Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Free Will as an Interdisciplinary Subject

Brookelyn Doherty
Dr. Morrison
NEUR 300
18 October 2017
Free Will as an Interdisciplinary Subject
It could be argued that Aristotle, a philosopher and one the first scientist, argued the discussion of free will back in the 4th century BC. Even though not formerly addressed, his writings on the four causes shows his rejection of free will because he states every event has a cause to trace back to. However this discussion of free will was far from over. Still in present day people still debate its existence, but now this debate is more thorough because the number of fields influencing it has increased. Similar to Aristotle, many findings in today’s world are interdisciplinary, among many disciplines, in this case both scientific and philosophical. Dr. Vukov mentions how philosophy can give an ethical perspective to neuroscience findings, and vice versa. Since science itself is driven by novel ideas and the philosophies that create these ideas, this is not hard to believe. However to build off Dr. Vukov’s presentation I will be bringing in the opinions/findings of Dr. Musser, who takes a quantum physical approach. From the discussion of the Neuroethics presentation key points were made that relate to Dr. Musser’s writings, kovmost clearly to his discussion of quantum indeterminism and quantum no-cloning theorem.

Firstly within his indeterminism discussion he brings up interesting points saying how we actually want determinism, one determinist feature doesn’t make the whole system deterministic, and brings in arguments of fellow scientist Sabine Hossenfelder’s concept of “free-will functions”. In class A and B type actions were describe as A being well thought out and B being rapidly chosen. From the studies Dr. Vukov also brought up the compatibility perspective, combining determinism and free will. Musser also mentions this topic when he advocates the 1) need for determinism and 2) the idea that different levels of decision making can be different (determined v free). He makes the point that whether every decision is already set or ever decision is completely random, indeterminism, neither one allows for free will. However if an action has both aspects, ex. eating (determined) vs. eating a sandwich instead of candy (indetermined), our actions now have the opportunity for free will. Extending from that example just because a part of a decision was determined, to eat, does not automatically mean every level of the system is determined as well, what you eat. “Free-will functions” do not relate directly back to what was talked about in class, however the explanation behind them is notable. They promote the notion of free-will by saying decision are “fully determined” by a function but “unpredictable” because the only one who “knows” the function is the individual that it is affecting.  In a conversation Musser had with Hossenfelder he says
Her point is that whereas hidden variables are part of the state of the system, the free-will function is part of the laws of nature. It is not a hidden variable, but a hidden law. Nature still meets the definition of determinism—a given state evolves in a definite way—even if the rules guiding evolution are unknowable. The free-will function might not be definable as an equation or algorithm, but would be what theoretical computer scientists call an oracle.
While this ideal does not relate to what was discussed in our class it could contribute to the compatibility discussion of future classes.

Another item discussed by Musser in his post was quantum no-cloning theorem. This theorem says that it is physically impossible to have a computer simulation that can predict every aspect of a person. This relates back to class when we discussed the need of a 100% accurate system to negate free will. However in class we also mentioned predictability does not disprove free will, which Musser also agrees. A new point Musser leads the reader to is through Scott Aaronson’s paper “The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine”. In here Aaronson discusses Newcomb’s Paradox, a system where there are two entities and one predicts the other. If the ‘predictor’ could aptly predict a person, which clones them, how does a simulation verses the original copy of a person know which they are?
While all fields add noteworthy ideals and discoveries is apparent that if topics, such as free will, are limited to the thinking’s of one sector well are actively limiting our potential knowledge.

Aaronson, Scott. "The ghost in the quantum turing machine." arXiv preprint arXiv:1306.0159 (2013).
Musser, George. “The Quantum Physics of Free Will.” Scientific American,

Soon, Chun Siong, et al. "Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain." Nature neuroscience 11.5 (2008): 543-545.

Is Your Brain a Computer?

