Archive for 'Neuro-Politics'

Much ado about Free Will – Analyzing choice from a neurological perspective

Some recent events have sparked a flurry of talk on the issue of Free Will. I wrote about it a bit in a previous entry. It is not a spiritual issue, rather than a growing mass of neurological evidence that the subconscious controls a lot more of our behavior than traditionally thought.

And – While looking at choice from a neurological viewpoint, some intriguing concepts regarding the nature of conscious thought start to surface.

 

fascinating article in the New York times brings a lot of these issues into the mainstream. Here are some quotes.

(quoted from the article) A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.

Here is one such experiment with an EEG:

In the 1970s, Benjamin Libet, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, wired up the brains of volunteers to an electroencephalogram and told the volunteers to make random motions, like pressing a button or flicking a finger, while he noted the time on a clock.

The order of brain activities seemed to be perception of motion, and then decision, rather than the other way around.

In short, the conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. 

Interesting, eh? The study has been reproduced countless times in various ways, and other research seems to point to the same conclusion: the conscious mind acts more as an observer than an active participant!

 

But what about the Buddhists?

All this recent neuro-analysis of choice makes me wonder how much variance there would be if people outside of the “norms” were analyzed. For example, people who had learned to control their mind to a greater extent – meditators, NLP experts, people who regularly practice neurofeedback, etc.

Would their “will” be stronger, or would their perception of (the lack of) free will be more objective?

There could be significant differences - in the same way there are huge differences in the EEG responses of meditators vs regular people to sensory stimuli. Perhaps taking away certain emotional components of an experience, or having the ability to observe internal urges and thoughts objectively - all of which buddhists and frequent meditators claim to do - would give one more “free will”?

Perhaps one day there will be a standard measure, or scale, based on a psychological or neurological test, meant to quantify exactly how much mental freedom an individual has. Like an IQ test, or the kinesy scale of sexuality. This may even be a good thing, if it were followed up by an effort to give individuals with “low free will scores” more control over their own mind.

Where would you be on Adam’s Free Will scale of 0-100? ;)

 

How about the rest of us?

One thing I’ve noticed that is conspicuously absent from this debate is the origin of a subconscious. We are not born with it. It is programmed into us – by our parents, our world around us, our own internal dialogs, struggles, and so on. To seasoned psychologists and hypnotherapists, all this buzz about the subconscious is hardly news, and neither is the cure for unwanted behavior: RE-programing the subconscious based on what the conscious mind wants.

Optimistically speaking, Free Will can be a feedback mechanism. You perceive an action, a choice you have made – good or bad – and analyze the consequences of those actions. You then interact with your brain and make slight alterations to your brain’s “operating system”. A child whose subconscious mind made him touch a hot stove is not likely to do it again. Of course, whether we repeat the same mistakes over and over is based solely on the control we exhibit over the programming of our own mind.

Another article excerpt:

“All the varieties of free will worth having, we have,” Dr. Dennett said.

“We have the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes,” he said. “We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures.”

In this regard, causality is not our enemy but our friend, giving us the ability to look ahead and plan. “That’s what makes us moral agents,” Dr. Dennett said. “You don’t need a miracle to have responsibility.”

 

Others find the idea of no free will a comforting idea. I admit, it does have its appeal. Here is a great quote from Einstein:

“This knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals”.

Brainwaves and nonverbal communication, subconscious free will, and devices that “read” your mind

Many of my philosopher friends are convinced there is no such thing as free will – that everything we do is predetermined – by our subconscious, by god, or even by the nature of reality itself. Recent research sheds some interesting light on how much control we have over our own behavior and our own perceptions of reality. My own view is that like many things brain-related, free will is a feedback mechanism – dualistic in that we are capable of being both free and enslaved at the same time.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the subconscious is the way it covertly changes our behavior. A single event can change your mood from bad to good, or make you more social or antisocial. There was a much talked about article in the November edition of Science called “The Psychological Consequences Of Money”, which discussed how the mere mentioning of “money” causes dramatic changes in social behavior.  Subjects in the study who were reminded of money (subtly – no subject knew what the test was about), became more socially isolated – more dependent on themselves, less willing to help others or ask for help. They even put more physical distance between themselves and other subjects.

'Mmmm Money' - Homer SimpsonIf a single offhanded mention of money is able to so drastically change our behavior, think of all the other emotion-provoking topics we are exposed to on a daily basis:

Love - Family - Religion

War - Hate - Power

Attractiveness – Body weight – Race

..the list goes on and on – each one having its own unique impact on our subconscious, and therefore our behavior.

This reminded me of a Scientific America Frontier show, where subjects were bargaining (monopoly-style) electronically, while an MRI tracked their brain patterns. The interesting twist was that half the time the subjects thought they were bartering with another subject, and the other half with a computer. One would hope that, given the exact same deal, it wouldn’t matter how it was presented to you, or by whom – but the data says differently. For example, if a subject perceived a fellow human as giving them a raw deal, they became emotionally charged, but bargaining with a computer for the same deal was easily accepted.

I saw the show a while ago, but I believe this was it: http://www.pbs.org/saf/1507/

Another intriguing concept is the way the subconscious expresses itself. A series of recent articles in Scientific American Mind discussed how the subconscious has its own modes of communication, and that these modes perhaps even dwarf verbal or written language in a number of ways.

