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Joseph LeDoux: Inside the Brain, Behind the Music, Part 4

[ 0 ] July 15, 2010 | Joseph LeDoux

Inside the Brain, Behind the Music is part of an ongoing series of dispatches written for the The Beautiful Brain by neuroscientist and rock musician Joseph LeDoux. Each piece presents the personal and scientific background of a song from his band The Amygdaloids‘ latest brain-themed album, Theory of My Mind (Amazon, iTunes,

Part 4: “How Free is Your Will”

Watercolor by Noah Hutton

Are we free to choose?  Is all behavior determined?  Do you have to be conscious of a decision in order for it to be considered volitional?  Are we better off with or without free will? These are some of the issues touched on in my song, “How Free Is Your Will.” Note that there are no question marks in the song.  I just decided to leave them out. No particular reason.  I just freely chose to do that (or at least I believe I did).[1]

The problem of free will is closely tied up with the problems of consciousness and personal responsibility, which are themselves knotted together.  You have to be aware of what you are doing (conscious) in order to be responsible for your actions.  Christian theology says that humans but not other animals can gain or lose access to the Kingdom of Heaven by their actions.  Rene Descartes, a devout Catholic and one of the founders of modern philosophy, brought consciousness in when he said that only humans are responsible for actions because they have consciousness. Other animals, in his opinion, are reflex machines. They are pulled this way and that by their circumstances and are not free to choose right from wrong. And since they cannot choose, they cannot gain or lose heaven by their actions.

For Descartes, the terms consciousness and mind were equivalent. If it is not conscious, it is not mental in Descartes’s scheme.  But things have gotten a little more complicated in modern times, with the emergence of the idea that the mind has conscious and unconscious aspects.  Are we responsible for actions produced by unconscious processes in our brain? I’ll talk about this in a later post when I consider the song Crime of Passion.  For now, I simply want to explore the nature of free will.

Free will is a really hard problem for a dualist, one who believes that consciousness (mind, soul) is distinct from the brain. How can an immaterial thought, a thing of consciousness, cause neurons to fire in such a way as to produce willful actions?  This is the problem of “downward causation.”  The flip side of this question is the problem of “qualia.”  How can the material brain create a mental experience, such as the feeling of pain or the serenity of the red glow of a beautiful sunset?   While these issues are not so easy for materialist-inclined brain researchers either, at least we have the advantage of being able to work within one realm, the material realm, rather than having to try to forge a relation between two realms (material and mental).

“How Free is Your Will” by The Amygdaloids

Click here for lyrics to “How Free is Your Will”

Let’s go back to the song.  Each of the first ten verses repeats a question in its first line: “how free is your will.” The refrain of these verses then elaborates on the question.  For example, the first verse goes:  “How free is your will, do you have control, are you in charge, who’s running your soul.”  The music under the verses is a very simple two-chord vamp that goes back and forth between A and G. There’s a fun little instrumental movement that breaks up the repetitiveness of the chords and lyrics every now and then.

After verse ten, there’s a longer instrumental segment that ends with the vamp flipping for the last two verses.  This change of the chord sequence, which now goes from G to A, adds a burst of forward momentum since the chord interval, instead of going from high to low pitch, as at the beginning, now goes from low to high pitch.  Corresponding with this is a change in the first line of the last two verses.  Instead of asking “how free is your will,” they exclaim, “free will.” The refrains, which are the same as from the previous two verses, now become demonstrative conclusions under the influence of the forward moving sound.

The song ends on an instrumental chords sequence that I have no clue about.  I wrote the song with willful intention all the way through, until I reached the end.  At that point the song took over.  The chords just emerged from my fingers (in other words, unconscious processes in my brain took over and allowed this set of chord changes to unfold). I was surprised by these chords, since the sequence was more a more intricate and complex than what I typically write.  I scrambled for a pen to make some notes as I didn’t have confidence that I could recreate the sequence spontaneously.

When we use the term “I” we are usually referring to our conscious mind. So can “I” take credit for that chord sequence?  Did I willfully produce it?  I think this problem, like some other issues in philosophy, is about how the words are used.  Of course I wrote the song and came up with the chords.  I just didn’t do it completely consciously.  The fact is, though, I didn’t do it completely unconsciously either.  As the sequence began to unfold, the music being made was feeding into consciousness and creating qualia that allowed some good ole downward causation to help refine the efforts of my unconscious mind.  So, like many things we do in life, it was a collaboration between conscious and unconscious processes.  It’s hard to separate them sometimes.  Since introspection alone can’t give us all the answers, we need scientists to do experiments and figure out how they work the various processes above and below the surface.  Don’t worry, even if we figure this stuff out, your will is going to be as free, or determined, as it is today.  We may just know a little more about what that means. LeDoux is a University Professor, Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology and Child Psychiatry at NYU. He is also the Director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU and at the Nathan Kline Institute. The author of two best-selling books, The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self, LeDoux is also a singer and song writer of The Amygdaloids, a band of scientists that plays music about mind and brain and mental disorders. The Amygdaloids‘ latest album Theory of My Mind which features the song “How Free is Your Will” is available on Amazon, iTunes, and at

What do you think about free will? Have a question for Joe? Let us know in the comment section below.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Diane Jacobs and Christopher H. Ramey, Noah Hutton. Noah Hutton said: Joseph LeDoux's (@theamygdaloid) new piece on free will just posted on our site: [...]

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by NA Penttila, Joseph E. LeDoux. Joseph E. LeDoux said: How Free Is Your Will. read and listen at @brainshow [...]

  3. Thanks for keeping my brain engaged. It’s a fun way to describe the process of songwriting, breaking it down between conscious and unconscious. I bet Jimmy Page would enjoy your article.

  4. Loli says:

    I’m not sure whether free will can theoretically exist. But in practice it rarely exists nowadays, since society and the media are very successful in controlling our desires, “needs” and decisions.

  5. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mary Beth McEuen, Richmond Stace. Richmond Stace said: Joseph LeDoux: Inside the Brain, Behind the Music, Part 4: via @addthis [...]

  6. Jeremy says:

    I wonder what you would think about this issue after seeing the movie Inception. I saw it recently and it deals a lot with the (science-fiction-y) potential to implant a thought in someone’s brain in a way that makes them think they came to the conclusion on their own.

    Also, nice watercolor Noah.

  7. Roger Strukhoff says:

    Oh, come on, list the chords at the end of the song. I doubt it was Mahlerian or Straussian in its complexity.

    • Dear Roger Strukoff,
      The chords weren’t complex in any absolute sense. Just complex for me and my usual 3 or 4 chord riffs. Certainly no secret. Here is the sequence. Not sure what key the song is in at this point, so I will give a little context.

      After bouncing back and forth between G and A for the ending four lines of exclamations, the chords take off in the following sequence.
      C D Em Bm F#m C#m Abm A Am E

      Try it. It’s fun.

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