When The Mind Wanders, So Does Our Free Will?


This morning during meditation, I thought about mind-wandering and how the sense of free will is evanescent.

When meditating, the goal (if there ever is any) is to keep the attention focused on the breath:

Inhaling, holding the breath, releasing it.

Yet, after some time, the attention wanders; thoughts emerge in the periphery and the sense of agency is lost.

To steer the attention back to the breath, one steps away from the thoughts, allowing them to pass through (without following them), only to once again focus the attention on the breath, restarting the entire process.

The peculiar aspect of this experience is that when I focus the spotlight of attention in my mind’s eye to follow my breathing pattern, I have the subjective experience of being in control.

However, when my mind wanders, as is suggested by the term mind-wandering, I feel as though I am not.

More peculiar still:

I rarely, if ever, notice when my mind wanders; I notice it when the mind has wandered.

As a consequence, this leaves me with the experience of having lost the agency over my attention and the need to regain it.

This back-and-forth dynamic leads me to the question:

Where is the dividing line between me being in control of my attention and failing to have agency over it?

Attention, Consciousness & Unconscious Attention

In some parts of the consciousness literature, scientists maintain that one can pay attention to various stimuli unconsciously (Rees & Frith, 2017). However, one cannot be conscious without paying attention.

In other words, it is unidirectional.

In my experience during meditation, I oscillate between these two states:

  • Conscious and unconscious awareness.

And that I am always one step behind.

Put simply:

I focus my attention on the breath…

…I fail to notice that my attention wanders…

…I detect that I am paying attention to thoughts in the periphery…

…I refocus my attention on the breath…

…repeating this cycle with the hope that the oscillating pattern will become more stable over time in favor of me being in control of my attention.

For this pattern to happen, there must exist a threshold where I fail to notice that I am no longer paying attention; a brief flash where I momentarily lose the phenomenological experience of directing my attention; a dividing line.

If that is the case, if there is a dividing line, how come I am constantly in the dark as to when the diffusion (of sorts) happens?

That is, when my focus moves from areas of high attention (focus is on the breath) to areas of low attention (focus is on peripheral thoughts).

How can I explain the lag in my conscious experience?

Even more frustrating:

How come it feels as though I have agency over my attention some of the time, but not all of the time?

In some sense, attention is migratory—similar to Siberian Cranes, because at some point, both move from one place to another.

The difference is that the bird’s behavior is one of the observable variety; it can be studied and thoroughly understood.

The movements of the mind, however, are a bit trickier to put under the magnifying glass. Thus, the tinge of perplexity.

The Convincing Narrative

To make it even more bizarre: What evidence is there that I paid attention to my breathing, only to lose my sense of agency other than the subjective experience of having memories of the event?

I was the only entity present.

I suspect that the dividing line between me having the experience of being the autonomous agent directing the attention, and me noticing that I no longer am, has to do with convincing post-hoc rationalizations and differences in narrative; discrepancies regarding the believability of the various feedback loops one subjectively observes.

It feels, and has always felt, as though I can direct my attention.

Thus, when I have the experience of wielding my attention, the narrative I write and constantly update is that I am in control.

When I feel as though my attention drifts away (or rather when I notice my attention having drifted), the sense of agency is lost; a possibly unpleasant state.

To combat the cognitive dissonance, I invent a narrative that is ego-soothing and explain away the unexplainable phenomenon as a mere byproduct, so that I can return to the story of me being an autonomous agent with free will.

In the final analysis, however, I suspect that the oscillatory cycle of having agency over one’s attention and shortly thereafter losing it are both stochastic and random processes over which there is no control, but that the differences in narrative convince us otherwise.

References

Rees, G. & Frith, C. (2017). ‘The Neural Correlates of Consciousness’ in Schneider, S., & Velmans, M. (ed.) The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness. 2nd Edition. John Wiley & Sons Ltd: West Sussex, pp. 591-606.