I was asked this question on Quora:
Here’s my answer:
It’s very difficult to define what exactly the will is in neuroscientific terms. It seems best to reserve this word for the whole organism, rather than some part of it.
Some philosophers would say that attributing will to some sub-component of an organism is an example of the “mereological fallacy”. It’s like saying the stomach eats, or the brain thinks, or the legs walk. We use these kinds of phrases as a kind of poetic shorthand, but only a complete organism can be said to eat, think, or walk.
In the case of the two hemispheres, we also know that the left brain right brain story — that one is “rational” and the other “holistic/artistic” — is wildly misguided. Some neural processes are, but most normal tasks that humans perform require close integration and communication between the hemispheres.
But we do have to make sense of a common experience — being “in two minds” about something. Most people know what it is like to be in a conflicted state — multiple goals or biases seem to be tugging at us. Clearly decision-making involves a sort of “parliamant” in the brain, in which multiple vested interests vie to enact legislation that suits them. 🙂
But the parliament metaphor should not be taken too seriously. There is little to be gained in anthropomorphizing neurons or groups of neurons. Neural ensembles might sometimes seem to behave as if they have a will, but that idea will not really help us understand decision-making, or the subjective feeling of having a will.
So brain areas don’t have likes or dislikes — organisms do, and brain areas mediate the processes by which these likes and disliked become manifest.
For more on the problems with anthropomorphizing neural processes, see these two essays I wrote:
(This essay is partly a gentle critique of the Pixar movie Inside Out.)
(This essay explores the tendency of people, including neuroscientists, to think of the brain is a separate agent from the person as a whole.)
I admit that it is often fun to anthropomorphize neurons, which is what I do in the essay below. I paint a picture of a neural city and a neural economy, complete with start-ups and investors. 🙂