Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Patience May Indicate Free Will


They say that patience is a virtue. It may also support the notion of free will. A person may defer action, as in pursuing a reward for example, because of a free choice to delay. This possibility lies at the heart of a new study in a long series of studies that began in the 1980s that have tested the notion that free will might not exist, that it is an illusion.

The prior experiments, widely interpreted to indicate that free will does not exist, demonstrated that neuron activity in  a movement-control area of the cerebral cortex accelerated prior to a conscious decision to press a button. Thus, scientists interpreted this to mean the decision was made unconsciously, prior to the conscious realization that a decision had been made. I have challenged this interpretation on both grounds of the scientific methods used and misinterpretation of the cognitive neuroscience (see manuscript at www.ac-psych.org/download.php?id=84).

In this new study, Masayoshi Murakami and colleagues in Portugal, this electrical marker of decision-making was studied in rats in a different paradigm. Highly thirsty rats were trained to wait in place after hearing a sound cue until a second sound, a "go-for-it" sound was heard that would give them access to water. If the rats showed the required restraint, they received a larger water reward.

As the rats waited, the electrical "decision-making indicator" grew in magnitude and reached a threshold at the point where rats lost patience and went for the reward. The progressive increase in neural firing is interpreted as a well-known "integrate-and-fire" mechanism, wherein activity grows until a threshold for action is reached.

But they also found a second class of neurons whose firing could predict the rate at which the integrating neurons added up toward threshold. This observation of preceding regulatory control enabled a new interpretation of the original free will experiments on illusory free will. The "integrate-and-fire" population of neurons may not be making the actual decision, but rather reflecting an earlier decision-making processes elsewhere that regulate the integration toward action threshold.

Decision-making is complicated, even when it just involves pressing a button. I try to explain all this in my new book from Prometheus, "Mental Biology. The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate."

Source:

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

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Why We Hate to Accept Blame

Why is it so hard to take responsibility for our errors? Of course, the obvious and somewhat glib answer is that our ego gets in the way. But there is more to it than that. Recent experiments show that one undiscovered basic cause involves our sense of agency, that is, our sense of being responsible for what we choose to do (1).

Only recently have scientists started to spend much effort on understanding human agency (2). I discovered this to my dismay when recently asked to write a book chapter on the subject. It is hard to write knowingly on any subject when not much is known. Of course agency and sense of agency are two different things, and here we are concerned with how people perceive how much control they have over their lives. Given the growing dependency on government in this country, a likely prediction is that more and more people will surrender to the belief that they can’t do much about their lives. Research has shown that a person’s sense of agency depends on how many options they have to choose from (3). Options shrink when government or anything else constrains your range of choices. Moreover, another study showed that people believe that they have more self-control than others (4), which might explain why so many politicians treat the public as helpless and in need for a government nanny.

Anyway, on the point of accepting blame for one’s failings or mistakes, it seems that people claim ownership of their actions more readily when the outcomes are positive. Negative outcomes from their deeds are associated with less ownership and sense of responsibility. The most recent experiments had a primary focus on our sense of time in association with voluntary actions. The experimental design was based on prior evidence that the perceived estimate of time lag between when we do something and when we think we did it is an implicit index of our sense of ownership. Investigators asked people to press a key, which was followed a quarter of a second later by negative sounds of fear or disgust, positive sounds of achievement or amusement, or neutral sounds. The subjects were then asked to estimate when they had made the action and when they heard the sound. Timing estimation errors were easily measured by computer.

Subjects sensed a longer time lag between their actions and the consequences when the outcome (the sound) was negative than when it was positive. The interpretation is that with positive outcomes, the subjects sensed a more direct connection between what they did and their action of button pressing. With negative outcomes, subjects wanted to put more distance (time in this case) between what they did and the outcome. This seems like a rather indirect way to assess sense of agency, but we must await a cleverer and more direct way to measure it.

In any case, such experiments support our intuition that ownership of what we do can be affected by whether or not things turn out well. In other words, we have a self-serving bias to take more credit for when things turn out well than when they don’t. When they turn out badly, we want to insulate ourselves from responsibility and put blame elsewhere. Of course, we probably already knew that, but now we have objective experimental ways to study and perhaps manipulate sense of agency. Parents and social pressures don’t always succeed in teaching people to accept blame when it is due. This problem is likely to continue to get worse as more and more children lack responsible parents or even a father and a stay-at-home mom in the home. Maybe there are more systematic ways to train people to recognize how the consequences of their deeds affect their sense of responsibility.



