Monday, July 15, 2013

Michael Gazzaniga, Who's In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain (2011)

What do we want to be free from?  That is the question that drives Michael Gazzaniga's inquiry about free will and the science of the brain.  "We don't want to be free from our experience of life, we need that for decisions.  We don't want to be free from our temperament because that also guides our decisions.  We actually don't want to be free from causation, we use that for prediction.  A receiver trying to catch a football does not want to be free from all the automatic adjustments that his body is making to maintain his speed and trajectory as he dodges tackles.  We don't want to be free from our successfully evolved decision-making device.  What do we want to be free from?"

I awaken at 5:30 in the morning.  Gradually my mind becomes cognitive (conscious) again.  My body is telling me to stay put.  Don't get up.  Rest some more.  I lie still for many more minutes, and inevitably my mind starts to race about what I need to do (or don't need to do) in the coming day.  I need to get out of bed and start doing things.  But when?  I can probably afford to lie in bed until 7am and still do what I need to do over the course of the remaining day.  I lie still for awhile longer.  It is now forty-five minutes later.  My mind wrestles with whether I should continue to try and rest or get out of bed and start being active. I cannot lie still anymore. I tell myself I will get out of bed and read a chapter of Michael Gazzaniga's book, Who's In Charge? and I do.  I had a decision to make and I made it:  I got out of bed at 6:15am instead of perhaps 7am.  Is that what free-will is all about?  What was I free from?  No one else was dictating that I stay in bed.  There was no social rule telling me I had to stay in bed until 7am.  My body was not chained to the bed.  But was this decision entirely unchained from all causes?  Jaak Panskepp has compellingly explained that our Seeking urges begin with our automatic impulses deep in the subcortical areas of our brain, (see previous post), so perhaps my urge to read and learn and cease lying down was something less than volitional? 

Much of what we humans and other animals do in our lives is automatic, unconscious, instinctive.  As Panksepp points out, even learning, memory, and habit formation is unconscious.  What is learned and habitual is not the stuff of choices and decision trees, and yet choice is what free will is purportedly about.  And choice, the hallmark of "who's in charge," is typically assigned to the neocortex of the brain that resides on top of the limbic system and the forebrain.  Yet if we concur with Panksepp that it is the brain's subcortical emotional system that energizes the neocortex, not the other way around, the role of the neocortex appears to be only regulatory of the urges that come from below the cortex:  controlling and inhibiting impulses, instinct, and habit, not initiating behavior in the first instance. 

For Gazzaniga, neuroscience (the study of the brain) does not offer much support for the common understanding of free will.  The evidence from neuroscience is inconsistent with free will.  Gazzaniga's first point is that there is no single executive decision center in the brain.  The brain is composed of distinct modules, and while we may have a unified sense of self and making decisions, neuroscience does not support our sense that we are making decisions entirely liberated from either the environment around us or within us. Our sense of psychological unity, says Gazzaniga, emerges out of specialized system in the left side of our neocortex, which he call The Interpreter. (See June 12, 2011 post and June 5, 2011 post).  This is the area of the brain in which the human tendency to want to explain things is found as well as our capacity for imagination.  (See May 22, 2011 post).  But as Gazzaniga explains, The Interpreter is slow.  It comes to life after the event it seeks to explain has occurred.  So what does it mean that we humans build our theories about ourselves after the fact?  "This post hoc interpreting process has implications for and an impact on the big questions of free will and determinism."

Gazzaniga cites research by Hakwan Lau of Columbia University that purports to show how the brain could lead the mind into thinking that the explanation developed by The Interpreter after a certain behavior was an intention occurring before a spontaneous action occurred; in essence, tricking the mind into thinking that the explanation was an intention.  Lau discovered that an area of the brain in the frontal cortex known as the supplemental motor area (SMA) (involved with planning of motor actions that are sequences of action done from memory).  An area called the pre-SMA is involved with creating new sequences of action in memory, which gives one the feeling of the urge to move (perhaps not unlike my getting out of bed in the morning to read Gazzaniga's book).  It is the pre-SMA area that is activated when humans generate actions of their own choice.  Lau applied transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to the pre-SMA that locally activates nerve cells in the pre-SMA.  Describing Lau's research, Gazzaniga explains:  "When TMS is applied over the pre-SMA after the execution of a spontaneous action, the perceived onset of the intention to act, that moment when you become conscious that you intend to act, is shifted backward in time on the temporal map, and the perceived time of the actual action, the moment when you are conscious that your acting, is shifted forward in time."   In other words, the perceived onset of intention depends, at least in part, on neural activity that takes place after the execution of action.  While Lau is careful to say that without further experimentation "one cannot draw the strong conclusion that the experience of having conscious control of a simple motor action [e.g. getting out of bed in the morning] is entirely illusory," he adds that his experimental "results throw doubt on the commonsensical view that the experience of intention, including the experienced onset, is completely determined before an action."  Lau adds, "An alternative view that is compatible with the data is that one function of the experience of intention [even if it occurs afterwards] might be to help clarify the ownership of actions, which can help to guide future actions."  Gazzaniga concludes, however, that The Interpreter "makes the story fit with the pleasing idea one actually willed the action."  Free will is illusory, he says.

