The Frontal Cortex

Hot Coffee, Free Will, etc

Given the weather on the Eastern seaboard – it’s one of those hot, sultry days where you wait for a thunderstorm to purge the humidity from the air – I decided to do a quick literature search for the effects of heat on cognition. But as so often happens when I play with vague search terms on Google scholar, I ended up getting entranced by completely unrelated papers. Like this one by Lawrence Williams and John Bargh:

In one experiment, Williams had an undergraduate assistant meet each volunteer at the door and bring him or her up to the lab. In the elevator, the assistant asked the volunteer to hold her cup of coffee for a few seconds while she jotted down some notes. Sometimes she had warm coffee, sometimes iced. When the volunteers got to the lab, Williams asked them to evaluate an imaginary person described in emotionally neutral terms, such as “intelligent, skillful, and industrious.”

The volunteers who touched the hot coffee cup rated the person as being warmer–more generous, more sociable, and so on. The physical sensation of touching something warm influenced their assessments of the “warmth” of someone’s personality. But when Williams asked them to rate the person on traits that had nothing to do with the warm/cold distinction, such as honesty, strength, and seriousness, he found no differences between the two groups.

For more on the effects of priming, and its implications for free will, check out Bargh’s list of publications. Bargh has long been at the forefront of scientists who are steadily eroding the antiquated illusion of a distinct, conscious I, which is able to make decisions without being influenced by the warmth of a coffee cup, or the subliminal cues flashed on a computer screen, or the activity of the amygdala. This doesn’t mean you’re an automaton, or some deterministic robot. It simply means that your conscious will doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that the prefrontal cortex isn’t omnipotent. Instead, the I you so sincerely believe in is ultimately inseparable from that helter-skelter of activity taking place outside of awareness. I’m convinced that free will exists – as Williams James once quipped, “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will” – but it’s almost certainly much less powerful than we’ve been led to believe. I’d associate the will with psychological talents like metacognition, which allow you to think about how you think, and thus reflect back on all those unconscious forces shaping your behavior. Free will, then, is more like a strange feedback loop, in which projections from “below” enter conscious awareness and allow us, via the PFC, to alter the activity that alters us.

Oh, and what about heat and cognition? It doesn’t seem to have much of an effect, although working memory is slightly impaired.


  1. #1 Rachael
    June 9, 2008

    I actually get angry when I get hot (direct sunlight does the trick more than actual temperature), and I like to joke that my poor mood is a result of my heat shock protein system activating itself. A childhood in Arizona established that heat does very bad things to my mood.

    So, I’m a little surprised to hear that there aren’t big differences in cognition. Of course cognition can be independent from mood, but I’m still surprised.

    And regarding the coffee trick – oh no! I always drink iced black coffee (I really do hate being warm). I wonder how many bad impressions I’ve made 😀

  2. #2 Tom Clark
    June 9, 2008

    I grant you all the recursive self-modifying meta-cognition you like, but there’s no reason to suppose that sort of neurally instantiated freedom evades cause and effect determinism. And if it did, that would only subtract from your rationality and responsibility, since anything nondeterministic would simply add randomness to the mix. If you take a naturalistic view of the self, it’s hard to suppose it’s causally privileged in any sense over the rest of nature.

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