The Neuroscience of Everyday Life

By Neuroskeptic | November 21, 2013 6:18 pm

I am sitting reading a book. After a while, I get up and make a cup of coffee.


I’ve been thinking about this scenario lately as I’ve pondered ‘what remains to be discovered’ in our understanding the brain.

By this I mean, what (if anything) prevents neuroscience from at least sketching out an explanation for all of human behaviour?

A complete explanation of any given behaviour – such as my reading a particular book – would be impossible, as it would require detailed knowledge of all my brain activity.

But neuroscience could sketch an account of some stages of the reading. We have models for how my motor cortex and cerebellum might coordinate my fingers to turn the pages of my book. Other models try to make sense of the recognition of the letters by my visual cortex.

This is what I mean by ‘beginning to account for’. We have theories that are not wholly speculative. While we don’t yet have the whole story of motor control or visual perception, we have made a start.

Yet I’m not sure that we can even begin to explain: why did I stop what I was doing, get up, and make coffee at that particular time?

The puzzle, it seems, does not lie in my actual choice to make some coffee (as opposed to not making it.) We could sketch an explanation for how, once the mental image (memory) of coffee ‘crossed my mind’, that image set off  dopamine firing (i.e. I like coffee), and this dopamine, acting on corticostriatal circuits, selected the action of making coffee over the less promising alternatives.

But why did that mental image of coffee cross my mind in the first place? And why did it do so just then, not thirty seconds before or afterwards?

There’s a gulf, a blank space just at the moment of ‘spontaneity’ where, not in response to any stimulus but ‘just because’, the idea of coffee entered the equation.

I am not suggesting, by the way, that this cannot be explained by neuroscience because it’s “free will” or otherwise inexplicable. I believe there must be a neurobiological explanation, but I don’t know of any good candidates yet.

Do I have some idea-generator, some inner schemer, constantly throwing up suggestions to see if they set off some dopamine? As far as I know, no-one has tried to locate such a generator in the brain, or to explain how it works. Is it a distinct module, or just a product of random noise or deterministic chaos in the relevant pathways?

Alternatively, maybe the idea of coffee wasn’t really autochthonous. It might have been triggered by some stimulus. Perhaps, in my memory, coffee is associated with books; as I read, page by page, the reminders accumulated, until I was reminded of (thought of) coffee?

On this view, we can begin to account for every step but at the cost of making me a slave to my environment. This seems unlikely, not least because in dreams, the most fantastic ideas cross my mind even though my sensory stimuli are minimal.

If I can dream of new ideas, surely I can have them when awake too – but then that puzzling generator reappears. Tricky.

  • Kingson Man

    I agree, this is a profound question that neuroscience doesn’t really touch (the closest I’ve come across is autopoiesis and “circular causality”). As far as I can tell, there is no dedicated random number generator in the brain. So the genesis of spontaneous thoughts seems unlikely to be totally autochthonous.

    I used to play a game with my friends: two people take turns saying an *utterly* random word, going back and forth in rapid fire, and the first person who says something that can be semantically traced back to an earlier word loses. Hard game. Play it and you’ll see there is necessarily a thread of associations to your thoughts, even when you’re trying to be maximally random.

    • MyKitchenandI

      I guess I’d need to carry a list of random dictionary words in my purse if you were my friend lol. 😛

      The only thing is, a truly random list would eventually have a word that coincides coincidentally, because so many of our words are related eh?

      You could edit those out of your list I suppose, but then it’s once again not random.

  • John

    Probably the most prominent theory of dreams is when you shutdown sensory processing random neural firing gets organized. You don’t need a random number generator. There’s random noise in the brain all of the time.

    Now you’re reading, concentrating on the words on the page and drawing resources from other systems. They become somewhat disorganized and generate some noise and the system attempts to organize it.

    The organization will be biased toward recent events, prior associations, etc.

    I’m not sure this part is all that complicated but I may be mistaken.

  • petrossa

    Again Gazzaniga has that adequately covered in his book The Ethical brain. The man is a visionary, reason why most of his colleagues ignore his work i guess. He’s done the job already.

