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Scientists Find Brain Cells Linked to Choice 279

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the choice-police-soon-to-follow dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Scotsman.com is reporting that Harvard Medical researchers may have found the neurons, or brain cells, that play a role in a persons ability to choose between different items. From the article: 'Scientists have known that cells in different parts of the brain react to attributes such as color, taste or quantity. Dr Camillo Padaoa-Schioppa and John Assad, an associate professor of neurobiology, found neurons involved in assigning values that help people to make choices.'"
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Scientists Find Brain Cells Linked to Choice

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  • by crazyjeremy (857410) * on Sunday April 23, 2006 @02:57PM (#15185756) Homepage Journal
    An interesting article indeed.

    I personally feel that there are so many "disorders" these days, that people often find a crutch for every vice and desire. Instead of working tochange for the better, people say "That's the way I am... I can't change."

    Some of these people may think this article proves that thought. I for one, feel it supports the opposite.

    From the article:

    "The monkey's choice may be based on the activity of these neurons," said Padoa-Schioppa. Earlier research involving the OFC showed that lesions in the area seem to have an association with eating disorders, compulsive gambling and unusual social behaviour. The new findings show an association between the activity of the OFC and the mental valuation process underlying choice behaviour, according to the scientists."

    I think people still have choices regardless of the addiction they suffer from (OCD disorders, Serial Killer, Gambling, etc.) A person doesn't HAVE TO Gamble, but it feels that way. He doesn't HAVE TO wash his hands 5 times, but he thinks he does.

    These abnormalities or "lesions" in our brains may make us feel we do not have a choice. In reality if we are honest with ourselves and we work hard to overcome these urges, we can overcome almost any adversity, vice or compulsion.

    • by the_humeister (922869) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:06PM (#15185800)
      I guess it depends on if you believe that reductionism is true. Thus if we reduce all of our actions and decisions to physical phenomena, we're probably going to find that none of our actions are a matter of "choice." Rather, the actions we take are inevitable given the exact state that our brain is in and the exact environment we are in.
      • Unfortunately, we can never measure anything exactly, and chaos makes it impossible to predict a given result further into the future, so within that vague uncertainty, choice would remain.
        • Mere uncertainty or chaos doesn't imply choice. Nobody knows exactly how many stars are in the Milky Way (uncertainty) or whether the stock market will be up or down tomorrow, but that doesn't mean we have any choice in those matters.

          In any matter of choice, what is it that is doing the choosing? Choices may well be "mere" physical phenomena, but can we identify with that physical state, or not?

          When asked if I believe in free will, my response is, "Free from what?"
      • Continuum. (Score:5, Interesting)

        by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:36PM (#15185941)
        Thus if we reduce all of our actions and decisions to physical phenomena, we're probably going to find that none of our actions are a matter of "choice."
        At the far extreme of disfunction, I think that that might be valid. It isn't easy to believe that someone chooses to be schizophrenic.
        Rather, the actions we take are inevitable given the exact state that our brain is in and the exact environment we are in.
        And that's the key.

        If this is valid, then the animals with the same neurological structure would make the same choices, right?

        So far, all that's been shown is that damaging an area of the brain results in failures to react to certain distinguishing features.

        Do monkeys with brain pattern X always choose apple juice? But monkeys with brain pattern Y always choose grape juice? And monkeys with brain pattern Z always choose orange juice?

        The same with choosing to gamble. Why does someone choose ponies over blackjack?
        • Re:Continuum. (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Bottlemaster (449635) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @04:07PM (#15186050)
          If this is valid, then the animals with the same neurological structure would make the same choices, right?

          So far, all that's been shown is that damaging an area of the brain results in failures to react to certain distinguishing features.

          Do monkeys with brain pattern X always choose apple juice? But monkeys with brain pattern Y always choose grape juice? And monkeys with brain pattern Z always choose orange juice?


          It's theoretically possible to carry out this experiment, but it is extremely unlikely. There's more involved than "brain patterns". In the perfect experiment, you would have two monkeys that are atom-for-atom copies of each other. You might have two monkeys with the exact same brain configuration (considering how mind-bogglingly complex a mind is, this will probably never occur) and exact same kidneys (see parentheses but s/mind/kidney/g), etc, but when you confront the monkeys with the choice between apple juice, grape juice, and Fritos, one monkey might be colder than the other because he's closer to the air-conditioning vent, and this might cause him to make a different choice. I hope you liked this run-on sentence.

