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Study shows conscious decisions being made unconsciously, and in advance.

 
Jefe
 
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Jefe
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25 March 2013 12:24
 

Study:
http://www.psych.unimelb.edu.au/sites/live-1-14-1.msps.moatdev.com/files/SoonHeBodeHaynes_PredictingAbstractIntentions_PNAS13.pdf


Comments from Jerry Coyne:
http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/yet-another-experiment-eroding-free-will/

In the last few years, neuroscience experiments have shown that some “conscious decisions” are actually made in the brain before the actor is conscious of them:  brain-scanning techniques can predict not only when a binary decision will be made, but what it will be (with accuracy between 55-70%)—several seconds before the actor reports being conscious of having made a decision.  The implications of this research are obvious: by the time we’re conscious of having made a “choice”, that choice has already been made for us—by our genes and our environments—and the consciousness is merely reporting something determined beforehand in the brain.  And that, in turn, suggests (as I’ve mentioned many times here) that all of our “choices” are really determined in advance, though some choices (e.g., whether to duck when a baseball is thrown at your head) can’t be made very far in advance!

Here are the paper’s conclusions:

      About four seconds before a subject was conscious of having made a “decision” to add or subtract, the decision could be predicted from fMRI imaging with about 59% accuracy, a highly significant difference from random expectation.

      This decision outcome was coded in the medial frontopolar and precuneus/posterior cingulate regions of the brain. The authors note that the functions of these brain regions aren’t fully understood, but seem to be involved in other types of decisions involving rewards.

      The timing of the decision (as opposed to the specific decision itself) could also predicted about 3 seconds in advance, but that timing resided in the pre-SMA (“supplementary motor area“) of the brain. Thus the decision to act is presumably “made” in an area of the brain different from where the specific decision is made.

      After the “decision” was made consciously, further brain monitoring showed that withing 2-4 seconds, the decisions could be “predicted” (i.e. decoded) from fMRI scans with 64.2% accuracy—this time from activity in the angular gyrus of the brain. The authors say this brain activity probably reflects the subject’s preparation and performance of the arithmetic task. (The angular gyrus is known to play a role in processing language and numbers.)

Interesting.

And further interesting to me is the meta question: If these experimental decision experiments show a lag between decisions being made and the person being consciously aware of having made a decision, does this mean that our ‘awareness/consciousness’ is perpetually behind the times (so to speak)?

To pull a pop-culture reference into this, in the Walking Dead last night, Rick asked Merle “Do you even know why you do the things you do?”
I think this is a poignant meta-question for us all.  I’m sure we can rationalize our actions and behaviours - maybe because our consciousness is a rationalization engine for our pre-conscious decisions - but do we really understand why we do some of the things we do?

 
 
eudemonia
 
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eudemonia
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25 March 2013 13:29
 

So then, free will is actually an illusion.

Or God made our brains to do the thinking for us. Before we even know what we are thinking. Or there is a cosmic consciousness beyond and separate from us all that acts of it’s own free will. Or, or, or…....

How clever.

And no, much of the time I do not think we understand why we do the things we do.

I don’t even understand why I just typed what I typed!
wink

 
 
Cioran
 
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25 March 2013 14:25
 

I have not had a chance to read the paper, but does it mention the Libet (sp?) experiments of the 1980s that showed the very same thing? Does this show something different from what he showed?

However, these sorts of studies are not quite so cut and dried as they may seem. The Libet experiments showed that the conscious mind had the ability to override or veto the pre-conscious decision—Libet called this “free won’t.” That is at least a partial form of free will. I’d also like to suggest the probably provocative idea that even if our decisions are “made” in advance of our conscious “choice,” this still does not necessarily impeach some concept of free will, particularly when “free won’t” is taken into account.

 
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25 March 2013 14:40
 
gsmonks - 25 March 2013 01:32 PM
Cioran - 25 March 2013 01:25 PM

I have not had a chance to read the paper, but does it mention the Libet (sp?) experiments of the 1980s that showed the very same thing? Does this show something different from what he showed?

However, these sorts of studies are not quite so cut and dried as they may seem. The Libet experiments showed that the conscious mind had the ability to override or veto the pre-conscious decision—Libet called this “free won’t.” That is at least a partial form of free will. I’d also like to suggest the probably provocative idea that even if our decisions are “made” in advance of our conscious “choice,” this still does not necessarily impeach some concept of free will, particularly when “free won’t” is taken into account.

