped me to learn to find previous comments from others too.

I’m not aware of Rock & Schwartz’s work on the free won’t (but schwartz’s wonderful work on brain-lock n ocd treatment) but was more influenced by British scholar Patrick Haggard on the topic when I was in London. The conscious mind is one of the topics in neuroscience that attracts me most.

thx oz, arik and trick’s comments as well.



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