Category Archives: decision

Sometimes choices are not thought out

In some competitive situations animals can produce random behavior rather than behavior based on prior experience. The anterior cingulate cortex is where strategies based on models of reality and history are generated; switching to random behavior is done by inputs to this part of the brain from the locus coeruleus. This was reported in a recent paper (citation below).

We generally assume that deciding what to do is based on the best guess of what will be the successful thing to do. Why would random behavior ever be better? It would be if the world seemed to change from what it had been and a new model needed to be constructed. Random exploration would be helpful. Or, there is the case of an opponent that is better at the fight. “We find that when faced with a competitor that they cannot defeat by counterprediction, animals switch to a distinct mode of action selection consistent with stochastic choice. In this mode, characterized by highly variable choice sequences, behavior becomes dramatically less dependent on the history of outcomes associated with different actions and becomes independent from the ACC. ” Primates appear to always try counterprediction before using random choice.

The random behaviour is not the product of the ACC system but is generated elsewhere. A mixture of modelling in the ACC and a random overlay seems the normal state with the amount of randomness depending on the confidence in the modelling. It is like a balance between exploitation and exploration set by the performance of the ACC model. “We note that complete abandonment of an internal model and adoption of a fully stochastic behavioral mode is normally maladaptive because of the associated insensitivity to new information. In rats, such a mode appears to be triggered when repeated modeling efforts prove to be ineffective and thus bears a similarity to the condition of learned helplessness thought to follow the sustained experience of the futility of one’s actions. Intriguingly, functional imaging studies in humans have suggested that a chronic reduction in ACC activity might play a role in this disorder .

This arrangement also seems to fit with the ‘deliberate’ errors that happen in well-learned sequences in sports, bird song, and children’s speech. Confidence in the model is occasionally tested.

Here is the abstract:

Behavioral choices that ignore prior experience promote exploration and unpredictability but are seemingly at odds with the brain’s tendency to use experience to optimize behavioral choice. Indeed, when faced with virtual competitors, primates resort to strategic counterprediction rather than to stochastic choice. Here, we show that rats also use history- and model-based strategies when faced with similar competitors but can switch to a “stochastic” mode when challenged with a competitor that they cannot defeat by counterprediction. In this mode, outcomes associated with an animal’s actions are ignored, and normal engagement of anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is suppressed. Using circuit perturbations in transgenic rats, we demonstrate that switching between strategic and stochastic behavioral modes is controlled by locus coeruleus input into ACC. Our findings suggest that, under conditions of uncertainty about environmental rules, changes in noradrenergic input alter ACC output and prevent erroneous beliefs from guiding decisions, thus enabling behavioral variation.

Tervo, D., Proskurin, M., Manakov, M., Kabra, M., Vollmer, A., Branson, K., & Karpova, A. (2014). Behavioral Variability through Stochastic Choice and Its Gating by Anterior Cingulate Cortex Cell, 159 (1), 21-32 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2014.08.037

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Unconscious effects

There is an interesting item in ScienceDaily (here) on the effect of perceptions that we are not conscious of. We can perceive an object, understand its meaning, and have that meaning affect our behavior, without any conscious awareness of the object. The paper’s lead author, Cacciamani, says, “Every day our visual systems are bombarded with more information than we can consciously be aware of. We’re showing that your brain might still be accessing information without your conscious awareness, and that could influence your behavior.

groundThe researchers use the way we perceive the figure and ground of a silhouette. We perceive the figure before we perceive the ground and we perceive the semantic meaning of the figure before the ground – in many cases we do not seem to be concerned at all about the meaning of the ground. They showed a silhouette for 50 milliseconds before a test, and did not tell the subjects to do anything with the image. The subjects were not aware that the ground suggested a particular meaning. As in the image, where the figure is meaningless and the ground suggests leaves, the leaves do not reach awareness in the short exposure.

The test was that subjects were shown an object and had to indicate whether it was natural or man-made. Before each test object, the short exposure to the silhouette was shown. “We found that participants performed better on the natural/artificial word task when that word followed a silhouette whose ground contained an object of the same rather than a different category.”

So although the subjects had no consciousness of meaningful objects in the ground, they were affected by the meanings. The perceptions of the ground-objects were complete and they were assigned meanings without conscious awareness. The meanings affected the choice of actions without conscious awareness. To me this indicates that perception, meaning, and decision are not necessarily always exclusively bound to consciousness.

