Culture Magazine

Will in the Nervous System, and Its Consequences

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
This is a passage that didn’t make the cut for Beethoven’s Anvil. It’s about the will, its footprint in the nervous system, and what that means about our relationship to our nervous system. Notice that peculiar locution, which implies that we are something other than the nervous system that thinks us. We are and we aren’t, aren’t we?
Willfulness is a subjective experience and, accordingly, psychology and neuroscience have banned talk of will and volition for most of this century. However, such language is embedded in neuroscientific terminology, a fact noted by Bernard Baars. The division of the peripheral nervous system that regulates the viscera is called the autonomic nervous system, indicating its capacity to operate autonomously, one cannot will one’s heart rate to go up or down, or will that digestion cease or commence. At the same time, talk of voluntary actions is routine. The neural pathways for voluntary action, which tend to be those that control the skeletal muscles, are separate from the autonomic nervous system.
However, we must note that this distinction is made from the point of view of the actor and not from that of an external observer. That is to say, the distinction is subjective. It is true that neural systems indicated by Baars are physically distinct, a matter visible to numerous investigators. What is peculiar is that one of these systems is thought of as being voluntary while the other is involuntary. Whether or not an action is voluntary is something one can ascertain only by asking the actor. One can’t ask such questions of rats, cats, and monkeys and expect meaningful answers. Does this mean that animals do not have wills?
This distinction that seems so obvious on a phenomenal level, is not quite so obvious when one begins looking for the relevant neural structures. For one thing, given appropriate feedback, autonomic functions can be subject to voluntary control. Thus, in one experiment, it proved easy for subjects to raise or lower their blood pressure when given a flashing light to indicate success. On the other hand the motor system does not divide neatly into voluntary and involuntary divisions, though it does seem that voluntary actions do seem to be those that are mediated by frontal cortex. For these reasons we need to be cautious when talking about what we can and cannot will. With that in mind, let us continue on, thinking strictly in terms of subjective experience.
Disobedient Organs
The dance between that which we can will and that which we cannot is, of course, both ancient and basic. As an example, us consider a brief passage by one of the greatest Christian theologians, Augustine of Hippo, whose career straddled the third and fourth centuries. In his master work, The City of God, Augustine observes:
There are, then, many kinds of lusts for this or that, but when the word is used by itself without specification it suggests to most people the lust for sexual excitement. Such lust does not merely invade the whole body and outward members; it takes such complete and passionate possession of the whole man, both physically and emotionally, that what results is the keenest of all pleasures on the level of sensation; and, at the crisis of excitement, it practically paralyzes all power of deliberate thought.
This is so true that it creates a problem for every lover of wisdom and holy joys...Any such person would prefer, if this were possible, to beget his children without suffering this passion. He could wish that, just as all his other members obey his reason in the performance of their appointed tasks, so the organs of parenthood, too, might function in obedience to the orders of will and not be excited by the ardors of lust.
What Augustine is asserting of sexuality is in fact true for emotion and motivation in general. Tenderness, anger and thirst are no more subject to will than is sexual desire.
However, one can attempt to manipulate one’s emotional and motivational state through indirect means. That is why we have pornography, romance novels, and military music. Those things can be apprehended at will and they may well produce the desired effect. But they may not. Even if they do we might get stuck with more of an effect than we wanted. Such indirect manipulations are not always reliable.
Seductive Sounds
Given Augustine’s abhorrence of anything that threatens the “power of deliberate thought” the following passage from his Confessions is interesting:
But if I am not to turn a deaf ear to music...I must allow it a position of some honor in my heart, and I find it difficult to assign it to its proper place. For sometimes I feel that I treat it with more honor than it deserves. I realize that when they are sung these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervour and kindle in me a more ardent flame of piety than they would if they were not sung...But I ought not to allow my mind to be paralyzed by the gratification of the senses, which often leads it astray.
When he asserts that the singing stirs his mind he is, of course, acknowledging that there is something going on beyond will and reason, something that he finds potentially dangerous. While he would like to deal with the words alone he cannot bring himself entirely to forgo the stirrings of music. He is ambivalent, and ambivalence that stems from the fact that music is a willed activity that can easily stir the passions, thus producing results beyond the will and perhaps even capable of superseding the will.
And one of those passions that seems peculiarly responsive to music is sexual passion. One wills the music and before you know it, the music is willing those “other members” to dance. When they dance, there goes the will.
It’s paper / rock / scissors round and round.
It’s also Shakespeare 129.
It’s us.

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