This is MRI imaging and watching activity in certain areas of the brain. They can see if a person is changing their mind, and that too happens before the subject becomes aware of it.

Fascinating. I was always sceptical of free will even before I read about the Libet stuff.  Free will is like the freedom of movement of tectonic plates.

 
Cioran
 
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25 March 2013 14:41
 
gsmonks - 25 March 2013 01:32 PM
Cioran - 25 March 2013 01:25 PM

I have not had a chance to read the paper, but does it mention the Libet (sp?) experiments of the 1980s that showed the very same thing? Does this show something different from what he showed?

However, these sorts of studies are not quite so cut and dried as they may seem. The Libet experiments showed that the conscious mind had the ability to override or veto the pre-conscious decision—Libet called this “free won’t.” That is at least a partial form of free will. I’d also like to suggest the probably provocative idea that even if our decisions are “made” in advance of our conscious “choice,” this still does not necessarily impeach some concept of free will, particularly when “free won’t” is taken into account.

This is MRI imaging and watching activity in certain areas of the brain. They can see if a person is changing their mind, and that too happens before the subject becomes aware of it.

Well,  not according to the Libet study, as I recall. His study showed the subject had the ability to override or veto the decision made by the subconscious while conscious. If that is correct, it actually is a demonstration of the causal efficacy of the conscious mind.

It also does not follow that if we make some our decisions before our conscious mind is aware of them, that this rules out free will. It only does so if one insists that free choices must be made consciously. But what if the brain has, so to say, a mind of its own? The point is that to rule out free will comprehensively (especially in light of LIbet’s conscious “free won’t”) one would have to show that the brain and/or mind could not have done other that what it did. And I do not see how this can ever be shown.

 
burt
 
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25 March 2013 14:54
 

Last July I was at a summer school on consciousness at the University of Montreal.  Here are brief summary notes I made of a couple of the speakers relating to Libet like results.  I highlighted what seems to be a significant point.

Catherine Tallon-Baudry:
While there is a general idea that consciousness serves an executive function, this is challenged by experimental evidence.  “The current brain-as-a-computer metaphor, with neural mechanisms designed to support goal-oriented behavior, may: be an insufficient framework to understand the biological mechanisms underlying consciousness.”  There are two general approaches to theories of consciousness: (1) consciousness is a function (e.g., Dennett, Baars, Dehaene); (2) consciousness is a feeling (e.g., Searle, Harnad).  In neural imaging experiments awareness of a stimulus appears 50 – 100 microseconds prior to an attentional response.  This relates to the famous Libet experiments.  It seems that attention is not necessary for consciousness (treating consciousness as awareness).  Attention acts to amplify sensations while consciousness (awareness) appears to be independent of spatial attention.  Empirical results fit a cumulative interaction hypothesis better than they do the gateway (attention is the gateway for entry into awareness) hypothesis.  Gamma oscillations occurring before stimulus onset are usually thought of as showing initial attention but the pre-stimulus influence on consciousness is not necessarily attentional. 

Attention: functions to set priorities, both bottom up and top down, it influences performance even in unconscious processing.  Consciousness: is not a high level cognitive function, it’s more like a feeling or awareness.

Patrick Haggard:
Refers to Libet’s experiments – the brain seems to prepare for action before the conscious intend to act has formed.  This has been thought of in two ways: either brain activity causes bodily activity and the neural processes involved in this causation are experienced as the conscious intent; or, brain activity causes bodily movement which produces sensory feedback that is postdicted as a conscious intention.  Both these views have problems.  “I will discuss a number of studies of [the process of transition from intent to action].  First I will consider whether the experience of being about to act is a direct readout of ongoing neural preparation, or a retrospective narrative to explain our actions post hoc.  I will then ask the same questions about sense of agency – i.e., the feeling that our actions cause events in the outside world.  Both prospective and retrospective components are shown to exist.”