Here is the citation and abstract:

Laura Cacciamani, Andrew J. Mojica, Joseph L. Sanguinetti, Mary A. Peterson. Semantic access occurs outside of awareness for the ground side of a figure. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 2014.

Traditional theories of vision assume that figures and grounds are assigned early in processing, with semantics being accessed later and only by figures, not by grounds. We tested this assumption by showing observers novel silhouettes with borders that suggested familiar objects on their ground side. The ground appeared shapeless near the figure’s borders; the familiar objects suggested there were not consciously perceived. Participants’ task was to categorize words shown immediately after the silhouettes as naming natural versus artificial objects. The words named objects from the same or from a different superordinate category as the familiar objects suggested in the silhouette ground. In Experiment 1, participants categorized words faster when they followed silhouettes suggesting upright familiar objects from the same rather than a different category on their ground sides, whereas no category differences were observed for inverted silhouettes. This is the first study to show unequivocally that, contrary to traditional assumptions, semantics are accessed for objects that might be perceived on the side of a border that will ultimately be perceived as a shapeless ground. Moreover, although the competition for figural status results in suppression of the shape of the losing contender, its semantics are not suppressed. In Experiment 2, we used longer silhouette-to-word stimulus onset asynchronies to test whether semantics would be suppressed later in time, as might occur if semantics were accessed later than shape memories. No evidence of semantic suppression was observed; indeed, semantic activation of the objects suggested on the ground side of a border appeared to be short-lived. Implications for feedforward versus dynamical interactive theories of object perception are discussed.

Who’s phrase is ‘free will’ anyway?

There is a good post by Bill Skaggs on his blog ( in which he comments on the Sam Harris – Daniel Dennett debate on free will. Skaggs puts it nicely: “Both Dennett and Harris agree that the “folk” concept of free will is hopeless nonsense. Dennett has spent a substantial part of his career trying to persuade philosophers and the public to redefine free will in a more reasonable way. Harris does not think that redefining a folk concept is a viable strategy. Regardless of who is right, this is the sort of thing that they should be able to argue about without insulting each other or flaming each other.” Skaggs is not taking sides here.



It has been clear for a long time that the compatibilists do not actually believe in old fashioned free will, but have redefined it so that they can say that they believe in “free will”. Like Harris, I find this the wrong way to go, simply dishonest and confusing. I also think that it just postpones some very needed readjustments. What readjustments?



  1. If we drop the use of the phrase “free will” then we can also drop the idea of “determinism”; we can stop thinking that these are opposites and mutually exclusive. We do not have a conscious will that is free from physical constraints and we also are not part of a clock-work type of causal universe where our decisions are fixed before we do the deciding. This useless argument consumes a lot of time and energy.

  2. We can re-examine responsibility and figure out when, how, why we are responsible for our actions. We should resolve the ways that we are responsible for our values, habits, morals, and unnecessary areas of willful blindness. What is our responsibility to actually put effort into doing things right?

  3. We could find out and face what consciousness is and is not. This is difficult when some of its models are mixed up with theories of free will and others are not. The understanding of decision making is also hampered by the contamination with free will. This is also a problem with other areas of neuroscience.

  4. We can produce a legal system that makes sense. The principles that hold up the current legal systems really need to be cleaned up. And there are other civic ideas that could do with a re-think. I get the feeling that many compatibilists are trying to avoid any changes at all to the legal system at all cost. It is like they feel the system is so fragile that it will collapse without free will. But changes in the system can be good and not lead to any breakdown in law-and-order. I don’t see it as that perfect a system that needs to be protected from scientific knowledge.



Changing the definition of free will makes these tasks harder and postpones facing them. But there is more. I also think that there is something very arrogant about setting out to redefine well established words. What is wrong with coining a new word? So if someone writes a paper or book, redefining a word, does he really expect hundreds of millions of people to say “yes, sir, I’ll obey, sir”.



Some words are fairly easy to hive off with some technical definition. But when the word is used by a large non-technical population in the same or similar contexts, then it is not reasonable to continue using the technical term without some marking of it. For example “tolerance” has an engineering definition and a social one, but the context in which they are used is so different that there is little confusion. But “rational” has a philosophical meaning, an economic meaning and a folk meaning. The economic and folk meanings do overlap in the media and this causes confusion. It would be better to use “economically rational” or a different word entirely. When people insist on causing confusion, they should not be surprised if they get accused of wanting the confusion.



