From Impulse to Freewill

“One might think to avoid all kinds of disasters we could get used to order–to a reasonable course of events–happening one after the other, all having logic and impeccable regularity…As it happens, everyday, we get up, and then life’s adventures and imbalances are inevitable.”

-Camille Boitel

Watching Camille Boitel’s L’immédiat was a reminder of loosing the present. At any given moment I’m mostly found. The leftovers are usually eaten by anxiety or misperception. The performers externalized these themes remarkably well. Like Cirque du Soleil, it reconstructs reality with an air of comedy and acrobatics. It used comedy, mayhem, and physical theatre creating philosophy in motion worth watching.

As the world crumbled in enduring scene after scene it reflected lingering feelings about many things. Not only did my shadows recognize themselves but the inevitable debacles had me at the edge of my seat and psyche. The height of recognition presented itself as a man. He stepped left and right in frantic bidirectional fits. It crystalized my mental state at its most fractured, when reaction to impulses rules action. Since “it’s not the destiny of humans to revert to the vegetative or animal state“, it’s hardly a space to stay.


We exist within various ecosystems and in us many others thrive. Self-direction propels it all. Thanks to DNA, all my internal mechanism know how to function. They in turn only do so because of the mechanisms of physics and rules of mathematics. Except for quantum level events, these overarching forces set the conditions for all cause and effect outcomes. My decision to eat Talenti’s pistachio ice cream, which is often as of late, may arise from any number of internal or external triggers.

Phycologist Benjamine Libet experimented with internal ones, specifically neuronal firing in the brain. He used EEG machines to measure when a subject became aware of pressing a button at random. He discovered the brain prepares to move a finger a few hundred milliseconds before they became aware of it. It’s called readiness potential, first tested and coined in 1964 by neurologist Hans Helmut Kornhuber. More recent tests using fMRI scans are able to predict (60% of the time) what hand you will use to press the button up to a second before you do.

Many have used these findings and implied–quite generally–that consciousness and freewill play no role in decision making. In the context of practical matters like eating, sleeping, and cell division, I happily surrender to having none. Starving, perpetual insomnia or employing my will to re-create millions of cells per second are alternatives few would enjoy. For everything else, like choosing ice cream flavors, there are plenty of sound arguments that demonstrate how the readiness potential argument isn’t convincing enough to discard freewill.

“That there are some physical factors that influence decision making shouldn’t be a surprise.”

-Adina Roskies, Neuroscientist

Since we have brains, it’s quite natural there are measurable events occurring, especially right before performing an experiment where focus is required. The other hole in the readiness potential model is the idea that our brain alone makes decisions. It helps, no doubt, but humans make decisions. While compartmentalizing makes it easier to understand how stuff works, we are wholistic beings. Even Libet, after all his experiments, leaves space for freewill in the ability to veto the pre-conscious intentions he detected as readiness potential.

From impulse to freewill

Freewill plays less of a role when unchecked impulses take over. There are various naturally occurring ones. The three mentioned in previous paragraphs are good examples. While cell division is more of a self-directed process it’s still a core DNA impulse. Others like impatience, overeating, or excessive anger begin directing actions if present moment awareness is left out. Like the characters in L’immédiat, actions become reactions to circumstances as opposed to responses to them. Getting to response-action is the work. Perhaps it doesn’t even have to be laborious. By becoming aware you have a choice to respond one way or another, reaction-moments become opportunities. One of my favorite authors crystalizes it:

No Mud, No Lotus.

-Hanh Nhat Thich

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