Bonn model of volition

In a recent paper, Bonn (citation below) puts forward a model of freewill. Although I wish that we could simply stop using the words freewill and determinism, Bonn’s type of treatment is the next best thing.


First he redefines freewill. (This is the part that bothers my sensitivities. By denying conscious freewill but not some other kind of freewill, communication gets difficult and often misleading.)


“... psychologists tend to operationalize free will by relating it to self-report which requires a form of self-reflective conscious awareness. The implicit condition is that one must be able to report upon all the processes leading up to a decision or behavior in order for it to be “free,” and conversely, if my brain generates an idea or initiates an action without my conscious awareness it is somehow not “me” doing the thinking or acting. The conception of freedom argued for here, on the other hand, merely requires that thoughts and resulting actions be novel and internally generated, that they result from a combination of experiences and characteristics which is unique to the individual. Unconscious, or implicit, processes are, in this view, essential components of how an individual processes information: Regardless of whether a particular process can be observed and narrated by the conscious, self-aware part of the brain, it can still make unique and important contributions toward thought and action, and thus, to the independence of the individual. The arguments here, thus, specifically reject the simplistic notion that free will requires complete conscious awareness of the processes involved.


He make clear that he believes that internal processes belong to the individual whether they are conscious or unconscious, with no exclusively conscious “me”.


Then he begins to describe a model of how volition may work with our memory being an important part of this model.


Our memory is known to be inaccurate and many feel this is a fault (kludge if you like). “the lack of factual accuracy in our recollections may instead be the signature of a system that evolved, not to store accurate representations of the past, but instead, to provide a means of flexibly imagining the future, as well as conceiving of other hypothetical scenarios. Surviving in the real world does not depend upon accurate recall of every past detail as much as an ability to predict future contingencies. A system that can integrate details of multiple past events and is more sensitive to broad patterns and associations rather than accurately representing minutia would be well suited to this purpose. ..Growing evidence points to a core network of brain regions involved in remembering the past and imagining the future, as well as other forms of mental simulation… remembering the past and predicting the future incorporate memory systems in the medial temporal lobes, the lateral parietal lobes and the hippocampal formation, in addition to areas in the medial frontal lobes which are involved in perspective taking and theory of mind, or understanding others’ mental states. It seems that many forms of self-projection; imagining the past and future, navigation (imagining the self in different physical locations) and theory of mind (taking the perspective of other people) depend on this same core network of memory-related brain areas …When the brain is not occupied with processing external stimuli, activity reverts to this area where stored impressions are consolidated and reorganized. The default network seems to facilitate the internal experience of scenarios and perspectives that transcend simple recall, and it seems to do so automatically through making connections between, or recombining, elements of multiple memory traces. ”


This system is very personal to each of us – our history, values, habits, emotions all make the plans and goals that result from this memory system unique to us.


Bonn describes two motor systems. “The first motor control system runs from the sensory cortices to the primary motor region via the premotor area. Activity in these areas relates to stimulus-driven, or reflexive, responses to sensory input as well as to habitual behaviors such as grasping, eating, and walking which are performed largely unconsciously . The second motor system involves multiple regions, including the cingulate, frontal cortices, and basal ganglia, which connect to the primary motor cortex via the pre- supplementary and supplementary motor areas. Behaviors that require planning and goal maintenance engage some or all of this system. Processes mediated by pre-supplementary motor area (preSMA) connections generally allow for the flexible, online integration of goal states, decisions, and action priorities with feedback from the environment…The preSMA, along with the frontopolar cortex and the rostral cingulate, is active in tasks requiring decisions between multiple options…The frontopolar cortex is also involved in maintaining goal states such as suppressing responses to immediate environmental demands and, along with the anterior cingulate (ACC), is seemingly involved in the production of goal-directed action sequences. The ACC, through the preSMA, also seems capable of selecting and initiating action in the absence of external prompts, as well as monitoring and adjusting those actions in response to feedback. All told, there are extensive findings indicating that the preSMA is involved in interfacing multiple goal and decision-related subsystems with the primary motor cortex.” There seems little doubt that we have the ability to control our actions. The supplementary and pre-supplementary motor areas can internally guide choice and selectively inhibit action in a ‘volition-like way. We have control.


