Category Archives: decision

Meaning of consciousness – part 3

What is the function of consciousness? Is the function thinking? There is type 1 thinking, unconscious thinking, and type 2 thinking, which we are conscious of. But it appears that what we are really conscious of is working memory, and not conscious of how an item is created and put in working memory. Type 2 thought is just unconscious processes using working memory as a tool for certain sorts of processing (some language, step-wise logic chains or calculations for example) and the contents of working memory are rendered into consciousness. If type 2 thinking is a function of consciousness then it implies that working memory is somehow dependent of consciousness.

We tend to associate moral responsibility with decisions made consciously, but for thirty of so years there has been growing evidence that we make decisions and execute actions unconsciously before registering them consciously. Libet’s experiment and its descendants just will not go away in spite of decades of trying. The notion that free will and ‘free won’t’ are functions of consciousness just will not work. What seems to be in consciousness is a metaphorical note saying, “I intended this action, I did it, and I morally own it.” There is a phrase, ‘fringe qualia’, which seem to be metaphorical notes about non-sensory information: states of mood and emotion, recognitions, ownership of actions and thoughts, important so take note, and so on. None of these arise within consciousness; they are add from and by unconscious processes. Consciousness can register responsibility for an action but not actually cause the action. There is a theory that consciousness is required to insure that there are not overlaps and gaps in motor plans. The idea is that the motor system needs a working model of the body and environment to proof its plans. This is probably true but not necessarily.

Is the function to give us a sense of self? The impression we have is that we are seeing the world through a hole in our heads around the bridge of the nose from about an inch and a half or so into the brain. But the ‘self’ is a complex mixture of what we control with our muscles, the sensory feelings from inside our bodies, sensory signals from the skin, our memories making a personal narrative, and very especially our consciousness. We naturally seem to identify with some sort of conscious ‘me/I’. Consciousness, as an awareness of ‘ourselves in the world’, has to create the watcher, listener, actor, that is in the world. Self seems essential to consciousness but not perhaps the central function.

Can memory be a function of consciousness? If we think about it, consciousness and memory do seem to go together, at least episodic memory. We remember things that we are conscious of and not things that we are unconscious of. We are aware we have been unconscious when there is a discontinuity in our memory train. It does not seem to require some sort of translation to bring a memory into consciousness – it appears to happen easily. It seems that imaginings are constructed of bits and pieces of memories and they also seem to fit into consciousness without effort. In order to remember experiences, we have to have experiences, and what is it that we experience – it is consciousness. the action. Consciousness can be experimentally tricked into being wrong, taking responsibility for actions the individual did not cause. But we are usually right. Knowing which actions we intentionally cause must be important to judging outcomes and learning from experience. Consciousness seems connected to various short-term memory systems: working memory, sensory memory, verbal memory. Episodic memory also is held together by a continuous self, all events and episodes happen to the same self. Consciousness may be what is prepared for episodic memory, the ‘leading edge’ of episodic memory, so to speak. Or it may be a monitor or newly formed memories, like the monitor head on a tape recorder. The creation of episodic memory would certainly be a function worth the biological cost of consciousness. Being part of the episodic memory system would fit with being an important anchor of the ‘self’. Even the metaphorical notes of the fringe qualia would fit it this episodic memory.

The question is – what exactly is the dependency of memory on consciousness. Episodic memory, imagination and consciousness seem to have the same basic nature or structure or coding. And this structure must be the vehicle of the subjective experience. I have looked for a clear statement of this idea in the literature and the closest seems to be the global workspace of Bernard Baars. He proposed a architecture that would give momentary active subjective experience of events in working memory, consciousness, recalled memory, inner speech and visual imagery.

Do other animals have consciousness? It certainly seems reasonable to assume that most vertebrates do. The source of the awake state comes from deep in the brain stem. Activity from there activates higher regions, the thalamus in particular. Awake, in animals, may not necessarily mean aware, but it would be wiser to assume awareness until proven otherwise, than to do as we have been doing, assume no awareness until proven otherwise. The cerebral cortex does not itself mount consciousness, it is done in partnership with the thalamus, probably be driven by the thalamus. It would seem that a rudimentary consciousness would be possible without a cerebral cortex. It has been found recently that split-brain subjects have one consciousness and not two. This implies that the source of consciousness is is not in the cerebral hemispheres, but must be in some lower region. But the vivid detail of the content must be from the cortex.

