Archive for the ‘News Article’ Category

Predicting Intentions: Implications for Free Will

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

News about a neuroimaging group's attempts to predict intentions hit the wire a few days ago. The major theme was how mindreading might be used for unethical purposes.

What about its more profound implications?

If your intentions can be predicted before you've even made a conscious decision, then your will must be determined by brain processes beyond your control. There cannot be complete freedom of will if I can predict your decisions before you do!

Dr. Haynes, the researcher behind this work, spoke at Carnegie-Mellon University last October. He explained that he could use functional MRI to determine what participants were going to decide several seconds before that decision was consciously made. This was a free choice task, in which the instruction was to press a button whenever the participant wanted. In a separate experiment the group could predict if a participant was going to add or subtract two numbers.

In a way, this is not very surprising. In order to make a conscious decision we must be motivated by either external or internal factors. Otherwise our decisions would just be random, or boringly consistent. Decisions in a free choice task are likely driven by a motivation to move (a basic instinct likely originating in the globus pallidus) and to keep responses spaced within a certain time window.

Would we have a coherent will if it couldn't be predicted by brain activity? It seems unlikely, since the conscious will must use information from some source in order to make a reasoned decision. Otherwise we would be incoherent, random beings with no reasoning behind our actions.

In other words, we must be fated to some extent in order to make informed and motivated decisions.


Pinker on ‘The Mystery of Consciousness’

Saturday, January 27th, 2007

Illustration for TIME by Istvan OroszTime magazine has just published an intriguing article on the neural basis of consciousness. The article was written by Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist known for his controversial views on language and cognition.

Here are several excerpts from the article…

On the brain being the basis for consciousness:

Scientists have exorcised the ghost from the machine not because they are mechanistic killjoys but because they have amassed evidence that every aspect of consciousness can be tied to the brain. Using functional MRI, cognitive neuroscientists can almost read people's thoughts from the blood flow in their brains. 

On a new basis for morality emerging from neuroscience: 

…the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul… once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people's sentience becomes ludicrous.

On the evolutionary basis of self deceit:

Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has noted that people have a motive to sell themselves as beneficent, rational, competent agents. The best propagandist is the one who believes his own lies, ensuring that he can't leak his deceit through nervous twitches or self-contradictions. So the brain might have been shaped to keep compromising data away from the conscious processes that govern our interaction with other people.


Wandering Minds and the Default Brain Network

Friday, January 19th, 2007

Several news articles have come out today which seem to imply that a recent Science report's main finding is that the mind wanders for a purpose (see this Forbes article), and that "daydreaming improves thinking" (see this Cosmos article). These are typical of fabrications used by popular science journalists to pique the public's interest.

Mason, et al. 2007 (the Science article published today) did not say that the mind wanders for a purpose (though they speculated that there may be one), and specifically mentioned that "the mind may wander simply because it can". Also, I could not find anything about daydreaming improving thinking in the article, except a short sentence about daydreaming possibly improving arousal. (A slap to the face will probably improve arousal; will the next headline be "face slaps improve thinking"?)

The two popular news articles mentioned above present these very speculative statements from the article not only as fact but also as the main results of the research, which I find to be disingenuous.

As a researcher in the area, I would say these are the main points to take from Mason, et al. 2007:


Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

 Normally, neuroscientists try to discover things about the brain, as if it were one monolithic thing. Might the differences between individual brains be important, or useful?

A recent article in New Scientist describes recent efforts to use each person's unique brain activity patterns as a kind of fingerprint (or 'brainprint') for security purposes. The system uses EEG.

According to the article, "This novel biometric system should be difficult to forge, making it suitable for high-security applications". I'm trying to imagine a CIA operative putting on a little red EEG cap before being allowed into a top secret location…