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Assembling a ‘will’ 

Assembling a ‘will’
Assembling a ‘will’
The Actor's Brain: Exploring the cognitive neuroscience of free will

Sean A Spence


Throughout this chapter, we have been concerned with understanding what it is about the brain – specifically about the frontal regions of the brain – which allows a human actor to make and execute choices, to exercise their ‘Will’. The regions we have examined are hierarchically ‘superior’ to primary motor cortex, yet it is probably obvious by now that the functions that we regard as ‘normal’ rely upon a host of frontal (and other) brain regions acting in assembly; combining their particular response attributes in order that a coherent action might emerge. I shall not reprise the list of foci all over again, but I hope that I have shown that there are certain regularities in the way that the frontal cortex is organized, that we might expect certain of its regions to be particularly involved (implicated) in certain types of responses, and that lesions of specific foci may tend (though not necessarily ‘uniquely’ nor absolutely ‘always’) to reveal related patterns of dysfunction. In other words, the architecture of human choice is potentially tractable, understandable.

However, this is not all. For this chapter has also taken us a little further towards understanding what it is that allows an organism to ‘change’ its immediate future situations. A passive primate would be entirely ‘driven’ by external events and contingencies (see Chapter 5). A truly passive, mute, and immobile animal would probably not survive for very long. Fortunately, however, the architecture of the primate brain features regions that appear to be evolutionarily adapted for bringing about change, e.g. those medial systems capable of initiating ‘responses’ in the absence of external cues; those orbitofrontal regions that alter their response profiles according to an organism's internal state; and the frontal poles, which may allow us to structure ‘events’ in our futures, events that have yet to occur (in ‘real time’, in ‘real life’). If we can ‘imagine’ different futures then, logically speaking, we may pursue them. Hence, our actions may, potentially, change the world.

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