Words change meaning naturally as the knowledge, need and context of their use changes. But changing them by fiat when they are in general use takes a lot of coercive power. Nor can people really control how their statements are put to use. So someone defines their terms and uses those terms to say something but he cannot be sure that the definitions and the quote will not get separated and the quote used to say the opposite of what was intended. Isn’t it better to avoid the confusion?




The Edge Question 5

This post, the fifth in this series, covers two other areas where there were several similar responses to the Edge Question: What scientific idea is ready for retirement? (here) The first area is around concepts of self, free will and agency and the second is around the separation of man from other animals.


There has recently been a fair amount of discussion on how science should treat free will: deny its possibility or change its definition. My personal opinion is that both free will and determinism (but not just one) should be declared to be flawed – both wrong (not both right or one right). This is not the general approach to the question.


Hood objects to the self which he sees used as a stand-in for complex mechanisms and that impedes understanding those mechanisms.


Bruce Hood (Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol; Author, The Self-Illusion) “It seems almost redundant to call for the retirement of the free willing self as the idea is neither scientific nor is this the first time that the concept has been dismissed for lacking empirical support. The self did not have to be discovered as it is the default assumption that most of us experience, so it was not really revealed by methods of scientific enquiry. Challenging the notion of a self is also not new….Yet, the self, like a conceptual zombie, refuses to die. It crops up again and again in recent theories of decision-making as an entity with free will that can be depleted. It re-appears as an interpreter in cognitive neuroscience as capable on integrating parallel streams of information arising from separable neural substrates. Even if these appearances of the self are understood to be convenient ways of discussing the emergent output of multiple parallel processes, students of the mind continue to implicitly endorse that there is a decision-maker, an experiencer, a point of origin….We know that the self is constructed because it can be so easily deconstructed through damage, disease and drugs. It must be an emergent property of a parallel system processing input, output and internal representations. It is an illusion because it feels so real, but that experience is not what it seems. The same is true for free will. Although we can experience the mental anguish of making a decision, our free will cannot be some kind of King Solomon in our mind weighing up the pros and cons as this would present the problem of logical infinite regress …How notable that we do this (use ‘self’ as a convenience) all so easily when talking about humans but as soon as we apply the same approach to animals, one gets accused of anthropomorphism! By abandoning the free willing self, we are forced to re-examine the factors that are really behind our thoughts and behavior and the way they interact, balance, over-ride and cancel out. Only then we will begin to make progress in understanding how we really operate.”


Coyne objects to Free Will, plain and simple.


Jerry Coyne (Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago; Author, Why Evolution Is True) “Among virtually all scientists, dualism is dead….Our choices, therefore, must also obey those laws (laws of physics). This puts paid to the traditional idea of dualistic or “libertarian” free will: that our lives comprise a series of decisions in which we could have chosen otherwise. We know now that we can never do otherwise…In short, the traditional notion of free will—defined by Anthony Cashmore as “a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature”—is dead on arrival….recent experiments support the idea that our “decisions” often precede our consciousness of having made them. Increasingly sophisticated studies using brain scanning show that those scans can often predict the choices one will make several seconds before the subject is conscious of having chosen! Indeed, our feeling of “making a choice” may itself be a post hoc confabulation, perhaps an evolved one. When pressed, nearly all scientists and most philosophers admit this. Determinism and materialism, they agree, win the day. But they’re remarkably quiet about it. …they’d rather invent new “compatibilist” versions of free will: versions that comport with determinism….In the end, there’s nothing “free” about compatibilist free will. It’s a semantic game in which choice becomes an illusion: something that isn’t what it seems….reminds me of the (probably apocryphal) statement of the Bishop of Worcester’s wife when she heard about Darwin’s theory: “My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it will not become generally known. What puzzles me is why compatibilists spend so much time trying to harmonize determinism with a historically non-deterministic concept instead of tackling the harder but more important task of selling the public on the scientific notions of materialism, naturalism, and their consequence: the mind is produced by the brain. These consequences of “incompatibilism” mean a complete rethinking of how we punish and reward people.” Coyne does not think this rethink would be a bad thing.