1.Yoshie, et al. (2013). Negative emotional outcomes attenuate sense of agency over voluntary actions. Current Biology. Dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub2013.08.034

2.  David, N. (2012)/ New frontiers in the neuroscience of the sense of agency. NCBI. Retrieved Oct. 2, 2013 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3365279.

3. Barlas, Z., and Obhi, S. S. (2013). Freedom, choice, and the sense of agency. Frontiers in Human Neurosience. August 29. Doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00514

4. Pronin, E, and Kugler, M. B. (2010). People believe they have more free will than others. PNAS. 107 (52), 22469-22474.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Politically Correct Science

It’s not just climate scientists and their global warming. Behavioral scientists have their own biases. The August 30, 2013 issue of the premier journal, Science, has a research report claiming that poor people stay poor because being poor “impairs their cognitive capacity.”[1] That is, being poor is so challenging and stressful that poor people have exhausted their mental capacity to regulate their impulses and make wise choices. The research was deemed so impeccable by the editors that they also ran a companion news story to publicize the findings to lay audiences.

The research yielded two basic, independent findings:

  1. In one group of ordinary people sampled at a shopping mall, inducing negative thoughts about finances impaired function on two thinking tests in poor but not well-off participants. The median incomes per household varied from $20,000-$70,000 per year.
  2. Testing of farmers at two stages of the harvest cycle showed that thinking performance before the harvest, when they were relatively poor, was impaired relative to performance afterwards, when they were relatively rich.
The conclusion was that people do not choose to be poor and that they become trapped in poverty because being poor impairs their thinking and decision-making. Blame for people being poor is put on their state of being poor. Nowhere, not in the research report nor its news summary, did anybody consider an alternate explanation for poverty in the U.S.:

Poverty of able-bodied, normal people can be a choice.

In terms of social policy, the implication of the politically correct is that you can help lift people out of poverty if you make them less poor through gifts, exempting them from taxation, and providing subsidies. Interestingly, the writers avoided this obvious inference, no doubt because it would irritate people who believe in the importance of personal responsibility. Rather, the writers focused on the need of government to ease mental challenges of poor people to a level commensurate with their impaired thinking capacity. For example, the authors suggested that government should reduce “cognitive taxes” in addition to monetary taxes for the poor. Specific policy suggestions included providing help in “filling out forms, planning, and reminders” to help the poor access government services and welfare.

Not mentioned is the current U.S. policy of spending $67 million for “navigators” to help poor people sign up for the Affordable Care Act. Who knows, that idea may well have come from these authors, two of whom were high-status Ivy League professors.

But I have to ask, wouldn’t these millions of dollars be better spent helping the poor get a work ethic and make better life choices? Instead, our government gives welfare payments and subsidies worth more than the poor can earn by working. And the poor don’t have to work to get the welfare. At the same time, politicians and bureaucrats push for an amnesty program for illegal aliens who are willing to do the work that our poor citizens refuse to do. Tell me, how is a government policy of promoting more dependency going to help anybody? If such government policy were not so deliberate, it would be insane.




[1] Mani, A. et al. (2013) Poverty impedes cognitive function. Science. 341: 976-980.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Former Smokers Earn More. Know Why?

Former smokers have better-paying jobs than smokers and even workers who never smoked. This surprising fact emerged from the U.S. Census Bureau survey over the period 1992 to 2011 which was funded by the Tobacco Use Supplement. How can this be?

The fact is that smokers get paid on average 20% less, presumably because they are worth less. There is no evidence that smoking as such interferes with work performance. In fact, the nicotine in cigarettes is a mental stimulant and there is plenty of scientific research evidence that it enhances brain function. So what does that suggest?

Non-smokers and former smokers, the survey found, tend to have more education than smokers. They are also more likely to have non-smoking spouses. So, now we have another question: why do non-smokers have more education?

One of the economists who conducted the study, Melinda Pitts, offered this explanation: “It takes a special person to quit an addictive behavior.” I would add that nicotine is one of the most powerful addictive substances known, and it takes enormous will power to quit, even with today’s modern medical treatments. People who can quit a smoking addiction either have a better initial level of self-discipline than others that enables them to quit, or they develop it in the process of succeeding at quitting. The evidence for acquiring more discipline in the process of quitting is consistent with other situations, such as military boot camp, where people learn to shape up and be more disciplined than before.

