Steve Volk

Steve Volk

Working the Margins

The Meat Of Us

Did Jeff Schwartz find evidence for free will?

Posted Dec 19, 2013

In the early 90s, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a neuropsychiatrist at UCLA, started loading test subjects into a SPECT-imaging machine. An avid meditator, Schwartz wanted to test the efficacy of mindfulness as an antidote to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Today, most of us own some basic understanding of what “mindfulness” entails. The core practice of mindfulness involves learning to observe our thoughts and feelings dispassionately—to see the world clearly, in the moment. The term held little traction back then in neuroscience and medicine. A search of PubMed’s archives spanning the 10 years before Schwartz replicated his findings yields precious few results. But for Schwartz, a practicing Buddhist at the time, mindfulness meditation comprised a core practice of his life and loomed as a possible escape hatch for his OCD patients.

OCD plagues sufferers with irrational fears that, in turn, compel repetitive behavior. The thought my hands are dirty fills the OCD sufferer with dread that the dirt, the contamination, is fatal. In severe cases, an OCD patient might lose hours out of the day to their compulsions, washing his hands dozens or even hundreds of times in succession—the dirt gone, the fear ever present.

Schwartz used mindfulness to teach his patients a new skill—to step back from their behaviors, like true mindfulness practitioners, and start gaining back the time, the lives, they lost.

In the doing, Schwartz produced the first brain imaging study demonstrating that a psychiatric treatment could, without the use of pharmaceuticals, alter faulty brain chemistry in a well-identified brain circuit. Schwartz eventually dubbed his treatment “self-directed neuroplasticity”, a method for his patients to alleviate their own anxiety disorder; or anyone else, for that matter, to change the shape and function of their own brains by changing the way they think.

Great success in science didn’t quite add up to universal respect from his colleagues, however, or even tenure.

Why? Well, part of his problem is probably his argumentative demeanor. But the other reason colleagues regularly tried to derail the Schwartz train is more intriguing: Schwartz used his scientific work to launch a scientific and philosophical argument: The seemingly nonphysical stuff of thought, he contends, is ultimately more powerful than the physical matter of brain.

“The entire neuroscientific establishment is built around the idea that you are your brain,” he told me, multiple times, in a full holler. “I told people the opposite—and I got results!”

His argument bears deep implications for science, and for us all.

Do human beings have free will? Are we more than meat computers?

I recently published Obsessed: The compulsions and creations of Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz as an e-single for Discover magazine.

I do my level best to capture the arc of Schwartz’s entire life and career, with a particular emphasis on that period in the 90s when Schwartz did his finest scientific work and faced multiple threats to his academic position. In one instance, a more senior colleague even attempts to knock Schwartz out of the lead author position on his own groundbreaking work.

After the piece came out, I even got to experience a small taste of the controversy Schwartz generates, first hand.

Science blogger Virginia Hughes reviewed Obsessed for the website Download the Universe, accusing me of mishandling the science and even going so far as to call me “corrupted.” She claims I lump author David Eagleman into the anti-free will camp. But this simply isn’t true. (I reference Eagleman twice and on the second mention I fully explicate his position.) She says I don’t contextualize Schwartz’s musings on quantum mind, yet I quote Schwartz himself saying: “The key element of any scientific hypothesis is, can we test it? And we’re not there yet.” (I trust Discover’s readers to understand that a hypothesis must be testable to be valid.) And in her most obvious stumble, Hughes suggests that I failed to apprehend that the real reason Schwartz generated so much opposition, in the 90s, is because he signed a statement from the Discovery Institute—the outfit backing Intelligent Design—in 2004. (Having failed to grasp basic chronology, she subsequently ran a correction.) 

There’s more, but I’ve gone far enough. Hughes is four aces as a blogger, regularly posting informative little essays at her site, Only Human. She has also since published a terrific e-single of her own, on the science of genetics, called Uprooted. So, going forward, I’d like to leverage one of Hughes’s other comments into the sort of discussion I hope Obsessed generates.

I suspect most people in our society don’t give the topic of free will much thought. And Hughes herself seems a tad dismissive about the whole hullabaloo over whether or not we consciously choose our actions:

“…there are actually lots of neuroscientists who believe in free will,” she writes.

But what kind of evidence do we have for free will?

Yes, we make choices, but the question is if any of those choices are truly free. Looking back over our lives, is there any moment at which we might have done differently, chosen differently, than we did? And how, in the presumably material universe, might the physical brain escape the purely material causation always causing this to bump against that to even allow us the room for a non-determined thought?

Of course, our experience suggests we make choices, freely, all the time. But our science tracks toward no. As I write in Obsessed: “Opponents of free will hold that the brain is the source of all our thoughts and behaviors, and the brain, as a physical object, must obey the laws of physics. If
that is the case, what ghost in the machine could possibly reach into this physical system without also being subject to the laws of physics—without itself being determined by preceding collisions of atoms?”

If we cannot shoot a hole in this argument, we are, as I quote Jerry Coyne: “meat computers.” And so the stakes—nothing less than how we define ourselves—are high. Are we causal agents, choosing our own unique paths in life; or mental robots, running a program?

What Schwartz’s story suggests is that there is a great power in seeing ourselves as conscious decision makers. Telling his OCD patients you are not your brain, getting them to view the “self” as a thing separate from an organic brain disorder, set them on the path toward freedom from their OCD. Conversely, there is also research out there that suggests telling people they don’t have free will can promote bad outcomes: cheating, poor job performance , even increased aggression and reduced helpfulness.

In one study, reading passages that claim free will doesn’t exist yielded an immediate decrease in brain activity associated with voluntary action—reducing the “readiness potential,” of the test subjects —to move. 

Of course, the positive effects associated with Schwartz’s view and the negative outcomes stemming from a deterministic position hold no bearing on the truth. And so, I’d argue, we are at something of a loss: Our current thinking about mind and brain undermine the very notion of free will, casting us as “biochemical puppets”; our lived experience suggests that we constantly, consciously choose, that free will is ours.

In Schwartz, I found a man and a character who has devoted his entire career—often at great personal cost—to exploring this conundrum. His data suggest that, by consciously controlling their subjective mental states, his patients could change the functioning of their brain. For trumpeting this interpretation of his work, at great volume, he paid a severe professional price. What meaning we will ultimately derive from all this remains an open question: Did his patients, in fact, control anything at all, or was their every thought determined? But his story strikes me as a fundamentally important one—bringing us right up to the edge of all we know about ourselves—and undoubtedly, a little too far out for some.

About the Author

Steve Volk

Steve Volk is a journalist and author, most recently of the e-single Obsessed: The Compulsions and Creations of Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz.

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