  • MyKitchenandI

    I don’t know any technical jargon, but it seems to me that when you get hungry you start to think of food. So it’s like when the body has a need, the mind offers ideas for solving the problem. One of the ideas offered will eventually become the dominant impulse. The “problem” then subsides, so that pathway is positively reinforced. It then enters the realm of habit.

    With coffee, perhaps you were feeling sluggish and lacked alertness. The brain offered the idea of coffee to perk things up, or perhaps for you coffee elevates mood and adds even more to an enjoyable experience of reading a book. The idea is offered to heighten the moment and once the impulse becomes dominant, aka seems to offer more than staying put offers, voila, coffee is made. And thus a coffee habit is formed.

  • Adam J Calhoun

    This may be a bit tangential, but Florian Engert has some unpublished work where he does his whole-fish imaging thing during a learning paradigm. I believe he sees neural activity kind of “wander around” until it fixes itself into a stable attractor point when it has ‘learned’.

    I would not be surprised if ‘action suggestion’ happened in a similar way.

  • Bill Klemm

    On dreaming:

    We dream because we are in an activated state where conscious generation of ideas and schemes can occur. The larger question is why do we have this activated stage of sleep. See my explanation in my book coming out in April, Mental Biology: The New Science of How Brain and Mind Relate (Prometheus). In the meanwhile, I have a peer-reviewed publication that explains it (Klemm, W. R. 2011. Why does REM sleep occur? A Wake-up Hypothesis. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 5 (73): 1- 12. Doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2011.00073)

  • Chaorder Gradient

    Chaos and strange attractors. You were going to make that cup of coffee sometime.

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  • Jonathan Gress

    I think what you’re saying is that we can model the various factors and constraints that may influence a given choice, but in any situation where an individual is faced with more than one option not excluded by these constraints, we have no way to model or predict what choice he will make.

    If it walks like free will and talks like free will…

    • Neuroskeptic

      What’s willed about it? I didn’t will for the idea of coffee to come into mind.

      I most certainly didn’t will for it to come into mind at the exact moment it did (that would imply that I’d willed for the idea of coffee to appear, before the idea of coffee appeared, but since the willing itself involved the idea of coffee, that would mean the idea arrived before it arrived.)

      In the same way I do not have any control over what I dream.

      Now once the idea of coffee arrived, maybe I got to choose whether to endorse it or not. But this is power to “vote on legislation that I didn’t draft” – hardly worthy of the name free will…

      • Jonathan Gress

        Er, if there is a choice among options, and we can’t predict which option is chosen, I call that free will. What you seem to think is that we should also have control over the set of options. I’m not aware of any philosopher or theologian who conceives of free will in this way.

        • Neuroskeptic

          Who says we can’t predict which one I’ll choose?

          It might be possible to predict, given sufficient knowledge of my neural activity.

          In fact if it were impossible to ever predict my choice, that would mean my choice was random, and hence totally out of my control – that would be worse for free will than if it were predictable, in fact.

          • Jonathan Gress

            It wouldn’t be random, since it is caused. But since the cause is a personal cause, rather than a natural one, we couldn’t formulate laws that can make predictions. We might be able to estimate the probability of which choice will be made, based on our understanding of the various influencing factors that we know about, but we can’t declare with certainty which choice will be made.

            Maybe in the future we will be able to predict all choices and show how every choice is naturally caused. But right now we can’t, and maybe we’ll never be able to do so, so it’s still reasonable to suppose that there is free will, i.e. that an individual’s actions are not entirely determined by natural causes.

          • Archie Meijer

            Or it would mean that there are technical limitations to what can be measured.
            We may eventually predict things that can’t be predicted now, with new measurement equipment. But that equipment will also have effects and then we’ll have new unpredictable things.

    • Zachary Stansfield

      “If it walks like free will and talks like free will…”

      … then, by the ancient philosophical dictum of “walk-like-talk-like”, it must be free will!”

      Or maybe we should replace “free will” with “God” or some other supernatural force?

      Just because something has not been explained with a high level of precision doesn’t meant that your favoured filler word should be put in its place.

