CHAPTER 1 - Thought

Think you know what thought is?  It may not be as simple as you think!

We’re all familiar with thought, to be sure, just like we’re familiar with our own bodies.  But just because we know our own bodies doesn’t make us all doctors.  In the same way, we might know our own thoughts well, but that doesn’t make us experts in the science of thought.  So that we all start on the same page, we start with a cook’s tour of neurobiology and psychology, setting the scene to define what thought really is, according to current models of cognition and volition.

Are you ready?  Lets go on a journey.

Neurobiology 101

The nerve cell

At the most fundamental level of our thought process is the nerve cell, also called a neuron.  Nerve cells, like all cells in the body, have a nucleus containing the genetic material. The nucleus is surrounded by cytoplasm, a watery chemical soup that contains the functional proteins that make the cell run.  A thin lipid layer called the cell membrane envelopes the nucleus and cytoplasm.  The cell membrane contains important protein structures such as receptors that help the cell receive signals from other cells, and ion channels, which help the cell regulate its internal chemistry.

Compared to other cells, nerve cells have three unique structures that help them do their job.  First are dendrites, which are spiny branches that protrude from the main cell body, which receive the signals from other nerve cells.  Leading away from the cell body is a long thin tube called an axon which helps carry electrical signal from the dendrites, down to the some tentacle-like processes that end in little pods.  These pods, called the terminal buttons of the axon, and then convey the electrical signal to another nerve cell by directing a burst of chemicals towards the dendrites of the next nerve cell in the chain.

In order for the signal to be successfully passed from the first nerve cell to the second, it must successfully traverse a small space called the synapse.

The synapse

Despite being very close to each other, no nerve cell touches another.  Instead, the spray of chemicals that’s released from the terminal button of the axon floats across a space of about 20-40nM (a nanometre is one billionth of a metre).

There are a number of different chemicals that traverse synapses, but each terminal button has its own particular one.  The most well known are serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine.

If the signal from the first nerve is strong enough, then a critical amount of the chemical is released and will make it across the gap to the dendrites of the second nerve cell on the other side.  The chemical interacts with specific receptors on the new dendrites, which cause them to open up to certain salts like sodium and potassium.  As sodium and potassium move in and out of the cell, a new electrical current if formed in the second nerve cell, passing the signal down the line.  

To prevent the chemicals in the synapse from over-stimulating the second nerve cell, enzymes breakdown the chemicals to clear the space before the next signal comes past.

Nerve pathways

Combining nerve cells and synapses together creates a nerve pathway, where the input signal is received by specialised nerve endings and is transmitted down the nerve cell across a synapse to the next nerve cell, across the next synapse to the next nerve cell, and on and on until the signal has reached the destination for the output of that signal.

And that’s it.  The entire nervous system is just a combination of nerve cells and the synapses between them.

What gives the nervous system and brain the near-infinite flexibility, and air of mystery, is that there are eighty-six billion nerve cells in the average adult (male) brain.  Each nerve cell has hundreds to thousands of synapses.  It’s estimated that there are about 0.15 quadrillion (that’s 150,000,000,000,000) synapses throughout the average brain [4].  And that’s not including the nerve cells and synapses in the spinal cord, autonomic nervous system and throughout the body.  Each of these cells and synapses connect in multiple directions and levels, and transmit signals through the sum of the exciting or inhibiting influences they receive from, and pass on to, other nerve cells.

Single nerve cells may have the appearances of trees with their axon trunks and dendritic branches.  But altogether, the billions of connections would more resemble a box of cobwebs.

Higher order brain structures

But unlike a box of cobwebs, the brain has precise organisation to the myriad of connections.  These areas can be defined either by their structure, or by their function.

