Agency and intention

Nautilus has a post (here) by Matthew Hutson that is a very interesting review of the connection between our perception of time and of causation. If we believe that two events are causally related we perceive less time between them than a clock would register; and if we believe the events are not causally connected, time is increased between them. And on the other side of the coin. If we perceive a shorter time between two events, we are more likely to believe they are causally connected; and if the time is longer between them, it is harder for us to believe they are causally related. This effect is called intentional binding. The article describes the important experiments that underpin this concept.

But intentional binding is part of a larger concept. How is our sense of agency created and why? To learn how to do things in this world, we have to know what we set in motion and what was caused by something other then ourselves. Our memory of an event has to be marked as caused by us if it is, in order to be useful in future situations. As our memory of an event is based on our consciousness of it, our consciousness must reflect whether we caused the outcome. So the question becomes – how do our brains make the call to mark an event as our agency. If the actual ‘causing’ was a conscious process, there would be no need for a procedure to establish whether we were the agents of the action. However there is a procedure.

I wrote about this previously (here) in looking at Chapter 1 of ‘The New Unconscious’, ‘Who is the Controller of Controlled Processes?’. What needs to happen for us to feel that we have willed an action? We have to believe that thoughts which reach our consciousness have caused our actions. Three things are needed for us to make a causal connection between the thoughts and the actions:

  1. priority

The thought has to reach consciousness before the action if it is going to appear a cause. Actually it must occur quite closely, within about 30 sec., before the action. Wegner and Wheatley investigated the principle with fake thoughts fed through earphones and fake actions gently forced by equipment, to give people the feeling that their thought caused their action.

  1. consistency

The thought has to be about the action in order for it to appear to be the cause. Wegner, Sparrow and Winerman used a mirror so that a subject saw the hands of another person standing behind them instead of their own. If the thoughts fed to the subject through earphones matched the hand movements then the subject experienced willing the movements. If the earphones gave no ‘thoughts’ or contradictory ones, there was no feeling of will.

  1. exclusivity

The thought must be the only apparent source of a cause for the action. If another cause that seems more believable is available it will be used. The feeling of will can disappear when the subject is in a trance and feels controlled by another agent such as a spirit.

Also previously (here) I discussed a report in Science, “Movement Intention after Parietal Cortex Stimulation in Humans”, by M. Desnurget and others, with the following summary:

Parietal and premotor cortex regions are serious contenders for bringing motor intentions and motor responses into awareness. We used electrical stimulation in seven patients undergoing awake brain surgery. Stimulating the right inferior parietal regions triggered a strong intention and desire to move the contralateral hand, arm, or foot, whereas stimulating the left inferior parietal region provoked the intention to move the lips and to talk. When stimulation intensity was increased in parietal areas, participants believed they had really performed these movements, although no electromyographic activity was detected. Stimulation of the premotor region triggered overt mouth and contralateral limb movements. Yet, patients firmly denied that they had moved. Conscious intention and motor awareness thus arise from increased parietal activity before movement execution.”

The feeling of agency is not something that we can change even if we believe it is not true. Here is Rodolfo Llinas describing an experiment that he conducted on himself that I discussed previously (here). It was in a video interview of Rodolfo Llinas (video). There are many interesting ideas in this hour long discussion. The part I am quoting from the transcript is Llinas’ self-experimentation on the subject of free-will.

“…I understand that free will does not exist; I understand that it is the only rational way to relate to each other, this is to assume that it does, although we deeply know that it doesn’t. Now the question you may ask me is how do you know? And the answer is, well, I did an actually lovely experiment on myself. It was extraordinary really. There is an instrument used in neurology called a magnetic stimulator…its an instrument that has a coil that you put next to the top of the head and you pass a current such that a big magnetic field is generated that activates the brain directly, without necessary to open the thing. So if you get one of these coils and you put it on top of the head, you can generate a movement. You put it in the back, you see a light, so you can stimulate different parts of the brain and have a feeling of what happens when you activate the brain directly without, in quotes, you doing it. This of course is a strange way of talking but that’s how we talk. So I decide to put it on the top of the head where I consider to be the motor cortex and stimulate it and find a good spot where my foot on the right side would move inwards. It was *pop* no problem. And we did it several time and I tell my colleague, I know anatomy, I know physiology, I can tell you I’m cheating. Put the stimulus and then I move, I feel it, I’m moving it. And he said well, you know, there’s no way to really know. I said, I’ll tell you how I know. I feel it, but stimulate and I’ll move the foot outwards. I am now going to do that, so I stimulate and the foot moves inwards again. So I said but I changed my mind. Do it again. So I do it half a dozen times… (it always moved inward)…So I said, oh my god, I can’t tell the difference between the activity from the outside and what I consider to be a voluntary movement. If I know that it is going to happen, then I think I did it, because I now understand this free will stuff and this volition stuff. Volition is what’s happening somewhere else in the brain, I know about and therefore I decide that I did it…In other words, free will is knowing what you are going to do. That’s all.”

3 thoughts on “Agency and intention

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