Tag Archives: cognitive error

Neuronal Recordings Suggest “Free Will” Might be “Free Won’t”

Itzhak Fried

Itzhak Fried

People may think they consciously control their actions and performance, but findings from UCLA’s Itzhak Fried and Roy Mukamel with Gabriel Kreiman of Harvard challenged conventional assumptions about “conscious intention” and “free will. ”

Roy Mukamel

Roy Mukamel

Fried, Mukamel, and Kreiman adopted Benjamin Libet’s procedure to assess “free will” at University of California, San Francisco, using intracranial recordings to identify neuron activity that precedes and predicts volunteers’ decision to move a finger.

Gabriel Kreiman

Gabriel Kreiman

Volunteers, who had electrodes implanted in their brains to record early indicators of seizures, pressed a button when they chose and indicated the clock’s hand position when they decided to press the button.

Libet’s process marks the time a voluntary action occurred, and the volunteer’s report of when the decision to act was completed.
These data points enabled researchers to identify specific neurons that were active during the time around the conscious decision to act and the completed action.

Benjamin Libet

Benjamin Libet

About a quarter of neurons in the frontal lobe’s supplementary motor area (responsible for motor activity coordination) and the anterior cingulate cortex (which directs attention and motivation) changed activity before volunteers said they wanted to press the button.

Spontaneous, voluntary acts were initiated in the cerebrum about 200 milliseconds before the person was consciously aware of the ‘decision’ to act, and researchers predicted with greater than 80 percent accuracy whether a movement had occurred and when the decision to make it happened.

Libet’s team suggested that unconscious brain processes, which are more rapid than conscious decision-making (“free will”), are the instigators of volitional acts.
However, these researchers also proposed that “free will” is more accurately described as “free won’t” because conscious volition can exercise “veto power” over intentions to act.

Kreiman extended this research to better understand loss of voluntary movement in Parkinson’s disease when he pre-empted volunteers’ movements after observing brain activation in the supplementary motor area and the anterior cingulate cortex.
StopHe activated a “stop” sign on a screen in front of each volunteer before the person actually moved, and reported that his volunteers frequently said, ”That was weird. It was like you read my mind.”

Nalini Ambady

Nalini Ambady

These brain studies complement Stanford professor Nalini Ambady’s work at Harvard University on “thin slicing”, or the experience of “knowing before you know.”
Also described as “intuition” or “unconscious cognitive processing,” these findings suggest that the conscious mind is the last to know when we make a decision.

-*How do you manage the discrepancy between unconscious mental processes and conscious awareness of them?

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How Sure are You of Your “Memories”? Suggestibility, Insertion, and Construction of Recall

Elizabeth Loftus

Elizabeth Loftus

Experimental psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus investigated memory and its quirks, such as mistaken eyewitness testimony and “repressed memory” of pedophilia in laboratory and naturalistic settings for nearly 40 years.

William Saletan

William Saletan

William Saletan of Slate replicated one of Loftus’s experiments in memory insertion by using digitally-altered photos by developing five images of events that did not actually occur:

  • Sen. Joe Lieberman voting to convict President Clinton at his impeachment trial
  • Vice President Cheney rebuking Sen. John Edwards in their debate for mentioning Cheney’s lesbian daughter
  • President Bush relaxing at his ranch with Roger Clemens during Hurricane Katrina
  • Hillary Clinton using Jeremiah Wright in a 2008 TV ad
  • President Obama shaking hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

These images were mixed with photos of actual events:

  • 2000 Presidential election recount in Florida
  • Colin Powell’s prewar assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction
  • 2005 congressional vote to intervene in the Terri Schiavo’s “right-to-die” case.

Each participant viewed three true incidents and one randomly selected fake incident, and was asked whether the subject remembered each one.
Next, each volunteer was informed that one of the incidents was false and was asked select the fake.

Slate’s results replicated the trend observed by Loftus:  Fewer than half of the volunteers correctly detected fake photos and many “misremembered” fake photos by giving detailed explanations of their recollections of events that did not actually occur and photos that did not exist before the experiment.

Frederic Bartlett

Frederic Bartlett

The findings validate psychologist Frederic Bartlett’s claim wrote almost a century ago at Cambridge University:

Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces.
It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience.

Rosalind Cartwright

Rosalind Cartwright

More recently, sleep researcher Rosalind Cartwright summarized Bartlett’s point by concluding that “Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation,” and artist Austin Kleon translated these concepts into current vernacular:  “you are a mash-up of what you let into your life.”

Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon

Philippa Perry

Philippa Perry

British psychotherapist Philippa Perry points to the logical conclusion from these observations in advising, “Be careful which stories you expose yourself to. … The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are…

-*How do you monitor the accuracy of your memories?
-*How do you detect “memory mash-ups”?
-*How do you select the experiences from which you form memories?

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