In July, Brian Thomas strangled his wife Christine to death. He was acquitted because he suffers from a sleep disorder. This is far from unprecedented. The first defence of this kind in court occurred back in 1846 by Albert Tirrell for the murder of Maria Ann Bickford. The prosecution in Mr Thomas’ case summarised the situation like so.
“In other words, at the time of the killing the defendant was asleep and his mind had no control over what his body was doing.”
What does this mean? We cannot say that he was entirely unaware of his surroundings or his own limb movements (and so perhaps actions) during the episode. For he reports believing, at the time, that someone had broken into their room and was on top of Christine. This motivated him to strangle someone, but a person other than he thought it was. Presumably this action would have involved some kind of control over his limbs in the sense that he could guide his hands toward someone’s neck, despite the neck moving around, move his body over to a given location, and so on. So then is it not false that ‘his mind’ had no control over ‘what his body was doing’?
Another explanation of what the prosecutor has in mind can be got from papers by Jennifer Hornsby (Knowledge, Belief, and Reasons for Acting) and John Gibbons (Knowledge in Action). They present Gettier cases of beliefs that play a part in the explanation of an intentional action. What they find is that if the beliefs are only luckily true, then the intuition is that the action is not intentional. So then, applied to this case, Mr Thomas had a belief that there was someone there, that he was strangling, but because of the state he was in, he mistook his wife to be someone else, an intruder. So the action was not intentional. This was not because his mind had no control over his body. But because he did not have the right kind of awareness of how things are for his action to be intentional.
A highly influential experiment, conducted over 30 years ago, presented an array of indistinguishable stockings to subjects who were then asked to pick the one they found most appealing. Overwhelmingly, the subjects preferred the stockings on their right. When asked about the reasons for their choice, none of the subjects indicated the relative location of the item. Rather, they explained their choices by pointing out superior features of the chosen item. Of course, since the items were in fact indistinguishable in all relevant respects, no such superior features were present. The subjects were confabulating.
The results of this experiment, and others that followed, are quite surprising. They suggest that we are tremendously bad at introspecting on the reasons for our choices, and all too naturally come up with irrelevant explanations for them. We are often completely unconscious of the actual reasons for our choices. If this is the case, it puts our conception of ourselves as self-determining agents in jeopardy.
In this week’s Newsweek, Sharon Begley reports on a fascinating new study by Daniel Casasanto that reveals a pervasive spatial bias that depends on handedness. According to the study, subjects associate positive ideas with the region of space that corresponds to their ‘strong’ hand. For example, right-handed subjects judge stimuli presented on their right as more positive (e.g., good, intelligent, happy, attractive) than those presented on their left. This pattern is reversed in the case of left-handed subjects.
In last week’s issue of Science Daniel Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard University, summarised his research into a peculiarly incompetent example of agency. There are various actions we perform. We fix on our goal and act in a way that will bring it about. But sometimes we go about trying to not do something. Ever make a mental note not to mention a sore point in conversation, only to bring it up? Wegner calls these phenomena “ironic effects” and proposes that they are the effects of a monitoring process the brain undergoes when we try to avoid thinking about or doing something. Unsurprisingly, he found that “effective strategies include accepting symptoms rather than attempting to control them.” I.e. the best way to not do something is, sometimes, to stop trying to not do it. In the same way one does not maximise one’s pleasure by trying to maximise one’s pleasure (the paradox of hedonism), successful exercises of agency do not always follow the simple model of directing one’s thought or will toward one’s goal.