As for former smokers having more education, it is noteworthy that for many smokers, formal education is completed before they finally quit. In my own case as a former smoker, I quit many times but only finally after 18 years of trying, some six years after I finished formal education. Thus, though the level of self-discipline might have been sufficient to help smokers persist in their education, they probably learn a new level of self-discipline by the experience of successfully overcoming nicotine addiction. So, the “specialness” of former smokers is that they have learned a level of self-discipline that probably is what makes them more valuable in the workplace.

I don’t, however, recommend that you take up smoking just so you can develop more character by quitting. There are easier ways to do that—maybe even military boot camp.


Source:

Safdar, Khadeeja. Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2013., p. A3


For strategies and tactics to succeed in your quest for more self-discipline, see my book, Blame Game. How To Win It, endorsed by celebrity psychologist, Dr. Laura Schlessinger and theologian Dr. Robert Schuller.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Free Will and Personal Responsibility


The issue about free will is not so much whether we have any, but whether we exercise the free will we do have. Philosopher Immanuel Kant argues that we are essentially free and fail to live up to the promise of such freedom if we allow biology and external forces to rule us. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, despite all the flaws of his irreligious and political beliefs, had it right in his existentialist arguments that humans do not have a fixed nature handed out from biology. Humans make their own nature out of the freedom to do so in the environment in which they exist. Humans are regarded, in existential philosophy, as independently acting and responsible conscious beings.  Each individual brain is uniquely constructed from life experience, and much of that is self-constructed by willful choices. Science does not hold that the conscious mind is independent of genetics or environmental programming. But each mind is an independent being, acting in the world as a distinct entity, not as some Borg-like unit in a collective.

In terms of religion, Christianity is uniquely individualistic and demands personal responsibility and accountability. It is no accident that many of those who think free will is illusory are also atheists. Kierkegaard railed against growing collectivism, including that of organized religion. His emphasis was on the responsibility of individuals to be true to Christian ideals.

The conscious mind that believes in its power to choose also must believe that it can exert some control over the automatic purposes of its unconscious mind. No doubt, conscious mind has its own automatic purposes, which likewise are subject to veto or modification via free will. Such minds believe they can train and discipline their minds, bending them to freely willed purposes. Such minds say to themselves, “I can quit smoking.” “I can make myself learn how to be an engineer.” I will make this marriage work.” “I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do.” And so on.

Now it is true that all of us commonly surrender our decision-making autonomy to our baser instincts and compulsions. Much of our behavior is unthinking, knee-jerk responsiveness. Our capacity for free will is limited to our willingness to claim and exert it.

People who believe that humans have no free will are hard-pressed to explain why no one is responsible for their choices and actions. What is it that compels foolish or deviant behavior? Are we compelled to believe in God or to be an atheist? What compels us to accept one moral code over any other? Are we compelled to become a certain kind of person, with no option to “improve” in any self-determined way? Are we compelled in our choices of learning experiences? If so, what or who does the compelling? Are we inevitable victims of genetics and experience or even a robotic unconscious mind?

It seems to me that current debates about determinism and free will tend to obscure the important matters of our humanness. The door to understanding what is really going on is slammed shut by assertions that value choices and the decisions that flow from them cannot be free because they are caused by neural circuit impulse patterns. Free will debates distract us from a proper framing of the issues about human choices and personal responsibility.

While it is true that brain circuitry is programmed by genetics and experience, conscious mind makes choices about who to interact with and what experiences to value, promote, and allow. Conscious mind can insist that some lessons of experience need to be remembered and valued while others are not. In short, the mind gets to help shape what it becomes.

The free-will issue is more than an arcane scholarly argument. Positions become politicized. In a robotocist world, people are more likely to be victims and less able to change maladaptive attitudes and behaviors. Thus, society and government must help people do what they cannot do for themselves. Robotocists don’t seem to ask this question: is our decision to help fellow robotocists likewise a robotocist choice?
If we can’t make conscious choices, then there is not much we can do to improve ourselves or our plight in life. Or even if there are things that can be done to change us and our situations, the approach will surely have to be different if we can’t initiate the change by force of our free will. Without free will, the government or schools or some other outside force must program our unconscious. That, of course, is a driving force behind moves to increase the size and power of government.

