Neuroplasticity, quantum physics and free will

I just read “The Mind and the Brain” by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley. Someone on an internet forum recommended it to me more than 3 years ago, and well… better late than never. 🙂

Here are a few of the fascinating things I have learnt about the brain’s ability to change itself based on input and directed attention:

  • Phantom limbs: the area of the somatosensory cortex that used to deal with  input from that limb, in the post-amputation silence, starts to receive signals from other parts of the body in time as neural pathways migrate in from neighbouring regions. This means that typically for an amputated arm, touching the face will give a feeling of that arm!
  • Focal hand dystonia: musicians that heavily practise synchronised movements of the fingers can lose individual control of those fingers, because the brain has been fooled into no longer regarding these fingers as separate fingers, and the representations of these fingers in the motor cortex sort of blur into one congealed region!
  • In one study, getting people to practise a 5-finger piano exercise produced measurable change in the motor cortex… and getting people to mentally rehearse it produced a change “to the same degree as that brought about by physical practice”!
  • Therapies have been developed utilising this neuroplasticity to overcome brain malfunctions such as OCD, Tourette’s, depression, and even to allow stroke patients to regain control over their affected limbs.

All this is amazing, but what really blows my mind is that if so much in the brain can be changed by willful effort, that means you can be changed, which means who you are is not really set in stone at all.

It made me think about morality. If, as this book says, the working of the brain is so contingent on its experiences right from birth, and so little of it is genetically-programmed, it would seem that human values could wander quite far from evolved “defaults”. Laws have not been constant over human history, and this makes sense to me now, in a slightly disturbing sort of way 😯 (think torture, stoning, slavery and so on). On the positive side, it also has to be possible to improve our values, become de-brutalised, etc. Perhaps we can even improve on the defaults evolution has dumped on us, and collectively craft a happier future than would have been possible without the rational self-reflection that… well, that evolution gave us. Isn’t that mind-blowing?

It begs the question, are we predictable?

The book touches on this very question, too. It asks, firstly, if brain processes are really a satisfactory explanation for the subjective experience that is “mind”. Is it possible to get how neuronal activity produces me-ness? “Even if we knew everything about every field and iota of matter in the universe… it is hard to see how that knowledge would produce that elusive ‘Aha!’ moment, when we all say, Oh, right, so that’s how consciousness is done (in the way we might react, say, to a materialist explanation of how the liver produces bile).” (Ch. 1)

Indeed, materialism and reductionism get a bit of a bashing. The book laments that Cartesian dualism in the 17th century broke apart the warring pair, science and religion: science would henceforth be concerned with the material (physical) while religion would hog the realm of the mind (spiritual). And so up to the present day there is a tendency in science to automatically regard a belief in anything seemingly immaterial (such as the mind) as superstitious. Yet quantum physics contains all sorts of weird and wonderful observations that give the impression that reality might be very different than how we currently conceive of it. Consciousness may even be intrinsically inside quantum physics in the effect of the observer, who, making a measurement, causes wave function collapse. Eugene Wigner is quoted as saying: “The laws of quantum mechanics cannot be formulated… without recourse to the concept of consciousness”. (Ch. 8 )

I’m not sure how I feel about materialism and reductionism. I would hate to think that mainstream western science is brainwashing me, and yet I definitely am not inclined to think that there are immaterial influences on the “physical” world (whatever “physical” even means!) that confound our attempts at modelling and prediction from within the physical realm. Why? Firstly, we are doing pretty well at modelling and prediction, even if we have a long way to go, and even if there are other (identifiable) things that confound it in some situations. Secondly, in the past I certainly looked for inexplicable phenomena I could attribute to immaterial influence (God). I was never a 7-day creationist or anything, but I definitely had the unsettling experience of seeing natural explanations for things I’d assumed were safely behind a curtain of mystery. My intuition now tells me to reject the idea that there is anything out there that couldn’t be captured by physical theories. Having said that, I am not repulsed from the idea of the immaterial. But I think mind is an emergent property and not something with a life of its own, even if it can affect what it emerges from.

