Although the field of psychology has existed for over a century, it was long considered a soft science. The hard sciences were those that could precisely measure objects and events within the physical world. For example, physicists know that an atom of iron is 55.405 times heaver than an atom of hydrogen, and biologists have now mapped out the human genome.

Although psychologists could observe and measure the external elements of behavior, they couldn’t observe the internal biological processes that led to the behavior. Further, many of our early beliefs about human psychology came from introspection, which doesn’t report what actually occurred within the subject’s brain.

Recent dramatic advances in brain imaging technology have led to the observation and measurement of activity in specific brain systems, so the field of psychology (now typically called cognitive neuroscience) is finally able to explore the biological antecedents of decision and behavior.

Chris Frith, renowned for his pioneering research with brain imaging technology (and especially in the study of schizophrenia and autism), has written an engaging, informative, non-technical account of the current cognitive neuroscience search for the biological correlates of human decision and behavior — Making Up The Mind: How The Brain Creates Our Mental World (2007).

Current research strongly suggests that various interacting brain systems subconsciously regulate much of our thought and behavior, despite the conventional belief that conscious control (or free will) dominates cognition.

Think of an airplane pilot, who consciously takes off and lands the plane, but during the rest of the flight mostly monitors the various computerized systems that automatically fly the plane towards its destination. The pilot will resume conscious control to fly around a weather front, or to respond to a flight control request to change altitude or speed — but the automatic systems process routine challenges. We give the pilot credit for flying the plane, but computerized systems made and executed most of the decisions.

Imagine life if we had to consciously participate in everything that our brain monitors and regulates — from breathing to digesting, from standing to walking. Although I consciously select the words I type, my fingers automatically type them (except when I consciously correct an error). And even in deciding what to write, I’m constrained by the syntactical conventions that make communication possible within a culture.

We’re a social species, so it’s necessary for interacting humans to perceive and respond to common challenges in a similar and predictive manner. Infants thus arrive with many common perceptive and regulatory systems, and early experience and nurturing simply add to and fine-tune such systems. For example, our brain’s remarkable mirror neuron system jump-starts the development of many important human actions, such as grasping and talking, and enables us to infer the thoughts and intentions of others.

Frith suggests that our sensory system provides no direct contact with the physical world. Our perceptual system transforms the variety of sensory fragments it receives into remarkably useful models and maps. For example, our retina contains a two dimensional visual image that our brain automatically transforms into a more useful three-dimensional perspective of the scene.

Our visual system is excellent but not perfect. Optical illusions and magicians can fool it. Our brain automatically combines the information from our several sensory modalities and recalled prior experiences to represent and then infer the nature of the current challenges.

We similarly don’t consciously select and control all the memories that help to determine our beliefs and behaviors. We’re often influenced by things we’d rather forget, and conversely can’t recall information we need. Still, we consider ourselves to be consciously intelligent.

Previous columns focused on Jeff Hawkins’ book On Intelligence and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Hawkins defines intelligence as our ability to take the information we get and correctly predict what will occur — and Gladwell argues that we make many such successful decisions within a couple seconds of confronting the challenge, much sooner than we could consciously process them. Both provide considerable evidence to support their beliefs, and Frith adds additional research support to the position that automatic processes contribute much more to cognition than formerly thought.

Frith refers to a classic 1983 study by Benjamin Libet related to the issue of free will. Subjects were asked to move a finger whenever they felt the urge to do so. Libet found that 300 milliseconds before subjects reported an urge to move their finger, their brain had already begun to activate the movement sequence. This and subsequent studies suggest that brain activity relative to a goal-directed action occurs prior to the subject’s conscious decision to act.

So are humans nothing more than machines, mere automatic systems genetically programmed to act predictably? The emerging answer is that we’re not machines, but for example, we can consciously drive cars that are machines. We steer, brake, and override such automatic systems as cruise control. We can similarly override our body’s automatic systems — continuing to eat after our appetite suppressor determines that we should stop, drinking caffeine to stay awake when our brain is ready to sleep.

Perhaps most important, our ability to move through much of life on a form of biological cruise control permits us to focus our conscious activity on the complex social interactions that are central to human life. Autistic and schizophrenic people who lack robust automatic processing systems for many functions are often severely handicapped in social interaction.

Frith doesn’t argue that we lack free will. Rather, he’s not sure what it is, except to suggest that our brain creates the illusion of a mind that possesses free will because we couldn’t function as a moral social species without it. Judicial and theological systems, gender bonding, commerce, and many other goal-driven behaviors are dependent on the belief that we can freely choose among alternatives, learn from experience, and override strong negative desires.

The automatic processing systems discussed above are certainly part of who we are, and whether they function so effectively because of genetics or learning, they are integral to our sense of self. They are an important part of but not all of who we are.

Those who believe rather that conscious free will is the dominant human property will have to solve the dilemma of how a non-physical mental desire can activate physical systems within our brain. Frith sees no immediate solution to that problem.

Perhaps the next generation will settle the issue. For example, Elie Sternberg is a Brandeis University undergraduate major in neuroscience and philosophy who has just published an intriguing thoughtful book, Are You A Machine? The Brain, The Mind, And What It Means To Be Human. How nice to see bright young folks tackle this complex ancient problem.