If there is no "I" in charge, then there is no reason to demand or expect personal responsibility. All manner of bad brains and bad behavior can be excused. If we believe there is no free will, how can we justify our criminal justice system? If people cannot make choices freely, and if all their decisions emanate from unconscious processes, how can we hold them responsible for unacceptable morals or behavior? All crime should be tolerated or at least excused, because the criminal could not help it. The human robot committed the crime. This would mean that we should reform the criminal justice system so that no criminal would be jailed or punished. If criminals can’t stop themselves from bad acts, it is inhumane to punish criminals or even terrorists. Indeed, the only justification for locking anybody up for misdeeds would be to protect society from further crime or terrorism. Capital punishment has to be banned, as indeed it is in many parts of the world. In the minds of some, criminals are victims.

To believe in the absence of free will creates an intolerable social nihilism. Many defense lawyers increasingly use neuroscience inappropriately to convince jurors that the defendant was not responsible for the evil deeds. They even have a name for this kind of defense: “diminished capacity.” Indeed, to them the whole notion of evil might seem inappropriate. Lawyers are adept at stressing mitigating circumstances where criminal behavior was caused, they say, by a terrible upbringing, poverty, social discrimination, or brain injury. To be sure, most murderers have been found to have a standard profile that includes childhood abuse and some kind of neurological or psychiatric disorder. But many non-murderers have a similar profile. How can lack of free will explain such difference? The reality is that most people have brains that can learn social norms and choose socially appropriate behavior. Ignoring those norms is a choice.
A most disturbing book, written by Laurence Tancredi,[1] uncritically accepts the notion that free-will is an illusion. He argues that human morals are “hard-wired,” with the “wiring” created by genetics and molded by uncontrollable forces in life experiences. Tancredi, is a lawyer and practicing psychiatrist. Not surprisingly, the poster boy for his arguments was a psychopathic serial killer, Ricky Green, who was abused as a child and had relatives with serious mental problems. Thus, Tancredi stresses that bad genes and bad treatment as a child made Green become a “biologically driven” murderer. Yet, in recounting the case history, it became clear that Green was not insane. He was fully aware of his childhood past, and was fully aware of, even remorseful over, his murders. He was also aware that his out-of-control episodes were triggered by the combination of sex and alcohol. So, it was clear, even to Green, that his crimes could have been prevented by avoiding alcohol. He apparently was not an alcoholic who had no control over drinking. Even if we give the benefit of doubt to the conclusion that Green could not control himself, it is a stretch to argue that the uncontrollability of psychopaths applies to everybody else. One would have to argue that normal people are only normal because they got good genes and had a childhood in which their mental health was not damaged. Virtue would be an illusion.

Interestingly, Tancredi acknowledges the brain is changeable if skilled therapists provide structured rehabilitation for dysfunctional thinking. But the general tenor of his argument is that the individual is powerless to produce such changes. It has to come from others. Because dysfunctional people are victims who seemingly can’t help themselves, it is the duty of psychiatrists and government to mold the brains of people so they overcome bad genes and whatever bad experiences life has thrust upon them. People, robots that they supposedly are, do not have the power to nurture their brain. Thus, government must create a cultural and educational environment in which humans are molded to conform to some pre-defined state of normality.  Does this remind you of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World?

Also not considered by Tancredi and his crowd, is that dysfunctional people might have become that way through their own freely determined bad choices along their life’s journey. Those bad choices may have even sculpted maladaptive changes in their brain function. Arguing that the brain is modifiable by experience is a two-edged sword. While one edge slashes the idea that a person can’t change his brain, the other edge slashes the idea that people can’t be changed by the influence of others or by their own conscious decisions.
A major function of consciousness, as I have argued, is to program the brain, which inevitably causes lasting changes in its structure and functions. If consciousness provides capability for freely chosen intentions, choices, and decisions, then people are responsible for how those powers are deployed.

Tancredi acknowledges that many people have bad genes and very traumatic childhoods, yet overcome it. Sexually abused children do not necessarily become sexual predators as adults and may, in fact, become crusaders to protect children from abuse. But they don’t get any credit for a freely chosen decision to live a wholesome and helpful life. Their virtue is attributed to necessity, not to anything they voluntarily chose to do. How then do we account for the effect of schools and religious teachings? Do we conclude that it is the inner robot that decides which ideas and beliefs to accept and which to reject? If so, why do some brains accept the teachings and others reject them?

It is true that brain scans, for example, can sometimes predict that certain people will commit crimes or other antisocial behaviors. But nobody seems to consider the alternative to a “bad brain” cause of misbehavior: namely, that what people freely choose to do changes the brain in ways that make more likely that similar behavior will be repeated. People who voluntarily indulge mind-altering experiences, such as unsavory friends, drugs, or destructive ideologies and lifestyles, have nobody else to blame for those choices.
The evidence for brain plasticity, for good or bad, is overwhelming. Yet, this evidence tends to get ignored when excuses are sought for inappropriate behavior. It is true, of course, that children usually have little control over their circumstance and rising above it is surely hard, but they still have a human capacity to overcome as adults. Many millions have done just that. To deny that people have such capacity is dehumanizing.