Structurally, there are areas in the brain that are dominated by nerve cell bodies, formed into a little cluster, called a nucleus (different from the nucleus of each cell).  Then there are groups of axons bundled together, called a tract, which behave like a data cable for your computer.  Nuclei process multiple sources of signal and refine them.  The refined signals are sent into the appropriate tract to be transmitted to either another set of nuclei for further refinement, or to distant structures to carry out their effect.  The axons of the nerve cells that make up the tracts are usually covered in a thick white material called myelin.  Myelin acts like insulation on a wire, improving the speed and accuracy of the communicated signal.  Parts of the brains with lots of myelinated cells are described as “white matter”.  The nuclei and the cerebral cortex (the outer covering of the brain) are unmyelinated cells, and are referred to as “grey matter”.

On a functional level, the brain is divided into parts depending on what information is processed, and how it gets processed.  For example, the cerebral cortex is divided into primary areas for the senses and for motor functions, secondary areas and tertiary association areas. The primary sensory areas detect specific sensations, whereas the secondary areas make sense out of the signals in the primary areas.  Association areas receive and analyze signals simultaneously from multiple regions of both the motor and sensory areas, as well as from the deeper parts of the brain [5].  The frontal lobe, and specifically pre-frontal cortex, is responsible for higher brain functions such as working memory, planning, decision making, executive attention and inhibitory control [6].

Everything our senses detect is essentially deconstructed, processed then reconstructed by our brains.  For example, when reading this page, the image is decoded by our retina and sent through a number of pathways to finally reach the primary visual cortex at the back of our brain.  The primary visual cortex has 6 layers of nerve cells which simultaneously encode the various aspects of the image (especially colour, intensity and movement of the signals) and this information is sent to the secondary association areas that detect patterns, both basic (lines are straight, curved, angled) and complex (two diagonal intersecting lines form an ‘x’).  One part of the secondary association areas in the visual cortex (the Angular Gyrus) processes these patterns further into the patterns of written words.  The information on the various patterns that were discerned by the secondary association areas then get sent to the tertiary association area for the senses where those visual patterns are combined with patterns processed from other sensory areas (hearing, touch and internal body sensations) to form a complex pattern of multimodal association [5].  In the case of reading, the tertiary association area allows comprehension of the written words that were previously only recognised as words by the secondary association areas.

In the recent decades, with the widespread adoption of non-invasive methods of studying the active living brain such as PET scanning and fMRI, researchers have discovered that rather than discrete parts of the brain lighting up with a specific task, entire networks involving multiple brain regions are activated.  This has lead to the paradigm of neurocognitive networks, in which the brain is made up of multiple interconnected networks that “are dynamic entities that exist and evolve on multiple temporal as well as spatial scales” and “by virtue of both their anatomical and functional architectures, as well as the dynamics manifested through these architectures, large-scale network function underlies all cognitive ability.” [7]

Emotions and feelings

Emotions are a difficult concept to define.  Despite being studied as a concept for more than a century, the definition of what constitutes an emotion remains elusive.  Some academics and researchers believe that the term is so ambiguous that it’s useless to science and should be discarded [8].

I’ll discuss emotions further in chapter 2, but for now, it’s easiest to think of our emotional state as the sum total of our different physiological systems, and feelings are the awareness, or the perception of our emotional state.

Different parts of the brain are responsible for the awareness of these feelings.  The amygdala is often considered the seat of our fears, the anterior insula is responsible for the feeling of disgust, and the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex are involved in a broad range of different emotions [9].

Different emotional states are linked with different neurotransmitters within the brain.  For example, a predisposition to anxiety is often linked to variations in the genes for serotonin transport [10] while positive and negative affect (“joy / sadness”) are linked to the dopaminergic system [11].


Memories, like thoughts, are something that we’re all familiar with in our own way.

Memory is quite complicated.  For a start, there’s more than one form of memory.  You’ve probably heard of short term and long term memory.  Short term memory is further thought of as sensory memory and working memory.  Long term memory is divided into semantic and episodic memory.  Memory is also classified as either declarative memory, also called explicit memory, and nondeclarative memory, also called implicit memory.