Still we do not have a explanation of the subjective nature of consciousness yet but that is for part 4.

 

New look at self-control

Much of the time, our model of reality is viewed from the perspective of ourselves, right now. The notion of Theory of Mind (ToM) is that to a certain extent we can instead take the perspective of another person. We can metaphorically walk in their shoes. This ability seems to reside in the posterior temporo-parietal junction (pTPJ). This is also the location involved in prosocial behaviour. A recent paper (Soutschek, Ruff, Strombach, Kalenscher, Tobler; Boutrain stimulation reveals crucial role of overcoming self-centeredness in self-control; Science Advances, Oct 2016, Vol. 2, no. 10) finds this area is also involved in controlling impulses to take immediate rewards, rather than wait for greater rewards in future.

The researchers used disruptive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to shut down the junction and then tested for prosocial vs selfish behavior in a sharing money game, the ability to recognize what another person could see (extent of ToM), and the ability to show self-control to achieve a larger reward. These measures appeared to move together, implying that they might share the same mechanism, most likely that mechanism is a switch between the perspective of the current self and the perspective of another, either another person or the self at another time. This fits with previous findings by others that selfishness and impulsiveness appear to go together in many people.

The paper notes that the frontal lobe is also involved in self-control and discusses how the two areas might cooperate in controlling impulsiveness.

Here is their abstract:

Neurobiological models of self-control predominantly focus on the role of prefrontal brain mechanisms involved in emotion regulation and impulse control. We provide evidence for an entirely different neural mechanism that promotes self-control by overcoming bias for the present self, a mechanism previously thought to be mainly important for interpersonal decision-making. In two separate studies, we show that disruptive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the temporo-parietal junction—a brain region involved in overcoming one’s self-centered perspective—increases the discounting of delayed and prosocial rewards. This effect of TMS on temporal and social discounting is accompanied by deficits in perspective-taking and does not reflect altered spatial reorienting and number recognition. Our findings substantiate a fundamental commonality between the domains of self-control and social decision-making and highlight a novel aspect of the neurocognitive processes involved in self-control.

So when the marshmallow test is quoted as showing that children with greater self-control end up being more successful adults, it could be down to more than self-control. They probably also are more prosocial, understand others better and are less selfish.

Beta waves

Judith Copithorne image

Judith Copithorne image

Brain waves are measured for many reasons and they have been linked to various brain activities. But very little is known about how they arise. Are they the result or the cause of the activities they are associated with? How exactly are they produced at a cellular or network level? We know little about these waves.

One type of wave, beta waves (18-25 Hz) are associated with consciousness and alertness. In the motor cortex they are found when muscle contractions are isotonic (contractions that do not produce movement) but are absent just prior and during movement. They are increased during sensory feedback to static motor control and when movement is resisted or voluntarily suppressed. In the frontal cortex the beta waves are found during attention to cognitive tasks directed to the outside world. They are found in alert attentive states, problem solving, judgment, decision making, and concentration. The more involved the cognitive activity the faster the beta waves.

ScienceDaily reports a press release from Brown University on the work of Stephanie Jones and team, who are attempting to understand how beta waves arise. (here) Three types of study are used: MEG recordings, computer models, and implanted electrodes in animals.

The MEG recordings from the somatosensory cortex (sense of touch) and the inferior frontal cortex (higher cognition) showed a very distinct form for the beta waves, “they lasted at most a mere 150 milliseconds and had a characteristic wave shape, featuring a large, steep valley in the middle of the wave.” This wave form was recreated in a computer model of the layers of the cortex. “They found that they could closely replicate the shape of the beta waves in the model by delivering two kinds of excitatory synaptic stimulation to distinct layers in the cortical columns of cells: one that was weak and broad in duration to the lower layers, contacting spiny dendrites on the pyramidal neurons close to the cell body; and another that was stronger and briefer, lasting 50 milliseconds (i.e., one beta period), to the upper layers, contacting dendrites farther away from the cell body. The strong distal drive created the valley in the waveform that determined the beta frequency. Meanwhile they tried to model other hypotheses about how beta waves emerge, but found those unsuccessful.” The model was tested in mice and rhesus monkeys with implanted electrodes and was supported.

