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The Illusion of Choice

Written by Joe Cohen, BS | Last updated:


I’d like to make the following points in this post:

  1. The importance of our conscious mind and specifically the entity we call “I” has less of a role in controlling our destiny than we commonly believe.
  2. Our conscious mind doesn’t choose what we desire or our core personality traits.
  3. We place too much importance on our sense of self and its ability to direct our lives in the way “we” want to.
  4. Even if our conscious mind had a big say in things, the factors that shape our conscious or subconscious mind aren’t really under our control.
  5. Our enhanced sense of the power of self or what we consider “I” leads us to try to control our lives in ways that only produce neuroticism.

What Is The Role of Consciousness In Cognitive Processes?

The short answer is no one really knows exactly. We tend to intuitively feel that higher-level thinking is going on purely in our conscious mind, but we also know that this isn’t the case.

A group of scientists was asked how big they believe the conscious mind is in the context of all brain activity. All of them indicated that they thought it was a small portion of total brain activity.

What I find fascinating is the fact that scans of our brain reveal what we are going to choose before we’re aware of it.

We are naturally deluded to think that our consciousness has an out-sized influence on our destiny.

We also don’t realize that the subconscious mind is also capable of thinking of complex problems, something we’d normally attribute to our conscious mind.

To demonstrate this, think about the time when you were thinking of a hard problem that you wanted to solve and the solution came not when you were actively trying to solve the problem, but when you were thinking of something completely different or maybe even when you were sleeping. From this example, we see that our higher-level thinking is quite independent of our conscious mind.

Who is the ”I” That Chooses?

Have you ever asked yourself who the “I” is that’s choosing to live your life in some way or another? Or the “I” who is constantly thinking about everything under the sun? Did you ever ask yourself who is doing all this thinking? If yes, how much of it can you control?

Whenever I mention “I” or “You” or “Me” in quotation marks I am referring to the entity that we think is “You”, “Me” or “I”. That super-being that is your thoughts and “decides” and plans the life you want to live – at least this is how it appears to us. The “Me” that seems like an island unto itself that is completely separate from humanity.

For my whole life, I had this dualistic sense that there was this distinct “I” or ”Me” that called the shots. This conscious entity, I thought, had the power to choose my destiny. “I” could decide to do one thing over the other and “I” could choose how my personality should be, etc…”I” was the determining factor of my fate.

Some aspect of this is true, as in we do experience some kind of “I” that chooses in some sense. Since our conscious mind is part of our overall brain activity it probably does play some small role in shaping our activities and decisions. However, we tend to view this consciousness as a distinct entity and over-emphasize the power of this “I” entity, which leads to mistaken notions about how much of our life we could control.

We instinctively feel we can control our consciousness to a large degree. I felt this, too, for a long time. At a certain point, however, I started to question how much “I” can control my fate.

Yes, there is some “I” that “decides”, but you should ask yourself who or what controls this “I.”

The Delusional Power of “I”

An underlying belief and a strong sense of the power of what “I” can do leads to a situation where we believe if we just think about a topic enough, maybe we can change the course of our lives.

This thinking that we have significant power to shape our destiny stems from the illusory idea that there is some entity within our conscious mind that we have complete control over.

If only we could find the right way to think about something or read enough motivation/self-help books then we can finally be motivated to get all of the stuff that we wanted to get done, we tell ourselves. Or we just have to will it enough, we’ve been told.

But I say that willing isn’t up to “You” nor is your level of diligence or desire for hard work. These are innate traits that are clustered under conscientiousness and everyone is born with a certain level of it. The environment modulates these desires, but the environment isn’t mostly under your control. The part of the environment that is under your control isn’t influenced by “You”, but by the entirety of your “system”.

The point is everyone has the illusion to one degree or another about how much we control in our lives. As much as we think we are where we are today because of some separate entity called “I” made these choices, the reality is the path that you took was chosen for you by forces out of your control.

If you don’t believe this, imagine what your life would be like if you’ve never tried to change yourself, never had anxiety, never planned or thought about the future…? Instead, you just did what you had to do when the time came… I would’ve probably saved so much time from all the neurotic thoughts that I’d have accomplished much more by now.

