Much media attention on modern neuroscience is focused on decoding brain activity. [For instance,] on a recent BBC Horizon documentary entitled "The Secret You," the host went in search of who we really are from a scientific viewpoint. Having participated in a mind-reading experiment, the host concluded that the brain and the mind are one and the same because "from a brain scanner, doctors can predict a patient's decisions [between two levers to pull] 6 seconds in advance of the patient actually deciding." Consequently, the host appears baffled that this fact implies he has no free will -- that his decisions are merely the end result of a purely predetermined, physical process.
A similar predeterminism seemed to haunt another recent neuroscience achievement. You might be familiar with the highly publicized case:
It involves Jan Scheuerman, a courageous quadriplegic woman who volunteered to have electrode grids implanted on the surface of her brain. The purpose of the grids was to capture and decode her intentions of moving objects via her thoughts with a robotic arm and wrist provided to her. I refer to you a video available on YouTube called 'One Giant Bite,' which documents this process.
From the sound of it, it may seem possible that an outside observer, such as Ms. Scheuerman's trial doctors, may be able to decipher her inner-most thoughts. Since her intentions are decipherable, it may also seem to be a challenge against the notion of free will. Ultimately, the implication of the trial study may suggest that mentality is just a common process that even a computer can trace its origins, and "thoughts" may be something entirely predictable and easily manipulated.
The clinical brain computer interface trial study (NCT01364480) was done by the University of Pittsburgh School of medicine and the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute. So, out of curiosity, I decided to write to the University's Medical Center, having some unanswered questions based on the news reporting of it.
My original correspondence dated December 18th, 2012 was as follows:
Dear Sir or Madam:
I've read with great amazement of your institution's recent breakthrough of giving a quadriplegic the ability to reach for objects and obtain them, on her own, with a mechanical arm. Besides its benefits, I believe the factor of this process that would interest the public at most involves her ability to do this by a read-out of electrodes connected to her brain, and the quick completion times and exactitude for doing such tasks. Let me be the first, or, more likely, one among many in line, to congratulate your department on this effort. I don't have to tell you that such breakthrough's benefits to prosthetics are overwhelming.
However, the media's coverage of this breakthrough has so far left many questions unanswered. For instance, can the electrodes detect a choice among objects? Specifically, I was interested in this quote, reported by MSNBC of an interview with Dr. Andrew Schwartz, a professor in the department of neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine: "We could actually decode the subject’s intention to move.... There is no other way a subject can actually express intention to move.” Does the phrase "no other way" refer to an ability that the electrodes have to distinguish between a choice of the chocolate, [as that was the object she intended], over that of a conflicting wished-for object at the time of retrieval, for example? In other words: How specific is the process involved in "thinking about what she wanted it to do," prior to picking up an object?
Furthermore, I was left curious to know how electrodes read intentionality? Does it involve the same dynamics of intentionality that neuroscience can now predict, six seconds in advance, an examined person's decision [between] two levers to pull, for example? Or, would the data be obtained by a process even more detailed and informative?
I would appreciate any additional information you can provide about this breakthrough so that it can be reported.
Thanks for your time, and I wish your department the best in all of its efforts.
_Mind That Matters_ publications
Essentially, I wanted to know: Do we now have the power to read minds -- the only thing in life an individual can know of first-hand? This would be a surprising revelation especially since an explanation to account for consciousness continues to elude neuroscience. So I wondered: What is it it about Ms. Scheuermann's intentions that are recorded? Furthermore, can we now recreate for others that mysterious quality of consciousness that gives us a first-hand pictorial representation of awareness of our surroundings, and our interactions with the world? Can we now speak of consciousness entirely in structural terms? And, lastly, have we totally arrived at an account for the mysterious union between mind and body, if such a division exists?
Besides mind-control, the primary hazard of free will being easily determined, if not non-existent, is that people could no longer be commended or culpable for a willed decision. This is because an entire chain of physical cause and effects, from an individual's genetics to her environment, would have led her to make the same decision as any other would have made stemming from the same genes, same environment, etc. There would have been no other chosen option for a person to have taken besides whatever action they had chosen. So, therefore, they wouldn't be morally responsible.
