Mental autonomy: does the person think or the brain?

Independent thinking or “mental sleepwalking”?

One of the many empirical facts that have yet to reach the humanities is the finding that, depending on the study, we do not have up to 50 percent control over our thoughts during our waking period. The keywords here are “spontaneous thoughts that are not related to the task” and “brain wandering”. One of the most interesting current areas of research in neuroscience and experimental psychology is the seemingly aimless mind, daydreaming, unblocked memories, and automatic planning. It’s about what I call “mental sleepwalking,” the constant occurrence of seemingly spontaneous, task-independent thoughts, and a loss of attention control that recurs hundreds of times a day.

“Stable cognitive control is the exception, and its absence is the rule.”

Experimental results are not only of great interest to policy, education, and ethics. A closer look reveals a surprising discovery with deep philosophical significance: stable cognitive control is the exception, while its absence is the rule. An independent “self” as the initiator or cause of our cognitive actions is a widespread myth, because if you include the dream state, beings like us have mental autonomy for only about a third of our conscious lives. Most of the time we think without realizing that we are thinking, because what we colloquially call “thinking” is usually an unintended form of inner behaviour. A sign of mental independence is “veto control,” that is, the ability to stop this behavior at any time. There is no rationality without veto control. In order to pause, to be able to stop the inner monologue or a stray focus with no aim at all, the sleepwalker must wake up and first of all become aware of his inner behavior. But the interesting thing about a mental walker is that he doesn’t even know that this possibility exists.

The social and cultural context of ideas

Basically, this is a humiliating state. It severely limits our capacity for criticism, our political reason and our ability to act ethically, and the classic ideal of “Enlightenment” acquires a whole new meaning in light of new research findings. But it’s important to remember that neuroscience and cognitive science aren’t the only pieces of the puzzle. Culture plays a role, too. Social and cultural context shapes the way we report our inner experiences, which ultimately consist of imprecise but functionally successful models of the world in our consciousness. When we tell children from an early age that they are fully responsible for their actions, and when we punish and reward them accordingly, this assumption is built into their self-conscious model. Your mind will now automatically predict that you will be an independent person and responsible for your actions, your inner life narrative will say, “It has always been this way” since the dawn of autobiographical memory. So the adult’s conscious self-model could be, at least in part, a post-ad hoc conversation imported from the social and cultural context – an illusion of control that ultimately also depends on how we internalize social interactions and entrenched language games. All this also applies to inner actions, to the imagining of the invisible “cognitive factor” within us, the entity that is not only independent but always knows that it already knows. The tourist at the bow of our ship begins to experience herself as a capable witch who makes dolphins appear out of nowhere and jump under her command, then in reality often fails inexplicably.

Determining factors of mental independence

If you want critical rationality, you have to want intellectual independence. As research increasingly tells us what factors are limiting mental autonomy, academic teaching needs to reflect this as well. Rationality can be trained in the same way as inner awareness. In some places, the transition from research to teaching has already begun: there have long been philosophical courses on argument theory, and many universities are now making secular meditation classes and systematic programs for developing critical media skills an integral part of their profile. In situations of social and political crisis and in the context of accelerating global processes of transformation, this transfer is a critical contribution to the common good, as it increases the democratic resilience and internal cohesion of society as a whole.

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