For those who needed confirmation. . .

R. Scott Bakker emailed me to let me know that one of the predictions contained in his psychological thriller Neuropath (Canada, Europe) has just been verified. He realizes that he should be pleased, but he's just freaked out.

Read the article here.

And be sure to read Neuropath!

7 commentaires:

Anonymous said...

That's a scary article. Can't wait to read Neuropath, pre-ordered it a few weeks ago.

Anonymous said...

err... it's just the daily mail
nothing to lose your sleep over

Anonymous said...

Bronn Stone from ASOIAF Forums here

Actually, the saddest think about the linked article to me is hearing my alma mater referred to as "Berkeley University" in California. It is every bit as painful to my ear as "Ann Arbor University" in Michigan would be to a person from that state.

I remain of the opinion that ultimately, the brain IS a machine. Should we as a species survive long enough, we should be able to poke around and see and change things as we wish. And I am glad I am unlikely to live to see it.

Anonymous said...


Umm, haven't they proved over and over again that you can influence the way your subconscious processes information, this being affectionately referred to as "hacking the wetware"?

There is a lot of fascinating research being done with stroke victims of how to consciously train new parts of the brain to perform different functions, and retraining the damaged portions as well.

As with most science reporting, its the flashy headline and then the small script of actual observations. In a limited decision making process in a limited, observable environment, the subconscious dominated. Bravo! That is the exactly the type of task I would not want to remember and/or focus heavily on.

Honestly, I am quite all right with the notion of being on autopilot for those types of decisions. I'd rather not have to use intense focus on such things as brushing my teeth.

There are a whole bunch of other observations as the fact that they were only testing one small part of the decision making process, not even factoring in complications arising when the nervous system and the brain interact, such as serious burns, etc., that could be made.

Suffice it to say the free will question is still wild open.

Anonymous said...

You're quite right, the circumstances are very constrained. In a strict sense all they've shown is that they can predict test subject's decisions within the experiment's narrow parameters. But generalization is the name of the game with all experimentation. If consciousness of choosing lags behind decision-making in these circumstance, all things being equal, then consciousness of choosing lags in all decision making. This generalization will either stand or fall pending further experimentation.

What they have shown, however, is that our experience of choice cannot be trusted. And this, I think, has tremendous consequences.

The question of free will will always be 'wildly open' philosophically speaking: we humans have a hard time letting go cherished concepts. Scientifically, the door seems to be shutting fairly quick.

Scott Bakker

Anonymous said...

Thank you for correcting my typo.

I think we will probably agree to disagree on this topic, but I would like to explore it a bit more. The concept of free will is, as you pointed out, a concept with implications in many fields of study.

I, however, am not clear on how the revelation of the fact that our brain uses many different portions of its substantial mass in making decisions and that in some cases the conscious mind is not even a factor that leads to said decision, allows us to make the overall assumption that the conscious portion of our brain has no influence at all.

If indeed we do accept this extrapolation (which I think is beyond gross exaggeration to put the point mildly) then we are left with an organism that operates as nothing but a set of preprogrammed responses to an external environment, a prisoner trapped to watch life unfold as some Greek tragedy.

And yet, we do know that people are able to change. To take one clear case of behavioral modification is the rehabilitation of those addicted to alcohol. Taking a quick glance at the Fact File of AA, they currently have 2 million members who have made a conscious choice to change their behavior.

An argument could be made that their mind is merely responding to the external factors of the fact that their lives are unraveling, and therefore they seek help. This could certainly apply in some situations, but all? I have known people who are able to recognize they have become people they do not want to be through habits they do not, namely addiction, and made a conscious decision to cease this behavior. This was before their external environment had acted upon them, before any shift had been made. They had made a decision to change. And the opposite is true as well, I have known people who have watched their lives fall away, and still refuse to do a single thing about it.

Then the next point would be to say that the decision to change had already been made before it reached the conscious mind. But how? And why? If its not negatively impacting health, if its not negatively impacting success in life, then why would the subconscious portion of the mind cause the conscious mind change? And if we can still change, and some part of us is allowing us to change, isn't that still a part of us, and we therefore in some sense still acting out in free will?

As I pointed out in the previous comment, the subconscious can be influenced, as strikingly seen in stroke victims.

And please, don't get me wrong. I am not a proponent of the conscious mind as the main part of the decision process. As someone who has analyzed information for a living, I understand that there are different tasks associated with taking raw data and handing over an informed analysis of what has occurred, these being understanding the overall context, filtering for the context and end audience, prioritization of the results of the filter, and conclusions reached based upon the information.

The tools for most of this decision process were behind the scenes, after context was realized, the computer would run the scenarios, and filter data. We, however, set up the parameters for context. And when the information was presented, the decision in most cases had already been determined by what the analysis done largely behind the scenes. But, it was still presented to the final users as an open situation. Sometimes they could and did question our parameters, our very filters for analyzing information, which caused a complete change in the decision making process.

That, in my mind, is what the conscious portion of brain allows. For the most part it does not involve itself in the day to day or even serious decisions. It can, however, reset the parameters of the system, and thus fundamentally change the decisions the process will make. It would be fascinating to see an experiment constructed for that.

And that is why I still feel this experiment has not truly addressed the question of free will. If we can set the parameters, we can change our course, and thereby exercise free will.

Now to say that resetting the parameters is easy or happens just because your conscious mind says it will, is false. Anyone who has ever tried to give up a bad habit knows that. It takes intense focus over extended periods of time, conscious effort to do so. But it can be done, and has been done, and measured in rehabilitative fields as physical therapy, and addiction counseling.

I am excited by this discovery, because the more we can demystify the role of the conscious, and realize its proper place as a check and balance, and not as the entire fulcrum across which all decisions flow, the better off we will be in terms of addressing how to change those decisions.

The mind is a wonderful thing:)

Anonymous said...

It's so significant because it means the fact that we feel free doesn't necessarily have any bearing on the issue of whether we are free. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. It could be that it's simply fooled only in binary decision making (which kind of seems basic to other forms of decision making), and quite accurate in more complicated forms of decision making. It could be the case (as psychologists like Dan Wegner argue) that it's fooled all the time. This latter certainly seems to be the way the evidence is trending (which is what led me to predict this experimental outcome in Neuropath in the first place). My guess is that the bad news will just continue to pile up.

Some cognitive scientists estimate that less than a millionth of the information processed by the brain makes it into conscious experience. The picture they are slowly cobbling together is of an impossibly thin slice of conscious information processing that regularly dupes itself in a multitude of ways.

As for all the examples of behavioural change you mention, I'm not certain how they're relevant, since in every case they are compatible with what you would expect from an adaptive mechanism like the human brain. The fact is, you don't need a spooky something special to explain the complexities of human behaviour, change or no change.

We really could be meat puppets duped into thinking we're agents: it wouldn't be the first time science has given us disturbing, if not outright dismaying, conclusions.

Scott Bakker