Even the least stringent form of determinism, compatibilism, simply expands upon the possible physical causes influencing a decision. Even so, one's actions are confined, predictable, traceable and, ultimately, unilateral -- just more difficult to decipher than a simpler cause-effect pattern. A compatibilist is like a person who gets minimum auto insurance -- they allow into their ontology enough free will, or what passes for free will in-name-only, to give the impression that they're open-minded.
But as I believe it's possible for a person to have an actual epiphany or flash of creativity at times, I doubted such decipherable physical processes on the totality of our will was actually the case. I believe my doubts proved correct. A reply I received from Dr. Schwartz himself demonstrated this, which was as follows:
The best way to address your questions is for you to read the Lancet paper. Briefly, your question hits on one of the main points of the work-- the way we decode the recorded signal. This has been worked out over the last 25 years, beginning in the 1980s with the work of Georgopoulos. Basically the finding is that cells in motor cortex change their firing rate when the arm moves in different directions.
Each neuron has a "preferred direction" for which it fires fastest, and then fires less with direction that are more removed from the one that is preferred. The relation between firing rate and direction can be graphed with a cosine, the peak is in the cell's preferred direction. We loosely call this the 'encoding' process as we superficially consider direction to be encoded in firing rate. For prosthetics, we want to "decode" direction from neural activity. This is carried out by using a population vector algorithm where we consider each neuron's contribution to a population. This contribution is in the neuron's preferred direction and weighted by how fast a neuron fires. These directional contributions are added together across all the neurons recorded at the same time, and this results in a vector (population vector) that points in the direction of movement the subject is intending.
Over the years, we have expanded the definition of movement direction to include, the x,y,z direction of the arm through space, the 3D orientation of the wrist and opening and closing of the hand. So movement is now extracted in a 7 dimensional space.
By the way the extracted signal is updated about every 30 msec. So the total delay from the signal appearing in the brain to movement execution is about 100 msec.
Hope this helps-
So, in review, the procedure worked as follows:
The natural process of ENCODING entails the following: firing rates of neurons, which change when arm rises. These neurons have "preferred directions."
The prosthetic interpretation of DECODING, on the other hand, seeks to establish the direction intended based on motor activity: The neuroscientists involved consider each neuron's contribution to a population -- all recorded together at the same time. From this, they devise a vector pointing to direction of movement that the subject intends.
From the neuron actvity, a 7 dimensions of movement can be established for the robotic arm to operate (which the doctors refer to as seven degrees of freedom): 1) up and down, 2) forward and back, 3) right and left, 4) wrist yaw (right and left wave), 5) wrist pitch (up and down wave), 6) wrist roll, 7) hand grasp.
So, judging from the outcome, it may seem that a level of mind-control is possible, moreso than the guesswork done by modern psychiatry in affecting the channelling mechanisms of the brain with prescription meds. But, as you may have noticed, the result of the experiment is far from a completely recreated consciousness experience. Rather, it's treated as a mathematical problem. So, would you say, such an account of mind and matter thoroughly suffices for consciousness as we know it? Does it at least hold out hope for some day explaining consciousness so thoroughly?
Recall, what makes consciousness unique is its abstractness. For instance, the concept of "purpose" is possibily the most meaningful, yet most basic, of any thought one may attain. So much so that "purpose" may be the very self-validating, mysterious yet certain stuff we're speaking of when we speak of the uniqueness of consciousness: i.e., personal meaning itself.
But what's provided here by this study isn't any first-hand pictorial display or foundational content of intentionality. Rather, it's a second-hand calculation of the intention derived mathematically. Likewise, to this day, even the most advanced fMRIs don't produce data beyond mere impulses using the most basic of sensory representations. When you follow the latest experiments being done, you'll notice a trend: Most laboratory experiments of reading thoughts are done in conjunction with sense data. A cause-effect relationship is then determined in regards to what areas of the brain light up, which correlates with the perception. When all is said and done, such experiments may tell us more about the senses than they do about the mind.
Seems to me what these researchers may best capture are merely third-hand perceptual events, if any. It's like rather than owning a VanGogh, one claims possession of a copy drawn by a bystander to one of his paintings who mimicked VanGogh's handstrokes while painting it. Then one passes this off as an actual representation.
