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Book Reviews   |    
The Illusion of Conscious Will
Reviewed by David Brizer, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2003; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.54.8.1174-a
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by Daniel M. Wegner; Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bradford Books, 2002, 405 pages, $34.95

André Breton, psychiatrist-manque and founder of the surrealist movement, defined surrealism as "the chance meeting on an operating table of an umbrella and a sewing machine." Of automatic writing—the practice of emptying the mind so that its covert contents can erupt untrammeled upon the page (the preceding definition being a prime example of same)—Breton wrote, "We shall not weary of repeating that a few lines of genuine automatic writing … which succeeds in freeing itself from utilitarian, rational, aesthetic, and moral imperatives … still contain too many gleams of the philosopher's stone for us not to repudiate the mean and miserable world that is inflicted on us" (1).

Daniel Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will is a marvelous and learned excursion, a Baedeker's—or Fodor's, if you prefer—into the pellucid hinterland between will, consciousness, preconsciousness, subconsciousness, and, as Wegner terms it, "surconciousness." Automatic writing is but one of the many pyrotechnic feats the brain may be capable of without conscious direction. Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard, delights his audience with the breadth and depth of his familiarity with his subject.

The book, a distillate of the best and wisest observations from behavioral research, philosophy, epistemology, and circus sideshow acts, challenges readers to reconsider the universal belief in free will. Through ample humorous and learned examples culled from psychopathological arcana of everyday life as well as from numerous relevant scientific studies, Wegner succeeds in demonstrating what turns out to be a vast behavioral "dead zone" that never sees the light of conscious intent, of "will."

Ranging from discussions of ideomotor behaviors to hypnotic suggestibility to dissociative episodes to voodoo death, The Illusion of Conscious Willattacks with gusto the notion that conscious intent always precedes voluntary-seeming behavior. Rather, Wegner argues, "will," the subjective experience of volition, is a feeling, an epiphenomenon, that usually but not always accompanies "intentional" acts.

The discussions and illustrations of table turning, of Ouija board readings, and of mesmerism and 19th-century spiritualism in general are terrific fun and really promote the thesis that ordinary waking consciousness—in which we usually include willed, voluntary action—is but a tiny Plato's cave. Beyond the cave are galaxies of neural connections and social triggers as old as the limbic system itself. Untampered with, these work on their own to promote the organism's tropisms, preferences, appetites, and, I suppose, propagation. Conscious will serves as a timekeeper, an identity marker, a feeling that we have somehow originated or participated in an action. Without the personal stamp of memory, without the feeling that "I" did this or that, the world becomes a sump, stripped of milestones, of cognitive benchmarks, and as participants we become identity-less, unanchored, essentially demented.

Wegner is not arguing a mechanistic, fatalistic universe. It's not that we are robots, programmed from conception to a slate of irreversible decisions. Conscious will is a tool, icing on the cake as it were, that facilitates motivation, drive, and awareness.

Why is this important? The subject is searingly relevant to anyone who would better understand behavior, and to everyone who has a theoretical basis for the practice of altering patients' behavior. It is burningly relevant to practitioners of cognitive therapy, to those who give their patients pep talks, and especially to those of us who believe that conscious intent somehow refracts into neural subprograms ("unconsciousness" and "subconsciousness") that end up having all kinds of ripple effects in turn on health, immune function, self-regard, and self-navigation through the choppy seas of the world.

The book jacket depicts a baby automaton making its way thanks to the merry engagement of well-oiled sprockets and gears. Is that all there is? The beauty and brilliance of this volume is that the question, itself an intricate clockworks, is opened and examined from almost every perspective. Wegner is a terrific writer, sharing his encyclopedic purchase on the material in amusing, entertaining, and masterful ways. A kind of psychologic Ricky Jay, he opens the Pandora's box of mind and joyfully debunks the reflex assumptions of several millenia. (I know I consciously chose to read the volume!)

This was a book I could not skim. Treat yourself to a frontal cut today.

Dr. Brizer is chairman of the department of psychiatry at Norwalk Hospital in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Breton A: Catalogue of the 1947 International Surrealist Exhibition, Paris
 
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References

Breton A: Catalogue of the 1947 International Surrealist Exhibition, Paris
 
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