Thursday, December 15, 2011

Neuroscience: Programming the Machine

While we have seen a lot of discussion about whether we can effectively model the brain as a computer, there's plenty of evidence that brains do act like "black boxes": present a particular input and you will get a related output. How the input relates to the output may vary, but the two do seem related.

In this article from The Telegraph, we learn that an external stimuli applied to the head can produce a tic in the body that the owner of the body did not will, either consciously or unconsciously. This phenomenon is interpreted as evidence that we have no free will--if someone else can push a button and cause us to jump or dance, then we cannot have control over our own bodies. Extend this to our seemingly autonomic reaction to the verbal stimulus of an insult or a tear-jerker movie, and we do seem to devolve into the feared state of automaton.

I think this view lacks a critical dimension, namely time.

As I see it, yes, an input does produce an output, and perhaps even reliably so. But not necessarily the same every time, and certainly not the same for every person. The author quotes Professor Patrick Haggard of the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience:

"If you see a light go green, it may mean press the accelerator; but there are lots of situations where it doesn't mean that: if the car in front hasn't moved, for example. The same stimulus sometimes makes me press the accelerator, but sometimes the horn. We are not one output-one input beings; we have to cope with a messy world of inputs, an enormous range of outputs. I think the term 'free will' refers to the complexity of that arrangement."

This seems to me to capture the heart of the issue. We condition our responses based on context. But how do we do that?

Here's where time comes into the picture, in my view. We *learn*, by trying, failing, trying, erring, trying, succeeding. Over time, we develop the black box mechanism that determines our outputs for a given input. We get programmed.

I would contend that we can reclaim free will, in part, by coming to recognize the time dimension and choosing how we become programmed. We can adjust our understanding of a situation, thus tapping a different pathway through our brains, producing a different reaction that might have otherwise occurred.

We do this by mindfully attending to the input-output process of our daily lives, by evaluating how we feel about the relation and the outcome of that relation, and by reinforcing, replacing or redefining the significance we assign to the input to modify the resulting output. Time provides us with our own personal psychology lab, if we will choose to use it.