          Anyway, if randomness does not exist in the physical world, the exact same monkey presented with the exact same decision will always make the same choice. That's just common sense. If randomness exists, than all bets are off.
          • Re:Continuum. (Score:2, Insightful)

            by Slithe (894946)
            Currently, some scientists do think that some events are non-deterministic: high energy, double-pendulum motion and photon transitions are two good examples.
          • It's theoretically possible to carry out this experiment, but it is extremely unlikely. There's more involved than "brain patterns". In the perfect experiment, you would have two monkeys that are atom-for-atom copies of each other.

            So if there is a difference in one atom in one toe on one foot of one of the monkeys, then the "experiment" would not be "valid".

            All that tells me is that that atom has as much or more influence in the choices made as the portion of the brain that they are studying.

            You might ha

        • Continuing the tangent, I've always thought that if you could ascertain the state of the entire universe and everything in it at any given time, you could use that data to extrapolate the future to an unlimited degree.

          Of course, this is why we would need Deep Thought ;^)
          • You'd need at least one atom for each atom you were "simulating", so in effect you'd actually be duplicating the universe rather than simulating it... so of cause you could not actually do it within the universe (well, maybe with some -very clever- fractal mathmatics, that could be fun :-p)

        • Re:Continuum. (Score:2, Insightful)

          by onedotzero (926558)
          Do monkeys with brain pattern X always choose apple juice? But monkeys with brain pattern Y always choose grape juice? And monkeys with brain pattern Z always choose orange juice?

          Eh, not quite. Perhaps in a theoretical situation where the entire environment is identical, then yes, I (personally) would think that the same choice would be made. But consider what the brain computes upon - results of past 'choices' surely must be a huge key to future decisions.

          I'd think indirectly-linked past experience
      • by Rakshasa Taisab (244699) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:54PM (#15185995) Homepage
        The fallancy here is that the word "choice" hasn't been defined sufficiently. Your post gives me the impression that you are assuming that to make a "choice" cannot be a physical phenomena. This will force those who believe in reductionism to come to a, possibly incorrect, conclusion that none of our actions are a matter of "choice".

        I think would be possible to find a good definition of "choice" which does not assuming it must be a non-physical phenomena, a definition that would be much more useful.
      • The mere existence of the paradox described by the Halting Problem shows clearly that there will always exist possible future events whose actual outcome cannot be predicted beforehand, regardless of how much is known about the system in which these events occur.
        • by the_humeister (922869) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @06:19PM (#15186575)
          Wikipedia has a nice write up about this [wikipedia.org]. In the Common Pitfalls section it states:
          It is worth noting that the halting problem is decidable for deterministic machines with finite memory. A machine with finite memory has a finite number of states, and thus any deterministic program on it must eventually either halt or repeat a previous state. Repetition of a previous state indicates a loop, so a program that repeats a previous state is thus known to not halt.
          That implies that anything finite has a decidable outcome.
          • That implies that anything finite has a decidable outcome.

            Which would mean that everything has a decidable outcome.

            Well... Mostly because there isn't anything that is infinite in the universe.

            Unless of course the universe is not a closed system... Then all bets are off.
      • by suv4x4 (956391) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @06:01PM (#15186488)
        Thus if we reduce all of our actions and decisions to physical phenomena, we're probably going to find that none of our actions are a matter of "choice."

        I can't believe modern people have a difficulty grasping this.

        How the heck our ability to make "choice" is prevented by it being dictated by the state of our own brain. Apparently most people contribute "choice" to our "ghost/soul" and thus the moment they find that (shocking) we're thinking with our brain, they automatically assume that our brain dictates to our soul what choices to make (therefore "we can't make anything on our own, we can't change, we're not responsible" and other nonsense).

        Shocking news people - you ARE that brain. And other shocking news, you see with your eyes, you hear with your ears and smell with your nose. You are what your body is, and your body can make its own free choices which are predisposed by the state it's in.

        If we couldn't base our choices on our body/brain state, then we'd simply have no information or mechanism to make any choices whatsoever.
      • Either way, it's still 'your choice', because the state your brain is in at any point in time *is* you. Even if it's not a choice you can consciously change, your subconscious is still part of you, making it still your choice (although I sometimes refer to my brain as if it were another person, it's a great way to relinquish responsibility :-p "my brain made me", "my brain just noticed something")

    • by heinousjay (683506) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:14PM (#15185837) Journal
      Forgive me for saying so, but it seems like you had a preordained conclusion and you're just, well, twisting the article just so to support it. Actually, saying your twisting it is overstating the case, because you're really just stating it supports your case without demonstrating how.

      If I'm wrong and you actually have some connection aside from what looks to be personal prejudice against people with disabilities, feel free to post it.
      • I a mild OCD and Chronic Daily Headaches http://www.achenet.org/kids/chronic.php [achenet.org]

        Every day of my life I want to fall back on these things as an excuse of why not to try to hard, to just take it easy. But I know if I do that, things always just get worse. Imagine having a headache EVERY day of your life and wanting to live one adrenaline rush to another to ease the pain. It destroys your life...

