Can You or Can't You?


I'm Not Guilty - but My Brain Is

Life is like a game of cards.  The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.

- Jawaharlal Nehru

by Laura Spinney

Last month, the case against Patrizia Reggiani was reopened in Italy.  She is serving a 26-year jail sentence for having ordered the killing of her husband, the fashion supremo Maurizio Gucci.  At the first trial in 1998, expert witnesses dismissed her lawyers' claims that surgery for a brain tumour had changed her personality.  The new trial has been granted because her lawyers believe that brain imaging techniques developed since then will reveal damage that was previously undetectable, and strengthen their case for an acquittal.

The idea that someone should not be punished if their abnormal neural make-up leaves them no choice but to break the law is contentious but not new.  However, one prominent neuroscientist has sparked a storm by picking it up and turning it round.  Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of Germany's leading newspapers, Wolf Singer argued that crime itself should be taken as evidence of brain abnormality, even if no abnormality can be found, and criminals treated as incapable of having acted otherwise.

His claims have brought howls of outrage from academics across the sciences and humanities.  But Singer counters that the idea is nothing but a natural extension of the thesis that free will is an illusion - a theory that he feels is supported by decades of work in neuroscience.

The head of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Singer is best known for his work on the so-called binding problem of perception.  This is the conundrum of how we perceive an object as an integrated whole, when we know that the brain processes the various elements of it - colours, angles, and so on - separately.  His group was among the first to suggest, and then demonstrate, that the answer lay in the synchronisation encoding the separate features.  He has since extrapolated those ideas to the process by which we make decisions, which has led him to question whether we are really the free-acting agents we imagine ourselves to be.

His argument goes like this.  Neurobiology tells us that there is no centre in the brain where actions are planned and decisions made.  Decisions emerge from a collection of dynamic systems that run in parallel and are underpinned by nerve cells that talk to each other - the brain.  If you look back in evolution to say, the sea slug Aplysia, you see that the building blocks of this brain have not changed.  The amino acids, the nerve cells, the signalling pathways and largely the genes, are the same.  "It's the same material [in humans], just more complex," says Singer.  "So the same rules must govern what humans do.  Unavoidable conclusion."

He argues that the human brain has to be complex to compute all the myriad variables that influence each decision we make - genetic factors, socially learned factors, momentary triggers including commands and wishes, to name a few.  And because it considers most of those variables at a subconscious level, we are not aware of all the factors that make us behave in a certain way, just as we are not aware of all the elements of an object that are processed separately by our visual brains.  As humans, however, we are able to extract some of those factors and make them the focus of attention; that is, render them conscious.  And with our behaviour, as with the world we see, we yearn to build a coherent picture.  So we might justify our decisions in ways that have nothing to do with our real, subconscious motivations.

The most striking example of this is hypnotism.  Singer himself learned how to hypnotise while a student at Cambridge University.  At a party, he instructed a Royal Air Force pilot to remove the bulb from a light fitting and place it in a flowerpot, on hearing the word Germany.  The pilot did so in mid-conversation, much to the amusement of the onlookers.  They were amateurs, they didn't debrief him properly.  And when they told him what he had done, because he had no recollection of doing it, he was extremely disturbed.

According to Singer, what the pilot did is explained by the structure of his brain and its inherent weakness, if you see it as a weakness to be susceptible to hypnotism.  The same goes for a murderer or a thief, he says.  We live in a society where people whose behaviour is considered to deviate from the norm - as determined arbitrarily by that society - answer to the justice system.  But the way they are treated by that system is, he believes, inconsistent.

If some abnormality is found in a person's brain, the doctor's report is submitted as mitigating evidence and the defendant may be treated more leniently.  If nothing is discovered, they are not.  Take the case of the British man who terrorised 200 officials because he thought they intended to have him sectioned under the Mental Health Act.  Psychiatrists found no sign of a mitigating mental illness, and he was jailed for life.  But, says Singer, if a person does something antisocial, the reason for it is in the brain.  The underlying cause may be a twist in a gene, or a tiny hormonal imbalance that cannot be detected with current technology.  "It could have multiple reasons," he says.  "But these reasons must all manifest themselves in brain architecture."

In practice, he says, the change in thinking he advocates wouldn't change the way we treat criminals all that much.  People considered a danger to society should be kept away from society, re-educated as far as possible and in cases where this is not possible, simply kept away, as they already are.  But he would like to see the courts place less burden on psychiatrists, who are not capable of identifying all the subtle structural changes that lead individuals to behave as they do.  "As long as we can't identify all the causes, which we cannot and will probably never be able to do, we should grant that for everybody there is a neurobiological reason for being abnormal," he says.