Bad brains can surely cause bad behavior. But it is equally true that bad behavior can cause bad brains. What you choose to experience, think, and do sculpts brain function and anatomy to shape what you will become.
We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit —Aristotle

The corollary is, in my view:
I will become what I repeatedly do.



[1] Tancredi, L. 2005. Harwired Behavior.  What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality. Cambridge U. Press, N.Y., N.Y.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Getting Out of a Rut


Why is it so hard to change behavior, or attitudes, or personality? I’ll tell you why. These things are habits. Habits are well learned and they persist from mindlessness.

Our behavior, attitudes, and personality are predisposed by genetics but also ingrained by repeating and reinforcing them over long periods. Thus, the older you get the more inflexible you get. But I see teenagers stuck in ruts too, and they are less likely to have the fronto-parietal cortex executive control to impose changes on themselves.

Regardless of age, being in a rut comes from learning to the point of creating a habit. Habits are really hard to change. Wendy Wood, in her review of the recent book, The Power of Habit, points out that contextual cues trigger habitual behavior. In other words, when you are in a rut, you have mindlessly outsourced your brain’s executive control to these cues. You run on auto-pilot. It is easier to respond to such cues reflexively than think about it and do something else.


Cures for reforming habits require attention to the triggering cues as the core of self-control strategies. When an unwanted response is activated from memory, it needs to be inhibited. Bad habits, unlike responses to temptations, are controlled most effectively through spontaneous introspective awareness and executive control (“Why am I doing this?”…“I don’t want to be doing this”… “don’t do it”… “am I backsliding?”) Vigilant self-awareness and monitoring apparently do not change the strength of the habit memory but are effective because they enhance executive control processes. Wood suggests that the most promising way to break a habit is to “disrupting habit cues so that the old response is not brought to mind and new habits can be learned.”

Some examples of cue awareness and disruption include:
1.    If you over-eat, use smaller plates or put smaller helpings on the plate.
2.    If you can’t focus and your mind wanders, notice distractions for what they are. Practice meditation.
3.    If you are hyper-critical or argumentative, recognize the instant you disagree.
4.    If you are lazy, be aware of your environment when you aren’t doing anything.
5.    If you are boastful, notice the situation that makes you want to boast.

If you want to get out of a rut, another important aid is to substitute a new and more desirable habit. I learned this years ago when I tried to quit smoking. I succeeded many times—in other words, I failed to really quit. Only when I decided to take up jogging and forced myself to do it persistently, was I able to substitute the positive reinforcement of nicotine with the positive reinforcement of the endorphins that are released during jogging.

To substitute a better habit, you must pick something that is likewise reinforcing and repeat it enough for it to become a habit. It also helps to simultaneously remove the cues that trigger the old bad habit. For example, when I finally quit smoking, I made myself go jog when I had a strong urge to smoke. Even though I had an urge to smoke many times a day yet only jogged once daily, this single substitution act seemed sufficiently helpful.

Some examples of habit substitution include:
1.    If you eat more meat than you want, find tasty vegetarian menus.
2.    If you gossip, restrict all gossip to praise talk.
3.    If you procrastinate, create a habit of doing the hard things first.
4.    If you whine, make yourself provide positive interpretations.
5.    If you associate with people who are dragging you down, spend more time with new associates who can lift you up.

Finally, we have to stop making excuses. Our usual attempts to blame things on “bad genes,” are misleading. In recent years, scientists have discovered that most of our DNA does not have a coding function. They used to call it “junk” DNA, presumably just carried along as useless sludge in the stream of evolution. Now they discover that “junk DNA” actually controls the expression of the coding genes. New discoveries in the field of “epigenetics” are showing that what we think and do influence if and when many of our coding genes are expressed.

Sources:

Klemm, W. R. (2008) Blame Game. How to Win It. Bryan, Tx: Benecton Press.

Quinn, J. M., Pascoe, A., Wood, Wendy, and Neal, D. T. (2010) Can’t control yourself? Monitor those bad habits. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 36(4); 499-511 doi: 10.1177/0146167209360665

Wood, Wendy (2013) On ruts and getting out of them. Science. 336: 980-981