Squire and Wixted explain, “Nondeclarative memory is neither true nor false. It is dispositional and is expressed through performance rather than recollection. These forms of memory provide for myriad unconscious ways of responding to the world. In no small part, by virtue of the unconscious status of the nondeclarative forms of memory, they create some of the mystery of human experience. Here arise the dispositions, habits, and preferences that are inaccessible to conscious recollection but that nevertheless are shaped by past events, influence our behavior and mental life, and are an important part of who we are.” [12]

On the other hand, declarative memory “is the kind of memory that is referred to when the term memory is used in everyday language. Declarative memory allows remembered material to be compared and contrasted. The stored representations are flexible, accessible to awareness, and can guide performance in a variety of contexts. Declarative memory is representational. It provides a way of modeling the external world, and it is either true or false.” [12]

Working memory is a central part of the memory model.  Information from feelings, stored memories and actions all converge in working memory.  The model of working memory initially proposed by Baddeley involves a central executive, “a control system of limited attentional capacity that is responsible for the manipulation of information within working memory and for controlling two subsidiary storage systems: a phonological loop and a visuospatial sketchpad.”[13] Baddeley later added a third subsidiary system, the episodic buffer, “a limited capacity store that is capable of multi-dimensional coding, and that allows the binding of information to create integrated episodes.” [13]

Working memory is known to be distinct from other longer term memories that are dependent on part of the brain called the hippocampus, because patients with severe damage to the hippocampus can remember a small amount of information for a short time, but are not able to push that information into longer term memory functions to retain that information.  Information in working memory doesn’t last for any more than a few minutes [12].

So, there are many forms of memory that are important to our lives and influence our behaviour that are “inaccessible to conscious recollection”.  But even declarative memory, which is accessible to thought, doesn’t actually make up the thought itself.  Memories are stored representations.

When memories are formed or retrieved, the information is processed in chunks.  As Byrne pointed out, “We like to think that memory is similar to taking a photograph and placing that photograph into a filing cabinet drawer to be withdrawn later (recalled) as the ‘memory’ exactly the way it was placed there originally (stored).  But memory is more like taking a picture and tearing it up into small pieces and putting the pieces in different drawers.  The memory is then recalled by reconstructing the memory from the individual fragments of the memory.” [14] Recalling the original memory is an inaccurate process, because sometimes these pieces of the memory are lost, faded or mixed up with another [15].  This is why what we perceive and what we recall are often two different things entirely.

Why do we have memory then, if it’s so flawed at recalling information?  Because memory is less about recalling the past, and more about imagining and planning the future.  As Schacter writes, “The constructive episodic simulation hypothesis states that a critical function of a constructive memory system is to make information available in a flexible manner for simulation of future events. Specifically, the hypothesis holds that past and future events draw on similar information and rely on similar underlying processes, and that the episodic memory system supports the construction of future events by extracting and recombining stored information into a simulation of a novel event. While this adaptive function allows past information to be used flexibly when simulating alternative future scenarios, the flexibility of memory may also result in vulnerability to imagination-induced memory errors, where imaginary events are confused with actual events.” [16]

Neuroscience of thought

Global Workspace / Intelligent Distribution Agent Model

Building on Baddeley’s model of working memory, Baars proposed the Global Workspace theory [17], and went further by adding the Intelligent Distribution Agent model [18].  Central to this model is the “Cognitive cycle”, a nine-step description of the underlying process from perception through to action.  In the model, implicit neural information processing is considered to be a continuing stream of cognitive cycles, overlapping so they act in parallel. The conscious broadcast of our thought stream is limited to a single cognitive cycle at any given instant, so while these thought cycles run in in parallel, our awareness of them is in the serial, sometimes disparate, streams of words or pictures in our minds. Baars suggests that as many as twenty cycles could be running per second, and since working-memory tasks occur on the order of seconds, several cognitive cycles may be needed for any given working memory task, especially if it has conscious components such as mental rehearsal [18].

In recent years, the Global Workspace/Intelligent Distribution Agent hypothesis has been updated to help facilitate the quest to create different forms of artificial intelligence.  The LIDA (“Learning Intelligent Distribution Agent”) model incorporates the Global Workspace theory with the concepts of memory formation to create a single, broad, systems-level model of the mind.