Elon Musk Didn’t Choose To Be Motivated

Motivation is a good example of a relatively fixed trait, assuming no external biological manipulation (like LLLT) or no underlying change in health. A cytokine called TNF, for example, can decrease motivation.

Otherwise, the only way that motivation can be changed in the short term by increasing your stress level – but there’s no free ride. You can increase your motivation now by increasing psychological stress, but when the stress disappears your motivation declines to a lower level then it would’ve been had you not been stressed.

It’s kind of like how tired we are in the day is biological and the only way we can change it in the short term is by being stressed, but it catches up with you in one way or another.

Elon Musk is probably one of the most motivated people out there, but do you think he read a book on it or tried to actively increase it? I’d be shocked if he did. Elon Musk doesn’t think about how motivated he is or how to increase it, he just is and doesn’t waste his time thinking about it. He takes advantage of his motivation and just does what he’s motivated to do. In a certain sense, some part of him chose to be motivated, but that didn’t come about because of dwelling on it or trying to change it.

Michael Bloomberg, who is a self-made billionaire and one of the richest people in the world, didn’t choose to be where he is. The reason I mention him is that I found it interesting that he had planned to do charity, but he couldn’t help but run his company. He logically chose that it would be best for him to devote his life to charity, but his system, at the age of 72, decided that he just loved running his company and can’t hold himself back. He says “However, the more time I spent reacquainting myself with the company, the more exciting and interesting I found it” [1].

I used to mistakenly assume that motivation can be increased by willing to have more of it or putting myself in the right mental framework. Maybe if I just thought about how a subject or task can be more interesting, I’d like it more or if I viewed it in the right light, I’d finally love to do it. Or even better, I used to try to convince myself I liked things when I didn’t. I was searching for some hack to change my preferences and predilections so that I can become a “better” person.

The truth is, I’m already the best self I can be by not trying to be anything else other than who I am and embracing whatever talents I have and don’t have. The more we try to change ourselves, the more neurotic we become.

Ultimately, the only “hack” is complete acceptance of your reality right now and accept that this reality may never change, which is to say that there are no hacks to change your personality. You may never be as smart as you wanted or as successful. On the other hand, you may also be the richest person in the world, but the point is you should be comfortable accepting your situation right now and whatever cards are thrown at you in the future.

We Control Less Than You’d Expect

In the past, I always kept trying to control my life in a very top-down manner. Slowly, I realized that attempting to control things not only wasn’t an optimal way for me to go about life, but it didn’t work as I had wanted it to, either. One such stark realization I had was how little we can control our destiny. This is a scary thought for some, but the more scared you are of this idea, the worse your OCD is.

The realization of how little we control bolstered my ability to “let go”, which I had been working on for a while before that. The inspiration for these realizations came from the Buddhist teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn and some from the philosopher John Gray. JKZ encouraged me to ask and investigate who the “I” is that’s doing all the thinking. He speaks about being aware of the mental chatter and letting it go. This is called mindfulness meditation.

I always had a problem with the idea of free will, but even as I doubted whether free will exists, I still had the notion that “I” can control my destiny or that I can somehow influence innate biological forces by certain types of thinking. I thought that we were born with whatever sense of self we had, so from that perspective we didn’t have a say in the sense of self we wound up in, but I also thought that given this sense of self that we have, it can be used to change various factors about us and shape our future in some out-sized manner.

To understand more deeply what I mean by our conscious mind having little control, I will bring a few examples by how we think we control our fate through our conscious mind, yet we really don’t.

For example, “You” can “decide” that you want to be more motivated. So, you tell yourself, OK, for now on I will be more motivated and get more sh*t done. So while “You” decided this, what factor decided what “you” should choose? Meaning, where did this motivation to be more motivated come from? You may think that no one or nothing decided this, but the only way that that’s the case is if there is some ethereal or mystical force that we can’t explain and is independent of our biology. People are naturally inclined to feel that this is the case, even if they’re atheists. It’s human nature to believe that our conscious mind is the seat of control.

It’s also true that I’ve found more often than not when I tried to change things by deciding to be one way or another, the changes were short-lived if they occurred at all. And many times when I don’t plan to do things, I spontaneously do it anyway. What this means, for me at least, is that planning has less of a role in what I actually end up doing than I’d like to believe.