Where do the signals come from that drive the pyramidal neurons? The thalamus is a reasonable guess at the source. Thalamo-cortex-thalamus feedback loop makes those very contacts of the thalamus axons within the cortex layers. The thalamus is known to have signals with 50 millisecond duration. All of the sensory and motor information that enters the cortex (except smell) comes though the thalamus. It regulates consciousness, alertness and sleep. It is involved in processing sensory input and voluntary motor control. It has a hand in language and some types of memory.

The team is continuing their study. “With a new biophysical theory of how the waves emerge, the researchers hope the field can now investigate beta rhythms affect or merely reflect behavior and disease. Jones’s team in collaboration with Professor of neuroscience Christopher Moore at Brown is now testing predictions from the theory that beta may decrease sensory or motor information processing functions in the brain. New hypotheses are that the inputs that create beta may also stimulate inhibitory neurons in the top layers of the cortex, or that they may may saturate the activity of the pyramidal neurons, thereby reducing their ability to process information; or that the thalamic bursts that give rise to beta occupy the thalamus to the point where it doesn’t pass information along to the cortex.

It seems very clear that understanding of overall brain function will depend on understanding the events at a cellular/circuit level; and that those processes in the cortex will not be understood without including other regions like the thalamus in the models.

Fighting Libet’s experiment

A post in Science of Us in Feb, by Christian Jarrett, reviews the Libet experiment and recent attempts to overturn the implications of it. (http://nymag/scienceofus/2016/02/a-neuroscience-finding-on-free-will.html ) I find the struggle to reverse Libet’s finding to be the result of a mistaken way of viewing thought. An enormous amount of effort has gone into failed attempts to show this experiment was flawed over the last 30 years. Why are the implications so hard for people to accept?

Here is the first bit of Jarrett’s article (underlining is mine).

Back in the 1980s, the American scientist Benjamin Libet made a surprising discovery that appeared to rock the foundations of what it means to be human. He recorded people’s brain waves as they made spontaneous finger movements while looking at a clock, with the participants telling researchers the time at which they decided to waggle their fingers. Libet’s revolutionary finding was that the timing of these conscious decisions was consistently preceded by several hundred milliseconds of background preparatory brain activity (known technically as “the readiness potential”).

The implication was that the decision to move was made nonconsciously, and that the subjective feeling of having made this decision is tagged on afterward. In other words, the results implied that free will as we know it is an illusion — after all, how can our conscious decisions be truly free if they come after the brain has already started preparing for them?

For years, various research teams have tried to pick holes in Libet’s original research. It’s been pointed out, for example, that it’s pretty tricky for people to accurately report the time that they made their conscious decision. But, until recently, the broad implications of the finding have weathered these criticisms, at least in the eyes of many hard-nosed neuroscientists, and over the last decade or so his basic result has been replicated and built upon with ever more advanced methods such as fMRI and the direct recording of neuronal activity using implanted electrodes.

These studies all point in the same, troubling direction: We don’t really have free will. In fact, until recently, many neuroscientists would have said any decision you made was not truly free but actually determined by neural processes outside of your conscious control.

That is the stumbling block: ‘neural processes outside of conscious control’. That is what some scientists are fighting so hard not to lose. The whole notion of what free will is rests on how we view who we are, what our consciousness is, and how control works.

When we think of who we are, we cannot separate self from non-self within our bodies. We are not really divided at the neck, or between the upper and lower parts of the brain, or between different ‘minds’ co-existing in one skull. This idea of two separate minds, that was inherited from Freud and others, has not been demonstrated to be true. It has not been shown that we have two distinct thinking minds that are somehow separate. Thinking appears to be a complex, widespread but interconnected and unified affair. Whether a particular thought process becomes conscious or remains non-conscious does not depend on the basic process of thought.

There is every reason to reject the notion of a separate conscious mind that thinks in a ‘conscious’ manner to produce conscious thoughts. We are aware of thoughts (some thoughts) but we are not aware of the mechanisms that produced the thoughts. We do not metaphorically hear the gears of thought production grinding. We are simply not aware of how thought happens. Consciousness is a form of awareness and probably not much more. There is awareness of some things that go on in the brain but not of all things or even the bulk of things.

