As I sit here on my couch I am struck by the wealth of choices available to me. I can write about whatever I choose. I can choose to wear any costume or none on this holiday of spookiness. I can choose to participate in our country’s political Olympics. I even get to choose what I believe. I can choose these things thanks to all the events and people that came before me and ended up landing me here on my couch.
However, I do wonder how much of what I choose is actually free-will as opposed to programmed responses. We know that there are intrinsic neural responses within the brain. They are present from even before birth. The brain goes through a period of incredible growth when you are young. During which time new synapses are being formed at the fastest rate of your life.
Information enters the brain through your sensory system, and is checked against internal signals. Neural pathways are strengthened and weakened accordingly. The immense branching system is pruned according to what the brain receives from the outside world.
We know that there are sensitive periods within the development of the brain that if missed result in the loss or impairment of function. Speech and vision are but two of the available examples. We also know that the human brain and the neurons within it function in much the same way as those belonging to the organisms we employ for study; albeit with more neurons and exponentially greater complexity of connectivity.
We know that neurons respond reliably to given inputs. We can predict the behavior of many organisms because of basic neural principles like conditioning and habituation. And, I’m not denigrating the complexity of the human mind here, but we can also predict the behavior of people in certain situations. It’s because of basic neural principles that create behaviors.
So, what I learned, what my brain learned, while I was young and oh so impressionable has a HUGE impact on the choices I make. How do I know how much of my daily repertoire of behaviors are simply programmed reactions to environmental stimuli? Does it even matter? As long as everything works, should I care if it is real free will?
Well, where it bothers me is in the application of measures to take advantage of what we know about the brain and peoples’ behavior, namely in marketing. I’ve been reading George Lakoff’s recent book, The Political Mind, and while I have some issues with the overall tone of the book and some of his assumptions, I do think that he is onto something.
He poses the idea that people repond to what they hear, read, watch in the media with programmed predictability because of the associations we learn while we are young, and that the conservative Republican party has been immensely better at making use of these subconscious linkages than other parties (specifically the pesky progressive Democrats). I think he’s right. The Republican party has done an excellent job of using marketing tactics to their advantage.
Good marketing works, but where will it stop? As we learn more and more about our brains there will be more and more fodder for manipulation. More opportunities to make peoples’ choices for them.
And, on that frightful note, I leave you on this scariest of days prior to one of the most nationally important days (at least until the next election or something major happens) to ponder the choices you are to make and why you are making them.