        When I treat compulsions as choices, I become more able to fight them. The article just made me feel like had a

    • by Anonymous Coward
      I personally feel that there are so many "disorders" these days, that people often find a crutch for every vice and desire. Instead of working tochange for the better, people say "That's the way I am... I can't change.

      "Thanks to the notion of dysfunction, every zipperhead in this country can tap himself with a Freudian wand and go from failed frog to misunderstood prince."
      - Dennis Miller

      That's the thing. Being "average" has become almost a crime in Western society. But by having some sort of "dis

      • I mean, why the fuck is Paris Hilton, Kato Katlin, etc... famous?

        Do you have any idea how much they've had to overcome?
      • That's the thing. Being "average" has become almost a crime in Western society.

        Speak for yourself. The worship of 'winners' and the extreme focus on being 'the best' is an American phenomen.

        Atleast, here in Scandinavia we're on the complete opposite side of the spectrum; mostly everybody are pretty proud of celebrating mediocrasy.

    • by David_Shultz (750615) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:22PM (#15185876)
      I personally feel that there are so many "disorders" these days, that people often find a crutch for every vice and desire. Instead of working tochange for the better, people say "That's the way I am... I can't change."
      I think people still have choices regardless of the addiction they suffer from (OCD disorders, Serial Killer, Gambling, etc.) A person doesn't HAVE TO Gamble, but it feels that way. He doesn't HAVE TO wash his hands 5 times, but he thinks he does.

      Likewise, gravity doesn't force us to fall, it just feels that way.

      Seriously dude, there is a reason the above mentioned disorders are classified as as such -because something is wrong (ie out of order; or if you prefer disordered) with the workings of the brain. For you to just jump up and say, "you know, I think these people really do have a choice." Is not just enlightened (nor does it follow from the article in any coherent way) but it is also insensitive and maybe even mean -it serves only to shift responsibility to people who should rightly be considered victims.

      • Likewise, gravity doesn't force us to fall, it just feels that way.
        No, the correct analogy would be someone letting his leg muscles go slack because, after all, eventually gravity is going to win. Why fight it?
        • No, the correct analogy would be someone letting his leg muscles go slack because, after all, eventually gravity is going to win. Why fight it?

          No the analogy is you managing to stand, him failing to stand because he's carrying a 10 ton boulder, and you asking him why he can't just get up.

    • He doesn't HAVE TO wash his hands 5 times, but he thinks he does.

      I'm not sure that you can quantify the difference between 'have to' and 'thinks he has to'.

      That would be like saying there is a difference between thinking something is true and it actually being true. Truth exists only as a relative matter.
      • "I'm not sure that you can quantify the difference between 'have to' and 'thinks he has to'."

        I agree. It's like "I believe I'm seeing red." It doesn't matter what's happening to my eyes. If I think I'm seeing red, in a very important sense, I am. It's tautological. My experience is what I experience, regardless of its possible lack of external cause.

        In the case of "have to" and "thinks he has to," thinking you have to do something sets in motion a self-fulfilling prophesy. Breaking this cycle depends on not
        • I should probably put it this way:

          If truth is relative and you think so, but I don't... then truth isn't relative for me. It's objective. For me.

          But what does objective mean? It means that it doesn't just apply to me. It applies to everyone. Because relative truth leads to this contradiction, even if truth is relative it's objective. But as a contradictory concept, it isn't even relative in the first place.
        • I'd even go one step further and say I think that there is /only/ non-relative truth out there. Take "I think it's possible to fly using the power of the mind"... if the person really does think that, it is true, but only with the first two words (ie, the person really does think it, so the statement's true, but what the person is thinking -isn't- true). So the statement "It's possible to fly using the power of the mind, because I think it is" is not a true statement.

          (all of this assuming it's not possible
    • If your brain tells you you have to do those things, how do you know any different? Or, think of it this way:

      Imagine you're sitting on your toilet, about to do your business, and you're struck with a scary thought - "What if I'm only dreaming that I'm here, and what if this is going to make a horrid mess in my bed?". How do you know for sure that you're awake? Because your brain tells you that you're awake?
    • I often wonder what compulsive pople would be doing if their vices had not ever been invented?

      For example, the poor fool who claims to have the 'disease' of alocolholism: would the person have the disease if alcohol had never been created?

      The same for the gambler..what if we never got the concept of making a game of of random occurances...what would 'compulsive gamblers' be doing with their lives?