Franklin et al summarise the process, “During each cognitive cycle the LIDA agent first makes sense of its current situation as best as it can by updating its representation of its current situation, both external and internal. By a competitive process, as specified by Global Workspace Theory, it then decides what portion of the represented situation is the most salient, the most in need of attention. Broadcasting this portion, the current contents of consciousness, enables the agent to chose an appropriate action and execute it, completing the cycle.” [19] Information within the cognitive cycle is broadcast to our consciousness in order to recruit a wider area of the brain to enhance the processing of that information [18, 20].  It’s the broadcasting of this portion of the information flow that renders it “conscious”.

Thought, therefore, is simply a broadcast of one part of a deeper flow of information.  This is very important, as it means that thought is not an instigator or a controlling force.  It’s not a case of, “I think, therefore, I am”, but, “I am, therefore, I think.”

Neural networks involved in the neurobiology of thought?

There is good evidence that working memory, and the attention required to select the information streams that fill the global workspace at any one moment, are intrinsically linked to a group of brain regions tagged as the Prefrontal Parietal Network [21].  Disease or damage to the PPN or impairment of the PPN in the lab impairs normal conscious function.  Research-level brain imaging studies have strongly implicated the PPN in perceptual transitions, the conscious detection of stimuli in a range of modalities, sustaining percepts, and in metacognitive decisions (awareness of awareness) on those percepts. Finally, a reduction of conscious level when under general anesthesia is associated with a reduced lateral prefrontal activity [21].

Other neural networks have been defined that are also important in the neurophysiology of conscious awareness.  When there are no external stimuli, the brain doesn’t just turn off.  Some parts of the brain become even more active.  The same parts of the brain are active when we daydream (what researchers call “stimulus independent thought”).

We have all experienced this at some point.  Our body will be doing something while our brain is off somewhere else.  I find this happens to me when I’m driving home from work.  Going the same route every day means that I often drift into autopilot as I’m thinking about the events of the day or my stomach reminds me that I’m hungry, and five minutes later I pay attention to my surroundings and realise that I’m nearly home.

There are many other sentinel neurocognitive networks, among them: the default mode network, the central executive network, and the salience network.  The central executive network is involved in actively working on an external task, which we think of as attention.  The default mode network is involved in autobiographical retrieval and self-monitoring activity, the “stimulus independent thought”, or day-dreaming.  The salience network acts as a switch between the two, figuring out which external stimuli need active attention and switching on the central executive network [7].  Whichever one of these networks is active at the time, that network is actively feeding information into the working memory, which is what we perceive as “thought”.

When the brain is engaged in a new or difficult task requiring active attention, the executive parts of the brain overtake the default mode network.  But when attention is not actively required such as well-practiced tasks, or if our attention diminishes as with boring tasks, the Default Mode Network becomes dominant again.  The switch between attention and the default mode network is strongly related to the neurotransmitter dopamine [22].  These networks heavily overlap with the Prefrontal Parietal Network and the global workspace model.

Recent neurobiological evidence confirms the role the default mode network in thought processing, specifically the part of the brain called the cingulate cortex.   This has been confirmed in studies in healthy subjects [23], and in people with formal thought disorders (especially auditory verbal hallucinations) [24]. Specifically, the DMN is often the part of the brain that is the most active in remembering the past, and using similar mechanisms, also the simulations of the future.  It is linked to daydreaming and creativity especially when a problem is allowed to “incubate” for a while, while the brain is involved in another task that is more menial, or low stress.  It’s theorised that the attentional and implicit networks in the brain are brought into a closer proximity and allowed to interact, which improved the likelihood that a novel solution would be discovered [25].

Research into the topics of thought and consciousness is ever-growing and expanding, and if you want to read more about these topic, they have been very well covered in a two part series from De Sousa, [26] and [27].

Other cognitive frameworks of thought

Dual Systems Model

As I briefly touched on before, the Dual Systems model of human reasoning explains our cognitive process in terms of two systems.