So why are some thoughts made conscious while others aren’t? A good guess is that consciousness gives a remembered experience, an episodic memory, or at least the material for such memories. With memories of our actions, it would be important information to remember whether the action was our doing or just happened to us, whether it was accidental or intended, whether it was a choice or coerced, carefully planned or an automatic habit and so on. These pieces of information are important to save and so would be incorporated into conscious events. We need that information to learn from experience. Just because the feeling of having an intent, an urge and then an execution of an action is there in our conscious awareness does not mean that they were a form of conscious control. They are there as important parts of the event that consciousness is recording.

We can still control our actions, and we still can be aware of controlling our actions, but that does not mean that our awareness is producing the control that we are aware of. Consciousness does not produce the tree that I am aware of – it just produces the awareness. And you are just you, and not your awareness of you. There is reality and there are models of reality; there is territory and there are maps of the territory; there is an original and there are copies of the original. There is you and there is your awareness of you. You make decisions (with neural activity) but your awareness of a decisions is not the same as making it.

I personally find it a little difficult to understand why this idea of a conscious mind as opposed to a conscious awareness is so strong and indestructible an idea to most people. I cannot remember exactly how or when (it was a gradual process) but some time in my late teens, over 50 years ago, my consciousness became a flickering imperfect movie screen and not a thinking mind. So “determined by neural processes outside of conscious control” is obvious because there is no such thing as conscious control and what is more, it is a comforting rather than alarming viewpoint.

I am assuming that the current experiments with showing ‘free won’t’ will not turn out to be any more robust than the attempts to show free will. We shall see.

Superstitions

How is it that people keep their superstitions even after they do not believe they are possible? It is because it is actually difficult to lose a superstition. We learn them as children and they stick at a deep emotional level.

Once long ago in the ’60s, my husband bought my soul. It started somehow in a conversation at a table of people in a cafe. I offered to sell my soul and we did some haggling over price and then he handed over the money and I declared that my soul belonged to him. It was an entertaining little drama but it caused a lot of discomfort in the group. There were people at the table that believed I had a soul and people who did not believe in souls – all were not happy. No one actually thought that my husband now actually had my soul in his possession or under his control but it was still disturbing. The most common phrase was that we were tempting fate, even though few would have agreed that our lives were ruled by fate. Why the disconnect?

ScienceDaily has an item, (here), “The power of magical thinking: Why superstitions are hard to shake”. The article points out that we all have superstitions that we do not rationally defend but that affect our behaviour. We knock on wood, walk around ladders and such things because we feel uncomfortable if we don’t. It feels like we are tempting fate. But we would not seriously defend these actions, instead we laugh apologetically and shrug and says its just a little habit with no harm. We allow an irrational thought to remain an influence on our emotions and behaviour.

The author of an upcoming article, Risen, “contends that detecting an irrational thought and correcting that error are two separate processes, not one as most dual-system cognitive models assume. This insight explains how people can detect irrational thought and choose not to correct it, a process she describes as “acquiescence”Understanding how acquiescence unfolds in magical thinking can help provide insight into how it is that people knowingly behave irrationally in many other areas of life.

In order to reverse these habits and rid thought of magic intuitions it is necessary to recognize that knowing that the intuition is not possible is not enough. Separate effort has to go into loosening the grip of the magic intuitions. And, I think was goes further than magic intuitions and superstitions, named by Risen, but applies also to many habits and thought patterns that we do not believe are rational but are comforting and therefore never corrected. It takes effort.

 

 

The thalamus revisited

For a few decades, I have had the opinion that to understand how the brain works it is important to look at more than the neocortex, but also look to the other areas of the brain that may modify, control or even drive the activity of the cortex. Because of my special interest in consciousness, the thalamus was always interesting in this respect. Metaphorically the cortex seemed to be the big on-line computer run by the thalamus.

A recent paper makes another connection between the cortex and the thalamus, to add to many others – (F. Alcaraz, A. R. Marchand, E. Vidal, A. Guillou, A. Faugere, E. Coutureau, M. Wolff. Flexible Use of Predictive Cues beyond the Orbitofrontal Cortex: Role of the Submedius Thalamic Nucleus. Journal of Neuroscience, 2015; 35 (38): 13183 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1237-15.2015).