The retrospective aspect is easy to understand as the brain introducing coherence into a narrative of our actions.  The prospective side is a bit harder to deal with.  Haggard suggests that experience of intention is connected to the selection between alternative actions.  He has conducted “double” Libet experiments and finds that the sense of conscious intention appears at the point of choice between alternatives.  This seems to suggest that we tend to act “on automatic” until a choice point arises and this is where conscious intention enters.  He calls “the feeling of knowing what to do” intentional fluency.  In other experiments, results suggest that subliminal priming facilitates action selection and boosts the experience of agency.  “Conscious volition and agency are both driven by action selection processes, the action experience may be a phenomenal marker as part of learning to choose next time.”

 
Jefe
 
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25 March 2013 15:16
 
burt - 25 March 2013 01:54 PM

The retrospective aspect is easy to understand as the brain introducing coherence into a narrative of our actions.  The prospective side is a bit harder to deal with.  Haggard suggests that experience of intention is connected to the selection between alternative actions.  He has conducted “double” Libet experiments and finds that the sense of conscious intention appears at the point of choice between alternatives.  This seems to suggest that we tend to act “on automatic” until a choice point arises and this is where conscious intention enters.  He calls “the feeling of knowing what to do” intentional fluency.  In other experiments, results suggest that subliminal priming facilitates action selection and boosts the experience of agency.  “Conscious volition and agency are both driven by action selection processes, the action experience may be a phenomenal marker as part of learning to choose next time.”

Fascinating.

I wonder if we can, through education and training, modify the preparatory processes in such a way that the decision points get moved farther and farther away from certain activities.

Much like a circus performing practicing juggling multiple objects until it becomes old-hat to keep 5 or 10 flaming batons aloft in two overlapping rings.

Further, I wonder if through practice and training we can change the intentionality of behaviours - creating a more desired automatic pattern of action.

Like parents teaching young children to share, or treat others kindly.  Such that the decisions on how to treat others becomes part of the pre-conscious action selection, rather waiting for the consciousness to grab the decision point and do something with it.

(...arguably there are going to be some conflicting preparation modes involved here, modifying the ‘how to treat others’ action selection will probably have to compete with other cognitive artifacts like group-selection, familiarity/stranger identification, and threat detection mechanisms.)

 
 
Nhoj Morley
 
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25 March 2013 15:18
 

This is not quite the same as the Libet experiments. However, both point to the temporally stratified nature of our thought processes. Libet’s tests were more directly suggestive of separate discrete coalescences of perception and that while each with has a decision process of its own, there is a further decisive process between percetive sub-systems.

Intentionality emerges from a committee. Two or three minutes? Choices can be unconsciously mulled over for months or years. Progress points at the trioon scheme. It is the only framework where results like this make any sense. But then, I may only be typing sanely now about things that I was completely bat-crazy about just three short seconds ago.

 
 
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25 March 2013 15:19
 
Nhoj Morley - 25 March 2013 02:18 PM

This is not quite the same as the Libet experiments. However, both point to the temporally stratified nature of our thought processes. Libet’s tests were more directly suggestive of separate discrete coalescences of perception and that while each with has a decision process of its own, there is a further decisive process between percetive sub-systems.

Intentionality emerges from a committee. Two or three minutes? Choices can be unconsciously mulled over for months or years. Progress points at the trioon scheme. It is the only framework where results like this make any sense. But then, I may only be typing sanely now about things that I was completely bat-crazy about just three short seconds ago.

Or three short seconds from now?  wink

 
 
EN
 
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25 March 2013 15:56
 
Jefe - 25 March 2013 11:24 AM

To pull a pop-culture reference into this, in the Walking Dead last night, Rick asked Merle i]“Do you even know why you do the things you do?”

Not now, since Merle is now a dead zombie.  I’ll miss the weirdo.

Jefe - 25 March 2013 11:24 AM

I think this is a poignant meta-question for us all.  I’m sure we can rationalize our actions and behaviours - maybe because our consciousness is a rationalization engine for our pre-conscious decisions - but do we really understand why we do some of the things we do?

Think about the types of decisions that we don’t make in the moment, but meditate about long and hard. Even if our consciousness of discrete elements in that process is after-the-fact, still that consciousness becomes part of the input for the ultimate decision.  For example, if I think about changing jobs, that decision is not made overnight. I consider a number of different factors, and as I consciously consider those factors those thoughts, in turn, stimulate more workings in the brain. So the ultimate decision, even if finally subconsciously made before I become conscious of it, is produced, in part, by my own conscious musings.  Consciousness of the parts of the process serves to emphasize certain aspects of the subconscious decision-making. My mini-narratives are recirculated in the nyeep pool and later reconsidered.

