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My lab:
Of course, our original study makes no mention of free will, it is not a scientific concept. However, the discovery of spontaneity even in flies makes us ponder what, if anything, this might entail for our subjective experience of free will in a macrocosm we believe to be largely deterministic. Therefore we addressed the issue with an ironic question in our press release: "Do fruit flies have free will?"
Of course, some media drop that question mark, because questions don't sell. A few journalists even told me their editors advised them to emphasize the free will thing precisely for this reason.
Be that all as it may, here are my personal SPECULATIONS on our results:
As pointed our below, it is an interesting question, why so many brains appear to deliberately muddle their behavioral output. Let's say, for simple arguments' sake, that the brain's spontaneity function operates as a nonlinear noise-amplifier. It's probably (as usual) much more complicated than that, but hey, this is only speculation, remember? So far, the often-cited weather analogy still holds. But here comes the difference: where in the brain the amplifier works and to what extent may not have to be fixed. It may be under genetic, historical and situational control. Obviously, we can define our personality pretty well given the current situation, our genetic make-up and our individual history. In other words, the current state of your brain, i.e., how much noise is amplified where in the brain and when depends on your personality. That's pretty cool. But in addition, we know that psychotherapy works. In other words, thinking influences brain chemistry (I think this is almost trivial as thinking means brain activity). So the action you will carry out depends on your personality and your thinking. Fine. Still not even close to what usually is referred to as "Free Will", though.
Now why do I believe that all of this speculation has any bearing on why or how we can have this peculiar, very strong impression that we, our minds, our thinking are the authors of our actions? This is where my main research subject, operant conditioning comes in. It is my hypothesis (which I will test in case I will get a job after this one and funding after that, which both is extremely unpredictable), that one of the evolutionary benefits of this superimposed spontaneity is to be able to discern which of the incoming complex stream of sensory stimuli comes as a result of our own actions and which doesn't. This is actually a very old hypothesis, predating my birth by decades, but still unresolved. So this spontaneity (which in humans depends on personality and current thinking) exists to attribute agency to our actions. This is a very important, even essential function (try to tickle yourself and you will feel what I mean )! If you mess with it, a whole host of psychiatric conditions can be the consequence, ranging from depression, to borderline personality disorder, ADHD and many more (read more about the importance of this here).
So we have a brain function for which there is evidence that it exists in humans. I speculate that in humans the parameters of function depend on personality and on current thinking and that it attributes agency to our action, distinguishing incoming ("re-afferent") feedback from "ex-afferent" stimulation. I think these are great ingredients from which evolution could concoct the subjective, strong notion of "free will" we all experience. Am I wrong?
I think it is interesting (and easier) to study potential ancestral forms of this brain function in simpler animals. Am I wrong?
Posted on Thursday 17 May 2007 - 15:38:35 comment: 0

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