To some degree, we need to use our higher cognitive function and some consciousness to plan something out initially, but there’s absolutely no reason to actively think of these plans more than once or what’s better known as “dwelling” (not the same as rehearsing for something). And it’s not like our conscious mind can’t think about these plans anyway while we’re not actively thinking about it.

The conscious mind is relatively insignificant in deciding what “you” like or dislike. The conscious mind is there for some higher-level thinking and to implement the innate desires of your unconscious mind and your innate biology or what I like to call your “system.” The conscious mind is probably more like a window than anything else.

Can you understand why “you” like sex, human interaction, goals, romance, love, etc…? You didn’t one day decide to choose to like the smell of roses or the scenery of nature. You just did. We are born with a set of genes and these genes interact with our environment to produce the product that is you. Liking things isn’t “rational” and we didn’t choose to like or dislike anything. We are how we are without choosing to be like this.

It’s also interesting how we like to view ourselves as morally upstanding individuals. After all, “I” chose to do a good deed. “I” could’ve chosen to not do a good deed, but instead “I” did something good and therefore “I” am a good person. In reality, your “system” went through a complex “equation” of various innate forces competing against each other until the dominant force won out and communicated this message to your consciousness to implement the decision in the best possible way. Our morality isn’t, therefore, chosen by us, but was rather prechosen by millions of years of evolution in combination with environmental chance.

Everyone has a different system, though, irrespective of morals. Some people enjoy giving more and have more empathy. The givers didn’t choose to be like this – they just were. In the way we define morality, I guess the givers are more moral. But I see morality as just a code that we make up for ourselves and which springs forth from a cacophony of competing, innate desires.

What’s likely really going on, however, is our subconscious – which is what really decides what we like and is influenced by our genes and environment – subtly and effortlessly relays the message to your conscious mind that you want to accomplish more. All the while, we don’t necessarily understand the underlying reason why the subconscious told our conscious mind to choose something over another. And even if we did it’s irrelevant. The point is we were evolutionarily “designed” to feel drawn to certain behaviors and choices, with or without an “I”. So in some sense, we are like animals, with a small added layer on top that we like to call “I” and that makes us feel proud and gives us the illusion of choice.

This idea of how little control we really have collides with our neuroses head on and causes quite a bit of discomfort at first, which is why many people won’t accept this idea.

If you read these words, you will either accept them or reject them to one degree or another. “You” aren’t choosing to accept them. Although the conscious mind may play a role in reasoning through these ideas, where did your mind come from that caused you to accept them or reject them? Did you choose to have this mind?

As Alan Watts says, “If you’re ready to wake up, you’re going to wake up.” (note that I can’t relate to about 30% of what Watts talks about. Much of this video doesn’t make sense to me)

Even if you think you’re highly rational, in the sense that you don’t let your emotions sway you much (as I try to be), you nor I choose to be this way; it was chosen for us by forces out of our control. Also, the entirety of your system will have a larger role than you probably think in either accepting these ideas or not (including your emotions).

The most critical point is that whether your subconscious accounts for 99% of your desires or 1% (I think it’s closer to the former), the “you” that is choosing didn’t itself choose what it wanted to choose.

Our Future Planning Is Mostly Irrelevant

I think most of our planning about the future is irrelevant. Looking back at my own planning, 99% of it was irrelevant and didn’t help me anyway. It was purely for my own pleasure, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Imagine how much time you’d save if you cut out 99% of the planning in your life and just did instead of planned.

In the past, if I dwelled on a topic, I would attribute a lot of importance to my thoughts. If a topic ever consumes me now, I view it as a tide that isn’t under my control. All I can do is sit back and listen to the chorus and what it’s telling me to do.

The voices aren’t usually monolithic. Almost always, there are competing desires, so I listen to all of them and let them duke it out. My conscious role then becomes more like a referee in a basketball game, or more accurately a spectator. Whereas before I had this vague sense that I was more like some all-star team and if I just had the right moves I could accomplish whatever I wanted.

I’m not saying that we should never try. There’s no way to know unless we try. But what we shouldn’t do is keep trying when our system is telling us to stop. Sometimes we do this because of peer or familial pressure.