Accepting incompatibilism also dissolves the notion of moral responsibility….by rejecting moral responsibility, we are free to judge actions not by some dictate, divine or otherwise, but by their consequences: what is good or bad for society. Finally, rejecting free will means rejecting the fundamental tenets of the many religions that depend on freely choosing a god or a savior. The fears motivating some compatibilists—that a version of free will must be maintained lest society collapse—won’t be realized. The illusion of agency is so powerful that even strong incompatibilists like myself will always act as if we had choices, even though we know that we don’t. We have no choice in this matter. But we can at least ponder why evolution might have bequeathed us such a powerful illusion.”


I cannot go this far with Coyne, for I think that determinism is also flawed as well as free will. Our brains make decisions and the decisions we make, we own, because they in large part depend on our values, ideas, motivations and so on. They are our decisions. We are responsible for those decisions and for maintaining our own values, ideas etc. Children, mentally ill people and those with little intelligence may not be responsible for doing good maintenance of their attitudes and habits but most of us are responsible for who we are.


Metzinger is concerned with eliminating, or perhaps clarifying, the idea of cognitive agency.


Thomas Metzinger (Philosophisches Seminar, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz; Author, The Ego Tunnel) “Western culture, traditional philosophy of mind and even cognitive neuroscience have been deeply influenced by the Myth of Cognitive Agency. It is the myth of the Cartesian Ego, the active thinker of thoughts, the epistemic subject that acts—mentally, rationally, in a goal-directed manner—and that always has the capacity to terminate or suspend its own cognitive processing at will. It is the theory that conscious thought is a personal-level process, something that by necessity has to be ascribed to you, the person as a whole. This theory has now been empirically refuted. As it now turns out, most of our conscious thoughts are actually the product of subpersonal processes, like breathing or the peristaltic movements in our gastrointestinal tract. The Myth of Cognitive Agency says that we are mentally autonomous beings. We can now see that this is an old, but self-complacent fairy tale. It is time to put it to rest….The sudden loss of inner autonomy (mind wandering)—which all of us experience many hundred times every day—seems to be based on a cyclically recurring process in the brain. The ebb and flow of autonomy and meta-awareness might well be a kind of attentional see-sawing between our inner and outer worlds, caused by a constant competition between the brain networks underlying spontaneous subpersonal thinking and goal-oriented cognition….There are also periods of “mind blanking”, and these episodes may often not be remembered and also frequently escape detection by external observers. In addition, there is clearly complex, but uncontrollable cognitive phenomenology during sleep….A conservative estimate would therefore be that for much more than half of our life-time, we are not cognitive agents in the true sense of the word. This still excludes periods of illness, intoxication, or insomnia, in which people suffer from dysfunctional forms of cognitive control….I think that one global function of Mind Wandering may be “autobiographical self-model maintenance”. Mind Wandering creates an adaptive form of self-deception, namely, an illusion of personal identity across time. It helps to maintain a fictional “self” that then lays the foundation for important achievements like reward prediction or delay discounting. As a philosopher, my conceptual point is that only if an organism simulates itself as being one and the same across time will it be able to represent reward events or the achievement of goals as a fulfillment of its own goals, as happening to the same entity. I like to call this the “Principle of Virtual Identity Formation”: Many higher forms of intelligence and adaptive behavior, including risk management, moral cognition and cooperative social behavior, functionally presuppose a self-model that portrays the organism as a single entity that endures over time. Because we are really only cognitive systems, complex processes without any precise identity criteria, the formation of an (illusory) identity across time can only be achieved on a virtual level, for example through the creation of an automatic narrative. This could be the more fundamental and overarching computational goal of mind wandering, and one it may share with dreaming. If I am right, the default mode of the autobiographical self-modeling constructs a domain-general functional platform enabling long-term motivation and future planning…. the ability to act autonomously implies not only reasons, arguments and rationality. Much more fundamentally it refers to the capacity to wilfully inhibit, suspend, or terminate our own actions—bodily, socially, or mentally. The breakdown of this ability is what we call Mind Wandering. It is not an inner action at all, but a form of unintentional behavior, an involuntary form of mental activity.”


As usual, Metzinger is one of the most understandable and convincing and useful philosophers around.


Now a change of subject. There were four replies that attacked the idea of a great difference between humans and other animals: Pepperberg, humaniqueness; Baron-Cohen, Radical Behaviorism; Das, Anthropocentricity; Jeffery, Animal Mindlessness. In other posts I have dealt with this problem until I am afraid of boring readers – here I just give a few quotes to give the flavor of the responses. This human-centered attitude really must be retired as quickly as possible.


