Free Will, the Brain, and Sapolsky

Do we have free will? Robert Sapolsky does not think so. In his new, 500 pages thick book Determined he argues that the will is a brain function, most likely heavily dependent on the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, as the rest of the brain, is a biological machine shaped by genes, past environmental influences, and current environmental situations. These include hormonal and glucose levels, and an example he provides is how judges are more prone to harsh sentences before lunch than after. According to Sapolsky there is no room for free will in this biological machine. And without free will, there is also no point in talking about willpower or grit, as he covers in the chapter “The Myth of Grit”. To support his claim, Sapolsky formulates the following challenge: show me a person who can make a totally free action, without any influence of genes or prior experiences, only that is true evidence that there is free will. 

However, Sapolsky does not provide any neuroscientific, experimental evidence for the non-existence of free will. The only evidence he brings out is correlations. It is true that science can now explain much more of our behavior and abilities than it could before, but this does not mean  we can explain 100%. We know that reading difficulties are heritable and not necessarily due to laziness or low IQ, and we are aware of the genetics of symptoms of ADHD. That is a good thing, and it means we should show consideration for people with these difficulties; we should offer help for symptoms of inattention. However, it does not mean that people with ADHD are without any personal responsibility for their actions or are unable to affect their situation.

The question of free will has been discussed for ages. The specific version of free will that Sapolsky wants to see evidence of is a kind of totally free and independent will, that, in the philosophical parlor, is called “libertarian free will.” But that particular position is hardly argued by anyone. The heavy hitter in this field is Daniel Dennet, one of the most respectable philosophers of our time. He has spent decades arguing for the existence of a partially free will, part of a camp called “compatibilists.” Another philosopher I admire is Patricia Churchland. She is trying to integrate a neuroscientific perspective with philosophy. Regarding “free will,” she thinks it is partly an ill-formulated question and argues that we should instead just define different degrees of control over our actions. I tend to take sides with the compatibilists and Churchland. 

Regarding our ability to affect our grit, it can be tested experimentally. Grit and a growth mindset are closely related, which makes sense; there is no point in trying to achieve personal change if you don’t think it is possible. It might also be that one of the best ways to increase grit is by increasing a growth mindset. A fascinating study, published in Nature in 2019 by David Yeager and his team, showed that a simple one-hour session on growth mindset could nudge the academic performance of struggling students in a positive direction, with improvements equivalent to half a year of teaching.

In this short intervention, they encouraged a growth mindset by informing students about the brain's malleability and that math abilities and IQ can be changed. Encouraging a growth mindset improves learning, as shown in multiple studies, including the one by Yeager. The opposite mindset, fixed mindset, is the view that you can’t affect your abilities. This is exactly the message from Sapolsky. His view could thus potentially cause considerable damage. It is irresponsible that he, despite the lack of scientific, experimental evidence, promotes determinism so uncompromisingly when experimental evidence actually shows that there are practical ways we can help students improve their lives right now.


Patricia Churchland. Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain. (1986) Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Daniel Dennett Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology. (MIT Press 1981)

David Yeager et al. (2019) A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. NATURE 573 (7774)

Torkel Klingberg

Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience

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