      • Jonathan Gress

        Just because something has not yet been explained does not mean it ever will be explained. There are some things we may never know. It’s interesting that you are the one maintaining a faith in no free will, even though as far as we can tell human behavior is not entirely determined by natural causes. How is this different from some young-earth creationist who denies the age of the earth against all the evidence?

        • Zachary Stansfield

          You have it backwards.

          You apparently maintain that free will exists and influences how humans make decisions. This is a positive claim. Absent any convincing evidence, your position is one of faith.

          (Also, what does it mean to say “human behavior is not entirely determined by natural causes”? Feel free to define this position and present evidence for it, if you maintain that it is other than faith.)

          On the other hand, I simply point out that “free will” is commonly used as an explanation for the “unexplained causes of human decisions” or something similar. However, under this definition, free will is either incoherent or useless. It does not imply any predictions about human behaviour, nor does it provide an adequate explanation for why humans act as they do. We might as well say “God willed it” or “people behave the way they do because of how they behave”. Such supernaturalism and circularity is of little value.

          My negative claim is one of disbelief and it is based upon clear logic. This is the antithesis of faith.

          • Jonathan Gress

            The evidence is both based on introspection and on observing other people. For my own part, I have a definite subjective experience of having control over my choices, so that’s positive evidence. With respect to other people, we can’t predict how other people behave with certainty: this is negative evidence, because in theory we might be able to explain the behavior in the future, but at present free-will-deniers don’t have evidence that people’s behavior is entirely determined.

            We also have the whole realm of ethics which informs our choices, but which is based on the idea that we have control over our actions and can therefore choose or not choose to act in accordance with ethical principles. If we don’t have such control, ethics becomes entirely meaningless. Some deniers of free will in fact believe that ethics is meaningless, but I don’t for my part.

            By “natural causes” I mean causes external to the individual agent. E.g. the idea that you got up and chose to make coffee cannot be attributed to your own choice, but to various deterministic factors that we can measure and predict.

            Here is an example from linguistics. The linguist Mark Baker has pointed out that there are three elements to language: a finite set of meaningful words or signs (the vocabulary); a grammar which determines what combinations of signs are possible and what are impossible; and the ability to combine signs in an infinite number of ways that are compatible with the grammar (an infinite number of such sentences is possible because the rules of the grammar can be applied recursively). The first two elements imply determinacy: I have no choice over my vocabulary or my grammar. The third element allows choice: I can choose to utter any kind of sentence I want within these limits.

            Baker observes that there are various types of aphasia that have been observed to affect either or both of the first two elements depending on which part of the brain is damaged, e.g. Wernicke’s aphasia destroys the ability to access vocabulary, resulting in grammatical sentences without meaningful content, while Broca’s aphasia destroys ability to access grammar, resulting in ungrammatical combinations of vocabulary items. But no aphasia has been found that targets the third element, the ability to combine signs in an infinite number of ways. This suggests that there is a “free” aspect to the human mind which cannot be reduced to brain states.

          • Jonathan Gress

            I think I can say this a bit more succinctly and clearly. The positive evidence for free will is subjective experience: we feel we have a free choice over our actions. Now it could be that our subjective experience is mistaken, and we don’t have such free choice. But we don’t have (clear) evidence this is so, so at the moment there is no reason to deny the evidence of our subjective experience. (I know, Libet and so on, but I think the problems with his experiments have already been discussed on this site).

          • Zachary Stansfield

            You state that your position is singularly supported by the subjective experience of volition.

            If we take this at face value, that free will is equivalent to a subjective experience, then we could literally stop here: free will equals the experience of volition. Full stop.

            However, you go further and imply that this presents strong evidence that your concept of free will (as yet, undefined) exists. Apparently, you believe that this is the default position.

            Yet, subjective experience is a poor predictor of the underlying reality. It doesn’t provide insight into brain states (even though we know of a wide array of evidence that brain states correlate with mental states), nor does subjective experience provide insight into how decisions are made or performance on decision-making tasks. Simply put: the objective evidence suggests that your sense of volition is fallible.