System 1 involves a set of different subsystems that operate in parallel, delivering swift and intuitive judgments and decisions in response to our perceptions. System 1 is unconscious, automatic and guided by principles that are, to a significant extent, innately fixed and universal among humans.

System 2 is the system that involves “thought” as people typically think about it. It is both conscious and reflective in character, and proceeds in a slow, serial manner, according to principles that vary among both individuals and cultures [28].  This system is in harmony with the Global Workspace concept of the cognitive cycle.

System 2 is generally held to be subject to intentional control, hence why thoughts can be volitional.  System 2 can be guided by normative beliefs about proper reasoning methods.  In other words, we can learn ways of thinking about our thoughts to handle them better.  And one of the principal roles often attributed to system 2 is to override the unreflective responses that are issued automatically by system 1 in reasoning tasks, when these fall short of appropriate standards of rationality.  We can use thought to modulate or suppress our intuitive responses, the concept of “think before you act”.

Neural networks which function as described by the Dual Systems model have been confirmed by research, and have taken the theory further [9].  Not only can stimuli that are emotionally significant activate the lower, emotional parts of our brain, they can do so without us ever being consciously aware they were detected.  For example, when test subjects had their visual cortex temporarily stunned by a transcranial magnetic stimulator, they could detect whether a face was happy or sad and even where it was on a grid without consciously sensing that they had “seen” a face [29].  Subconscious emotional stimuli can modulate our attention before we are aware of their perception [30].

Relational Frame Theory / Acceptance And Commitment Therapy

Relational frame theory, and the clinical approach based on it called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, sees thoughts as contextual.  This is interesting, as new neurobiological approaches such as neurocognitive networks are also girded by the developing view of cognition which is that cognition “is marked by both dynamic flexibility and context sensitivity.” [7]

Relational frame theory posits that “the core of human language and cognition is learning to relate events mutually and in combination not simply on the basis of their formal properties (e.g., size, shape) but also on the basis of arbitrary cues.” [31] Basically, we understand things in both concrete and abstract ways.  “The gold coin is small” is referring to the tangible properties of the gold coin.  “The gold coin is very valuable” is referring to the arbitrary properties of the gold coin, which are values that we define in our minds.

Hayes states, “A key RFT insight of clinical importance is that relational framing is regulated by two distinguishable features: the relational context and the functional context ... The relational context determines what you think; the functional context determines the psychological impact of what you think.” [31]

So in terms of thought, what we think isn’t necessarily reliable.  It’s contextual, and often abstract and arbitrary.  The meanings and values that are placed on our thoughts are related to the context in which they came to us, and the impact is also arbitrary, a function of our minds and our language.

As William Shakespeare wrote, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” [32] Thoughts are just that - thoughts.  So while there is a mountain of published literature on “negative” or “positive” thoughts, such distinctions are subjective, arbitrary, and often entirely unhelpful.

We often become fused to the meaning of our thoughts.  We begin to take them literally, without noticing the process of thinking itself.  When the thoughts become painful, we don’t know how to handle them, and we run from them, or try to suppress them.  But in fighting with the thoughts, we actually draw attention to them and make them more powerful.  This makes them even more painful, and makes the avoidance worse.  We then lose flexible contact with the present moment, as we become more and more consumed with the internal battle with our painful thoughts and subsequent emotions.  Rather than looking around us, all we can do is focus on the pain or be anywhere else where difficult events are not occurring. [31]

The key in this battle is not to engage with the “negative” thoughts by pushing them away or trying to change them.  Pushing the painful thoughts away makes them go away for a while, but it takes a lot of effort.  The thoughts return as we tire, but we have less energy to resist them.

Try holding a fully inflated basketball under water.  It’s possible, but the basketball wants to get back to the surface.  Holding it down is hard work.  You usually can’t do it for long.  Fighting our thoughts is the same.