Irene Pepperberg (Research Associate & Lecturer, Harvard; Adjunct Associate Professor, Brandeis; Author, Alex & Me) “Clearly I don’t contest data that show that humans are unique in many ways, and I certainly favor studying the similarities and differences across species, but think it is time to retire the notion that human uniqueness is a pinnacle of some sort, denied in any shape, way, or form to other creatures.”


Simon Baron-Cohen (Psychologist, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University; Author, The Science of Evil) “Every student of psychology is taught that Radical Behaviorism was displaced by the cognitive revolution, because it was deeply flawed scientifically. Yet it is still practiced in animal behavior modification, and even in some areas of contemporary human clinical psychology. Here I argue that the continued application of Radical Behaviorism should be retired not just on scientific but also on ethical grounds….Given these scientific arguments, you’d have thought Radical Behaviorism would have been retired long ago, and yet it continues to be the basis of ‘behavior modification’ programs, in which a trainer aims to shape another person’s or an animal’s behavior, rewarding them for producing surface behavior whilst ignoring their underlying evolved neurocognitive make-up.” This is disrespectful to intelligent animals including humans.


Satyajit Das (Expert, Financial Derivatives and Risk; Author, Extreme Money: The Masters of the Universe and the Cult of Risk) “The human mind has evolved a specific physical structure and bio-chemistry that shapes thought processes. The human cognitive system determines our reasoning and therefore our knowledge. Language, logic, mathematics, abstract thought, cultural beliefs, history and memories create a specific human frame of reference, which may restrict what we can know or understand…Transcending anthropocentricity may allow new frames of reference expanding the boundary of human knowledge. It may allow human beings to think more clearly, consider different perspectives and encourage possibilities outside the normal range of experience and thought. It may also allow a greater understanding of our existential place within nature and in the order of things.


Kate Jeffery (Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience, Head, Dept. of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences, University College, London) “We humans have had a tough time coping with our unremarkable place in the grand scheme of things. First Copernicus trashed our belief that we live at the centre of the universe, followed shortly thereafter by Herschel and co. who suggested that our sun was not at the centre of it either; then Darwin came along and showed that according to our biological heritage, we are just another animal. But we have clung on for dear life to one remaining belief about our specialness; that we, and we alone, have conscious minds. It is time to retire, or indeed euthanize and cremate, this anthropocentric pomposity….Behaviorism arose from the argument of parsimony (Occam’s razor)—why postulate mental states in animals when their behavior can be explained in simpler ways? The success of Behaviorism arose in part from the fact that the kinds of behaviors studied back then could, indeed, be explained by operation of mindless, automatic processes….When we look into the animal brain we see the same things we see in our own brains. Of course we do, because we are just animals after all. It is time to admit yet again that we are not all that special. If we have minds, creatures with brains very like ours probably do too.”



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

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The very word ‘willpower’ implies a metaphor: that actions (and inhibition of actions) are a matter of conscious will and that they require the use of a resource or source of power. What powers the will is willpower. This is a sort of folk psychology – it takes a special sort of effort to have self-control, make a decision, solve a problem or resolve conflict. People vary in how much of this special effort they can sustain and it is limited. Will is like a muscle and it can tire, but if ‘exercised’ it can become stronger. Baumeister and others investigated this view of willpower experimentally. This metaphor is supported by showing that different tasks that were thought to require willpower interfered with one another. This phenomenon was called “ego depletion”. (I find that name hints at a Freudian picture.) It also appeared that tasks associated with willpower required glucose and this might be the limited fuel. This was a nice clear picture – the metaphor was holding up. But – this is one of those metaphors that is true if you believe it. If you believe that willpower is required to do hard mental work, that it is limited and can be used up, then that is what you will find.



But then the doubts came. Job and others showed the ego depletion works only if the subject believes the theory and Clarkson and others showed that the subject had to believe that they were short of energy for sugar to be limiting. It seems that gargling sugar water is as effective swallowing it. Some people think that physical exercise depletes willpower and for them it does. Others believe that exercise is mentally invigorating and surprise, it is. This history is reviewed by Brass (see citation below).



Doubts have also been shown in the area of conscious will as opposed to decisions and other ‘will’-requiring tasks having to be conscious. So both the will and the power in willpower are now suspect.