The various parts of the thalamus are connected to incoming sensory signals, all parts of the cortex, the hippocampus, the mid-brain areas, the spinal cord and the brain stem. It is one of the ‘hubs’ of the brain and its activity is essential for consciousness. However, the particular bit of the thalamus that is implicated in this particular function (adaptive decision making flexibility) appears to have been mainly studied in relationship to pain and control of pain. There is a lot to learn about the thalamus!

Here is the abstract: “The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is known to play a crucial role in learning the consequences of specific events. However, the contribution of OFC thalamic inputs to these processes is largely unknown. Using a tract-tracing approach, we first demonstrated that the submedius nucleus (Sub) shares extensive reciprocal connections with the OFC. We then compared the effects of excitotoxic lesions of the Sub or the OFC on the ability of rats to use outcome identity to direct responding. We found that neither OFC nor Sub lesions interfered with the basic differential outcomes effect. However, more specific tests revealed that OFC rats, but not Sub rats, were disproportionally relying on the outcome, rather than on the discriminative stimulus, to guide behavior, which is consistent with the view that the OFC integrates information about predictive cues. In subsequent experiments using a Pavlovian contingency degradation procedure, we found that both OFC and Sub lesions produced a severe deficit in the ability to update Pavlovian associations. Altogether, the submedius therefore appears as a functionally relevant thalamic component in a circuit dedicated to the integration of predictive cues to guide behavior, previously conceived as essentially dependent on orbitofrontal functions.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: In the present study, we identify a largely unknown thalamic region, the submedius nucleus, as a new functionally relevant component in a circuit supporting the flexible use of predictive cues. Such abilities were previously conceived as largely dependent on the orbitofrontal cortex. Interestingly, this echoes recent findings in the field showing, in research involving an instrumental setup, an additional involvement of another thalamic nuclei, the parafascicular nucleus, when correct responding requires an element of flexibility (Bradfield et al., 2013a). Therefore, the present contribution supports the emerging view that limbic thalamic nuclei may contribute critically to adaptive responding when an element of flexibility is required after the establishment of initial learning.

How do morals work?

There is a way to study morality with little scenarios, little hypothetical questions, given to people, who then answer that they would do X or Y as a moral action in that situation. The scenarios have always struck me as simplistic and not believable, even sometimes impossible. And the answers people give do not have credibility – people are not always truthful and besides, in the the split second they would have to make a decision if the situation was really happening, with hardly any time for thought, they may do anything. The context is arbitrary and does not widen to include the society or the future beyond perhaps a day at most. This scenario method seems useless and misleading.

One of these scenarios goes like this. If you could time travel to Austria when Hitler was a small boy, would you try to kill him? Well, first of all this is not a believable story so the answerers will not actually take it really seriously. Secondly, we know what Hitler did but we have no idea what would have happened if there had been no Hitler. It could have been wonderful. Or for example, if no Hitler, then there may have been some other tyrant but a bit later on the scene. A war in the 50’s rather than the 40’s would be the future. This could have been after the invention of the nuclear bomb, so that instead of only 2, enough bombs were dropped to wipe out civilization.

Another question has been in the news lately. If you have a person who had hidden a bomb and that bomb was going to go off in a short time and kill many people, would you torture the person to get the location of the bomb? This again is not a believable scenario, although possible. This particular combination of knowing some things for absolutely, positively sure but not knowing the location at all is unlikely. No one has come up with a case like this having happened and it is unlikely to happen very often – maybe once in a few hundred years. If you were in this situation you would probably act without thinking and justify your action or inaction later. Again this scenario leaves out the future – over the course of future years you may cause many more deaths by opening a door to torture than you save by finding the bomb. It also leaves out a wider context by not including the fact that torture is not a very successful way to get correct information (you can do the torture and get nothing in return). In such a situation I want to think I would not torture but I am not sure. If someone says they would torture, I am not sure that they actually would. How people answer the question is next to meaningless.