Harris describes the focus of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, “around two main processes: developing acceptance of unwanted private experiences which are out of personal control, commitment and action towards living a valued life … In ACT, there is no attempt to try to reduce, change, avoid, suppress, or control these private experiences.  Instead, clients learn to reduce the impact and influence of unwanted thoughts and feelings, through the effective use of mindfulness.” [33]

The first principle of ACT is to start treating thoughts as what they really are … just thoughts.  This is simply done by learning to observe the process of thinking again, to realise that the words going through our minds are just words.  They only have the meaning that we give to them.  They only have the power that we allow them to have.

We will discuss this later on in this section, but the key to overcoming thought patterns we don’t want isn’t to change them, it’s to remove their power.  Trying to change them means engaging with them, which only makes them stronger.  Disempowering them means seeing them for what they are.  They may sound like Rottweiler’s but when you actually look, they’re more like Chihuahua’s with megaphones.  When you understand that your thoughts are not in control, you can move forward into the actions that really bring change. 

What is, and is not, a thought?

Thought, therefore, is simply a broadcast of one part of a deeper flow of information.  Thought is not a controlling force.  It’s not a case of, “I think, therefore, I am”, but, “I am, therefore, I think.”

Thoughts are often described in the peer-reviewed publications as the “stream of thought” or the “stream of consciousness”.  According to Baars, thoughts arise from the broadcast step of multiple cognitive cycles, but the conscious broadcast of our thought stream is limited to a single cognitive cycle at any given instant.  Thus, even though it is considered a “stream”, our awareness of our thought is in a serial, sometimes disparate, sequence of frames.

There are some features of our stream of thought that differentiate it from other brain activity.  We have a level of voluntary control over our stream of thought, even if it’s not direct [15].  It is also characterized by a metacognitive level – we have “thinking about thinking” [28, 34], and we have “awareness of awareness” [35].

Yet there are still many neurological functions that are confused with thoughts.

Brain activity

“Thoughts” are often confused for any brain activity.  The stream of thought is sometimes referred to as the “stream of consciousness” but that’s a misnomer.

Consciousness has varying levels (coma, deep sleep, lucid dreaming, awake, and alert).  Only some of these levels of consciousness allow thought.  Therefore, it would be fair to say that thoughts are a form of activity of the brain, just like Toyotas are a form of car.

Brain activity is largely subconscious.  It carries on in the background without our awareness [9].  There are multiple simultaneous streams of data being perceived all the time - sensation from our ears, skin, eyes and internal organs - that our brain filters out before it reaches our awareness.  Background traffic noise, the pressure of your clothes on your skin, joint position, heart rate and breathing, for example.  It’s not that these sensations are not present, but you only become aware of them when your attention is drawn to them.  Those data streams are not thoughts in and of themselves because we lack awareness of them. They only become part of our thoughts when attention is paid to them.  Since thoughts are characterized by metacognition, “awareness of awareness”, then neural activity we aren’t aware of cannot be considered thoughts.

The other problem with defining all brain activity as “thought” is that such as definition would also mean that seizures were thoughts, or brainstem reflexes were thoughts.  We intuitively know that’s not the case.


So what about dreams?  We’re aware of dreams, aren’t we?  Could dreams be considered thoughts?

Dreams are awareness of perception and emotion, similar to our state of awareness when we’re awake.  But dreams occur in an altered state of consciousness (that is, we are asleep).  Dreams also lack self-awareness.  When you dream, you don’t realise that you’re dreaming. Secondary consciousness, the level of consciousness that we possess when we are awake, is defined in part as having awareness of awareness.  It is more than just having awareness of perception and emotion.  It is “self-reflection, insight, judgment or abstract thought that constitute secondary consciousness.” [35]


As I wrote earlier, memories aren’t just simple recall, but a complex system involving both conscious and unconscious elements.  The conscious elements of memory are simply stored representations of events and experiences.  They may become part of a thought broadcast, but they are not thoughts per se.