There is certainly no consensus among neuroscientists and psychologists over this research, just as thousands of years of philosophical debate has not achieved consensus about free-will.  But one truth about free-will drawn from the philosophical debate is that it is at least a theoretical construct used to justify the notion of personal responsibility for one's actions.  And that leads to the discussion of whether our free-will, if it really does exist, is limited to self-control and regulating existing tendencies of human behavior that are selfish or impulsive or emotionally driven?  This is where I think Jaak Panksepp is coming from (see previous post) when he says, "At primary-process levels of emotional processing there is no free will, there is no 'controlled cognitions.' Neither do the automatic secondary processes of learning and memory functions, that are molded by our wild animal passions developmentally, exhibit free will.  That can only emerge from well-sculpted, deeply reflective, cognitive attitudes."  Free-will is reflected in those "controlled cognitions" that respond to the neocortex being energized by the emotional systems of the subcortical areas of the brain.  There is consensus that the ability to deliberate and rationally choose between different courses of actions.  As Antonio Damasio has documented in Looking for Spinoza and Descartes Error, choosing between different courses of action is not an act of cognition alone, but of cognition and emotion in tandem.  (See also April 8, 2011 post).  There are certain emotions that are linked with feelings of responsibility such as sympathy and regret and these emotions do not originate in the cortex where the brain's "executive control" is said to reside. 

Yet what inspires those controlled cognitions?  I submit it is memory and culture and our body's biochemistry.  And that brings us to Gazzaniga's chapter on the "the social mind," a subject that is covered in many previous posts dealing with mirror neurons, mimicry, moral feelings and related emotions.  (See November 21, 2012, September 17, 2012, September 12, 2012, December 10, 2011, posts). Gazzaniga endorses this point of view. Echoing Christopher Boehm (see November 21, 2012 post), Gazzaniga writes, "If Michael Tomasello and Brian Hare are correct that we have been domesticating ourselves over thousands of years through ostracizing and killing those who were too aggressive, in essence removing them from the gene pool and modifying our social environment, then we have been making rules for groups to live by and enforcing them throughout our evolutionary history."  Gazzaniga adds, "The culture to which we belong actually plays a significant role in shaping some of our cognitive processes."  And in terms of our biochemistry, Gazzaniga notes, "'Easterners and Westerners also vary in their genetic makeup . . . Much research had already shown that serotonin plays a part in attention, cognitive flexibility, and long-term memory, so [researchers] decided that looking into a specific serotonin system polymorphism (a DNA sequence variation), which was known to affect an individual's mode of thinking, could prove fruitful [in accounting for differences in attention across cultures].  They looked at different alleles (genes which have different nucleic acid sequences occupying the same position on a paired chromosome that control the same inherited characteristic) of the 5-HTRIA gene that ultimately controls neurotransmission of serotonin.  They found that there was a significant interaction between the type of 5-HTRIA alleles a person had and the culture in which he lived.  This interaction affected where that particular person's attention was directed.  Those person processing the identical DNA sequences in the matched gene pairs (homozygous) G allege, which is associated with the reduced ability to adapt to changes, more strongly endorse the culturally reinforced mode of thinking than those with homozygous C allele. . . Summarizing these findings, these researchers concluded, 'The same genetic predispositions can result in different psychological outcomes, depending on an individual's cultural context.'"

Gazzaniga suggests that what is sorely needed in this discussion is new terminology, which may be another way of saying that the discussion needs to be repurposed.  For example, we can abandon thousands of years of debate that this discussion is between causal determinism and free-will.  This is essentially conceding to neuroscientists and others that our actions are determined in many respects by biology and the environment (including culture), and that cognition is not truly independent of biology and the environment.  Professors Ryan and Deci at the University of Rochester and others use a different terminology, "self-determination" and autonomy (self-regulation).  Self-determination and autonomy are not liberated from causal influences that motivate behavior ("people's autonomy lies not in being independent causes but in exercising their capacity to reflectively endorse or reject prompted actions").  They are not "free" in that sense.  Critical to these terms is that our neocortex "assents" to whatever we have been motivated to do after some reflection.  This rules out instinctive, habitual, unconscious behavior, and since we arguably assent habitually to much of our behavior each day without much reflection, it focuses on true choices.  This cognitive scenario may very well involve a narrow subset of human life.  I would think this is heavily an exercise exhibiting self-control.

Responsibility is a social construct, Gazzaniga says, echoing John Searle's deontological view of how humans construct a social reality.  (See February 24, 2013 post).  "Responsibility is not located in the brain.  The brain has no area or network for responsibility. . . the way to think about responsibility is that it is an interaction between people, a social contract.  Responsibility reflects a rule that emerges out of one or more agents interacting in a social context, and the hope that we share is that each individual will follow certain rules."  But there are aspects of the brain that do lead to this interaction between people in a social context and support the development of rules for responsibility, and we have identified these in prior posts:  the emotional systems and structures of the brain that promote care, grief, play, empathy, sympathy, fear, among others.  (See May 19, 2013 post and November 21, 2012 post).