Schwartz, on the other hand, believes in free will. The most interesting sentence in the book for me was this one, quoting Thomas Clark: “To assert a belief in free will is to … recognize the mind as ‘more or less a first cause, an unmoved mover'” (ch. 9). It showed me exactly why free will makes no sense to me. It is saying there is no further explanation, no way of understanding or (even in principle) predicting what we will do. Arguing for free will puts the mind outside of natural laws, and so directly contradicts the statement in chapter 1 that “consciousness and the mind… are legitimate areas of scientific inquiry.”

Human consciousness is complex enough to allow the possibility of reflecting on our own thoughts, and, through effortful attention, deliberately reprogramming our brains. I have a “plastic” brain and I can choose to shape it with my thinking. But the way I see it, that choice was fully determined by the existing brain structure and the ideas that were input, and not by some completely independent first-cause action of mine.

(Perhaps belief in freedom of choice is necessary for some people though; I don’t feel a lack of this belief has to lead to fatalism, although it easily could: if knowledge can collapse a wave function, why shouldn’t it collapse motivation also? :lol:)

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13 Responses to Neuroplasticity, quantum physics and free will

  1. Quantum Physics was a weird thing to see in my philosophy class on consciousness. The philosophy majors were mad because it was so different than what deal with and I was mad because it is what I normally deal with. I took philosophy classes to get a break from it.

    • Sarah says:

      I did physics at undergrad level but I never really thought much about the philosophical implications. I think most physicists just “shut up and calculate” 🙂

  2. Lorri Scilini says:

    “But the way I see it, that choice was fully determined by the existing brain structure and the ideas that were input, and not by some completely independent first-cause action of mine.”

    Good point. And maybe even solely by the existing brain structure.

    I’ve become increasingly fascinated with delusions, the kind associated with neurological damage, such as Capgras Delusion. You probably know that it relates to patients who, after a specific brain injury, can no longer access the emotional component of face recognition. And, not surprisingly, are troubled by the fact that they recognize a certain face but feel nothing about it.

    What startles me is how the patient resolves that discrepancy. To decide that the person is an imposter is a purely mental activity – an act of “mind”, a thought, a conclusion, yet following predictably from the brain lesion.

    How truly are our thoughts our own, when a specific thought so consistently follows neurological damage?

    • Sarah says:

      I hadn’t heard of Capgras Delusion… but wow!

      It is possible to use reason to overcome incorrect thoughts and beliefs stemming from brain malfunctions – the OCD therapy included getting patients to understand what their brain is doing and relabel the thoughts in that light. I remember in “A Beautiful Mind”, John Nash used his reason to identify his schizophrenic delusions – he recognised that the girl that kept appearing wasn’t getting any older over the years. But this is so difficult. As you say, it makes you realise how we are at the mercy of brain processes… we are brain processes! It makes me wonder in what ways I might be deluded! 😉

  3. RJW says:

    “it is hard to see how that knowledge would produce that elusive ‘Aha!’ moment, when we all say…”

    If it wasn’t hard to see how, then it wouldn’t be an ‘Aha!’ moment when it got round to happening.

    Francis Crick used to say that the problem of conciousness would probably just go away when we understood the brain: just like the problem of what life is went away once we understood DNA. I’m with him on this one.

    • Sarah says:

      Very good point! I have been reading a whole bunch of articles on emergence since writing this post (actually, for once, this topic relates to my work too), and I’m coming towards the same kind of thinking.

