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On Free Will, Neurolaw, and Tiny Habits

Over a decade ago, Sam Harris penned a little book called Free Will. The issue with free will reminds me of consciousness and happiness in that the world doesn't agree on what it means.

The reality Harris is talking about, and other neuroscientists agree about but then might go in another direction because they feel a breakdown in the utility of the idea, is that, like ChatGPT, your brain is predictive.

Why This Is Important

Most of us define free will as: I have agency and I'm deciding what I will do next. This definition of free will maps nicely onto what you may have learned in mindfulness class about reacting versus responding. Mindfulness teacher training taught us that we had this moment between two moments where we could decide what we were going to do next. I believe it still teaches that model.

The Model Isn't Current, Tho

As it turns out, our brain has already decided what we will do next, making both free will and react versus respond moot.

But all is not lost . . .

I discuss this in my book, and the short version is,

if you develop a practice of checking in with your body, your senses, and your mind when nothing much is happening (a low-stakes moment), your brain will eventually predict you'll do that. Even during higher-stakes moments.

In other words, if you create a habit of checking in with yourself you'll be better able to meet ordinary and extraordinary moments. You'll be able to break old, maladaptive patterns and archive old stories that don't serve you.

The reality that your brain has decided what you're going to do before you do it doesn't really change your life. It's humbling, for sure. But you can't do anything about it. Philosophers and legal scholars have a heck of a time with this because it affects what they do. What you can change is what your brain predicts by creating habits of awareness. What you know, for sure, is that your brain isn't going to suddenly practice awareness as its default absent you creating the neural pathways that predict that awareness.

Hacking the Absence of Free Will

Part of what's happening in the field of neurolaw is the acknowledgment that our brains are the centers of what we do, and if the brain has been damaged, hasn't properly developed, or has PTSD, behavior will be affected. The question becomes: are we entirely responsible for our behavior if our brain couldn't have done anything else? And neuroeconomics is understanding more and more about the hows and whys of decision-making that are based in how the brain operates (so, not psychology).

Our brains, well, have a mind of their own. And what we end up doing is a combination of our genetics, the structure and functioning of our brain, our past, and our current circumstances (including who happens to be around and how much we tend to be motivated by the opinions of others), with the brain relying heavily on the past and our memories. Because the brain wants to conserve resources, it has no incentive to do something novel. Therefore, if you want something different to happen, you need to do start doing things differently.

Create Tiny Habits

Stanford's BJ Fogg describes his model for creating behavior change in Tiny Habits. As anyone who has taken Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction knows, trying to develop a new habit by expecting yourself to jump in and do something new for 45 minutes/day isn't setting yourself up for success.

As Fogg has discovered, if you want to produce a new behavior, you need motivation, the ability to do the new behavior, and a prompt (B=MAP). Many who have tried and failed to create new habits have discovered this for themselves. If you want the needle of your free will to move toward a new habit, start small and either stack the behavior on one you already do (brushing your teeth, for instance), or set an alarm for a time you are likely to have the bandwidth to do it.

If you do the first 3 practices (2 or 3 minutes each) on this page at regularly scheduled times, every day, for a week, in 8 days you will be more settled, more aware, and more present (and presence = happiness). And the longer you can keep that going, the better you will feel and think. Don't take my word for it. Do it!

Be kind to yourself,

be compassionate with others,

and spend a few minutes in nature today,

doing nothing but listening to the sounds and feeling the air on your skin.



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