Believing in Free Will Might Make it Stronger

June 7th, 2011 § 2 comments

A new study led by psychologist Davide Rigoni of Italy’s University of Padova, suggests that just thinking that we have no free will causes us to to behave as if we don’t.

As the subtitle of the study says, “the brain minds whether we believe in free will or not.

The study wasn’t trying to determine whether or not there is free will, a question still up for debate. It just looked at how the human brain reacts when we think we don’t have it.

Thirty people, between the ages of 18 and 24, were asked to read passages from Francis Crick’s 1994 book, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul.

Half the group read a passage that described free will as illusory. While the other half read a passage that didn’t mention free will at all.

Douglas Myers getting an EEG

testing the brain

Test subjects then sat in front of a computer screen and were attached to an EEG machine. They were asked to press a button whenever and however many times they chose, while indicating the time they became aware of their intention to act.

The researchers were examining the subjects’ ‘readiness potential’, or the brain activity that occurs in the moment we first think to do something, then send signals to our muscles to actually do it.

It’s that moment of ‘intention’ that researchers were particularly interested in. They thought that the strength or weakness of the brain activity right then, might reflect one’s belief or disbelief in free will.

As it turned out, the people who had read the passage rejecting free will displayed significantly lower readiness potentials. They appeared to have less voluntary control than the other group.

The study seemed to show that losing faith in free will impairs our brains’ readiness to act, even before we’re aware of the intention to move.

Other studies have shown that when people stop believing that they have free will, they’re more likely to cheat, less likely to be helpful and generally less motivated.

It’s an interesting and important issue for Tarot readers. Especially ones who use the cards to predict.

If these findings are correct, they point to why it’s so important that readers not give their clients the feeling that they have no control over their own future.

It’s true that many life events are outside of our control. But a reading should empower people to find a path through these uncontrollable situations. Not leave them cowering in fear, or dreaming of a miracle life raft that’s just around the corner.

#1 The Magician from the Rider Waite Smith Tarot

#1 The Magician

Thinking about this subject of course brings me to the cards themselves. How does Tarot address the issue?

The first card that comes to mind when I hear the phrase ‘free will’ is the Magician. Sure the Fool is extraordinarily free, but he’s not trying to ‘will’ anything.

That’s the Magician’s domain. He’s interested in how to initiate action and manifest what he intends. For him, everything is in its ideal form. All is possible. And he’s in charge of the whole production.

It’s the Magician’s self-directed will that really starts the whole Tarot story. He and his will represent the initial driving force to life, our intention to manifest something, whatever it might be.

#15 The Devil from the Rider Waite Smith Tarot

#15 The Devil

On the other end of the spectrum is the Devil, representing absolute lack of free will.

Other characters in the deck might want to exert power over others, ie. the Emperor and the Hierophant. Even Justice can be pushy at times.

But the Devil really likes control, going so far as to chain his victims to his pedestal.

When this card comes up in a reading, people are often facing some sort of compulsion, addiction or obsession. Lack of control, or the desire to control others is at issue.

The Devil can make people feel like there’s no point in even struggling. And he’s so convincing that he has no need to tighten his prisoners’ restraints.

They can clearly leave if they want to. The chains are loose. But as the study described above suggests, if you don’t believe you’re free, you’re unlikely to act like you are.

Free will, and the lack there of, seem to be coexistent states. Or at least that’s how it feels in my life.

I know I can’t control most of what’s going on around me. But in my mind, I like to believe I’m my own Magician, and my own Devil. It’s up to me who I let rule inside.
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‘Fate and Free-will’ is the topic at this year’s Omega Tarot Conference. If you’re interested in hearing what some great Tarot minds have to say about it and can get to Rhinebeck, NY at the end of July, check it out.

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