      I suppose that on the other side of this, if we had discovered that you can get high by would we suddenly have
      • For example, the poor fool who claims to have the 'disease' of alocolholism: would the person have the disease if alcohol had never been created?

        The same for the gambler..what if we never got the concept of making a game of of random occurances...what would 'compulsive gamblers' be doing with their lives?


        Drinking is common in all walks of life. Gambling is common in most.

        Its impossible to assume that everybody would drink and gamble the same amount, right?

        Its natural for there to be the 1%ers that do somet
    • I often wonder what compulsive pople would be doing if their vices had not ever been invented?

      For example, the poor fool who claims to have the 'disease' of alocolholism: would the person have the disease if alcohol had never been created?

      The same for the gambler..what if we never got the concept of making a game of of random occurances...what would 'compulsive gamblers' be doing with their lives?

      I suppose that on the other side of this, if we had discovered that you can get high by |insert unknown undiscov

    • A person doesn't HAVE TO Gamble, but it feels that way. He doesn't HAVE TO wash his hands 5 times, but he thinks he does.


      I think you're fundamentally misunderstanding OCD, gambling addictions, and choice. If you felt a constant need to wash your hands 5 times an hour, how much choice do you have compared to someone that doesn't? It's easy to not do it if there isn't a thought running constantly through your head about washing your hands.

      It seems what you're really missing is that we're not masters of our
    • I personally feel that there are so many "disorders" these days, that people often find a crutch for every vice and desire. Instead of working tochange for the better, people say "That's the way I am... I can't change."

      People say that? Funny, I would have thought the first thing most people would do after a diagnosis would be to use that label to investigate how they can change and how others deal with similar issues. Indeed I'd say it's far more likely for people to think "oh, that's just the way I am" a

    • In reality if we are honest with ourselves and we work hard to overcome these urges, we can overcome almost any adversity, vice or compulsion.

      This is absolute nonsense. Worse, it devalues those people who have these conditions claiming that it's something they can control if they just *try harder*.

      Let me throw your statement back to you slightly rephrased:

      We don't really need sleep, if we work hard to overcome sleepiness we can overcome it.

      See how far philosophy that gets you (I think you die after about
    • I think people still have choices regardless of the addiction they suffer from (OCD disorders, Serial Killer, Gambling, etc.) A person doesn't HAVE TO Gamble, but it feels that way. He doesn't HAVE TO wash his hands 5 times, but he thinks he does.

      These abnormalities or "lesions" in our brains may make us feel we do not have a choice. In reality if we are honest with ourselves and we work hard to overcome these urges, we can overcome almost any adversity, vice or compulsion.


      You are wrong, at least when it co
    • I personally feel that there are so many "disorders" these days, that people often find a crutch for every vice and desire. Instead of working tochange for the better, people say "That's the way I am... I can't change."

      Some of these people may think this article proves that thought. I for one, feel it supports the opposite.


      Regarding issues such as this as an excuse seems to be a common way of looking at it, and I'll admit to having seen things that way once as well, though I've had a change of heart recentl
  • by the_humeister (922869) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:01PM (#15185771)
    How about putting electrodes in these areas and forcing these macaque monkeys to choose grape over apple juice? That would really prove it.
    • No.

      The only way to prove it is to find Buridan and his ass (donkey, if you will... not the thing you perverts thought of first) and see how would the ass choose one haystack over another one just like it.

    • Except it's probably like 30% of the brain cells have to be stimulated for the monkey to want apple juice, or some other complex system that takes into account the genetic and behavioral training which is constantly being attacked by sensory patterns.

      For example, maybe they get this to work, but then the room temp rises 3 degrees and then the monkey's switch back because their brain has new information so they have to recalibrate etc. If you can control their senses, you might be on to something though, bu
  • by darkitecture (627408) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:03PM (#15185785)
    First thing we do, we find out which cell is responsible for making guys choose to wear pink shirts.

    Every guy who has an active pink-shirt cell then gets neutered (or would they technically requiring spaying?).

  • by truckaxle (883149) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:03PM (#15185786) Homepage
    brain cells linked to choice Wow and I always thought it was the lung cells that determine choice.
  • Wait a second... (Score:2, Insightful)