Elon Musk built incredible companies while people were telling him he’s crazy. He didn’t care and he just listened to his system. He knew he could fail, but he tried anyway. I’m not against trying. I think if you feel impelled to keep trying against all odds, then you follow that. And if you have the talent, you will accomplish great things. But, again, what I’m against is trying against all odds for the sake of trying against all odds. Meaning, don’t do it because it’ll make a good story for your life. Do it if that’s what your system is telling you to do.

If it’s true that we can’t change our fixed traits, then there is little one can change. What we become isn’t up to “us.” The level of “success” I attain in the future isn’t my choice. The amount of money I make isn’t up to “me.” That’s for fate to decide. All I can do is listen to what my system tells me to do and do that.

I don’t enjoy sitting home and doing nothing all day. I enjoy learning, thinking, writing, being creative and helping people – and I don’t mind a small amount of annoying work in the day. If I feel like working hard, I’ll do that. If I feel ambitious, then I’ll be ambitious. If I feel unmotivated, then I’ll sit and navel gaze or meditate.

Sometimes I feel lazy and don’t want to do anything. Other times I can go 4 days straight of researching and writing for 18 hours a day. Sometimes I get into a doer mode where I like doing, rather than thinking. And then there’re the times where I just like to tinker, with my website or whatever.

Sometimes I plan these activities to no end and when it comes time to do it I’ll think, hmmm… you know what? I’m not really in the mood for this now and get distracted with cute videos of kittens on youtube. The times that I have been most productive weren’t planned. I spontaneously just “decided” to do something productive. But again, who is the “decider”?

There’re two types of trying and this point is subtle. There’s active trying and passive trying. During active trying, you are attempting to achieve a specific result. In passive trying, you are just taking commands from your system and will accept the result whatever it may be because you realize that on some level you have absolutely no control over the outcome. If you’re able to stop the chatter of your conscious mind, nothing will really change that much, except that you’ll become more at peace with yourself and you’ll be able to listen better. Your inner desires will still be there.

What follows from these ideas is that you don’t need to give yourself motivational pep talks to be motivated in the long term. It’s true that that pep talks may give you a surge of motivation (with some anxiety) for a few minutes and that may be useful for a coach to give to his players in the final play of a game, but this isn’t a strategy to shift your motivation for more than a few minutes.

I think the conscious mind can influence our behavior in the very short term the way we want it to. So if we think about accomplishing more for a minute, that minute that we were thinking about it, we are more motivated, but when we stop thinking about it, we go back to our baseline level of motivation. Hence, thinking about it doesn’t really do much and in the long run – the only thing that will change is our neuroses.

When you realize these things, you begin to accept who you are – your nature – and you stop trying to fight or control it (or at least you fight/control things less). This isn’t a hack, but a realization and truth which allows you to put things into perspective better.

There’s nothing to implement. I’m just offering the ideas for thought so that you can pay attention to your own patterns and see if it matches up to my experience. If this resonates with you, you will think about a lot. If not, you will forget it in a few hours. It’s not up to “You.”

It may take time to realize what your nature is about, but once you do embrace it and don’t take it too seriously. I view my own nature as a river that pulls me in places that “I” can’t control. Instead of fighting against the tide, I relax, don’t take it seriously and let it take me where ever “it” decides to take me.

Why Does This Philosophy Matter?

The realization that we can’t control our destiny can be useful in a few ways.

For example, I see people trying to use mantras and other top-down mental approaches to increase their motivation and mood. Like I’ve said, I think this is a completely fruitless endeavor. If you understand the nature of the mind and people, you’ll realize how this approach won’t get you far.

We’ll then be less likely to think about the past, the future, and therefore regret or be angry with ourselves or others. There was nothing “you” could’ve done to stop some outcome that occurred (no regrets) and there’s less of a reason to think about the future because it’s not really under our control, anyway.

And if you don’t think there’s this separate entity within people and “they” aren’t responsible for their behavior, you stop getting angry at people, or at least the anger subsides. I don’t think people are responsible for who they are. Still, it doesn’t mean I will associate with certain individuals even if they didn’t choose to be a certain way. And this doesn’t change the morality of locking criminals up. Locking criminals up is a practical way for society to be functional.

How Did These Ideas Influence Me?

At first, this realization made me uneasy because I felt like if I don’t really have control over my fate then why am I putting effort into some task? But eventually, I became more comfortable with this and began to listen better to myself.

Of course, I still put effort into things, but the effort is more organic than controlled.