Brass and others also outline another way to look at willpower. The brain compares the predicted reward of doing something with the predicted effort. This is what affects what people decide to do, manage to do, and manage not to do. So instead of calling it willpower, we now can call it self-control and leave the old baggage behind. People vary in what they bring to the table when making the comparison of reward to effort. That is really what is involved in some people being able to resist temptation and others not. They include different values in the assessment of reward versus effort. The interference between tasks is thought to be due to the tasks requiring the same set of brain regions, and those areas not being good at doing two things at the same time.



Interestingly, most of the tasks that are described as drawing on willpower are tasks that involve the mPFC (medial pre-frontal cortex), and in particular the ACC (anterior cingulate cortex) . … The research outlined here suggests that the mPFC, and in particular the ACC, might be a central node in the neural circuit related to willpower. From what we know about the ACC, however, it is not plausible to assume that it provides a common resource, but rather that it has a kind of regulatory function determining the level of effort that is invested in a task. In a recent position paper, Holroyd and Yeung argued that the ACC is involved in choosing between different behavioural options and determining the level of effort that is invested in executing the chosen behavioural option. This description is consistent with the idea that the ACC implements a regulatory mechanism that determines the intentional investment in a specific response option or task. Accordingly, there is strong evidence for construing willpower as a regulatory function that can be related to specific brain structures in the mPFC. While such a regulatory mechanism is evidently required in situations of self-control and complex choice, we argue that any kind of intentional decision draws to some degree on this mechanism.



I feel for the people who are gritting their teeth and trying to muster willpower as if by magic, when it is cultivating a fuller value system that might serve them better.

Brass M, Lynn MT, Demanet J, & Rigoni D (2013). Imaging volition: what the brain can tell us about the will. Experimental brain research. Experimentelle Hirnforschung. Experimentation cerebrale, 229 (3), 301-12 PMID: 23515626

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Decision funnel – the Brass model

Marcel Brass’ group has published a very wide ranging and interesting article on volition (citation below). They look at what fMRI results have shown (and not shown) on a number of questions regarding how volition works in the brain. Near the end of the paper they outline their own model of the progression of stages from goals to actions.

Here is their figure 1: Brain regions in the medial frontal cortex that have been implicated in human volition. SMA supplementary motor area, preSMA pre-supplementary motor area, RCZ rostral cingulate zone, dmPFC dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, vmPFC ventromedial prefrontal cortex

will areas

And here is their section on the funnel model:

Based on the research outlined above, we propose an extension of the WWW model (whether, what, when) of intentional action. This extension assumes that intentional action follows a kind of funnel-like organization that is related to an anterior-posterior gradient within the medial frontal cortex. It is, however, crucial to note that while this model focuses on the role of the mPFC (medial prefrontal cortex) in intentional action, we assume that areas in the lateral pre-frontal cortex, subcortical regions, and parietal regions are involved in intentional control of action as well.

Our model assumes that early stages of intentional action are related to anterior prefrontal brain regions. These brain regions process complex and heterogeneous information that is only broadly determined by specific task instructions or goals. Processing in these brain regions provide a sort of

informational background, or intuition, and has a biasing function towards later processing stages. This complex set of information is funnelled when information travels more posteriorly and enters later stages of intentional action. Regions in the RCZ (rostral cingulate zone) are related to choices between different response options. Such choices are biased by bottom-up information but also by concrete instructions that operate as a top-down influence and thus are a result of the interplay between top-down and bottom-up processing. Furthermore, the RCZ determines the level of effort that is invested in pursuing a specific behaviour and thus regulates the ‘willpower’ that is invested in a specific choice. When a specific response option is selected, this information is transferred to brain areas more closely related to the motor system, namely SMA/PreSMA (supplementary motor area/pre-supplementary area). Here, the impulse to initiate a specific response is generated. At this point in the processing stream, it is still possible to disengage from the intention to act or to change the intended behaviour. Intentional inhibition is achieved by a signal from the dorso-medial prefrontal cortex that down-regulates activation in the SMA/preSMA. As a working hypothesis, we assume that the subjective experience of volition results from supra-threshold activation in brain circuits that are involved in the control of intentional action. Such subjective experiences are phenomenologically rich because they can be related to any level of the processing stream, ranging from intuitive feelings to concrete urges to act.