He does not argue that a criminal should not be held responsible for their crime.  After all, if a person is not responsible for their own brain, who is?  Neither does he argue that we should do away with concepts of good and evil.  "We judge our fellow men as either conforming to our rules or breaking them," he says.  "We need to continue to assign values to our behaviour, because there is no other way to organise society."  However, he does argue that when people commit crimes, they are not acting independently of the nerve cells and amino acids that make up their brains, and that behave according to certain deterministic principles.

One important implication of his argument is that treatment meted out to offenders should be less about revenge and punishment, and more about assessing their risk of re-offending, given the brain they have.  Of course, this already happens.  If a woman has been driven to a crime of passion after severe provocation, having otherwise lived an exemplary life, she is considered less of a danger to society than a man who has frequently abducted teenage girls, raped and murdered them.  Another corollary of Singer's ideas that he recognises will be harder for people to swallow, is that the consequences of a crime should be considered less important than they are, since an individual can only control his own actions and not those of others.  For example, a driver seen running a red light should be treated the same way whether or not he hit the child who, unseen from the wheel, stepped into the road at the same moment.

"Breathtaking," is how Ted Honderich, a philosopher at University College London, scathingly describes Singer's foray into traditional philosophical territory.  Honderich says philosophers have discussed different definitions of freedom for centuries, one of which is perfectly compatible with the sort of determinism Singer describes.  That is, if free action is defined as action caused by your character - whatever hereditary and environmental influences contributed to that character - then you are free even if your brain does resemble that of a slug.

And although the discussion might appear to have degenerated into a slanging match between scientists and philosophers, neuroscientists have also criticised Singer.  "We don't know enough to make such conclusions," says Cornelius Weiller, an expert in brain imaging at Hamburg University.  Singer is right, he says, that there is no homunculus in the brain, making our decisions for us.  But the question remains, how do all those parallel computations become integrated, and how does the self feel that "I" made the decision?  Science has yet to answer the binding problem of decision-making.

In response to the accusation that he is rehashing old ideas, Singer points out that the German newspaper debate got under way without him, and he was merely responding.  So the more interesting question, perhaps, is why the public is interested again now.  One reason, he thinks, is that people look at their societies, see that the totalitarian ones failed, and realise that the most complex are self-organising and impossible to steer or control.  "You free yourself from authorities, including the gods, but you find yourself part of an evolving system," he says.  "Now you realise that you don't really have influence on the dynamics of the systems in which you are.  I think this gives a feeling of helplessness."

Further reading

bullet"Keiner kann anders, als er ist" by Wolf Singer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, January 8 2004 (in German only; his original essay)
bulletHow Free Are You?  The Determinism Problem, by Ted Honderich (Oxford University Press, 2002) ISBN 0199251975
bulletThe Volitional Brain: Towards a Neuroscience of Free Will, by Benjamin Libet (ed) et al (Imprint Academic, 2000) ISBN 0907845509

Source: The Guardian Unlimited: Life Thursday 12 August 2004

On Free Will

Not impressed.  I've long felt that the question of whether we have free will or not is impossible to prove, but that we probably do not.  However, I've long felt that as a practical matter, an assumption that we have zero free will leads to a complete breakdown of society.  Not having free will means you aren't responsible for your actions, and makes a murderer little different than the tool he used to commit the crime.  That's a profoundly dehumanising sort of idea, and leads, I think, to two main problems.

First, there's no point in "punishment".  Someone who has committed a crime is no different than someone who will commit a crime in the future - both have, we assume, the same brain structure (or the same fate, or whatever you think drives people).  What sort of justice system would that logically lead us to?  What sort of society?  (Something like that depicted in Minority Report.)

That leads me to the second point. Such an emphasis on crimes being, ipso facto, proof of a sickness which needs to be cured has been tried before.  In Soviet Russia, dissent was seen as something not to be listened to, or ignored, but to be cured.  It led to some...pretty nasty things.

Dershowitz has written some interesting stuff about balancing preventive imprisonment (which we already have, of course - plenty of people are in jail awaiting a trial, for example) and the crime reduction it would give versus the civil rights violations it implies.  He is against the idea of an expansion, and I agree with him.  The largest problem (seen also in the USSR) is how one goes about proving that one will not commit a crime.  It's hard enough to prove that you have not - but there's no way to really prove that you will not.