The concern is that limiting consciousness to impulses would make us nothing more than automatons. What these experiments continue to ignore, however, is the more essential thought preceding the impulse. One should ask: Is this the beginning of an intentional movement, or an end result? If the former, then, it's true: our actions are merely predetermined by our brain impulses. If the latter, which is true from my sense of experience, our purposes for moving an arm would precede the impulse. It's not as though these machines provide a bionic decision-making process, or a bionic will, to formulate such thoughts. "Will" is the thought that would cause the impulse to move a limb, etc. Neurologists simply read the impulse that would generate a hand or wrist, but not the purpose and/or meaning of the user for what she wants her body to pick up. The latter is what's understood as consciousness, not our impulses.
In general, there isn't an exact, isomorphic correlation between humanity and roboticity. You may ask me to prove that we're not mere machines, but I can experience my own freedom of thought, as well as anyone can, including you the reader. As with anyone else, I experience, first-hand, only my own thoughts. Yet how they physically look, hear, taste, feel, or smell like escapes me. The only experience of thoughts I have are their contents, not their "physicality."
So before we jump to any philosophical conclusions based on such acheivements of neuroscience in regards to free will, etc., we should consider the following rule: If the conclusion of a neuroscience experiment results in a achievement that one wouldn't be surprised to find a computer being able to do, then one shouldn't be suprised for neuroscience being able to cause a human brain into doing it.
In other words, if we can get inorganic matter to do it, it's not so impressive to get organic matter to do it, already possessive of self-animation. I would ask critics of this rule to imagine if an authoritiarian regime intended to use fMRIs to determine "thought crimes" of its citizens. Would they feel confident that the regime would accurately determine their thoughts, if they were accused, based solely on the findings that can be produced by such a machine?
So despite all of the benefits that can be achieved by this University of Pittsburgh clinical study, and I agree that the neuroscientists involved with such prosthetic breakthroughs deserve every honor they have and will be bestowed upon them, it's not enough to extrapolate philosophical conclusions from such data that the mind is purely a physical process, for instance, or that mind-control may be fully realized someday in a laboratory.
Even the BBC documentarian who presented the public with "The Secret You," exaggerated the significance of what it reported. First of all, for a person to decide which button to press, 7-seconds-in advance, isn't exactly "consciousness" at its fullest. So it doesn't suffice as an explanation. Those who think thoughts are not abstract need to explain the dynamics of thought's private, introspective nature, when nothing else is experienced as such. As I see it, the default position for the objective thinker to hold is that the mind is abstract. This is because the introspective nature of first-hand experience occurs to us naturally, whereas adapting to the physical world has to be taught.
Critics who support compatibilism, for instance, may disagree, though. They may be sold on the manner in which mentality is affected by stimuli to the brain, for example, such as by drugs or by trauma damage. But given such data, or such as with brain mapping, the brain may just as likely be a channel for thought as much as the originator of it. If the brain is merely a channel for thought, consciousness may yet be considered of a nature not entirely dependent on the brain, and that total manipulation of the brain may not be enough to harness and control it.
At any rate, I attempted a follow-up correspondence with Dr. Schwartz, which received no further reply. It was as follows:
Dear Dr. Schwartz:
Thanks for your detailed reply in answering these questions.
I'm working on an article concerning philosophy of mind, and the relevance that such research may have upon notions of consciousness. If you have any philosophical theories of your own you'd like to add related to this area of study, your input would be appreciated.
At any rate, my best to you and the University of Pittsburgh in furthering your research on this topic.
Thanks for your time.
So, in conclusion, I ask: If all we are are impulse machines, then why isn't it possible for neuroscience ever to produce a "brain" that is in every way human? You may say that science hasn't achieved this "yet," but how is this in any way different than "wishful thinking" -- especially since neuroscientists have been claiming this possibilty since the science began, with meager results?
Again, critics may say my doubts about what science can achieve are fallacious arguments from ignorance. Thus, my closing question here is technically flawed and invalid. But I haven't been making any certainty claims that science can never achieve this, I just express my doubts. Even so, I have "faith" that free will exists -- enough "faith" to question overambitious implications of quotes such as that by Dr. Schwartz. So much so, I will write to any author of such claims for them to further explain their meaning if need be. Overall, I encourage neuroscience to extend their studies, and attempt to account for every aspect of consciousness, if possible, including our seemingly non-physical purposes for doing things. I just believe it's not possible, especially if they limit themselves to the idea that the brain alone provides consciousness.
I invite you to watch my next few videos to learn what other causes of consciousness there may be.
Thank you for reading.