The funnel-like organization of human volition guarantees that choices are based on a broad scope of information. At the same time, it also ensures that we can choose very quickly and efficiently when necessary. Whether our choices are primarily determined by intuitions and introspective thoughts, or by explicit deliberation and task instructions, strongly depends on the specific task context and the time

frame of our choices.

Brass M, Lynn MT, Demanet J, & Rigoni D (2013). Imaging volition: what the brain can tell us about the will. Experimental brain research. Experimentelle Hirnforschung. Experimentation cerebrale, 229 (3), 301-12 PMID: 23515626

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Should science be dishonest to the public?

There is an idea floating about that people should be encouraged to believe in free-will even if it is not a sensible thing to believe. This is not the way science should work. Why upset people by telling them that the earth goes around the sun? How upsetting! Why tell them that they are descended by evolution from animals? They will act badly if they think they are animals. Why tell them that the world is billions of years old? That would only disturb their faith in the truth of the Bible. And here we go again. Why tell people how they make decisions with their brains? Why tell people that consciousness is not as it appears? Why not just lie about the impossibility of free-will? They may become criminals.

This is not how science is supposed to work. Science is about making our model of the world more and more correct and publishing the improvements. The task is to find a more and more clear picture of the workings of the brain, not to tell convenient lies.

So Vohs and Schooler (see citation) have published a paper that shows that being primed to think of determinism prompts people to cheat more. This one paper appears with no replication to date and yet there is discussion of abandoning scientific ideals. I have four reasons to suspect the paper but even if it turns out to be strong evidence, it does not justify telling people that free-will exists in the sense that they understand it. Libet’s experiments have been replicated and have stood up to attempts to disprove them for a few decades. His was a disproof of free-will as ordinary people used the term. We should not tell people otherwise.

The first thing that bothered me about the Vohs paper was the particular quotation they used to prime people towards determinism. It is about the most negative way to present the issue that can be imagined. What a depressing way to say that your brain makes decisions! There is nothing in this essay from the Astonishing Hypothesis that is not factual. But it is written in a way that makes one feel doomed. It starts: “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons. I don’t know what was used for the free-will or neural primers but I assume that they were not depressing.

Then I noticed that there was all of 30 subjects and the results were not dealt with individually but as averaged results. That can hide a lot of outliers and data spreads much larger than the average effect. This is just not the sort of statistical analysis that gives me a lot of confidence. By that time I was setting aside the paper as something that needed corroboration by other experiments.

Finally I saw a posting in the Why Evolution is True blog (here) discussing some unpublished work by Rolf Zwaan (here) which failed to replicate the Vohs results and pointed out some flaws that were not obvious to me, such as the subjects being predominately Mormon.

The Vohs/Schooler paper seems to have been accepted without much criticism by many – so have papers by Baumeister, Stillman, Wegner. But there is some criticism. One paper by Miles (citation below) is particularly useful for its broad and deep treatment of the issues.

Here is the abstract and part of the conclusions:

Over the last few years, a number of works have been published asserting both the putative prosocial benefits of belief in free will and the possible dangers of disclosing doubts about the existence of free will. Although concerns have been raised over the disservice of keeping such doubts from the public, this does not highlight the full danger that is presented by social psychology’s newly found interest in the ‘hard problem’ of human free will. Almost all of the work on free will published to date by social psychologists appears methodologically flawed, misrepresents the state of academic knowledge, and risks linking social psychology with the irrational.

Of course, even if we were to begin to acknowledge the moral and intellectual downsides to the free will myth, this would not suggest that Vohs and Baumeister were right to claim that belief in free will may also have prosocial upsides. We have seen that Vohs and Baumeister appear as yet to have shown no such thing, because all they have been studying appears to have been the effect of an acceptance of fatalism, not disbelief in free will. Contrary to the claims made in social psychology journals, we appear to have seen no evidence to date that disabusing people of the myth of free choice encourages anti-social behaviour, yet significant evidence that the myth of free choice encourages immoral, unjust, prejudiced, and anti-intellectual behaviour. If nothing else, this paper should stand as an important corrective within the psychological literature on free will.

This seems to put the nature of this work in a nut shell. I am not surprised that Vohs has won a Templeton prize.

Vohs KD, & Schooler JW (2008). The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological science, 19 (1), 49-54 PMID: 18181791

Miles J.B. (2013). ‘Irresponsible and a Disservice’:The integrity of social psychology turns on the free will dilemma British Journal of Social Psychology, 52, 205-218 : 10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02077.x

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