 
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25 March 2013 15:57
 

59% accuracy sounds more like predicting inclinations than actual choices ... as “highly significant” as this disparity from random expectation may be (I also find it potentially significant it’s noted as such in the paper).

 
 
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25 March 2013 16:41
 
Jefe - 25 March 2013 02:16 PM

Further, I wonder if through practice and training we can change the intentionality of behaviours - creating a more desired automatic pattern of action.

Suppose you are a clumsy and chronic shoplifter.  You are tired of being caught, humiliated, put in jail, and shaming your family.  Your psychiatrist, a flaming New Age liberal, tells you that there is no cure.

Then you read a Buddhist mondo, something to the effect that obsessions (or the like) can’t be changed; we always are what we are.  “They are only not done.”

That last line sticks in your craw.  You are in a convenience store, the clerk is preoccupied with another customer.  The impulse, the obsession to shoplift arises at full throttle.  No turning back.  “It is only not done.”

 
 
Cioran
 
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25 March 2013 18:26
 
gsmonks - 25 March 2013 03:04 PM

Consciousness itself is probably an illusion. It certainly is in terms of location. Various tests have demonstrated that you can trick the brain into thinking its consciousness has been relocated, using cameras, mirrors, auditory tricks, tricks of perspective. That it seems real is no defense, considering the disconnect between perception and reality, which has been studied for decades and can now be taken a step further.

I don’t understand what it means to say that consciousness is an illusion. If it is, then what is NOT an illusion? It certainly seems real enough to me. In fact, it’s ALL that seems real. I know nothing but my own consciousness.

Materialism is the thesis that consciousness supervenes on matter (the brain). What if matter supervenes on consciousness? This is the old tradition of philosophical idealism, long ignored but never, ever discredited.

 
eudemonia
 
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25 March 2013 19:08
 

Consciousness isn’t an illusion, free will is, or the everyday description of free will is.

 
 
burt
 
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25 March 2013 23:26
 
Jefe - 25 March 2013 02:16 PM
burt - 25 March 2013 01:54 PM

The retrospective aspect is easy to understand as the brain introducing coherence into a narrative of our actions.  The prospective side is a bit harder to deal with.  Haggard suggests that experience of intention is connected to the selection between alternative actions.  He has conducted “double” Libet experiments and finds that the sense of conscious intention appears at the point of choice between alternatives.  This seems to suggest that we tend to act “on automatic” until a choice point arises and this is where conscious intention enters.  He calls “the feeling of knowing what to do” intentional fluency.  In other experiments, results suggest that subliminal priming facilitates action selection and boosts the experience of agency.  “Conscious volition and agency are both driven by action selection processes, the action experience may be a phenomenal marker as part of learning to choose next time.”

Fascinating.

I wonder if we can, through education and training, modify the preparatory processes in such a way that the decision points get moved farther and farther away from certain activities.

Much like a circus performing practicing juggling multiple objects until it becomes old-hat to keep 5 or 10 flaming batons aloft in two overlapping rings.

Further, I wonder if through practice and training we can change the intentionality of behaviours - creating a more desired automatic pattern of action.

Like parents teaching young children to share, or treat others kindly.  Such that the decisions on how to treat others becomes part of the pre-conscious action selection, rather waiting for the consciousness to grab the decision point and do something with it.

(...arguably there are going to be some conflicting preparation modes involved here, modifying the ‘how to treat others’ action selection will probably have to compete with other cognitive artifacts like group-selection, familiarity/stranger identification, and threat detection mechanisms.)

What I compare to is things like tai chi or African drumming.  There are “rhythm patterns” that have to be played out, with only specific points where the pattern can be changed.  Miss a change point and you’ve got to go around until it comes up again.  So in learning the practice there is learning the various rhythm patterns, and also learning how to make the changes.  When the automated pattern is going on, it’s important to maintain a sort of non-focused attention so as to be able to recognize the change points.

 
EN
 
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26 March 2013 09:20
 

Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that our individual concept of reality is an illusion, rather than saying consciousness itself is an illusion?  Consciousness does exist - it comes from our brain (in the sense of self-consciousness). What does not actually exist is the brain’s construct of external reality. That, like the self, is an illusion.

 
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