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Workout in the Prefrontal Gym

by Bill Meacham on February 17th, 2013

Last time I asserted that, contrary to some interpretations of certain neurological experiments, we do have free will. But in fact lots of times it seems that we don’t. Most of our choices are not the results of careful deliberation; so when we make them are we doing so freely? When I walk past the plate of cupcakes and impulsively grab one, am I acting freely? You could say that I am not, that I am moved by my impulse.

There are lots of ways our behavior is determined by forces that seem alien to us. I do not mean physical coercion; I mean a spectrum of neurological conditions, at one end of which are disorders such as cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s Disease, Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive compulsions. At the other end are impulses such as the craving for a cupcake.

Take Tourette’s syndrome. People with this condition exhibit facial tics and verbal outbursts over which they have no control. They twitch or say things, sometimes rude and obscene things, but they do not have any sense that they are doing so voluntarily. Nor, for the most part, can they stop them from happening.(1) We do not call such activities freely chosen. Researcher David Eagleman says,

We immediately learn two things from the Tourette’s patient. First, actions can occur in the absence of free will. Second, the Tourette’s patient has no free won’t. He cannot use free will to override or control what subconscious parts of his brain have decided to do. What the lack of free will and the lack of free won’t have in common is the lack of “free.” Tourette’s syndrome provides a case in which the underlying neural machinery does its thing, and we all agree that the person is not responsible.(2)

If somehow the twitches or outbursts of such a person caused some calamity, we would not hold that person accountable.

Sleepwalking is another such syndrome. There is a recorded case of a person who killed someone else while sleepwalking. The killer was acquitted of murder charges on the grounds that he did not do the killing voluntarily.(3)

In each of these cases and many more we lack a sense of agency, the implicit sense that it is we ourselves who are initiating, executing and controlling our actions.(4)

On the other end of the spectrum, when we do things in our daily life without thinking we also lack a sense of agency, but more because the issue simply does not arise than because we feel the force of something alien to us. By far the majority of our perceptions and actions happen automatically, without conscious thought. If someone (a philosopher, perhaps) asked you if you tie your shoes of your own free will, you would say “Yes, of course,” but you have that sense only because there is nothing to oppose your action.

Suppose you are trying to lose weight, however, and you have resolved to cut sweets out of your diet. When you impulsively grab the cupcake, you are clearly not acting of your own free will; you are, as it were, enslaved by your craving. If you think about it you get the distinct sense that your will is not free.

The craving for a cupcake is a first-order desire, a desire simply to do or to have something. Most of our desires are first-order, and most of our actions and activities as we unreflectively go through life are aimed at satisfying them. So in most of our life we are determined, not free.

But we humans also have the capacity for second-order thinking, thinking about ourselves, and that enables us to have second-order desires, desires to have certain desires. Wanting the cupcake is a first-order desire. So is wanting to lose weight, but it is in conflict with wanting the cupcake. When you reflect on the situation and decide that what you really want is to stick to your diet and lose weight, you are wanting to want self-control more than the cupcake. That is a second-order desire. The second-order aspect of yourself wants the first-order aspect to want something, typically something different from what the first-order aspect actually wants.

Even stronger is second-order volition, where you want a certain desire to be your will, i.e. what actually impels you to action. Not only do you want to want to eat something healthy and want not to want the cupcake, but you also want the desire to eat healthily to overrule the craving, to be the desire that actually results in action so that you end up eating the healthy food. As I have written before, second-order volition is an aspect of the second-order thinking that is uniquely human. Freedom of the will consists in being able to make second-order volitions effective; that is, to have the second-order volition actually govern the first-order volition such that the preferred first-order desire is what results in action. When that happens, we judge that our will is free. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt says “It is in securing the conformity of his will to his second-order volitions … that a person exercises freedom of the will. … The unwilling addict’s will is not free.”(5)

Robert Kane, who has written extensively on the subject, defines free will in a similar way:

Free will … is the power of agents to be the ultimate creators (or originators) and sustainers of their own ends or purposes. … To will freely … is to be the ultimate creator (prime mover, so to speak) of your own purposes.(6)

To be the prime mover of our own purposes is to exert second-order control over our desires and volitions. First-order desires are, by and large, determined by our genetic heritage and our upbringing. Only when we notice them and think about whether we really want them do we exert free will and exercise our second-order volition.

In order to do that, to exert second-order volition, we have to use our second-order thinking to figure out what is actually going on in the first-order desires. That’s where brain research helps a lot. Here is an account of some recent research on patience and impulse control:

When people waited for a reward, patient people were seen—through the lens of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine—imagining the future. In more patient people, the researchers observed increased activity in the region of the brain that helps you think about the future (the anterior prefrontal cortex). The patient individuals, it seems, devoted more energy to imagining receiving their reward later.(7)

The more vivid our imagination of the future reward, the less likely we are to be tempted by an immediate, but lesser, reward. Once you know that fact about how your brain works, you can put it to use. You can decide ahead of time, before you get near the cupcake, to envision yourself clearly as a slim, healthy person and to imagine vividly how good it will feel to be that way. You can take other actions as well, such as not going past the bakery that sells the darn things. The trick is to take actions in advance of temptation to strengthen your ability to withstand it, actions motivated by your second-order thinking.