    Are these the same guys that linked a study of sounds to your ears? Simply Amazing.
    • The headline is misrepresentative of the nature of the discovery. The scientists didn't find that brain cells were linked to choice but rather they found the specific brain cells (or rather, the specific regions of the brain) that were linked to decision-making. The difference, of course, is significant. Using fMRI to observe the functioning of the brain in real time can really yield weird knowledge about the brain in the future.
  • by Timesprout (579035) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:03PM (#15185791)
    Let me know when they find the part that makes stupid choices for me so I can have it removed
  • Ahh, free will (Score:5, Interesting)

    by brian0918 (638904) <brian0918.gmail@com> on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:04PM (#15185794)
    It's time for the age-old debate about man's free will. Does it exist, or are we just kidding ourselves? Is the consciousness an intact "entity" within the brain, or is it simply the end result of external stimuli influencing choices? One thing is for sure: neuroscience is making it more difficult for a spirit to hide in our mushy insides. Eventually, we'll know for sure how the brain works. For now, we are stuck with debating the definitions of words like soul, freedom, consciousness, etc...
    • For neurobiologist the debate is long over. IF they are scientific worth their salt they won't presuppose the existence of a "supplemental entity" like soul to explain our "selves", that is unless somebody bring the data which can't be explained without this so called "soul". hasn't happenned so far. Neurobiologist leave "soul" and other of those to religion and philosophy. As for free will, Since "we" are the sum of all our chemical reaction in the brain (again if you want to bring a 3rd identity in play
      • Of course the debate is over in that respect, but it may simply mean that things like the spirit/soul/consciousness will take on new, more well-defined definitions. That is where the debate I was referring to lies.
        • Clearly, this means that theology needs to fold the soul somewhere else. If brains make choices on their own. Souls/spirits get tossed anywhere left. Is there anywhere left? I mean people should have dropped this nonsense years ago. But, perhaps... time will tell where they try to put the soul next.
          • Mindware isn't soul IMHO.Soul is probably a bootloader for Mindware OS: skills are applications,data is knowledge,memory is storage,reflexes are drivers,etc.Soul could be in some EM field form attached to one of organs and/or bootup routine replicated in DNA.

      • > As for free will, Since "we" are the sum of all our chemical reaction in the brain [...], there is no such things as free will, [...]

        We may well be the sum of our chemical reactions and still have a free will, in that sense, that our actions are not pre-determined.

        > Bottom line is the debate is over, unless you bring data and evidence to the contrary, not explainable within current frame.

        Quantum Mechanics to the rescue: The Free Will Theorem [arxiv.org].
      • You seem to assume we only have two options: a cartesian style dualism of body and soul, and this very strong reductionism where we are only chemical reactions. There is a lot of middle ground. For example, chess is a game played with only a collection of atoms, but arguably physics and chemistry can't describe all the subtleties of chess. Similarly, while our brain may be a collection of chemical reactions, that doesn't mean that we will ever be able to talk very effectively about our behavior using the la
    • by mrchaotica (681592) * on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:28PM (#15185906)
      Does it exist, or are we just kidding ourselves?
      If it doesn't then we have no choice but to kid ourselves, now do we?
    • Re:Ahh, free will (Score:2, Interesting)

      by David_Shultz (750615)

      Actually, I don't believe any advance in neuroscience makes the debate harder for adherents of free will, because causal determinism in the physical universe has been an accepted truth in the scientific world for some time (disregarding quantum indeterminacy, which is besides the point since no one has been able to coherently describe how quantum indeterminacy could amount to what we call free will.)

      For those people willing to read the right philosophers (ie Dennett) I believe the free will problem has alr

    • I think Free Will is a way of thinking about randomness, or entropy. That is, "choice" is a word we use to describe actions which, like the behavior of molecules in a thermodynamic system, are on a micro scale essentially unpredictable.

      Followers of sociology may find themselves slightly validated--the fact that individuals are at heart unpredictable doesn't mean large enough quantities of them can evidence patterns of behavior, whether the individuals are hydrogen molecules or human beings.

      On a side note,
  • I do not understand (Score:3, Interesting)

    by thePig (964303) <`rajmohan_h' `at' `yahoo.com'> on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:19PM (#15185857) Journal
    Shouldnt memory play a role in this?
    I was under the impression that memory (basically hippocampus and amygdala) was the reason we chose items.
    For example -
    Grape - Appropriate synapses of the looks of the grape colour,look etc all get burned up in hippocampus
    Also, when we eat it - the synapses for amygdala set for pleasure also gets set up.
    Also a combination path way neuron for both also gets hardened due to electrons going there - (in hippocampus).
    Now next time I see a grape, this compination path gets a signal when we see a grape - so a signal goes to the other one (for pleasure also), thus the memory of pleasurable experience when a grape is eaten comes to me.
    This is memory.

    Now, for a choice, depending on the amount of pleasure, my synapses fire more and I go for that.
    For example - if there is bittergourd and grape, I will go for grape only.
    I thought the monkeys choice depended on these neurons rather than the one they speak about.