    • Julian says:

      Hi RJW, I think you may be right, but I am not quite as sure as you sound. I think there may be a significant difference between the question of what life is and the question of what consciousness is because the latter, by definition, is all about our own subjective experience. The explanations scientists give for life using the replication of DNA and other molecular processes don’t throw up anything subjectively dissonant in the way that explanations of consciousness might. The phenomena of optical illusions may provide a good analogy. You can have the optical illusion deconstructed and learn how it works quite easily, but put it back together again and those two colours still look completely different shades even though you know they aren’t. Those two lines still look different lengths even though you know they aren’t. It could be that we can objectively learn what consciousness is, but there is no guarantee that it will not still clash with our subjective experience of it. From an existential point of view, for the individual, the problem may not go away at al. It won’t just ‘vanish in a puff of logic’ to borrow a phrase from Douglas Adams. I may discover that my subjective experiences (and what I ordinarily think of as ‘me’) are emergent phenomena dependent on clearly definable physical processes. There may be no ‘prime mover’ inside pulling the levers. Is that intellectual knowledge going to change my subjective impression that there is? It may do, but it may equally be that more is required. I wonder if the kind of spiritual practices Zen monks do have been aimed at achieving this end for a long time. If we understood consciousness, we might know how to induce this shift of perspective by manipulating the brain in some way without doing a lifetime of meditation. However, I am skeptical that intellectual knowledge alone will result in those kinds of life changing experiences that actually enable one to see directly that ‘I’ am not what ‘I’ have always assumed.

  4. Susanne says:

    What a fascinating topic! I love those things you listed at the top about the brain. Enjoyed this!

  5. Marahm says:

    You say, “But I think mind is an emergent property and not something with a life of its own, even if it can affect what it emerges from.”

    I would like to think that the mind is not only emergent, but able to create a layer of existence independently of that from which it emerges. Have you looked at Teilhard de Chardin and his concept of the Noosphere?

    • Sarah says:

      Just looked it up on Wikipedia. Interesting! When I was reading about emergence there was the concept of strong emergence and weak emergence: I’m not sure which category the noosphere idea would correspond to.

      This book chapter on the sacred emergence of nature was particularly enjoyable:

      It points out that going down the levels (reductionism) looks different from going up the levels again: in the upward direction we see that

      “‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. A second phrasing is to say that as one moves ‘up’ in levels of scale, one encounters ‘something more from nothing but’ or, less euphoniously but more accurately, ‘something else from nothing but’—since the point is not that one encounters something greater or something more, but that one encounters something else altogether.”

      So far, this made the most sense to me.

  6. Marahm says:

    Makes good sense, and paraphrases the idea of the noopshere. It allows for the best of religion as well as the development secular humanism. It accommodates the transcendent experiences of a wide variety of people; no subscription necessary! Most optimistically, it predicts a sort of life after death, or at least consciousness after bodily death, which is what are all hoping for, after all, no?

    • Sarah says:

      “it predicts a sort of life after death, or at least consciousness after bodily death, which is what are all hoping for, after all, no?”

      Hmm… depends what it would be like! I quite like the idea of going to sleep at the end of a long life and never waking up 😀

      I personally have difficulty seeing how consciousness could exist without the brain that supports it, even if it does have some sort of life of its own with its own self-contained rules… but I’m certainly open to other ideas. Perhaps I will read some more about the noosphere.

  7. caraboska says:

    Praise the Lord. How interesting that you have done a post on this subject that I have been coming across quite often lately! I don’t find it disturbing that there is a scientific explanation for things because I view God as the Creator of natural laws, so that I would view that explanation as a reflection of the orderliness that is a property of God. And as far as mystery goes, to me the Trinity is actually very simple and logical. If you read the whole Bible – Old and New Testaments – as a unit, the only way the system hangs together is if God does in fact possess the property of multiplicity in unity. And the way that works mathematically is that God is infinite. Some reading this may have seen this equation elsewhere, but I think it is worth recalling here: for x=infinity, x + x + x = x. In other words, 3x=x. You could put any constant in front of the x on either side of that equation, you would still come up with the same answer. And as far as I know, the equation x-x=x would also hold true for x=infinity. Infinity works VERY differently from ordinary real or rational numbers. Once you really GET infinity, the Trinity as a concept ceases to be mysterious. And those who claim otherwise are invariably trying to set up some authority figure as ‘the keeper of the mystery’, the aim being to compel our spiritual dependence on that figure. As Fred would say on Little Mosque on the Prairie: ‘Wake up, people!!!’

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