David Eagleman proposes something similar to rehabilitate criminals who suffer from poor impulse control. We know that the prefrontal cortex of the brain is where the ability to control impulses is rooted. “The frontal lobes are sometimes called the organ of socialization, because becoming socialized largely involves developing the circuitry to squelch our first impulses,” he says.(8) That’s why teenagers are so impulsive; their prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. Eagleman has a plan for what he calls “the prefrontal workout.”

The basic idea is to give the frontal lobes practice in squelching the short-term brain circuits. To this end, my colleagues Stephen LaConte and Pearl Chiu have begun providing real-time feedback to people during brain scanning. Imagine that you’d like to quit smoking cigarettes. In this experiment, you look at pictures of cigarettes during brain imaging, and the experimenters measure which regions of your brain are involved in the craving. Then they show you the activity in those networks, represented by a vertical bar on a computer screen, while you look at more cigarette pictures. The bar acts as a thermometer for your craving: if your craving networks are revving high, the bar is high; if you’re suppressing your craving, the bar is low. Your job is to make the bar go down. Perhaps you have insight into what you’re doing to resist the craving; perhaps the mechanism is inaccessible. In any case, you try out different mental avenues until the bar begins to slowly sink. … The goal is for the long term to trump the short term. Still looking at pictures of cigarettes, you practice making the bar go down over and over, until you’ve strengthened those frontal circuits.

After training at the prefrontal gym, a person might still crave a cigarette, but he’ll know how to beat the craving instead of letting it win. It’s not that we don’t want to enjoy our impulsive thoughts (Mmm, cake), it’s merely that we want to endow the frontal cortex with some control over whether we act upon them (I’ll pass).(9)

This approach is still experimental, but it is clear that it is a way of training the will, of strengthening the ability of our second-order thinking—which we identify as being more from who we truly are than our first-order thinking is—to govern our first-order desires.

Philosophers have long known the importance of strengthening the will. Plato, in The Republic, speaks of the soul (psyche) as having three parts, the part that just wants pleasure, the part that likes to make things happen, and the rational part, which can think and reflect. “Does it not belong,” he says, “to the rational part to rule, being wise and exercising forethought in behalf of the entire soul …?”(10) Exercising forethought about yourself is exactly second-order thinking.

Much more recently William James had the same idea. He advocates doing something every day that you (your first-order self) would rather not do, just for the purpose of strengthening the “faculty of effort,” by which he means what I call the second-order will. With typical Jamesian floridity, he says “The man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things … will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.”(11)

The point of philosophy is to learn how to master your life. Knowing what you have to work with is essential to that effort; and certainly knowing how your brain works to influence what you feel, think and do is an important part of that knowledge.

You are free. What will do with your knowledge of how you are determined?


(1) Wikipedia, “Tourette syndrome.” Motherless Brooklyn, quite a good novel by Jonathan Lethem, depicts the syndrome from a first-person point of view.

(2) Eagleman, “The Brain on Trial.”

(3) Ibid.

(4) Wikipedia, “Sense of agency.”

(5) Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About, pp. 20–21. Robert Kane notes that there is still an issue regarding how second-order volitions are formed, but that is a topic for another time. See Kane, The Significance of Free Will, pp. 61-67.

(6) Kane, The Significance of Free Will, p. 4.

(7) Bauer, “How to Avoid the Temptations of Immediate Gratification.”

(8) Eagleman, “The Brain on Trial.”

(9) Ibid.

(10) Plato, The Republic, 441e.

(11) James, “The Laws of Habit.”


Bauer, Melanie. “How to Avoid the Temptations of Immediate Gratification.” Online publication as of 28 January 2013.

Eagleman, David. “The Brain on Trial.” Atlantic Monthly, July-August 2011. Online publication as of 28 June 2011.

Frankfurt, Harry. The Importance of What We Care About. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

James, William. “The Laws of Habit.” Chapter 8 of Talks To Teachers On Psychology; and To Students On Some of Life’s Ideals. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914. Online publication as of 15 February 2012.

Kane, Robert. The Significance of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Plato. The Republic. Tr. Paul Shorey. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.

Wikipedia. “Sense of agency.” Online publication as of 5 February 2013.

Wikipedia. “Tourette syndrome.” Online publication as of 4 February 2013.


From → Philosophy

  1. Indeed it is a very deep thinking! But what defines that which desires are 1st order and 2nd order or of still higher order. When it’s mentioned about determination then it is also for some desire. Is it then that giving up all desires might free our will? But will is exercised only in case if we wish to do things to our accord and thus wishing is desire( hmm may be, it is of higher degree). Somehow I think that free will is a myth for having will means we programs our lives and life-actions to bring upon some results. Well I agree that we should be more aware of our actions so that we can exercise control on our habits and desires that make us to think mistakenly that our free will is working. For there is cause for everything so in this cause and effect spatial-temporal construct that is our universe, even free will is result of something.

  2. Gary Frewin permalink

    Great article! i completely disagree with the idea that we have free will, this is tacitly false and not necessitated by the acknowledgement of second order thinking, and the important of developing second order thinking.

    I really valued the way you talked about the development of these aspects though, thanks!

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