    Or is this the intelligent choice they are talking about - where in I go for bittergourd instead due to the higeher nutrition content ??? .. I thought that also could be expressed in the earlier way mentioned.
  • The Y chromosome must have the directions for that portion of the brain. My wife can't decide on anything.
  • They seem to buy or like whatever is shoved in their face by public advertising.

    Maybe these people are brain-damaged, after all...
  • by gansch (939712) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:29PM (#15185909)
    It seems to me that, for the average person, this would play a small part in actually making choices...most incorrect choices tend to be made due to incomplete information, selfishness (including refusing to hear others opinions or accept advice), or denial of what is known or true.

    Sure, these neurons may be involved in the process of making judgements, but if the person does not understand or refuses to accept the choice, he is setting himself up for failure before the brain even gets to this step.

    I agree with some of the other posters that this discovery may be misused as an excuse for poor choices and behaviors that the individual has an inkling may be incorrect. But, I hope we come to our senses and start taking personal responsibility for our lives, instead of making biological and societal excuses for everything that "goes wrong".
  • >"The neurons we have identified encode the value individuals assign to the available items when they make choices based on subjective preferences"

    The article does not deny the subjective nature of many of our preferences, but provides evidence as to the objective mechanism by which these subjective preferences are translated into action.

    It sorta requires a re-thinking of the distinction between 'objective' and 'subjective'.

  • by plunge (27239) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:36PM (#15185937)
    There have been many fascinating finds in this field over just the last couple of years, from the discovery that you can externally trigger feelings of volition to be associated with artificially stimulated actions (i.e. make you feel like you CHOSE to move your arm, when in fact it was the scientists stimulating your nerves), to the discovery that religious ecstasy can be likewise triggered.

    In all of this, I've always been confused by those that suggest that human consciousness is better explained by a soul or free will. As far as I can tell, neither "Free Will" nor "soul" actually explain ANYTHING about conscious volition. Certainly, conscious experience is a philosophical mystery: what is it, and why is it? Nobody knows. But simply referencing some random word like "soul" and noting that it is supernatural doesn't explain anything. It's not that the rules of the natural world are too restrictive to allow "free will" or "conscious experience" to work. It's that we have no idea what they are or how they work at all. So positing some supernatural realm where anything is possible doesn't help, or advance our knowledge even a bit.

    Free will is actually even more bizarre, because although many people claim we have it, no one seems able to actually define what it is or what difference having free will vs. not having it would make. In short, it appears that the concept is completely incoherent and self-contradictory. It's one thing to be free to make choices for yourself, according to your own volition. But that's not what the strong "Free Will" concept is: even computers can make choices for themselves. Strong Free Will posits that people somehow make choices independently of.... well what? Independently of their own natures? That makes no sense! If there isn't some underlying deterministic substrate to my choices, how can they be mine at all? How can I be responsible if you can't causally track my choices back to some "me."

    In short, "Free Will" makes no sense as a concept, and offers no explanatory value for anything. It's SOLE purpose seems to be in theological arguments, a bit of handwaving to avoid having a designer be responsible for the nature of his own designs.
    • If you talk about 'free will' you are, in essence, talking about souls --- because there's an implicit assumption when talking about free will that something is making the choice to do a particular action other than the actual hardware. You're right, it's not a term that's particularly useful outside the context of discussions of animism vs. materialism.
    • by wytcld (179112) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @04:19PM (#15186105) Homepage
      If you honestly believe you're not free, there are a number of things you might as well stop doing:

      1. Why do you consciously try to deliberate over any choices? If you are not free, that effort you're putting forth - to the extent, you know, that you have decided to try to deliberate, is at best an epiphenomenal waste. So why not save the effort? On the one hand, that epiphenomenal sense of your own agency can't really do anything in the physical world, right? On the other, for the epiphenomenal to exist it must be draining energy from the actually useful parts of the brain, which might be able to run their deterministic algorithm better if you weren't shunting that energy into the appearance of phenomenal consciousness, with its illusion of free agency and all that. So why not just give it up?

      2. The next time you blame your girlfriend or boyfriend or boss for anything, why bother? After all, they have no freedom in what they do. It was all determined from the beginning of time (if not before). So why not just give it up?

      3. When others of us say that we believe - no, we know that we are free agents, in ways that are beyond Newtonian causal physics (although not beyond some interpretations of quantum theory, e.g. Henry Stapp's or Roger Penrose's), it is absolutely determined that we will be saying these things. You could not possibly persuade us to freely change our minds through conscious deliberation on these questions. So why not just give it up?

