March 17, 2011

BBC4′s “In Our Time”: Discussion on Free Will

In a BBC broadcastMelvyn Bragg and his guests Simon Blackburn, Helen Beebee, and Galen Strawson discuss the philosophical idea of free will.

From the broadcast description:

“Free will – the extent to which we are free to choose our own actions – is one of the most absorbing philosophical problems, debated by almost every great thinker of the last two thousand years. In a universe apparently governed by physical laws, is it possible for individuals to be responsible for their own actions? Or are our lives simply proceeding along preordained paths? Determinism – the doctrine that every event is the inevitable consequence of what goes before – seems to suggest so.

Many intellectuals have concluded that free will is logically impossible. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza regarded it as a delusion. Albert Einstein wrote: “Human beings, in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free agents but are as causally bound as the stars in their motion.” But in the Enlightenment, philosophers including David Hume found ways in which free will and determinism could be reconciled. Recent scientific developments mean that this debate remains as lively today as it was in the ancient world.”

Click here to listen to the broadcast.

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December 7, 2010

The Same Old Consciousness

From:  It makes sense to paraphrase Einstein’s famous dictum in regard to consciousness. Our problem is the unsustainability of the world we have created, and we should be clear that we can’t solve this problem with the same kind of consciousness that gave rise to it.

But many people try to do just that, even the leaders of the world’s twenty richest and most powerful nations. The November 2010 meeting of the G20 in Seoul gave indisputable proof of it. Not only did the meeting fail to achieve its main objectives (among them rebalancing international trade and reaching an accommodation between the U.S. and South Korea), the objectives themselves proved to be out-of-date. They centered on re-stabilizing the same moribund economic and financial system that made the world unsustainable in the first place.

But why is the G20’s failure due to wrong consciousness? Because consciousness in the social, political, and cultural context is sum total of our view of the world, with its values, aspirations, and background assumptions. It’s the “paradigm” that underlies the way we think and the way we set our priorities. The consciousness of the G20 gives rise to an obsolete view of the world, with faulty values and outdated aspirations. The leaders view the world as the arena for a Darwinian struggle for survival, seen as a competition for growth in the economies of nations. Since assured growth cannot be achieved even by the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world by itself, the leaders recognize the need for some level and form of cooperation—as a means to an end. The end is for the rich nations to make sure that they remain rich.

Click here for the complete article.

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November 24, 2008

The Decider

Informing the debate over the reality of ‘free will’ requires learning something about the lateral habenula.

From ScienceNews: At the end of The Matrix trilogy, Neo and Agent Smith are engaged in one final, interminable scene of surreal combat, a surrogate competition for an eternal battle between humans and machines. “It’s pointless to keep fighting,” Agent Smith declares to Neo. “Why do you persist?”

“Because I choose to,” Neo replies, just before the computer-generated Smith meets his demise in a cinematic celebration of human free will’s superiority to the programming that enslaves machines. Machines are mindless. The brain is a decider.

All very inspiring, except that the brain itself is a machine, a network of cells that computes its choices based on the sum of sensory inputs and their interactions with neural anatomy. “Free will” is not the defining feature of humanness, modern neuroscience implies, but is rather an illusion that endures only because biochemical complexity conceals the mechanisms of decision making.

Yet belief in free will persists as stubbornly as Neo’s resistance to electronic tyranny. Whether supposedly free choice is actually a Matrix-like mirage remains one of the great questions of human philosophical history. For centuries that question was assessed mostly with thought -uninformed by actual neurobiological knowledge. Nowadays, though, the inner workings of the brain are revealing themselves to modern methods of neuroinquiry, and free will seems merely to emerge from electrochemical networks of neuronal interactions. But like tourists exploring a strange city without a GPS map, scientists don’t know how all the neural neighborhoods are connected and occasionally encounter surprising enclaves-such as a place in the brain called the lateral habenula.

“There’s lots of new research showing that an overactive habenula has behavioral effects,” says neuropharmacologist Martine Mirrione of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y.

