Human BrainSocial Issues

Free Will and the Human Brain

The most commonly held view on drug addiction today, and the one promoted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in the United States, is that it is a disease of the brain. This view has surfaced from studies supporting the idea that drug use alters brain reactions, causing the body to become dependent on the drug that is being used. Addicts are then seen as being victims of their own neurochemistry, rather than of their own decisions. The concept that our brain dictates our behaviour has been taken further by the idea that free will does not exist. For example, experiments by Benjamin Libet show that neurons responsible for certain movements start firing before we make the conscious decision to move.

This view is challenged by Boston College psychologist Gene Heymen. He raised a controversial question about drug addiction: is it a disease, or is it a choice? He argues that even though it is caused by a brain reaction, it remains a behaviour with tangible consequences. It still involves choice. Hence, people should be able to make the right one.

The problem with considering drug addiction as a choice and not a disease is that it implies addicts could stop using any day without any psychological help or physical rehabilitation. It has proven to be unhelpful, even destructive, as addicts can be left to themselves in such cases. It is also not entirely true, as neuroscience has shown. However, the idea behind this question is valid to some extent. Just because our brain causes our behaviour, does it mean we can never freely choose how we behave? Not necessarily. Science shows that the brain of drug addicts who are now sober can still react strongly to stimuli or memories reminding them of drugs – but these people still refrain from using them. It says a lot about the strength of choice. On the other hand, the failure of completely preventing drug addiction through social policies also says a lot about the limits of it.

Whatever might be true, we are better off believing that we still have free will. Studies have shown that people who believe that free will is just an illusion start behaving immorally. They may lose their sense of meaningfulness, leading to higher stress and unhappiness. This is because not believing in free will leads to the belief that we have no influence on a decision’s outcome. And if we can’t affect an outcome, what’s the point in trying our best? This is how supporting the ideology that we have free will often results in greater outcomes. If we believe that we are in control of our own destinies, then we have more incentive to persevere and do what is right.

It is important to find a balance between our belief in free will and our understanding of the brain’s role in our behaviour. It is how we can, for example, support drug addicts while still holding on to the hope that they have the strength to overcome their disease.


Free Will and the Human Brain
Psychology student at McGill University whose research focuses on cultural groups interactions, inequalities, and discrimination.