      What these experiments may show is that the weights of particular desires are represented in particular cells in particular regions. Did you think, for instance, that thirst wouldn't be represented somewhere in the brain? What they don't (and probably can't) show is that it is merely a certain "weight" of thirst, balanced against certain "weights" of other desires, that results in action in some deterministic way. Think of it like a dashboard. There's a certain "weight" of the gas running low, a certain "weight" of the speed you're going, a certain "weight" of the oil light coming on, and even the "weight" of how many miles are on the vehicle. None of these prevent your free operation of the wheel and pedals (until the gas runs out, or a cop stops you, or the engine blows a rod, or the transmission falls on the road). Why should a dashboard in the mind representing how thirsty you are, how horny you are, how clever you think you are with your doubting of the common sense about our freedom ... why should the mere presense of any of these representations in physical instantiation imply any diminishment of your capacity to will? I'd rather say the more representations on the dashboard, the more the driver is freely in control.
      • ### 1. Why do you consciously try to deliberate over any choices?

        According to some research consciousness is something that comes *after* the rest of your brain already made the choice. So you can't do anything consciously to begin with.

        ### 2. The next time you blame your girlfriend or boyfriend or boss for anything, why bother? After all, they have no freedom in what they do.

        Good so, so their might be a higher chance that my doing might influence them, if they would be free it would be much harder to influ
        • Libet (Score:5, Informative)

          by wytcld (179112) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @05:53PM (#15186453) Homepage
          According to some research consciousness is something that comes *after* the rest of your brain already made the choice. So you can't do anything consciously to begin with.

          You're talking about Libet's well-known research, and mischaracterizing it. In his experiment people have already decided to move their arm, in cooperation with the researcher's request, at a "random" time. They're also watching a clock on a computer screen, and are to push a button at the time that they are aware of making the choice to move their arm. Meanwhile Libet is monitoring what he interprets as a "readiness potential" at a certain location in the brain, which is a good predictor of moving your arm. The finding is that the potential is there before the subject reports awareness of the volition relative to the clock. However, Libet also found that people can successfully decide not to move their arms even after the readiness potential was in evidence. These findings are still much debated. But what they do not show is anything about the efficacy of complex, conscious deliberations.

          without defining "free" there is no way to talk about it in a meaningfull way

          You're working from an old, bogus notion in philosophy that we must "define our terms" before we can talk about anything. It's a failed program. Terms don't get meaning that way. Rather, terms get meaning from context, and from overlay ("blending" is the technical term in modern cognitive linguistics) with other contexts. There are few if any things that we can define (1) without context, and (2) without being in some sense circular. Yet there are a great many things we can talk about in a meaningful way - although it depends who we're talking to. Still, most all of us know, from our contexts in life, what freedom is, and what it is to will something to happen. That you can befuddle yourself about what these words mean is nice; but we can befuddle ourselves about any word if we just repeat it to ourselves a few hundred times. And that's basically the whole trick about demanding a definition before allowing a discussion to proceed - with every repeated demand you're moving the word closer to that temporarily alienated state. But, since that can be done with any word, what you've done is just on the level of a psychological illusion, not a revelation of the ill-defined meaninglessness of whatever word you've targeted.
          • ### Still, most all of us know, from our contexts in life, what freedom is, and what it is to will something to happen.

            No, we don't know what freedom is, thats kind of the point, we have a very blurry feeling of what it might be, but nothing more, not enough to talk about it in any meaning full ways, especially not because my feeling of what freedom might be might be fundamentally different of yours.

            Free-will is an even more blurry thing, 'free' of exactly what, outer influences? Without them we could do ex
      • >1. Why do you consciously try to deliberate over any choices? If you are not free, that effort you're putting >forth - to the extent, you know, that you have decided to try to deliberate, is at best an epiphenomenal >waste. So why not save the effort? On the one hand, that epiphenomenal sense of your own agency can't really >do anything in the physical world, right? On the other, for the epiphenomenal to exist it must be draining >energy from the actually useful parts of the brain, which mig
      • 1. Why do you consciously try to deliberate over any choices?

        Because you don't have any choice in the matter? If all our decision are determined by brain makeup then the choice to consciously deliberate over a choice is not actually a choice.

        2. The next time you blame your girlfriend or boyfriend or boss for anything, why bother?

        Again, you don't have a choice. You are acting this way because the makeup of your brain says that's what you do in that situation.

        3. ...You could not possibly persuade us t

      • Why should a dashboard in the mind representing how thirsty you are, how horny you are, how clever you think you are with your doubting of the common sense about our freedom ... why should the mere presense of any of these representations in physical instantiation imply any diminishment of your capacity to will? I'd rather say the more representations on the dashboard, the more the driver is freely in control.

        Oh its not that simple.