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March 27, 2008

Neuroeconomics conference Copenhagen, May 2008

A unique opportunity to learn about contemporary neuroeconomics

We are writing to you in connection with the Conference on Neuroeconomics (ConNEcs 2008), which is going to take place at the Copenhagen Business School May 14-16, 2008. The conference is arranged by Center for Marketing Communication in cooperation with Hilke Plassmann (CalTech, US) and Peter Kenning (Zeppelin University, Germany).


The primary goal of the conference is to establish an international discussion forum for research on Neuroeconomics. Also the conference aims to look into how decision neuroscience can inform consumer and business research, and to illuminate how consumer behaviour is represented in the brain. We expect 150 participants comprising international researchers as well as various organisations and industries.

This unique conference gives you the opportunity to meet members of the most advanced, international research community working with neuromarketing, neuroeconomics and decision neuroscience research.

At CBS we are developing a Decision neuroscience project in corporation with Hvidovre Hospital. At the conference you will also learn about this research.

We recommend you to sign up for the conference.

Attached you will find a more detailed description of the conference including the conference program and registration form. You are also more than welcome to contact us for further information.

We look forward to hearing from you and please feel free to distribute the programme to interested parties.

Kind regards,

ConNEcs 2008 Organizing Committee:

  • Flemming Hansen,
  • Peter Kenning,
  • Hilke Plassmann and
  • Majken L. Møller

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January 12, 2008

Neuronal correlates of “free will” are associated with regional specialization in the human intrinsic/default network

Ilan Goldberg, Shimon Ullman and Rafael Malach
In press article in Consciousness & Cognition

Recently, we proposed a fundamental subdivision of the human cortex into two complementary networks-an ‘‘extrinsic” one which deals with the external environment, and an ‘‘intrinsic” one which largely overlaps with the ‘‘default mode” system, and deals with internally oriented and endogenous mental processes. Here we tested this hypothesis by contrasting decision making under external and internally-derived conditions. Subjects were presented with an external cue, and were required to either follow an external instruction (‘‘determined” condition) or to ignore it and follow a voluntary decision process (‘‘free-will” condition). Our results show that a well defined component of the intrinsic system-the right inferior parietal cortex-was preferentially activated during the ‘‘free-will” condition. Importantly, this activity was significantly higher than the base-line resting state. The results support a self-related role for the intrinsic system and provide clear evidence for both hemispheric and regional specialization in the human intrinsic system.

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January 4, 2008

Decision making, impulsivity and time perception

Time is an important dimension when individuals make decisions. Specifically, the time until a beneficial outcome can be received is viewed as a cost and is weighed against the benefits of the outcome.

We propose that impulsive individuals experience time differently, that is with a higher cost. Impulsive subjects, therefore, overestimate the duration of time intervals and, as a consequence, discount the value of delayed rewards more strongly than do self-controlled individuals.

The literature on time perception and impulsivity, however, is not clear cut and needs a better theoretical foundation. Here, we develop the theoretical background on concepts of time perception, which could lead to an empirically based notion of the association between an altered sense of time and impulsivity.

Article by Marc Wittmann and Martin P. Paulus in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 12, Issue 1, January 2008, Pages 13-16

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December 11, 2007

Belief, disbelief and uncertainty activate distinct brain regions

The capacity of the human mind to believe or disbelieve a statement is a powerful force for controlling both behavior and emotion, but the basis of these states in the brain is not yet understood. A new study found that belief, disbelief and uncertainty activate distinct regions of the brain, with belief/disbelief affecting areas associated with the pleasantness/unpleasantness of tastes and odors. The study will publish online in the Annals of Neurology, the official journal of the American Neurological Association.

Led by Sam Harris of the University of California, Los Angeles, the study involved 14 adults who underwent functional MRI scans during which they were presented with short statements that they had to evaluate as true, false or undecided. Each participant underwent three scans while they evaluated statements from a broad variety of categories such as mathematical, geographical, autobiographical, religious and factual. The statements were designed to be clearly true, false or undecidable.

Contrasting belief and disbelief trials yielded increased signal in the (VMPFC), which is involved in linking factual knowledge with emotion. “The involvement of the VMPFC in belief processing suggests an anatomical link between the purely cognitive aspects of belief and human emotion and reward,” the authors state. The fact that ethical belief showed a similar pattern of activation to mathematical belief suggests that the physiological difference between belief and disbelief is not related to content or emotional associations, they note.