            Even subjectively, this sense of volition is absent most of the time: when you respond rapidly to stimuli, when a memory appears uncalled in your mind, when you walk on “autopilot”. Really, it is only when an action is “initiated” and when a person is also paying attention to the upcoming action that the subjective experience of volition is apparent. Thus, this subjective experience could very well be due to the temporal overlap between self-observation and action initiation, rather than any particular perspective on “free will”.

            In short, you present a very weak evidence in support of your position. Thus, in contrast to your claims, the belief in free will is an untested hypothesis, not the “null”.

            You also present an obvious non sequitur. If ethical principles influence behaviour in a positive fashion, then they have value, regardless of whether or not free will exists. Further, by alluding to “immoral free will deniers” who, as far as I can tell do not exist, you try to denigrate your detractors by association with some bizarre straw man worldview.

            You note that “natural causes” refers to external factors, but what about internal factors? Do you deny that internal processes might occur in a stochastic fashion that precludes free will? If you present your definition of free will, then perhaps we can address this issue.

            You also cite Mark Baker’s linguistic analysis, which is spurious on two counts:

            1) The contrast between finite rules of grammar and vocabulary with infinite ways in which sentences can be recursively constructed has no parallel to the concept of free will. There is also an infinite number of ways in which the rules of grammar can be broken and an infinite number of non-words which I could contrive. The fact that there are many “options” to choose from implies nothing about free will.

            2) Baker’s proposal implies that there must be a brain region that is specifically involved in the construction of sentences. This is a naïve “localist” interpretation of brain function, which is superficially flawed. No serious brain scientist advocates such a view. Moreover, extensive cortical damage obviously limits sentence construction (among a wide variety of other
            functions), which clearly contradicts the implication that sentence construction is somehow uncorrelated with brain function.

          • Jonathan Gress

            Free will means the ability to make unconstrained choices. So to disprove free will, you’d have to show that people never really have a free choice over their thoughts or actions: some factor or other is always compelling them to make that choice. You could say it means there’s no such thing as agency.

            Regarding my remark on free will deniers, please don’t put words in my mouth. I didn’t say free will deniers were immoral (which means they behave immorally); I said that they don’t believe in morality, i.e. they don’t believe in objective good and evil. And I didn’t say all free-will-deniers believe this, just that some of them do. If you have a completely deterministic and mechanistic view of the world and of humanity, that strikes me as a far more consistent position than to hold at the same time that we have no free agency and that there are objective ethical standards that we should live by. But that’s really for another thread.

            The point about aphasia is related in the sense that, while we know of the inability to apply the rules of grammar to formulating utterances, or accessing the mental lexicon, what we don’t seem to find is e.g. a human basically turned into a mental non-human animal, where he only has a limited number of thoughts that can be (potentially) expressed. So it’s actually more about what we know about the relationship between the brain and freedom of thought, as well as action. This is probably also more appropriate for another thread.

          • Zachary Stansfield

            “Free will means the ability to make unconstrained choices. So to disprove free will, you’d have to show that people never really have a free choice over their thoughts or actions…”

            Your general premise that people have the ability to make “unconstrained choices” is clearly false. My choices are certainly constrained by physical and biological limitations: I cannot choose to fly or morph into a turtle.

            Let’s take this further: I also lack the ability to change my cognitive abilities by undoing the constraints implied by my biology, or to undo the constraints implied by social relationships, legal rules or work environments. Even your own subjective experiences should support this: as you make a conscious decision and run through various factors in your head, these
            factors are actually providing constraints upon your actions.

            In fact, if we take a simple look around our lives, we are so heavily constrained by both external and internal influences that this definition loses value.

            I did not put words in your mouth. It is disingenuous to now claim that your remark about “free will deniers” was an innocent one. You clearly implied that morality is dependent upon the existence of free will. Given this claim, it logically follows that those who don’t believe in free will also deny the validity of morality. Moreover, you clearly said as much. Otherwise, why mention that “some free will deniers” think this way? Undoubtedly, “some free will believers” think this way as well, which you failed to mention. Whether you intended to or not, you were clearly engaging in derision through the use of guilt-by-association.