To Singer's credit, he doesn't really advocate this.  And yet, once you accept the concept that people are mindless, clockwork, automatons, wound up by their genes, their environment, their neurobiology (or whatever else tickles your fancy), and destined to do...well, whatever it is they're destined to can you not then accept that it doesn't really matter whether they've actually done it yet or not?  There's a character in some of Pratchett's novels who sometimes comments that everyone is guilty of something - sooner or later.  He uses this, on occasion, to justify lax police investigation procedures, since after all, whomever the police arrest for a given crime will be guilty of something eventually, even if at the moment they're innocent.  Sound like a good idea?

Singer's point isn't explicitly that we should try and predict crimes, but that's an inherent part of what he is suggesting.  When he says that we should treat the commission of a crime as evidence of someone's deviant mind structure, he is implicitly arguing that once we have determined (or think we have, anyhow) that someone has bad wiring that we should then act on this.  That's heading really quickly down a very nasty slippery slope, I think.

As an engineer (more or less), by training, not to mention my temperament, I'm more inclined to judge by results first, actions second, and intents a distant third.  My reasoning could be summed up, at its most basic, by the argument that this is how the universe does things.  A bridge either falls down, or it does not.  If it falls down, someone has screwed up.  The bridge should be standing, now it is not - this is a result, and it's pretty clear.  Next comes actions.  Why did the bridge fall down?  Maybe the engineer forgot to take some force into consideration.  Maybe a construction worker used the wrong proportions when mixing some concrete.  Maybe an inspector didn't notice some substandard materials.  Maybe some combination of factors - but these are a lot harder to understand.  We can all agree that the bridge has fallen down (things like that tend to be noticeable).

We can't, however, always agree on what actions led to it.  Sometimes it's clear - maybe we can double check the load calculations, and see the engineer dropped a decimal place.  Sometimes it's not clear at all - some bit of concrete crumbled when it shouldn't have, the remains look right, and we never work out exactly why the bridge fell down.  That's why we shouldn't weigh actions as heavily as results - they're a lot less clear.  Even when we can nail down an improper action, trying to work out if it actually led to the bridge collapsing can be hard - yet if it didn't lead to a bad result, how important was it?  How can we weigh actions without looking at the results?

Lastly, the worst way of judging things is intent, because it's usually impossible to determine, and even when it isn't, it has almost no bearing on results.  Plenty of bridges have collapsed, yet you'd be very hard pressed to find anyone who intended that!  Even if, say, the engineer purposefully fudged the numbers in an attempt to make the bridge collapse, in the final analysis, either it fell down, or it didn't.  If it did, then it's all rather simple.  The bridge fell down; the engineer messed up the numbers; he is at fault.  Where does intent come into it?  Worse, how would we ever determine his intent?  And if the bridge does not, in fact, fall down, it becomes trickier.  Did he fail to make it fail, or did he not actually intend to cause it to collapse after all?  Has a crime actually been committed?  Singer might argue yes, but I'm not so sure.  The bridge didn't fall down, ergo no successful actions were taken to make it fall down.  Isn't that the important thing?

More importantly, how can we determine the intent of the engineer?  I don't think we can - but lets assume we could.  I don't think I'd like living in a society that did!  And if we in fact cannot, looking back at history, I don't think I'd much like to live in a society that just pretended to measure intentions.

In summary - I think we probably will never know if free will exists.  I think free will almost certainly does not exist.  However, I think that assuming it does exist is the only way to build a functioning society.  If we assume it does not exist, there are several ways things can fail - medicalising the justice system is one of the more obvious ways.  I don't really see a way for that to work.

(Note, by the way, that at no point did I use the word fair.  I don't really think the universe is fair - or, rather, that it is infinitely fair.  Pi is, as far as we know, the same throughout the universe.  The gravitational constant is doing an excellent job at being constant.  The weak nuclear force doesn't seem inclined to fail any time soon.  This is, I think, about all one can expect of the universe - that the laws of physics are applied universally, and without favour - but I will note that it fulfils these expectations very well.  That is, in my view, a very fair sort of arrangement, but it doesn't have a great deal of relevance to what most people consider "fairness".)

Cody Hatch
<> /

A society that puts equality...ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom.

- Milton Friedman

Another Example of No Free Will?