“Thinking” and “Choosing”

Human volition is a very broad topic in its own right.  Choice has been philosophically dissected for centuries.  Haggard observed, “Most adult humans have a strong feeling of voluntary control over their actions, and of acting ‘as they choose’. The capacity for voluntary action is so fundamental to our existence that social constraints on it, such as imprisonment and prohibition of certain actions, are carefully justified and heavily regulated.” [36]

Volition and action are the output side of a broad continuum of neurological function.  The executive areas of our brain, including the default mode network, interact with parts of our brain whose functions involve the planning and coordination of movement, specifically the basal ganglia and the pre-supplemental motor area.  The vast majority of neurological activity that occurs during the planning and execution of an action occurs unconsciously [15, 37].  We aren’t aware of every action involved in walking into a room, or sipping coffee from our cup.  To consciously control every aspect of every action would be impossible.

Indeed, in the same way that thought is simply a broadcast of a small part of a much larger neurological process, so it is that conscious voluntary control is a broadcast of part of a much larger process of goal, reward, and action comparisons going on underneath our awareness.  Research shows that subliminal priming significantly influences cognitive control [37].  Some researchers in this area believe that this projection of information into our awareness provides an element of real-time monitoring and an inhibitory, or veto function [15].  However it may be that it provides recruitment of additional areas of the brain to assist in the processing of the various possible actions and their rewards functions, similar to the function of the broadcast within the cognitive cycle [18, 20].

Either way, cognitive neuroscience has proven that thought does not drive our conscious volition.  Over three decades ago, Libet performed an experiment that demonstrated measurable neural activity occurring up to a full second before a test subject was consciously aware of the intention to act [38].  More recently, a study by Soon et al showed that predictable brain activity occurred up to eight seconds before a person was aware of their intention to act [39].  As Bonn says, “the gist of these findings is that our feeling of having consciously willed an act is illusory in many ways. It seems that the conscious awareness of intention that we place so much weight upon, that we naively think of as causal, is, in fact, a narrative construction that is formed well after the train of causation has been set in motion.” [15]

Haggard concludes, “Modern neuroscience rejects the traditional dualist view of volition as a causal chain from the conscious mind or ‘soul’ to the brain and body.  Rather, volition involves brain networks making a series of complex, open decisions between alternative actions.” [36]

This does not eliminate our capacity to choose, but frames it in a more realistic fashion.  As Bonn points out, “Although we are not consciously aware of what is going on at every stage of the chain of neural events leading to action, there is room for a degree of conscious involvement if only to pull the emergency brake before it is too late. Thus, although it may not be the initial source of motivations and behavioral impulses, the part of the mind that is self-reflective; that can envision the self in causal and narrative contexts, may serve important monitoring and control functions.” [15]

Bonn concluded his discussion on the modern concept of free will, “… if one accepts that free will can exist in degrees limited by a person’s knowledge and experiences; and, that decisions do not need to be entirely conscious in order to be owned by the individual. Then, I believe there is evidence to posit a level of will and independence within the person.”

So it’s wrong to think of our will being entirely conscious and thought driven.  It’s more accurate to say that we still have capacity to choose, but that our will is constrained by our experience and knowledge.  Therefore we can make choices, or “exercise our will”, if you like, but within the constraints of a number of factors beyond our conscious control.

We do not have free will – more like constrained will.


Rene Descartes, the French philosopher in the 1600’s, first proposed the famous words, “I think, therefore, I am.”  But according to modern neuroscience, Descartes was wrong.

Thought is built on the complex pathways of billions of nerve cells and their synapses, creating quadrillions of possible pathways.  Together, these pathways form specialized areas of function in the brain, which network to process the signals coming in, and coordinate the actions going out.  Thought is used by the brain to engage larger areas of cerebral cortex in the processing of the salient features of the ongoing, unconscious data stream. Cognitive neuroscience has rejected the philosophical concept of Dualism - thought does not control the underlying data stream, nor does thought control every choice we make or action we take.

According to modern neuroscience, Descartes should have said, “I am, therefore, I think.”

In the next chapter, I will outline a model of the pathways that connect our thought and our action, and show how small changes at the very beginning of the pathway can affect our thoughts and our actions.