PT's Book Review

Read about books on consciousness, sex and aggression, aging, nightmares and more.

By Paul Chance, published March 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

On PT's Bookshelf

The Illusion Of Conscious Will

( MIT Press, 2002) Daniel R. Wegner, D.M.

Reviewed by Nancey Murphy, Ph.D., Th.D.

No one could fail to enjoy or benefit from Daniel Wegner's frustrating new book.

Wegner's thesis would seem to be expressed in the title: Conscious will is an illusion. He distinguishes two ways of talking about conscious will: as a feeling of voluntariness or of doing something on purpose, and as "a force of mind, a name for the causal link between our minds and our actions." Wegner draws from a rich variety of sources to show that the feeling of conscious will does not always correspond with will in the second sense.

One kind of evidence for Wegner's thesis is cases in which it is highly likely that people are in fact the causes of their own actions, but they experience the acts as being controlled by some other source. His accounts of these occurrences such as automatic writing, spirit possession, table turning and the like, are fascinating as well as informative. For example, there is the case of Pearl Curran, who began experimenting with a Ouija Board and received "communications" from a personality called Patience Worth, who had allegedly lived in the seventeenth century. Worth "dictated" poems, essays and novels, many of which were subsequently published.

A second kind of evidence involves cases in which the feeling of will is present but causation is absent. An example is neuroscientist Benjamin Libet's finding that the conscious decision to move a finger follows the neural signal associated with the movement. Since a cause must necessarily precede its effect, the decision cannot possibly cause the act.

Wegner presents this material in an entertaining way. For example, in surveying theories about the nature of hypnosis, he writes, "We know Mesmer thought it was 'animal magnetism,' a colorful idea that inspires nice images of people being stuck to cattle, but which has little else to recommend it."

Yet the book is also frustrating. The title leads us to expect that it will show that conscious agency is an illusion, but in fact, the book is really about the feeling of conscious agency. This is an important topic in itself. It is useful to recognize that the feeling can be distinguished from the real thing and studied productively by psychologists. But what, if any, implications does this have for the age-old question about human responsibility? In Wegner's words, "Do we consciously cause our actions, or do they happen to us?"

It is hard to see where Wegner comes down on this question. On the one hand, he asserts more or less forcefully that our actions happen to us; conscious will is an illusion. He sums up his discussion of automatisms (automatic writing and so on) by saying that they "represent a class of instances in which apparent mental causation fails. This means that if conscious will is illusory, automatisms are somehow the 'real thing,' fundamental mechanisms of mind that are left over once the illusion has been stripped away. Rather than conscious will being the rule and automatism the exception, the opposite may be true; automatism is the rule, and the illusion of conscious will is the exception." On the other hand, Wegner speaks throughout the book about our causal agency. In fact, his examples of a mismatch between felt agency and actual agency could not get off the ground without his understanding that people act as agents most of the time.

But even if Wegner's position on free will is not clear, he has provided good food for thought and has made an extremely important contribution to the discussion by showing that the experience of conscious will cannot be used as evidence for the existence of free will.

The Pop-Up Book Of Nightmares

St. Martins Press, $29.95

A pop-up book aimed at adults, this work illustrates in three dimensions every nightmare you've ever had, and some you don't want to know about. (One, based on the Freudian interpretation of cars as phallic symbols, suggests that dreams about traffic accidents imply anxiety about impotence). But it's the mobile graphics by Balvis Rubess and Matthew Reinhart that really make this book fun. Turn the page to the birthing dream, for instance, and you find yourself being presented with a newborn resembling William Donald Schaefer, former governor of Maryland. Horrors.

Whale Done! The Power Of Positive Relationships

Free Press, $19.95

In this management parable, Wes Kingsley is a no-nonsense manager of the "Gotcha!" school, where managing means pointing out mistakes. But the more conscientious he is, the worse things become. Thoroughly demoralized, he visits SeaWorld for some R&R. There he watches Shamu and other whales performing stunts for their human "managers" and learns that the trainers' secret is positive reinforcement: Instead of focusing on errors, they focus on what the animals do right. This sounds obvious, but the bias toward "Gotcha!" is so innate in most of us that it will seem new to many readers. Written by businessman Ken Blanchard (author of The One Minute Manager) and three professional trainers, this book shows behavior modification as it was meant to be done.

The Fasting Girl: A True Victorian Medical Mystery

Tarcher/Putnam, $23.95

In 1865, 18-year-old Mollie Fancher was thrown from a horse cart. Thereafter, she complained of a variety of ailments, including paralysis and blindness, but she became most famous for thriving despite ostensibly refusing to eat. Doctors, journalists, spiritualists and the curious traveled worldwide to marvel at her 12-year fast, and many were convinced she truly survived without a bite of food. Though wiser souls called her claims ridiculous, Mollie managed to stay in or near the public eye for 50 years. Journalist Michelle Stacey argues that Mollie was as much a product of her era, when "hysteria" was in fashion, as are the anorexic women of today, now that thin is in.

The Secret Lives Of Girls: The Real Feelings Of Young Girls About Sex, Violence, Peer Pressure, And Morality

Free Press, $24

If you think girls are sugar and spice and everything nice, you're in for a surprise. According to author Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., professor of psychology at Saint Michael's College in Vermont, the recipe for girls also calls for vinegar and hot sauce. Drawing from 125 interviews with girls and women, Lamb provides a peek at sex games that involve kissing and pretend intercourse, as well as aggressive acts that include hurtful words and occasional blows. Girls of all ages may experience great relief at finding their own secret experiences shared by others, and boys of all ages may find themselves saying, "Hmm. Girls are a lot like us."

Keep Your Brain Young: The Complete Guide To Physical And Emotional Health And Longevity

John Wiley & Sons, $24.95

Are your gray cells getting slightly sluggish? Age-proof your brain with this book by Guy McKhann, M.D., professor of neurology and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and Marilyn Albert, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and neurology at Harvard Medical School. They provide tips on dealing with everyday problems such as forgetfulness and depression, explain how to recognize and cope with serious brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and offer advice on keeping your brain fit through diet and exercise.