        1. You are because of 4 billion years of evolutions. You are made of atoms a
      • See this is what I'm talking about. None of your questions make even a tiny bit of sense. Why deliberate over choices? Because that is how one comes to the best choice. Uhduh. Why blame people for what they do? Because they are responsible. Why argue with you? Because a good argument can maybe convince you.

        Were you really under the impression that you were asking stumpers? This is what I mean. You THINK that the concept of "free will" is adding some additional understanding to things, but in fact
    • >offers no explanatory value for anything

      It's an explanation for why humans ever do anything that's not a biological imperative. Free will has the merit of being a falsifiable hyptohesis. You could, in principle, falsify it by building a mathematical model that succesfully predicted all of a human's actions.
      • ### It's an explanation for why humans ever do anything that's not a biological imperative.

        Any reasonably complex system will do things bejoint those it was designed or which it evolved to do, and the human is a damn complex system, so that would be no big suprise.

        ### You could, in principle, falsify it by building a mathematical model that succesfully predicted all of a human's actions.

        For that you would not only need a mathematical model of the human, but one of the whole world. Humans don't act in isol
  • by caudron (466327) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:53PM (#15185991) Homepage
    Reading some of the /. comments on this story, I have to say that it's always interesting to see religious men trying too hard to associate Man with the divine as though we stand above and seperate from the natural world, but equally it's interesting to watch atheists try to find mankind wholly within nature as well. For as much as we want to call Man an animal (subject to an animal's exigencies and vicissitudes) we must admit that he is a curious sort of animal able to escape those forms of nature and create new configurations of need and choice.

    I don't really have a point. I just find the whole matter of human will and spirit interesting.

    Tom Caudron
    http://tom.digitalelite.com/ [digitalelite.com]
  • by tlynch001 (917597) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @03:55PM (#15186001)
    Are these the same monkeys that like Fritos?
  • Every neuron "helps you make choices" from your photoreceptors up to your prefrontal cortex.

    And to imply that this is the first time we've found the brain doing more than "responding to stimuli" is grossly naive. Neuroscience could tell you what decision you were going to make before you knew what decision you were going to make for probably a decade or two now.

      I know I should expect it by now, but it still goes straight up my arse to read it.

  • Scientists have known that cells in different parts of the brain react to attributes such as color, taste, quantity", or sexual orientation!
    • Sexual attraction is unconcious.

      No one says "I think I'll be attracted to this person"...it just happens.

      I found your post flamebate as well as unfounded.
  • Old news (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    We've known all along that there are brain cells linked to Choice. The question is whether there are any Pro-Life brain cells.
  • by localman (111171) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @04:26PM (#15186130) Homepage
    First I have to plug the Hofstadter books Godel, Escher, Bach [amazon.com], and to a lesser extent, Metamagical Themas [amazon.com]. These books are as close to hard science as you're going to get talking about conciousness. Anyone with any interest in these topics really owes it to themselves to read these (sometimes challenging) books.

    Anyways: I am a big fan of digging down and understanding everything we can about how our minds work. But I always had a fear that at some point we'd know that we were powerless machines who could do nothing but react deterministicly. And as a creative emotional person I didn't want that to be true. But after digging as far as I could, in I've come to peace with the idea that reductionism will not reveal the man behind the curtain, so to speak. Maybe I'll be proved wrong someday, but to me, loosely speaking, the combinations of uncertainty, incompleteness, chaos, and feedback effects result in the whole being greater than the sum of it's parts. I'm not saying that there's some magical soul that exists outside our physical selfs, but rather that there is some higher level network effect in complex systems such as our brain where something exists on top of the physical parts, is wholly made from them, but is only loosely determined by them. That is the "I" to me.

    Cheers.
    • ### Anyways: I am a big fan of digging down and understanding everything we can about how our minds work. But I always had a fear that at some point we'd know that we were powerless machines who could do nothing but react deterministicly.

      I like to look at software, specifically games, in comparism. They are deterministic and designed by intelligent beings after all, so they shouldn't have any "free-will", yet, still interesting things happen. For example take a look at SuperMarioBros1, looks normal, yet, th
  • My choice: (Score:3, Funny)

    by Bohnanza (523456) on Sunday April 23, 2006 @05:03PM (#15186271)
    I chose not to RTFA.
  • The headline makes this sound like a retarded article. Although the article is light on details, this isn't the "no shit?!" article some slashdotters are painting it as based on the headline. The neuroscience discovered here could have a huge impact on the entire field of social studies, and particularly economics.

    Rename the /. headline to something like "Scientists Find The Brain Cells That Are Linked to Choice"...
  • I wonder if research will disclose that all Calvinists have more of these brain cells and all Arminians have fewer. Or vice versa.
  • With pop[ular] music in its current state, do I have more choice neurons, or less?

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