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December 10, 2007

Neurons in the frontal lobe may be responsible for rational decision-making

decision making,human nature,neuroscience — thomasr @ 7:17 am

From — You study the menu at a restaurant and decide to order the steak rather than the salmon. But when the waiter tells you about the lobster special, you decide lobster trumps steak. Without reconsidering the salmon, you place your order—all because of a trait called “transitivity.”

“Transitivity is the hallmark of rational economic choice,” says Camillo Padoa-Schioppa, a postdoctoral researcher in HMS Professor of Neurobiology John Assad’s lab. According to transitivity, if you prefer A to B and B to C, then you ought to prefer A to C. Or, if you prefer lobster to steak, and steak to salmon, then you will prefer lobster to salmon.

Padoa-Schioppa is lead author on a paper that suggests this trait might be encoded at the level of individual neurons. The study, which appears online Dec. 9 in Nature Neuroscience, shows that some neurons in a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex encode economic value in a “menu invariant” way. That is, the neurons respond the same to steak regardless if it’s offered against salmon or lobster.

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December 2, 2007

Subjective values

Neuroimaging studies of decision-making have generally related neural activity to objective measures (such as reward magnitude, probability or delay), despite choice preferences being subjective. However, economic theories posit that decision-makers behave as though different options have different subjective values.

Here we use functional magnetic resonance imaging to show that neural activity in several brain regions—particularly the ventral striatum, medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex—tracks the revealed subjective value of delayed monetary rewards.

This similarity provides unambiguous evidence that the subjective value of potential rewards is explicitly represented in the human brain.

Joseph W Kable & Paul W Glimcher, The neural correlates of subjective value during intertemporal choice. Nature Neuroscience 10, 1625 – 1633 (2007)

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November 26, 2007

Social neuroeconomics: the neural circuitry of social preferences

Combining the methods of neuroscience and economics generates powerful tools for studying the brain processes behind human social interaction. We argue that hedonic interpretations of theories of social preferences provide a useful framework that generates interesting predictions and helps interpret brain activations involved in altruistic, fair and trusting behaviors. These behaviors are consistently associated with activation in reward-related brain areas, such as the striatum, and with prefrontal activity implicated in cognitive control, the processing of emotions, and integration of benefits and costs, consistent with resolution of a conflict between self-interest and other-regarding motives.

Fehr & Camerer in Trends in Cognitive Science 2007 Oct ; 11(10): 419-27


PDF of article

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November 13, 2007

That friendly car is smiling at me: When products are perceived as people

From A forthcoming study from the Journal of Consumer Research looks at how consumers anthropomorphize products, endowing a car or a pair of shoes with human characteristics and personalities. The researchers, from the University of Toronto and the University of Chicago, find that people are more likely to attribute human qualities or traits to inanimate objects if the product fits with their expectations of relevant human qualities – and are also more likely to positively evaluate an anthropomorphized item.

“We sometimes see cars as loyal companions going so far as to name them. We argue with, cajole, and scold malfunctioning computers and engines,” explain Pankaj Aggarwal (University of Toronto) and Ann L. McGill (University of Chicago). “We find that if the product has a feature that is typically associated with a human prototype, then people are more likely to humanize the product, and also evaluate it more

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November 1, 2007

Decision-making special issue in Science:

From Mind Hacks: This week’s Science has a special selection of papers on the psychology and neuroscience of decision making. While most of the articles are closed-access, one on how game theory and neuroscience are helping us understand social decision-making is freely available.

It is a great introduction to ‘neuroeconomics’, a field that attempts to work out how the brain supports cost-benefit type decisions.

This can be directly applied to financial decision-making, but also to other types of situations where weighing possible gains and losses is important, whether the gains and losses are in the form of money, time, social advantage or status – to name just a few.

One of the crucial discoveries of recent years is that people do not act as rational maximisers – making individual decisions on how to get the most benefit out of each choice. In fact, social influences can be huge and often lead people to reject no-risk economic gains when then feel it is socially unjustified.

This had led the field into interesting territory, both informing models of the economy, and illuminating how we make social decisions.