Bonn puts together the memory and the motor abilities in his model.


To this point we have established two important concepts. First, processing in the default network allows humans to create novel combinations of information. Information stored in memory is broken down to elemental form and connections made between elements during times of reduced sensory input. This allows for patterns and relationships among multiple impressions to be extracted and for the flexible generation of counterfactual simulations. Second, faculties exist for internally maintained goals to exert flexible control over behavior. Humans can replace automatic, reflexive behaviors with internally guided, goal-directed action. ”


The task related network and the default network have been pictured as mutually exclusive, not working at the same time, but recent work shows that they interface and engage together in planning.


Here is a diagram of the model:

Here is the paper’s abstract:


This paper examines the concept of free will, or independent action, in light of recent research in psychology and neuroscience. Reviewing findings in memory, prospection, and mental simulation, as well as the neurological mechanisms underlying behavioral control, planning, and integration, it is suggested in accord with previous arguments (e.g., Wegner, 2003; Harris, 2012) that a folk conception of free will as entirely conscious control over behavior should be rejected. However, it is argued that, when taken together, these findings can also support an alternative conception of free will. The constructive nature of memory and an integrative “default network” provide the means for novel and


creative combinations of information, such as the imagining of counterfactual scenarios and alternative courses of action. Considering recent findings of extensive functional connections between these systems and those that subsume motor control and goal maintenance, it is argued that individuals have the capability of producing novel ideas and translating them into actionable goals. Although most of these processes take place beneath conscious awareness, it is argued that they are unique to the individual and thus, can be considered a form of independent control over behavior, or free will.

Bonn GB (2013). Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: acting independently with a limited role for consciousness. Frontiers in psychology, 4 PMID: 24367349

4 thoughts on “Bonn model of volition

  1. Mihai Martoiu Ticu

    ==The conception of freedom argued for here, on the other hand, merely requires that thoughts and resulting actions be novel and internally generated, that they result from a combination of experiences and characteristics which is unique to the individual. ==

    One could make a robot with a chip generating novel internal decisions, that result from a combination of experiences and characteristics which is unique to the robot. Will it have free will?

    1. JKwasniak Post author

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, Bonn’s freedom might be found in future robots and he would have to call it ‘free will’ by his definition. I do not use the term because I think that there are too many meanings - it is a flawed concept and so is ‘determinism’ flawed. We are not forced to choose between them - they can ignore them and get on with figuring out how we manage our decisions, values, actions etc.
      Your comment goes to the heart of why ‘free will’ is such a loaded phrase. Why does Bonn’s definition disturb you? Would you feel the same if the robot also had consciousness? Or do you feel that only humans can have free will?
      Thank you again for your comment. JK

      1. Mihai Martoiu Ticu

        I don’t believe there is free will. Mountains of scientific papers show daily that things we thought we did freely are explained by genes, environment, even the stuff we eat or breathe. Those trying to make new models for free will are just like guys who made extreme mathematical models to keep the earth in the center of the world, long after the evidence was clear that it was otherwise.

        1. JKwasniak Post author

          I am sorry that I misunderstood what you were saying. I too do not believe in free will but I also don’t believe in determinism and I don’t think I have to choose between them. I would agree that not enough is known about how the brain works to make definitive statements about it. But Bonn’s model is not really trying to stop investigation. It is just another scientific model to be tested. And take away the words ‘free will’ from it and it is a not bad model - I like it as a starting point for investigations.
          I do not understand the need that some people have to be able to say they have free will when they have diluted the idea to the point where it doesn’t mean any more than the quote in your email. JK


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