I met a woman at a networking event. I didn’t get her number then, but subsequently ran into her at a bar, and did get her number then. Some weeks later, we went to a party together and ended up back at her place. We smoked a joint, talked about this and that, made out for a short while, and then she fell asleep with me awake at her side. I tried in vain to have her gentle snore lull me to sleep. She coughed. “Hey,” I whispered, assuming she had awoken, but she had not. Her snore continued in the very next breath.

That got my stoned self thinking. Most of the actions in the human body are involuntary: the beating of your heart, cells’ absorption of nutrients, the growth of your fingernails, the 3D printing of 1,500 sperm per second. We aren’t able to will those functions to behave one way or another; they happen despite us. But plenty of other actions are considered voluntary like scratching your face, writing a book, choosing a movie to watch, and, I would have assumed, coughing. But there I was, witnessing a woman cough in her sleep, which looked pretty damn involuntary to me.

I’d go so far as to say anything you do while you’re asleep is involuntary by definition. Can you hold your breath or snap your fingers while sleeping? I sure can’t. Can you will yourself to have REM while you’re awake? Not I. If she was indeed asleep and performed a cough nonetheless, then surely I must reevaluate a lot.

What if some of the things I had assumed to be of my own free choice are actually uncontrollable reflexes? What if those moments that we’d describe as being “quick reflexes”—say, catching something that is about to fall—are indeed actual reflexes in the same way a literal knee jerk is? When I scratch an itch without deciding to, when I swallow food without giving it thought—can I really call those actions voluntary?

Might those actions bypass whatever decision filter I have and get executed, myself unawares? If I identified an action that I had assumed to be voluntary—that is, a cough—but could plausibly be involuntary, and if I find it believable that some other voluntary actions I take are involuntary, then I must ask the big kahuna of a question: Could it be the case that all my actions are involuntary? Every single one? Could everything, literally everything, we do be nothing more than an unstoppable series of uncontrollable reflexes that we observe happening and confuse for free will? Could everything our bodies do—from sweating profusely to clapping during an applause break to playing a rare tympani solo to getting dressed in the morning— not really be of our own volition in the same way a sleeping cough is not either?

Eventually, these meandering thoughts led me to sleep, but I did hold on to the question. And I did a bit of research in the following weeks. As it turns out, my theory wasn’t original. It seems to be the working theory of most neuroscientists.

From the bit I’ve gathered about the consensus in neuroscience, a human’s mind talks to itself like a squirrel’s does, like a tree’s does, like a bacterium’s does. It does not consult with any non-reflexive external superego. Yes, thoughts and complex reasoning transpire as did mine in that bed. But it’s not possible to pinpoint a part of the brain that issues commands and forms opinions independent of the deterministic processes that are our nervous system.

Yes, you have a definite sense that you are deciding for yourself. But brain scans reveal that decisions are made during brain activity that transpired significantly earlier than when people claim was the moment they “made” a decision. So, “deciding” is really “realizing what has been decided by a chain reaction” and “doing” is “observing what is being done.”

Maybe you exist in earnest; maybe you have the power to decide. If so, I congratulate you on that. It must be a great honor and privilege! However, I admit I believe the neuroscientists who understand that lives from the microbial to the mammalian are all like wind-up toys, like elaborate Rube Goldberg machines, faithfully producing a chain reaction of electrical signals, chemical secretions, muscle contractions, information encoding and retrieval, etcetera, the result of which, I have to conclude, is the beautiful little delusion we call life.