            A related point: if you didn’t intend to draw such
            implications, but clearly did so anyways, is this a case of free will or its absence?

            You have ignored my criticisms of Baker’s invalid argument. You also imply that a lack of free will = mental incompetence. Either you have conflated two definitions here, or you have re-defined free will to be equivalent to “higher level mental function”.

          • Jonathan Gress

            INo one denies that freedom of choice is completely unconstrained; rather, often it is partly unconstrained. E.g. when you walk by a wallet full of money on the ground, and no one is watching, you are presented with a choice to steal the money or attempt to return it to its owner. At that time, what do you do? You weigh one option against the other and make your choice. Your choices are obviously limited by various factors, e.g. the fact that you are there and the wallet is there, or that you are physically able to bend over and pick the wallet up, that you can see the wallet, that you know what a wallet is, etc. You are also constrained by your ethical knowledge: if you don’t know that it’s wrong to steal, you likewise won’t be faced with a choice (or choice will involve whether you can be bothered to bend down and pick it up at all). But given all these constraints, you still have a choice, and the idea that you are being forced to make some decision is on the face of it absurd. It might be true, but it defies all common sense.

            Your view seems to be that the choice is indeed illusory: some factor or other ultimately compels you to make the choice and you have no real agency or freedom in the matter. This is extremely counter-intuitive and so should not be the default assumption. Intuitions are often wrong, but they are always what we start with, so you are the one who has to show that they are wrong. Starting with the assumption that intuitions must be false seems like backwards reasoning to me.

            You really misunderstand my point about morality and belief in free will and I’d prefer to drop it and focus on the definition of free will (which I’m glad you decided to bring up since I think it is very important to define terms clearly). But if you insist on pursuing it, just note that I never wrote “immoral free will deniers” so by putting that phrase in quotation marks you most certainly put words in my (metaphorical) mouth. I may not have expressed my meaning very well, but I am now stating as clearly as I can that I don’t believe people who deny free will behave immorally, which is what I take you to mean by “immoral”. Many of them profess not to believe in objective good or evil, but their behavior may nevertheless accord with your or my definition of moral. One example is the blog of a man called “helian”, which you can check out if you want to know the kind of viewpoint I’m talking about.

            I’m not saying that if free will doesn’t exist then we are mentally incompetent. I’m saying that our particular kind of mental competence certainly appears to involve the ability to make a choice when presented with a set of options, a choice that doesn’t appear at any rate to be completely constrained. Your position is that this is an illusion that in reality our choices are always ultimately constrained. I think that is a position that needs defending.

          • Zachary Stansfield

            “…given all these constraints, you still have
            a choice, and the idea that you are being forced to make some decision is on the face of it absurd. It might be true, but it defies all common sense.”

            Now we have hit the meat of it.

            1) You state that, in fact, our actions are constrained and that even though these constraints directly influence the eventual outcome, it is absurd to believe that such a decision is “forced”.

            In other words, free will must exist because anything else is absurd…

            I disagree.

            Let’s take your example of the unclaimed wallet.

            There are at least two non-free will interpretations of this situation, one is deterministic (e.g. “forced” choice, as you put it) and the other is not, and neither is absurd.

            In the deterministic scenario, all of the situational factors such as personality characteristics, ethical beliefs for how to act in such a situation, current state of mind and whatever other causal factors we could imagine (personal finances, recency of having consumed food, the weather, etc), which all conspire to determine whether you will keep the money or not. The relevant considerations may play out in your head as you “decide”, but the factors that will determine the final outcome are already fixed at this point. This scenario is not so surprising: we would predict that a man who is broke and who believes that money left on the street is “up for grabs”, would take the cash; whereas we would presume that a rich person or a person strongly opposed to taking unearned money would ignore or try to return the cash. In either case the decision is pre-determined, which substantiates our ability to predict these outcomes with a well above-chance degree of accuracy.

            Where is the absurdity?

            However, we don’t need to assume determinism to deny free will, and I often suspect it is this fallacious dichotomy that has so many people convinced that free will exists.