As part of the neuroeconomic approach, researchers have begun to investigate the psychological and neural correlates of social decisions using tasks derived from a branch of experimental economics known as Game Theory. These tasks, though beguilingly simple, require sophisticated reasoning about the motivations of other players. Recent research has combined these paradigms with a variety of neuroscientific methods in an effort to gain a more detailed picture of social decision-making. The benefits of this approach are twofold. First, neuroscience can describe important biological constraints on the processes involved, and indeed, research is revealing that many of the processes underlying complex decision-making may overlap with more fundamental brain mechanisms. Second, actual decision behavior in these tasks often does not conform to the predictions of Game Theory, and therefore, more precise characterizations of behavior will be important in adapting these models to better fit how decisions are actually made.

Link to Science special issue on decision making.
Link to article ‘Social Decision-Making: Insights from Game Theory and Neuroscience’.
Link to previous Mind Hacks post on game theory and (ir)rationality.

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October 29, 2007

Young minds — 3 papers

The journal Cognitive Development has released its latest issue, with a few interesting titles.

Among these, we here present three titles with direct impact on the study of consciousness. These cover topics as self-regulation in pre-schoolers, decision making in adolescence, and impulsivity and control in childhood.

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October 24, 2007

To determine election outcomes, study says snap judgments are sufficient

A split-second glance at two candidates’ faces is often enough to determine which one will win an election, according to a Princeton University study.

Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov has demonstrated that quick facial judgments can accurately predict real-world election returns. Todorov has taken some of his previous research that showed that people unconsciously judge the competence of an unfamiliar face within a tenth of a second, and he has moved it to the political arena. His lab tests show that a rapid appraisal of the relative competence of two candidates’ faces was sufficient to predict the winner in about 70 percent of the races for U.S. senator and state governor in the 2006 elections.

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October 18, 2007

Prefrontal decision making

brain injury,decision making — thomasr @ 4:09 am

vmpfc.jpegThe role of the prefrontal cortex in decision making is today placed on a solid scientific foundation. But for the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMF), it is still uncertain whether it plays a role in decision making under uncertainty or whether it is a “pure” decision structure per se. In a paper by Fellows and Farah, it is argued that “VMF plays a necessary role in certain as well as uncertain decision making in humans”

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June 12, 2007

Latest articles on executive functions and will

The scientific study of choice, aka decision making, willed action or executive functions, has provided plenty of new articles just during the past few weeks. Here we provide some of them.

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May 22, 2007

The unconscious motivator

reward_basal.jpgA study (PDF) recently reported in Science shows how unconsciously processed information about monetary rewards influences behaviour.

Furthermore, the researchers identify a basal forebrain region that specifically underpin this effect, thus operating as a functional node that drives reward-related behaviour without the need for conscious processing.

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March 7, 2007

Scientists Try to Predict Intentions

mecklinger_tool.jpgIn case you didn’t hear about it there are recent claims that brain scanners can predict people’s action before they act. Here is a report from Associated Press.

At a laboratory in Germany, volunteers slide into a donut-shaped MRI machine and perform simple tasks, such as deciding whether to add or subtract two numbers, or choosing which of two buttons to press. They have no inkling that scientists in the next room are trying to read their minds – using a brain scan to figure out their intention before it is turned into action.

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February 2, 2007

Shopping Centers in the Brain


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January 16, 2007

Perception and misperception of bias in human judgment

decision making,introspection — thomasr @ 5:56 am

Abstract of Perception and misperception of bias in human judgment, in Trends in Cognitive Science:

chess.jpgHuman judgment and decision making is distorted by an array of cognitive, perceptual and motivational biases. Recent evidence suggests that people tend to recognize (and even overestimate) the operation of bias in human judgment – except when that bias is their own. Aside from the general motive to self-enhance, two primary sources of this ‘bias blind spot’ have been identified. One involves people’s heavy weighting of introspective evidence when assessing their own bias, despite the tendency for bias to occur nonconsciously. The other involves people’s conviction that their perceptions directly reflect reality, and that those who see things differently are therefore biased. People’s tendency to deny their own bias, even while recognizing bias in others, reveals a profound shortcoming in self-awareness, with important consequences for interpersonal and intergroup conflict.

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