If You Can't Say No, Your Body May Be Forced To

by Dr Gabor Maté


Anger is a necessary boundary protection.  If something or somebody transgresses your boundaries, you express anger, not necessarily to hurt them, but simply to keep them out of your space.  That's a healthy response.  More generally, the role of emotion is to keep out that which is dangerous or threatening, and to permit that which is nurturing and helpful.  That's exactly the role of the immune system - to keep out that which is noxious and unhealthy, attacking if necessary, and to allow in that which is nurturing and supportive.  When you suppress something in one area you risk suppressing it in another.  When you suppress your boundaries emotionally, you can also suppress your immune responses.  Just as anger can turn against the self, so can the immune system.


Source: from "January Interview: Gabor Maté" by Margaret Gunnning, a review of Dr Maté's latest book, When the Body Says No, about the relationship between chronic disease and stress

Neurology: A Mirror to the World

Empathy with others seems to be due to a type of brain cell called a mirror neuron

Christian Keysers has a good way of making his point.  He shows his audience a clip from a James Bond movie in which a large, hairy spider is climbing over our hero's naked body.  He then asks the audience what they think the actor playing Bond is feeling.

It is impossible to tell, of course, whether Sean Connery was really revolted and fearful when the scene was being shot, or whether he was actually indifferent, but just acting well.  The point is that the observer can feel - literally feel - Bond's fear.  This ability not merely to know in an intellectual sense what someone else is feeling, but actually to feel it with them, is an important social attribute.  Dramatists, novelists and psychologists have known about it for centuries, of course.  And those who lack it, such as people who are autistic, are at a social disadvantage.  But it is only in the past few years that its neurological basis has begun to be understood.  It seems to rely on a type of nerve cell known as a mirror neuron.  Dr Keysers, who works at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, is one of a band of neurologists that is studying them.

A mirror neuron is one that is active when the individual whose brain it is in is engaged in some action or experiencing some sensation or emotion, and also when that particular action, sensation or emotion is being observed in someone else.  Action-sensitive mirror neurons were the first to be found, and they were discovered in rhesus monkeys, one of the mainstays of animal laboratory research.

When a monkey reaches out for something - a piece of food, for example - a particular group of nerve cells in its brain fires off lots of electrical signals.  The activity of individual neurons within such a group of action-sensitive cells can be traced with electrodes that have tips so fine that they can be placed against a single cell.  Most such cells fire only in response to the action.  But about 20% of them also fire in exactly the same way if the monkey sees another monkey (or, indeed, a human) reaching out for food.  This empathic firing "mirrors" the way the cells behave when they are involved in an action.

Sticking electrodes into human brains in this way is not on, of course.  But modern brain-scanning techniques can be used to look for mirror activity in particular parts of the brain, even if they cannot pick out individual nerve cells.  So Dr Keysers uses brain scanners to study the role of mirror neurons in human emotional and sensational empathy, such as the audience feels with Connery/Bond.

Measuring fear by letting a venomous spider crawl over the body of an experimental subject is no more likely to get past an ethics committee than is sticking electrodes in his brain, so Dr Keysers chose to study another emotion, disgust, instead.  He put his volunteers in a brain scanner and wafted disgusting odours such as rancid butter and rotten eggs into their nostrils (he wafted some non-disgusting ones in, too, as a control).  The disgusting odours, he found, activated part of the brain called the anterior insula.  He then played film clips of people's faces registering disgust to his volunteers, and found activity in exactly the same part of the brain.

The sense of touch, too, is mirrored in this way.  Though no spiders were involved, Dr Keysers found that part of the brain that was activated by touching the leg of a person in a brain scanner also reacted if the subject was shown film of another person being touched on the leg.  All this suggests that understanding the experiences and emotions of others involves the same neural circuitry that we require to have those experiences and emotions ourselves - in other words, that it is mediated by mirror neurons.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Such observations lead to bigger questions, and one of the most pertinent concerns "theory of mind", a grandiloquent term used to describe the extent to which one individual can understand and anticipate the intentions of another.

Two recent papers address this question.  Marco Iacoboni, of the University of California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues employed a similar methodology to Dr Keysers's to study the human brain.  Meanwhile Leonardo Fogassi and his colleagues at the University of Parma, in Italy, used monkeys and electrodes to watch the process in individual nerve cells (indeed, it was this group, led by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Vittorio Gallese, which was responsible for discovering mirror neurons this way in the first place).

