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Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities

Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities has 50 remote-ready activities, which work for either your classroom or remote teaching.

FREE WILL! but ...

CONGRATULATIONS. You have just taken an action which is not determined by anything else (since the figure can be seen either way) and which you controlled (since you decided which way to see the figure).

The observations not only suggest that you have free will (a useful thing to know in other, perhaps more earth-shaking situations), but reveal some additional interesting characteristics of this attribute.

There is some chance that when you first saw the figure together with the two buttons, you did not in fact immediately see the arrows pointing in the direction in which you had decided to see them pointing. What this indicates is that the power of free will does not extend to determining what you see; what you see at any given time is determined by actions of your brain which you cannot fully control (and of which you are not aware). What you were, however, able to do is to withhold action until you did see the arrows pointing in the direction you had previously chosen. What this indicates is that one part of your brain (the part that contains YOU) is capable of observing the variable inputs of another part of your brain (the part that is responsible for what you see) and deciding whether or not to act based on the perception offered at any given time. This may be a less potent "free will" than you might have wished you had but, if you think about it for a while, its actually not bad at all.

That IS sort of interesting. Can we run through it again please?

Can I read more about it?

Updates: 1997- 2008

Serendip IS supposed to grow by idea sharing, and so ...

An updated exhibit (April 2008) on ambigous figures is available, "Reality": Construction, Deconstruction, and
. It incorporates several different versions of ambiguous figures, including animations to explore multiple interpretations of sensory input data (and is a lot of fun too).


(from Brain and Behavior Forum, early August, 1997)

Laura Cody wrote:
This test makes no sense to me. Free will is being able to choose otherwise in a given situation and there is much literature saying we are programed from conception so tightly that we really have very little free will if any. I am left handed, I am likely to choose to see the arrows pointing to the left, my preference. I will choose the left more often than not; it's hardwired into my brain. I did choose to see the arrows pointing left. I saw them pointing right. Explain this please, frankly I am confused!

Paul Grobstein replied:
Thanks for writing. The free will exhibit is one of Serendip's original offerings, is a little cryptic, and needs to be expanded to be clearer. We'll try and do that in the near future. In the meanwhile, let me expand a bit here ... and you tell me if it helps.

Yes, I think "free will" is "being able to choose otherwise in a given situation". And that, in turn, depends on their being at least some parts of the brain which are NOT "programmed from conception so tightly". There is pretty good evidence that the needed intrinsic variability exists not only in the human brain but in the nervous systems of all organisms. Ambiguous figures, like the Serendip arrows, reveal this lack of tight programming in the human brain. Yes, one way of seeing the arrows may be easier under a given set of circumstances, but people (at least most people) can, under the same circumstances, see the arrows pointing in either direction.

The lack of "tight programming" is necessary, but not sufficient for "being able to choose otherwise in a given situation". The additional requirement is the ability to "choose" among the available options permitted by "intrinsic variability". Peoples' experiences with the exhibit (at least many peoples', including my own) suggest that humans have this ability in one sense, but not in another. As you say, one often does NOT see the arrows pointing in the direction one chose, at least not initially. But, having chosen a particular direction, one can wait around, refusing to act, and eventually intrinsic variability will yield alternate percepts, including (perhaps) the one one was looking for. The "free will" is not the ability to choose how one will see the arrows, but rather the ability to withhold action while waiting for intrinsic variability to generate some alternative bases for action.

Yes, you have preferences. Everybody does. No, no one is absolutely free to act any way they will at any time. But yes, people have some (actually quite substantial) ability to control the actions they take. And, the more this is understood, the greater that ability can, in principal, become. Does that help at all? I'd enjoy hearing your reactions. The exchange obviously helps me to more clearly think through the problem ... and is very much in the spirit of what Serendip is all about.

Laura Cody replied:
Are you saying what I think you are saying? That "free will" can be learned, like reading and writing and arithmetic? If so what does that make "free will", a function of the intellect? It certainly would no longer be a gift from "God" or that "something" that sets humans apart from animals. If we can or must learn to ignore our hardwiring to really choose, than so can other animals (perhaps they already do!) and then free will is nothing very special. Think of the implication here! Actually I agree that free will is something that is learned. Once we truly 'know thyself' then we can freely choose more often then those who automatically respond to situation without awareness. Now as for convincing myself that the arrows are pointing to the left when they are not, is that not just self-deception?

Paul Grobstein replied:
My oh my ... yes, INDEED, I'm saying that ... though I never actually SAID it as clearly as you just did. Thanks again. Yes, indeed, free will "can be learned" ... in the sense that one can become increasingly "free" to make choices. And provide the wherewithal/encouragement for others to do so as well. And that is very much the point (in an educational context, among others).

At a practical level, what all this seems to imply is that people have "free will" precisely to the extent that they can "see" any given thing in a variety of different ways, and the ability/inclination to sometimes withhold action while allowing themselves first to experience those different ways of seeing things. The latter corresponds, I suppose, to what is sometimes called "self-discipline", and the former to some combination of experience and creativity. Yes, "know thyself" is certainly a contributor to free will, but so too are experiences with other things, since that is important to maximizing the number of ways one can see any given thing.

A "function of the intellect"? Not alone; it certainly depends as well on creativity, together with emotion and intuition. But a function of the brain? Sure. Other animals? I suspect so, at least some, though that's too long a story to go into here. And doesn't, in any case, seem to me such a bad thing. I sort of like the notion that, to varying degrees, different animals, like different humans, have the wherewithal to imagine better worlds and work to make them so

No, no self-deception; that's cheating (and its probably interesting, for thinking more about this, that one can tell the difference). I suspect you more easily see the arrows pointing right not because of your handedness (though this could certainly be an influence), but because of the way this particular figure is drawn (it appears to be green arrows on a yellow background, another influence). We could examine all the probably very large number of influences with appropriate experiments (and this too might be interesting to do), but the point is, even in the face of them, one (at least most people) CAN see the figure either way. Try imagining that it is the GREEN that is the background. NOW do you see yellow arrows pointing to the left? If so, you've just enhanced your capacity for free will. And that seems to me well worth doing, even if its a function of the brain and other animals can do it too.

And yes, it is probably time to start compiling relevant web resources ...

Continuing conversation
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