Is free will free?

To the Journal editor:

Has your political free-will been hacked? Maybe the following will allow you to take a deep breath and reduce your stress during this political season.

Definition of free will: “Freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention.”

I think the first sign our free-will is being hacked is when we do or condone something we would normally oppose doing. At the extreme end, during World War II Nuremberg trials a common theme surfaced for people actively participated in genocide, “I was just following orders.”

Free will sounds simple but is it? Do we have control over our free will every second of every day, week, and year over a lifetime? Example: I’m driving to work and come up to a person driving slower than I normally drive, the idea of being late to working is stressing me out. I start to tailgate and flash my lights, finally the person turns and I lay on the horn wishing they burn in hell.

But on the way home from work, I stop at the grocery store and while in line, a person with two items walks up behind me, I nicely ask them to go ahead of me. They say “Thank you” and I say “You’re welcome.” Quite a swing in free will control. Earlier in the day, I was morally bankrupt, my free-will was hacked by stress I was feeling resulting in road rage. But on my way home, I didn’t have stress and was able to empathize with the person behind me at the grocery store and my moral free will surfaced.

I’m not a neuroscientist, but our frontal-Lobe plays a large part in regulating our emotions and biases through a powerful reasoning and decision making filter. This is why any underlying biases we have acquired are recognized and reconciled as morally wrong. As with the road rage example above, strong stress emotions can overwhelm our frontal-lobe and it can take a long period of time before it engages. Science as shown that prolonged exposure to stress or dramatic events can damage the frontal lobe, which is why many solders return with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

I’ve been mulling over why our current political environment is negatively affected myself, my family, my friends, and the country. It’s like we have acquired a version of political traumatic stress syndrome, and are in a state of political road rage. We have candidates, political pundits and social media talking heads trying to raise our blood pressure for personal gain and they know what they are doing. They are constantly trying to cut us off life’s journey, either tell us we are bad or are in the back seat yelling in our ear that everyone who doesn’t have our same beliefs are bad. Neuroscientists have tested and observed how stress can hack our mental state, and prolonged exposure atrophies our decision making frontal lobe. Our overall health and wellbeing is impacted, resulting in poor outcomes.

Don’t get me wrong. Who we elect as our government representatives matters greatly to our wellbeing and the wellbeing of the nation, but give yourself a few mental health days from politics every week to regain your free-will faculties.

And while you are at it, when you’re at the grocery store try a few new foods to boost your wellbeing, skip the alcohol isle a few times a month, have a pleasant conversation with others in the check-out line and above all, destress before your drive home.

Oh, don’t forget to vote your now hack-proof free will! It’s your number one political stress reliever.


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