Both papers showed that the mirror-neuron activity is context-dependent in a way that suggests the experimental subjects not only recognise particular movements, but also understand the intention behind them.  Watching someone grasping food or drink is a well-known stimulus of mirror-neuron activity.  Dr Iacoboni's study, published in Public Library of Science Biology, showed, though, that there is far more such activity in someone's brain when they see a teacup being grasped in the context of a scene that includes biscuits, milk and a teapot (which suggests the grasping hand belongs to someone who is about to drink and eat), than when the scene contains empty plates and vessels (which suggests the hand belongs to someone who is clearing up).

Dr Fogassi's paper in Science has similar results for monkeys (though the context is grasping a pellet that sometimes is and sometimes is not made of food, rather than a tea party).  This suggests that monkeys' mirror neurons, too, are capable of distinguishing intentions.

The idea that a lack of mirror-neuron activity is at least part of the cause of autism, has also received support recently.  Eschewing brain scanners and implanted electrodes, Vilayanur Ramachandran and his colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, studied brainwaves believed to be associated with mirror neurons by pasting surface electrodes on their volunteers' scalps and faces, and monitoring them while those volunteers performed different tasks.  Ten of the volunteers were men and boys of normal intelligence, but who suffer from autism (not all those with the condition have other, more damaging, symptoms such as low intelligence as well).  The other ten were individuals of similarly normal intelligence who had no autistic symptoms.  The researchers were interested in the so-called mu-wave (an electrical oscillation in the brain that has a frequency of between eight and 13 cycles a second).  In healthy people mu-waves are suppressed not only when actions are executed, but also when they are observed or even simply imagined.  It is this suppression that has led researchers in the field to believe mu-waves might be connected with mirror-cell activity.  Dr Ramachandran and his colleagues therefore wanted to see what happened to mu-waves in people with autism.

Once they had wired their subjects up, they asked them to perform four tasks.  One was for the subject to watch one of his own hands as he opened and closed it in a sort of slow-motion shadow-puppet routine, about once a second.  The other three tasks involved watching video clips.  These clips were of someone else making the same hand motion, of balls bouncing into each other and apart, and of visual "static" (the sort of thing seen on a badly tuned television).

As the team report in their paper in Cognitive Brain Research, the non-autistic individuals all responded in the expected way: both moving their own hand and watching someone else's hand move caused mu suppression in their brains, while the other two video clips had no effect.  But in people with autism, only their own hand movements caused the mu-waves to be suppressed.  Watching other people's hands move had no more effect than watching the balls and the static.  That suggests there is something awry with their mirroring system.

This finding followed on the heels of another study investigating mirror-neuron activity in autists, published in Current Biology by Hugo Theoret and his colleagues at Harvard University.  Dr Theoret wanted to see whether watching video clips of people moving their fingers changed the excitability of neurons in the part of the brain where action-sensitive mirror neurons are found.  This experiment also studied ten autists of normal intelligence and ten controls.  Once again, the mirror neurons in the autistic volunteers failed to respond to the hand actions of others in the way that those of the controls did.

All of these experiments are focused on relatively simple stimuli that researchers can reproduce and measure easily.  Whether mirror neurons are involved in more complex calculations of motive and, most significantly, in those calculations made when someone is trying to manipulate the behaviour of someone else - remains to be seen.  But it seems a plausible hypothesis, and the tools to test it more thoroughly are now in place.  Understanding what someone else thinks is the necessary first step to deceiving or even controlling them.  The actions of mirror cells may have wide ramifications.

Source: The Economist 14 May 2005 pages 81 - 82

See also:

bulletMorality and the Brain (the previous page in this section) - particularly the article midway down the page entitled "Perspective on Imitation: Empathy and Criminal Responsibility" which discusses the important difference between autists and pschopaths.
bulletWhat Is Autism? (further on in this section) - Scientists focused on structures within the brain known as cell minicolumns which play an important role in the way the brain takes in information and responds to it.  The cell minicolumns of autistic patients were found to be significantly smaller, but there were many more of them.  ...the increased amount of cell minicolumns in autistic people could mean that they are constantly in a state of overarousal.  Their poor communication skills could be an attempt to diminish this arousal...
bulletLiberalism and Neurology: Free to Choose? (in the Intellectual and Entertaining section) - Free will is one of the trickiest concepts in philosophy, but also one of the most important.  Without it, the idea of responsibility for one's actions flies out of the window, along with much of the glue that holds a free society (and even an unfree one) together.  If businessmen are no longer responsible for their contracts, criminals no longer responsible for their crimes and parents no longer responsible for their children, then social relations will be very different...

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