A popular question (or questions really) is the trolley car that is going to kill 1 person or 5, where you can take action resulting in the death of the 1 or not take action and allow the 5 to die. Again the scenarios are not very believable and some not even credible. Here is one: you are on a bridge over the trolley line and you see 5 people tied to the track. A trolley car is coming and will hit the 5 if it is not stopped. Beside you is a fat man, weighing enough to stop the trolley if he is dropped on the track. Would you push him over the bridge onto the track? If you say you would then it is assumed that you are a utilitarian and decide moral questions by what gives the most total good or the least total bad. If you say no you would not, it is assumed that you follow moral rules and therefore will not participate in murder. In all the different models of this set-up there is no look at the future. What if the 1 that dies to save the 5, is about to find the cure for some fatal disease or something like that, saving thousands of lives? To a certain extent it is important that people do not think that someone may murder them for no other reason thean they were a convenient weight to save some other people. Societies need an amount of trust.

As it happens, I think I would not push the fat man but there are other trolley scenarios where I might sacrifice the 1. And again I am not sure that I know what I would do in some of the trolley questions. But – I am quite sure that I am not a utilitarian all the time or none of the time; ditto, with following rules. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. I am not concerned with being consistent to a philosophical opinion of what should be labeled moral.

The reason we even have moral questions is that we are social beings and the health of our societies is important to our survival. Because we are social, there can be choices we have to make that have no absolutely right answer. We have to choose between two good things or which of two bad things to avoid. The problems are not clear cut nor do we have all the information needed to ‘solve’ them. We can use our intellect and find logical answers but these may not be the best answers because they don’t take into consideration the statistics of unknown repercussions. We can follow the rules of society but these may not be the best answers for us in certain situations. We can follow our emotional feelings but they are also not always the best route. In the real world, out brains sort this out using cognition, learned values and emotions. This can be done quickly or more slowly depending on the time available. We end up with an action plan and a justification, should we need it, but with practically no idea of how the action plan was arrived at. We can trust, for what it’s worth, that the brain used a mechanism that has withstood the test of our ancestors/societies survival. There is no guarantee that evolution will have provided us with a way to always be morally right just likely that it will be probabilistically better than alternatives. Children seem to come with a rudimentary moral sense which they improve with experience and learning from their culture – still no guarantee!

If we want to understand how the brain makes these difficult choices, we will have to use more realistic questions (whether in a scanner or on a questionnaire). Morality is unlikely to be understandable in terms of utility or rule, logic or emotion, or self-interest verses societal-interest.

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.”

Integration-to-bound decision model

Neuroskeptic has a posting (here) with the title ‘Do Rats have Free Will?’ It is a review of a paper by Murakami and others – abstract is below.

The paper supports the integration-to-bound model of decision making. A population of secondary motor cortex neurons ramp up their output to a constant threshold. Crossing the threshold triggers the motor action. The researchers found a second group of neurons that appeared to establish the rate of rise of the integrating neurons and therefore the time that elapses before the threshold is reached. This fits the model. But what does it say about free will?

The abstract does not mention free will but Neuroskeptic does. It is fortunate that he has talked with the group and shared it in his post. He points out the similarity between the intergration signal and the readiness potential that Libet and others found preceded an action and preceded conscious awareness of a decision to act. He quotes Murakami: “activity preceding bound crossing, either input or accumulated activity, could be said to participate causally in the timing of an action, but does not uniquely specify it. The integration-to-bound theory implies that no decision has been made until the bound has been reached… as at any moment up to bound crossing, the arrival of opposing inputs may avert an action.” Neuroskeptic comments that the readiness potential may be a contributor to a decision rather than the consequence of a decision. And again quotes Murakami: “Crossing the threshold from unawareness to awareness [could be] a reflection of bound crossing [in the integrator]…In this way, the integration-to-bound theory may help to resolve the contradiction between the subjective report of free will and the requirement for causal antecedents to non-capricious, willed actions.…our results provide a starting point for investigating mechanisms underlying concepts such as self, will and intention to act, which might be conserved among mammalian species.”

Although their results do give confirmation to the integration-to-bound theory, I do not think they say much about free will. First, I cannot see how they have any information on when the rats are consciously aware of whatever they may be aware of in a decision. Second, if another signal is controlling the rate of integration, when was it set on course and what are the signals that might control it? This is a long way from an understanding of how decisions are made and whether consciousness is involved.