            In the same scenario, let’s assume that the universe is not entirely deterministic. We still accept causal relationships, but in many cases there are probabilistic processes that determine outcomes when a multitude of complex factors interact. The simplest interpretation is that randomness is injected into the process, thus making outcomes unpredictable. But where is free will? Is your “choice” the product of randomly varying decisions? This is not a meaningful definition of free will.

            That’s two explanations, each lacking free will, neither is absurd.

            The fact that you believe such scenarios violate
            common sense is strange. Does anyone believe that we cannot predict a person’s choices with a least limited accuracy given some knowledge of the situation and their dispositions? Of course not. These are common sense scenarios and they are perfectly intuitive. The only place where these scenarios do not match is your one chosen piece of evidence: your own subjective experience of volition.

            So, if we discard this notion that free will is the a
            priori explanation for human decision-making, then we need to go back to the drawing board in defining it.

            In this case, what is free will? It sounds to me
            like some force external to the natural universe which, when channeled by a human mind, affects the outcomes of highly constrained causally-influenced situations.

            If you have a better definition of free will and how it interacts with this reality, feel free to provide it.

            2) Yes, let’s drop the talk of morality. I haven’t
            read anything written by Helian, so I cannot comment on whatever view he espouses.

            3) I agree that our particular kind of mental
            competence involves decision-making, although this is a property of cognition observed in many species.

            I suppose I should clarify on this point: I do not espouse a hard deterministic position. This is unnecessary. I simply note that we know a lot about how causal factors influence human decisions (providing relatively good predictive ability), but virtually nothing about what a “free will” is, other than a “subjective sense of agency”. Thus, I propose that the concept of
            free will is either incoherent (i.e. randomness = agency) or requires some sort of supernatural causal force (a will) which operates outside of this reality and yet impinges upon it.

            Feel free to present an alternative to these options.

          • Jonathan Gress

            And in order to “believe in” ethics, i.e. in order to take ethics as a guide to life, you need to at least conditionally believe in free will. You have to believe that you have personal agency and control over your choices. So if you accept the validity of ethics, free will is certainly the null hypothesis. The burden of proof is on you to show that this “freedom” you exercise when you “freely” choose to obey or disobey an ethical principle is illusory.

          • Zachary Stansfield

            You are conflating several points here. There is no burden of proof upon me to prove that the application of ethics requires free will.

            Ethical principles are statements about how one ought to act. Similarly, laws are put in place to specific require certain actions and disallow others. In either case, there are obvious benefits to following such precepts with attendant costs for not doing so.

            Please explain why free will is necessary for this to come about. For example, why would a hypothetical person who “lacks free will” be unable to use ethics to guide actions?

          • Jonathan Gress

            I mean that, from the point of view of the person attempting to live according to a system of ethics, he has to believe that he has the ability to do so. That belief may be illusory, but it does mean that belief in agency is the default assumption.

          • Zachary Stansfield

            Two points:

            a) A person could believe in his or her ability to follow rules without believing in free will (e.g. “My past behaviour indicates that I am the sort of person who would follow these rules, therefore, it is possible for me recognize that I would live by these rules”). Circularity in this hypothetical reasoning process is unproblematic.

            b) Even assuming that a “belief in agency” or volition is valuable (which I agree with, in a sense), this does not imply anything about whether or not free will exists or has any meaningful definition.

            Therefore, this supports the position that ethical principles and moral rules could have value, utility and application regardless of whether it is assumed that free will exists.

  • John Roth

    I suspect there’s a level problem here. You probably make coffee several times a day, so the question comes down to “how do you decide to interrupt whatever you’re doing to make coffee?” rather than specifically “how do you decide to quit reading to make some coffee?”.

    It’s the same kind of thing where I’ll find myself in the middle of something, look at the clock, and realize it’s time to start preparing for a meeting – and then get there +/- 3 minutes. There’s clearly a mechanism that makes that possible, but it’s at a higher level, and it operates mostly outside of awareness.

    I don’t think we’ve got enough fine-grained data to even begin to speculate how that kind of parallel process works.

  • Greg

    Off topic but I just ran across an article you might find interesting:

    Are we really in a scientific darkage?

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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