Transient Global Amnesia: Forget Free Will

Transient Global Amnesia (TGA) is a form of short-term memory loss that goes away after 24 hours. While it is occurring, the patient’s memory resets on a set period. You can see the effect in the following video. It is a conversation between a mother who is in the middle of a TGA event and her daughter.

The behavior of the mother in the video is typical of all people suffering from TGA. This makes me more convinced than ever that free will is an illusion. The short-term memories of patients reset every X seconds and what do they do? They repeat the same behavior over and over. Even though the environment changes substantially. The daughter varies her response but the mother stays on topic.[1]

This behavior is very much like a computer when it boots. Every time you restart your computer, it goes through a number of steps: the same steps in the same order every time. That is what people experiencing a TGA event are doing. Each cycle is like a computer reboot. And just like with a computer, each time they go through the same steps as they try to make sense of the world. The fact that they do the same thing time after time indicates that their behavior is determinate. It is so determinate that we can see it. It is not subtle.

Clearly, as more time goes by the predictability of a person’s actions will decrease. For example, if a person’s memory resets every hour, environmental factors would become more important and the conversation at the end of each hour would likely be quite different. It is a chaotic system after all. But that is not the point. Rather, given the starting conditions (the brain and the environment), future behavior is predictable. How long it is predictable is determined by how skilled the predictor is. The behavior is nonetheless predetermined. As the period of memory reset increases, the more the mother acts as though she has free will. But her behavior is only unpredictable (By us!), it is no less predetermined.

The implications of this are extraordinary. The universe really is just a wind up toy that does the only thing it can do. Or at least it seems that way. But if the human brain—one of the most complex things imaginable—is determinate, is it such a leap to suggest the entire universe is?

Regardless, human behavior certainly seems to be determined. This idea is freeing. And terrifying. And vindicating. I always knew the universe was unjust.


[1] This video is toward the end of this woman’s TGA event. The repetition earlier on is much more rigid. You can hear it on Radio Lab’s Season 10 Episode 3: Loops.

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