Abstract of paper (Murakami M, Vicente MI, Costa GM, & Mainen ZF (2014). Neural antecedents of self-initiated actions in secondary motor cortex. Nature neuroscience, 17 (11), 1574-82 PMID: 25262496):

The neural origins of spontaneous or self-initiated actions are not well understood and their interpretation is controversial. To address these issues, we used a task in which rats decide when to abort waiting for a delayed tone. We recorded neurons in the secondary motor cortex (M2) and interpreted our findings in light of an integration-to-bound decision model. A first population of M2 neurons ramped to a constant threshold at rates proportional to waiting time, strongly resembling integrator output. A second population, which we propose provide input to the integrator, fired in sequences and showed trial-to-trial rate fluctuations correlated with waiting times. An integration model fit to these data also quantitatively predicted the observed inter-neuronal correlations. Together, these results reinforce the generality of the integration-to-bound model of decision-making. These models identify the initial intention to act as the moment of threshold crossing while explaining how antecedent subthreshold neural activity can influence an action without implying a decision.

 

Which is the illusion?

There is a nice recent review of the state of play with regard to ‘free will’ (here). I must say that the comments on this blog were very frustrating. They seem to bypass important questions and facts.

  1. Almost everyone seems to believe that determinism and free will are opposites. There are compatibilists who say the free will can be defined so that it is not in opposition to determinism. Fine, but why do this? I don’t like the phrase, ‘free will’; I don’t want it saved; I want to be rid of the phrase and its baggage. We do not have to accept determinism either. They are not one right and one wrong, not both right, but they are both wrong, in my opinion.
  2. What is wrong with free will is the insistence that we make conscious decisions. We make decisions, freely in the sense that they cannot be predicted before we make them. But that does not mean they are in any sense conscious at that point. They (at least some times) rise into conscious awareness, but that does not mean that they were ‘made consciously’; they were made and then entered consciousness. The decision is ours whether we are aware of it or not, and if we are aware of it, that awareness is after the decision is made.
  3. Our conscious awareness of the justifications for a decision – that is not necessarily the real reasons. It is an illusion that we know our actual reasons. We guess, usually correctly but sometimes very incorrectly. Our justification mechanism can be fooled.
  4. Our conscious awareness takes responsibility for any action that appears to be ours, even if it is not. In a situation where we never made a decision or moved a muscle, we can be fooled into being mistakenly aware of doing both.
  5. In order to learn we need not only to remember actions and their outcomes, but also whether we caused the actions or not. We learn by making causal hypotheses. In episodic memory, we remember only the events that reach consciousness. It is important that the fact that we did something involved in an event is remembered along with the event. So we remember decisions as appropriate, but those decisions are not ‘made in memory’ any more than they are ‘made in consciousness’. Without this information about causes, we could not learn from experience.
  6. We are of course responsible for every single thing we do. But we are responsible to an extra degree (some would say morally responsible) if we have taken ownership of that action by labeling it with a ‘decision tag’. Again, we can fool ourselves, and some people are very good at not taking responsibility, or taking responsibility but fudging the justifications. People can also through false memory, take responsibility for an action they were not involved in.
  7. Absolutely nothing has been lost. These effects are noticable though carefully planned experimental set ups, that are most unnatural. But the experiments can fool this system and bring to light the picture of all thought being unconscious in its construction. This does not mean that we cannot continue to function normally.
  8. Calling what we have ‘free will’ is dangerous. It carries implications that are false. Forgetting ‘free will’ and just talking about decisions is a much better way to go. And given what we know about quantum mechanics (not to mention the practical impossibility of predicting as complex a system as the brain and all that might go into a decision) we should jettison ‘determinism’ too.
  9. The really important change in viewpoint is about the nature of consciousness. Simple consciousness is not an illusion – we have that stream of awareness and we know it. The idea that consciousness is more than an awareness-attention-memory sort of thing is the illusion; conscious mind as opposed to consciousness is an illusion; introspection is an illusion; conscious decision is an illusion; conscious thought is an illusion; a self watching consciousness is an illusion. We do our thinking unconsciously and then, not before, we may or may not be consciously aware of our thoughts. Even in the step-wise linear thinking that appears to be conscious, the creation of each step is still unconscious.