Just in time for the onset of the month of Elul, with its overarching theme of repentance and preparation for the judgement and acceptance of Divine sovereignty that are the themes of the High Holidays, some important scientific findings were reported.
First some background. A defining feature of Judaism is its belief in the potential of Man. We are not predestined in our righteousness or unrighteousness, but rather possess free will that we can and should properly express. Thus, Moshe admonishes Israel (Devarim 30:19):
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed;
A cornerstone of the doctrine of free will is that people can actually change, they can turn around. Yes we can™®.
However, this ability to change is actually hotly debated by the psychological community, and it is refreshing to see them believe in human ability.
Our brain can be taught to control cravings, researchers find
August 2, 2010
Standard therapeutic techniques decrease cravings of cigarette smokers by regulating activity in two separate but related areas of the brain, a new study led by a Yale University researcher shows.
“This shows that smokers can indeed control their cravings, they just need to be told how to do it,” said Hedy Kober, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and lead author of the paper.
“We do not see any impairment in the prefrontal cortex, which suggests the brain is able, when prompted, to recruit control regions to reduce cravings,” Kober said.
This seems to be true at least for one addiction. This does not mean free will for every behavior yet. Will be interesting to know with regards to other, non-addictive behaviors 🙂
Even this does not indicate “free will” in the sense in which we Jews believe in it (indeed, it is the most fundamental of our beliefs, without which all others fall by the wayside). Self-regulating, self-controling behavior that can be learned is a well-known feature of mechanical systems, indeed, even of computer programs. In the ongoing debate over the mind-body question, between reductionists and non-reductionists, reductionists have already been quoted as saying, “We cannot prove our position. It is a matter of belief.” I agree. Even Maimonides, in making his case for free will in his “Shemonah perakim”, rested heavily on human intuition and on paradox.