I’d like to emphasize that losing control is not a science, but an art. It takes time, but you’ll get better.

Overall, my life is less planned and I don’t try to control my destiny. Instead, I sit back and feel the current pull and I don’t fight it – I just listen and swim with it. I’m not perfect and sometimes I get swept up and become mindless or try to control something too much, but just realizing these ideas have had a profound impact in the way that I see the world.

By changing my physiology and coming to certain realizations that ended up changing the course of my life, I was able to completely get rid of my OCD and now I’m less neurotic than anyone I know. My roommate who lives with me claims I’m the least neurotic person he knows. It didn’t happen over a day or even year but was rather a 5-year process (and counting). It took me a while to accept many of the ideas that I have now about life. The first stage in changing is believing in the path that you want to pursue. Hence, I am writing this post for you to ponder and mull over.

This attitude may not lead you to where you intended to be led, but it certainly leads you to a more peaceful place and it will alleviate the internal strain of constantly fighting against the tide of your nature. Going with the flow dramatically decreased my level of neuroses and released creative energies within me. It also made me more productive (not more productive in carrying out specific goals, though).

I didn’t implement these steps for these or any specific outcomes. I just realized the truth of it. It took a long time for these things to slowly sink in and I wasn’t prepared to accept them for a while – I was afraid of the outcome. Well, I thought, if I accept these ideas what if I’ll become indolent and lifeless? However, after practicing letting go for a while, I finally was able to let go of most of my ambitions and the need to accomplish anything. I realized that no matter what happened I could still be happy. If I accomplish less? No problem. I trusted that whatever the outcome, my quality of life would be better, overall, even if I couldn’t predict exactly how.

Having gone through this transformation, I can say there is no turning back. I’ve likely been changed forever. I can’t take anything in life too seriously anymore, but it doesn’t mean I get less done. If anything, I’m much more productive because I’m not thinking about 90% of the stuff I used to think about and the anxiety associated with those thoughts. I’m happier this way.

I mentioned that I was writing a book and though I’ve worked on it a bit, I realized that I don’t have the motivation to do it one fell swoop, like other people. Instead of fighting this and trying to change myself, what I plan on doing is writing more content for the blog and eventually, maybe in a year, taking the material from here that can be fit in an ebook and adding maybe 30% and editing it. That’s something my current motivation allows me to do. Again, I don’t fight my system, I just try to listen to it and work with it. The same thing can be said about my shake. I don’t know if spending most of my time launching a shake will make me happy and I’m definitely not motivated enough to do it alone. My solution, when and if the time comes, is to partner with people who are “doers”, rather than thinkers like myself. Yes, I can “do” in the right environment, but I am more motivated to do thought projects right now than opening up a business that requires more hands-on doing. I accept my nature and work with it instead of fighting against it. If I try to do too much, my mood starts to go down a bit. It’s just a pattern I’ve noticed. There’s no question that planned activities are necessary sometimes, but I think many people’s lives are over-planned – I know mine was.

I used to try to plan out the posts I wrote. I realized it started to feel like work. So instead I just wrote whatever, even if the post was a quarter finished and published it. Heck, this post wasn’t even proofread. Eventually, I get an internal push to make it better and so I eventually edit posts. There are many posts that need a lot of work, but I wait for the push to come and then ride the wave.

About the Author

Joe Cohen, BS

Joe Cohen, BS

Joe Cohen flipped the script on conventional and alternative medicine…and it worked. Growing up, he suffered from inflammation, brain fog, fatigue, digestive problems, insomnia, anxiety, and other issues that were poorly understood in traditional healthcare. Frustrated by the lack of good information and tools, Joe decided to embark on a learning journey to decode his DNA and track his biomarkers in search of better health. Through this personalized approach, he discovered his genetic weaknesses and was able to optimize his health 10X better than he ever thought was possible. Based on his own health success, he went on to found SelfDecode, the world’s first direct-to-consumer DNA analyzer & precision health tool that utilizes AI-driven polygenic risk scoring to produce accurate insights and health recommendations. Today, SelfDecode has helped over 100,000 people understand how to get healthier using their DNA and labs.
Joe is a thriving entrepreneur, with a mission of empowering people to take advantage of the precision health revolution and uncover insights from their DNA and biomarkers so that we can all feel great all of the time.


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