I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who, like me, have a sweet tooth. I do like to maintain a sense of propriety – but it mostly goes out the window whenever the dessert trolley arrives.

My penchant for pudding is strong enough that if anyone leaves anything sweet in the fridge without taking precautionary measures … I do try to restrain my impulses but, I’m a realist, I know when I’m beaten!

Recently, my kind aunt pointed out a box of chocolates in the fridge and invited me to “finish them”, which I would normally recognise as a cordial invitation to indulge a little and leave the rest, had we been talking about cheese.

Try as I did to exert self-control, little by little those chocolates declined in number. Sooner than I had anticipated, there remained an empty tin box as a reminder of the good times. Termites would have been impressed by my efforts.

We all have our little (or not so little) vices, which are usually driven by impulses and desires that creep up on us so quickly that we barely notice until we are in the midst of whatever pleasure offers itself to us.

As someone who studies mindfulness and tries his best to be mindful as much as possible, I rationalise my weakness for chocolate with the assurance that the spiritual teachers of old never had the experience of trying to resist a free box of chocolates….

Having said that, my sweet tooth has often led me to wonder just how much control we have over our desires: are we mostly at the whims of whatever impulses strongly arise? Do we have the capacity to override our desires? In short, do we have free will?

In the 1980s an American scientist, Benjamin Libet, tried to find the answer, running a series of experiments designed to see whether our actions were pre-determined or whether we consciously choose our actions.

He hooked participants up to an oscilloscope and asked them to perform a small movement with their hand (such as moving a finger). He also requested that they make a note of when they became aware of the intention to move, and compared the time to when the movement was actually performed.


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The findings were fascinating. The experiments indicated that, while actions start from unconscious processes, there appears to be a short window of time in which we can decide against carrying out an act.

Our actions build up from the mind to what’s known as “readiness potential”, describing the point that they’re ready to be carried out. Following this, we have about 350 milliseconds to decide against performing the action.

Photo: 123rf.com

Photo: 123rf.com

In a journal article written in 1999, Libet wrote that, “conscious free will would be not to initiate a voluntary act but rather to control whether the act takes place”, adding that this kind of free will “is actually in accord with religious and ethical strictures. These commonly advocate that you “control yourself”.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett believes it’s this capacity to control ourselves, the ability to be aware of what we’re doing, that sets us apart from every other species. He has said, “We are responsible because we can respond to our challenges, our reasons. Why? Because we don’t just act for reasons; we act for reasons that we consciously represent to ourselves.”

In recent years, further research into free will has pointed to the possibility of regular meditators being able to increase the window of time they have to decide on their actions. It has also suggested that people who meditate (this would include silent prayer) become aware of their intentions to act sooner than people who don’t practice meditation.

To show how the unconscious mind operates, the neuroscientist Sam Harris asks us to close our eyes and bring to our minds the image of a particular person (from the past or present). Consciously, he says, we feel that the image has been plucked from nothing. How-ever, our minds would have gone through a number of processes before we even become aware of the image we eventually think of.

When it comes to morality, these ideas of how free will operates are thought-provoking. In some cases, people believe that simply thinking a particular thought is sinful, regardless of the actions that might or might not arise after the fact. However, Libet and Harris appear to be saying that, for the most part, we don’t have control over what arises in the mind – the control we have lies in how we choose to proceed with whatever arises.

It’s also interesting to know that prayer and meditation can potentially increase our capacity for self-control – although, I’m definitely in need of more meditation if I’m to stand a chance against those pesky chocolates and desserts.


Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail star2@thestar.com.my.