Neuroscientist Spencer Kelly of Colgate University analyzed the brainwaves of subjects while they watched a video of people talking and using various physical gestures. His study suggests that the mind responds to the gestures in much the same way it responds to words. In fact nonverbal, and largely subconscious, communication may even be more significant from a neurological standpoint. Gestures often precede verbal communication because it is easier for the brain to process a thought as a gesture, while verbal communication has to go through another series of filters to construct a grammatically correct sentence. And gestures are more base – primates and animals communicate nonverbally, and actually have an enormous range of motions to choose from (just watch “The Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan for an example of that) – so it is no surprise that there is a deep, very efficient part of our brain devoted to decoding nonverbal communication.

Monkeys!

All of this is in line with various NLP concepts, one of which is:

“You cannot not communicate”

..even if you decide not to verbally express what you are feeling, the information is always available in some other form. The subconscious nearly always finds a way to rear its head.

Lie detectors analyzing variations in voice, gestures, facial movements and eye position and dilation are becoming disturbingly accurate. Over 10,000 combinations of facial gestures have been identified. Psychology professor Paul Ekman discovered what he called “Microexpressions”, which last for only a 5th of a second, and seem to express what we are truly thinking or feeling – the expression our subconscious imprints on our face before our conscious mind has a chance to adjust.

There is a wearable device under development at MIT, that is able to analyze nonverbal gestures. It is intended to help people who have severe problems in social situations (such as those with Autism). It is called the “Emotional Social Intelligence Prosthesis”, or by its more appropriate abbreviation: ESP.

Quantum physics aside, we “emit” our subconscious, just by standing around and being human. It is not surprising that people often report self-fulfilling prophecies, or visualizations that come true exactly as imagined, when so much of our behavior is based on what our subconscious wants. The trick is to make sure your subconscious is in line with what you actually want out of life.

 

What we are up to here at Transparent:

The holiday season is keeping us busy, which is interesting since, as my father noted, “Why would anyone want to give a self-improvement program out as a gift. Wouldn’t that kind of be an insult?” Gee, thanks dad :) But despite this many people seem to be doing just that. I just had a call from a long time customer who is buying it for his son as a christmas present to help him with his college studies.

Our research director Dr. Huang (Tina) is working on a number of studies and projects, that I hope to ellaborate a bit on either in my next post or at the beginning of the year.

The new project is coming along. Programming is like anything else in life – it’s the little things that get you. Most of the major functionality is done, now I’m just going through and fixing this and that, this bug and that bug, this piece of the application I was too lazy to program a month ago, etc. I will release a teaser as soon as I can (I have been getting a lot of requests), I just want to put some final touches on it and make it presentable.

I would say happy holidays to you all, but I expect I will be making another post or 2 before the end of the year. Still, if I don’t see you by then, have a great holiday and new year!

Adam

Some thoughts on the neural mechanisms of voting, auditory illusions and paranoia

With elections only a few days away here in the States, I find myself wondering – as I always do every 2 years – what is behind the vote I’m casting, and the votes of others. Although most of us probably think we vote on issues alone, research on the brain suggests that many people vote with their identity instead. If you tend to relate to a certain party’s identifying characteristics, or perhaps if your family has voted with a particular party for generations, your subconscious will tend to shift your thinking in favor of that party. There is a neurological basis for this. In 2004 Drs. Freedman and Iocaboni, at UCLA, used MRI to analyze which areas of the brain “light up” when subjects are shown political content associated with a particular candidate. If the candidate was already preferred by the subject, neural areas associated with empathy became highly active, while areas of negative emotion lit up when presented with information associated with opposing candidates. The content of the message itself is less important than the context in many cases. Subconsciously, the mind finds a reason to dislike messages seen to be outside of our own identity. It is interesting to observe this happening in my own brain as I view the hundreds of campaign ads bombarding the airwaves, some of which are hard to affiliate with a particular party until well into the commercial.

As always, the political process is fascinating to me, and I’m enjoying watching it all unfold. Ohio just implemented touch screen voting, so I’m looking froward to using that for the first time, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed hoping the technology behind it is well made. The techie in me wants to see elections move into the modern age. But with the modern age comes modern paranoias. I remember when we first started the company an individual in a discussion group warned others not to use our software because the government embeds “microchips” in all white noise to control the populace. Another customer contacted us a year ago, convinced that she heard “buy this software” subliminally while playing our sessions. It turned out she wasn’t even using our software at all, having confused us with another company – but even so I would be willing to bet it was just an auditory illusion.

More than a few people hear words and other auditory illusions in some of the background sound files we have used over the years, to the point where sometimes I have to manually edit the sound file and take out the “human-sounding” portions. When a sound file is used repeatedly the mind can start to identify patterns where none exist, and I sometimes wonder if what people hear in these sound files is a kind of representation of the subconscious mind, sort of like the famous inkblot test.

Well on to what we’ve been up to here at Transparent:

Mind Stereo has been a great success. I didn’t know what to expect in releasing it – nothing like it has really been done before. While making it I often sat back and wondered to myself if I was being arrogant in assuming people would want yet another media player on their computer, even one as unique as this. But, just the other day a few customers indicated they are actually using it as their default, so I’m real proud of that.

There has been some discussion lately of moving to other platforms, like OSX, PocketPC, Linux, etc. I want everyone to know that we hear you, and I’m really hoping to look more into this next year. I just heard that our software has some troubles on Windows Vista, so I’m going to be working on making that work before Vista is officially released to the public. So much to do!

Meanwhile, we’re all hard at work here on a big new project. This one has me really excited. I’m hoping to start beta testing on it in a month or 2, but the more we develop and the more we research, the more ideas pop up! We’ll often be in the middle of a project and then add a dozen new features that, while exciting, add a lot of time to the whole process.

I’m hoping to release more details about our new developments soon, maybe even along with some pre-release screenshots. :)

Wishing everyone all the best. To those readers in the U.S., happy voting on tuesday!

Adam