Free Will and Meditation

Two scientists discover the „inner witness“ as crucial for brain development

The other day my neighbor Bill returned from a trip to America . His American friends, he said, were still suffering from the aftershock of Bush's election – triumph. „Some have actually decided to leave the country and are moving to Canada ,“ Bill said and he added: „ You know what? I caught myself feeling somehow sorry for the guy. For me he comes across as somebody who is totally overtaxed. Whatever he does goes wrong. And he hasn't a clue why.“

Is the most powerful man on earth actually powerless? Is he – instead of shaping events just driven by them? Are we dealing here with a guy who doesn't know what he is doing and doesn't understand what he should do? I'm afraid the answer is yes. The American president is as impotent as approximately 99.9 % of all the people on the planet who, like Bush, lack a free will.

Is a free will more than just an idea? Is it just a possibility or does it simply not exist? Philosophers and psychologists have been discussing these questions for many decades and with increasing intensity. And a few years ago the neuro-biologists, have joined them.

In the beginning they were convinced that the brains of adults were irreversibly structured. They assumed that man is born with a set of neuronal circuits which function like a computer and never change. In early childhood a few new programs are added to the human hard drive. But at the age of ten the evolution of the brain has come to an end. No more new programs, and no programs overwriting old ones.

No matter who you are – president or pauper, manager or misfit – as an adult you think, feel, and act according to the neuronal structures you were born with and which you developed in early childhood. In other words: neurobiologists didn't believe in a free will.

But recently some neurobiologists begin to talk like spiritual masters. The adult human brain, they say, has the capacity to develop until old age if – and this is the sensational aspect of their findings – if man gets involved in a process of consciousness-development. If he is continuously letting go of old concepts, patterns, and ideas his brain will create new neuronal circuits. New programs emerge which overwrite old ones. And by this the brain is slowly realizing its full capacity.

The renowned German neurobiologist, Gerald Huether of Goettingen University , writes in his new book Manual for a Human Brain (Gebrauchsanweisung fuer ein menschliches Gehirn):

„The human brain is not a fixed construction. It has the lifelong faculty to loosen and to redesign old neuronal structures which have shaped patterns of thinking, feeling, and behavior, including seemingly indestructible basic beliefs.“

According to Huether you need to permanently question your doings and re-evaluate your attitudes and principles to enable your gray cells to create meaningful new structures in your brain. This is exactly the teaching of all sages. Like them, Huether believes that man is a creature on the way from animal to a „real human being“. He avoids the term god and he does not speak of enlightenment but essentially he is in tune with the spiritual masters of all times and traditions. „To develop consciousness,“ he says, „the brain has to watch itself.“ This is what Buddhist masters mean when they speak of the witness .

Most brains don't watch themselves, of course. With the exception of a few enlightened beings people use their brains in a totally unconscious way to avoid perils and create pleasure.

This has been the case for 100 000 years. Since then the basic structure of the human brain has remained the same. Only the modus operandi has been changing. In ancient times homo sapiens used spears and clubs to defend himself. Nowadays people try to protect themselves by accumulating wealth and power. Their brains develop sophisticated strategies to accomplish security. And if they succeed – what next?

Huether says it plainly: „First one uses one's brain cunningly to achieve a convenient life. But as soon as you have succeeded you start dozing off and become stupid.“

What has happened? The structures in the brain which help to accumulate power and money have become rigid. They predominantly influence thinking, feeling, and action. The brain has become inflexible like an old dog unable to learn new tricks. If confronted with unfamiliar situations demanding new strategies, the brain remains in the straightjacket of its old patterns of action and is unable to adjust. In other words: in the face of a profoundly new challenge, the successful moneymaker and power player tends to be a plain failure. His goal oriented and specialized brain cannot develop its full potential.

Many successful types – managers, politicians, media-bosses, Mafiosi etc – are thinking in simple cause and effect patterns. They are convinced they can solve almost all problems if they stick to their old successful strategies. They are unable to think and act in a holistic way. They do not grasp the interconnectedness of all phenomena, problems, and situations and they often lack the imagination to understand the consequences of their actions.

„The structure of our brain,“ says Huether, „depends to a large extent on how we use it.“

This „how“ is the most exciting aspect of modern brain research. Huether and his colleagues discovered that it makes a great difference if you use your brain in a conscious or in an unconscious way. Eventually it became clear that basic attitudes like awareness, sensitivity, and even love are needed to develop the brain to its maximum capacity. „Unawareness“ writes Huether, „doesn't need much brain. But when you become a little more aware and manage to bring this awareness into your actions you will use more brain than somebody who is unaware about himself and about everything around him.“

Huether came to this conclusion when he worked with different people – some aware and some unaware – looking into their brains by means of Positron-Emissions- Tomography. Huether: „Using this technology we can see how different the brain of an aware person works compared to the brain of an unaware person.“

By now Huether has begun to include authenticity, modesty, truthfulness and reliability into his research, being inclined to assume that these attitudes are also preconditions for brain-development. Huether is convinced that only a brain working at the maximum of its capacity can exercise a free will.

At this point he meets the German philosopher Peter Bieri. In his book, The Craft of Freedom, Bieri takes almost 400 pages to explain why man is unable to have a free will. Eventually however he comes to the conclusion that a free will is a possibility after all „but only for people who are able to create an inner distance to themselves.“ Bieri: „By reflecting and allowing their fantasy to play, these people work on themselves and manage to form a will which has a distinct profile“.

Often such a process is, according to Bieri, triggered by a profound life-crisis. „These life crises compel us to work on the articulation and the freedom of our will,“ he writes and here again the philosopher and the neurobiologist agree. Huether: „A life crisis can help to replace old neuronal structures by new ones which support the creation of a holistically functioning brain.“

Both authors agree that growing awareness is the way to more freedom of will. Bieri: „Self-knowledge is a measure of freedom of will.“

Neither Huether nor Bieri are talking of meditation. The very essence of their message is however identical with the message of all the buddhas: watch yourself, know yourself, be yourself and take the responsibility for yourself. In other words: Without meditation there can be no freedom of will.

© Jörg Andrees Elten