The free will myth: your fate may be decided before you’re born
Neuroscientist Hannah Critchlow says free will may be a (necessary) myth, and that your life choices and physical traits are a done deal
Pretty pleased with yourself? Won the war with your waistline, picked the right partner, scaled the career ladder and formed some unassailable political views along the way?
You can take less credit for your life choices (and even those beliefs you hold dear) than you might like to think.
We humans flatter ourselves that we are authors of our own destiny, masters of superior insight, willpower and rationale. In fact, we’re mere machines made flesh: operating under the necessary illusion of free will, while our subconscious circuitry is busy driving us down paths preordained by our genes.
This is the cheerful message of Cambridge neuroscientist Hannah Critchlow, who meets me at Magdalene College, damp-haired from her daily two-hour jog, to explain how her new book, The Science of Fate, shows that everything from what you eat, to who you marry and how you vote, may already be hardwired into your brain.
A co-presenter for BBC’s Tomorrow’s World Live and Channel 4’s The Secret Lives of 4 and 5 Year Olds, Critchlow was dubbed the “female Brian Cox” by this paper after her headline-grabbing talk at Hay Festival in 2015, where she predicted humans would one day be able to upload their brains to a computer and thus live forever.
“I started off in a little tent and then more and more people were interested in coming, so I got bumped up and up into one of the largest stages,” she recalls of that debut, which got her this book deal. “At one point, I was like, ‘holy shit, I’ve gone over Irvine Welsh ... ’”
Jude Law was in the audience, she learnt afterwards. In 2018, she wired up Dr Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene, to a brainwave reader while he meditated on stage. In 2019, she will be dissecting Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of the brain with Germaine Greer, before attempting to answer the existential question our species has grappled with since, well, the dawn of humanity: what – or who – is calling the shots?Though many of us concede that luck has played at least some part in our lives, the concept of fate has largely fallen out of fashion. Instead, “a growth mindset permeates society”, Critchlow writes, “advocating that our every goal or desire can be achieved. We are sold the concept of unlimited agency and capability, a vision of free will on steroids that rejects the idea of constraints, whether biological or socio-economic.”She is of the steadily burgeoning counterview: that a complex dance between our genetic inheritance and experience means much of how our life unfolds is out of our conscious control. Our early years’ environment shapes us, too, of course, but science is uncovering a hereditary basis, she says, not just for our health, but our wealth, even the age at which we lose our virginity.
As the mother of a three-year-old son, doesn’t such biological determinism seem a bit bleak?
“Learning that things are quite written, and prescribed into us, can be very liberating,” she argues. Beyond being a role model to her son, Max, overanxious parenting is pointless: “A huge amount of his temperament, of his skills, of his differences” is already “done and dusted”.
Our DNA determines how our unique neural circuitry – or connectome, made up of about 100 trillion pathways – is laid down in the womb, she explains: priming us to see the world in our own bespoke way and informing, in turn, how we make the minute-by-minute decisions that ultimately shape the arc of our lives.
Studying our brain chemistry can even reveal political leanings. “People who vote in a more conservative way are much more likely to have a hyperreactive amygdala region of the brain, which is involved in fear response,” she says. If this helps to explain the Rorschach test that is Brexit, it doesn’t bode well for ever reaching a consensus.
Critchlow can envision a day when embryos might be screened for traits such as extroversion and openness to experience before they’ve even been born. A huge project is already under way to non-invasively scan the brains of babies in the womb and observe their connectomes taking shape. Soon, technology will be able to follow an individual from before birth to death, mapping that brain circuitry as it develops and tallying it with behaviour and life trajectories.
Where will it end – with us being able to access our connectomes on our smartphones? “Can you imagine?” she laughs. “Every time there’s a decision to be made: ‘Siri! What shall I do, here?’”
There are obvious dangers to neuro-hype. “It’s not helpful to suggest a single gene, single brain region or, indeed, single anything is responsible for any aspect of human behaviour,” Critchlow writes. In fact, there are up to 150 genes implicated in predisposing whether you’re lardy or lithe – including those that govern your sensitivity to hunger and pleasure – and up to 70% of your body weight is estimated to be directly shaped by those that you’ve been dealt. If, like half of the world’s population, you have a variant of one in particular – FTO, which instructs the body to keep eating – you’re 25% more likely to become obese. If you have two, as an unlucky sixth of us do, that doubles.
What excites Critchlow is not uncovering people’s biological constraints – “though I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy to think that the world is our oyster” – but their potential. At her own comprehensive school in Northampton there was never any mention of Oxbridge: “I was talking about wanting to be a doctor and the careers advice was, ‘well, maybe go be an optician’.” Instead, she took a year out, and ended up working as a nursing assistant at St Andrew’s Psychiatric Hospital with teenagers who had been detained under the UK Mental Health Act.
It was there she realised she didn’t have the emotional resilience to be a doctor – “I just found it very upsetting” – but became hooked on the brain.
“Quite a lot of the children there had quite harrowing early life experience [of abuse and neglect] that actually quite a lot of the staff there had also experienced,” she says. Yet at the end of a 13-hour shift, the patients remained locked up, while the staff were able to go home. “It made me really interested in what makes some people have one life trajectory and others another – what gives resilience, what helps a brain to flourish?”
After getting a first-class biology degree at Brunel University, she went on to do her PhD in neuropsychiatry at Magdalene, and is now the college’s science outreach fellow, working with state-school students.
Besides education, she emphasises the ability of exercise and meditation to open our minds – “loads of neuroscientists” are heavily into jogging and yoga, she notes – and stimulate the neurogenesis of new neurons, just as chronic stress can kill them. Above all, to paraphrase the teenage environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg, she believes each of our unique neural perspectives is a “gift” to the collective consciousness, which benefits us all.Learning how little mastery we may have over our own minds “doesn’t detract from the way that we’re special as humans”, she says. “It actually makes it more beautiful, and more mesmerising – and it makes me accept other people a little bit more.”– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)