By Allison Mohan

All science involves data. Scientists collect and interpret data every day. The information gathered from research can be applied to everyday life. Science strives to find answers and to make the world a better place. This can be done by collecting data and analyzing patterns. Computers have provided scientists with the opportunity to have data processed and analyzed at greater speeds and magnitudes as time goes on, and they are now necessary in the fast-paced and growing world we live in.
Mark Albert, PhD has advocated for the necessity of scientists, particularly neuroscientists, to have at least a basic understanding of computer science.  In a research article he coauthored, “Could a Neuroscientist Understand a Microprocessor?,” an argument is made that “current analytic approaches in neuroscience may fall short of producing meaningful understanding of neural systems, regardless of the amount of data.” The brain is complex, and at the same time, a lot of data on the brain is being collected every day by researchers. But how can someone confidently interpret the data of something that they do not understand? How is there any way to know that a conclusion is reliable? Albert argues “for testing approaches using known artifacts, where the correct interpretation is known.” Albert says that many modern neuroscience methods rely primarily on reporting correlations, and a mass of such correlation experiments alone are not sufficient enough to understand the brain as well as we can understand computers such as microprocessors.  Albert believes that scientific knowledge needs to be externalized. Computer models are clear and can be understood.
ibms unveils the brain inspired truenorth cognitive computer braincomputerIn a New York Times article entitled “Face It, Your Brain is a Computer,” Gary Marcus argues that the brain is analogous to a computer, and subscribing to that idea could greatly help to “profitably guide research.” A particular type of computer, a field programmable gate array, is what Marcus argues to be a good model of how the brain operates. He references a research article he wrote in which he and his colleagues suggest that “the brain might similarly consist of highly orchestrated sets of fundamental building blocks” much like those in a field programmable gate array. Brains are “exceptionally complex arrangements of matter,” and there exists no evidence to support that brains are “exempt from the laws of computation,” so why approach them differently?
Albert argues that neuroscientists should possess an understanding of computer science in order to analyze the brain in more reliable ways. Marcus argues that the brain is a type of biological computer, and therefore should be researched as such. To Marcus, conquering understanding of the brain is, put simply, just a matter of figuring out “what kind of computer” it is.  Both believe that the brain needs to be approached in research differently. Conclusions drawn about the brain will be more reliable when the brain is approached using analytical techniques that have already been proven correct on known objects, such as computers. Information gathered about the brain will be more reliably transferred to others through computer models. And, maybe, using Marcus’s analogy, there will come a day when we can identify what type of computer the brain truly is.

            “Face It, Your Brain is a Computer.” Marcus, Gary. 27 June 2015.

            “Could a Neuroscientist Understand a Microprocessor?” Jonas, Eric et al. 2017.

Can You Hear Me Now? How Neuroscience Is on a Quest to Repair Hearing Damage

A small rural hospital in KwaZulu-Natal (S. Africa) specializes in treatment of Tuberculosis (TB). Due to the living conditions and lack of proper drug administration, many of the patients escalate into multidrug-resistant (MDR) TB which so happens to be managed through highly-potent aminoglycosides. These injectable drugs also have a serious side effect resulting in loss of hearing if not properly managed, known as ototoxicity. Unfortunately, in November of 2015 the laptop that contained the software to manage the levels of ototoxicity in the TB patients was stolen and not replaced until March of 2016. Between that time frame not a single hearing test was administered. Due to the severity of their MDR TB, their choice was to either continue losing hearing or die. As a result, 123 patients suffered a complete loss of hearing. 1 So, what is being done to help restore what was so wrongfully taken from them?

Even with proper monitoring, ototoxicity doesn’t always show symptoms until hearing loss has occurred. According to Dr. Gayla L. Poling, of the Mayo Clinic, “over 200 medications are reported to be potentially ototoxic” resulting in over nine million Americans that are currently exposed to the chemicals. The resulting exposure can lead to hearing loss, ringing in the ear (tinnitus), as well as balance disorders.2 It’s important that we consider a few of the products that can cause this damage (full list): 
  • Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) and Quinine 
  • Loop diuretics - i.e. water pills 
  • Aminoglycoside - i.e. neomycin, streptomycin, tobramycin 
  • Anti-cancer drugs - i.e. Cisplatin and Carboplatin 
  • Environmental Chemicals - i.e. mercury, lead, xylenes

Undamaged IHCs and OHCs B) Damaged IHCs and OHCs
Does this mean that you’ll wake up deaf after having a particularly late-night drinking Gin and Tonic’s followed up by a couple Aspirin? No. Most over-the-counter drugs are intended to be taken in moderation. However, consistent and high-doses over prolonged periods of time will have an effect. Dr. Marlan Hansen, of University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, notes that, “There’s a lot of people who [experience] sudden deafness, profound deafness, from taking significant doses of Vicodin over several months or years, and all of the sudden, one day – or within a day or two – they lose all hearing.” 3

 How are these chemicals actually “poisoning” our ears? It was determined that the loss of hearing was the result of damage to Inner Hair Cells (IHC) in the cochlea as vestibular areas of the inner ear.4 To better understand if it’s at all possible to restore those damaged cells, we first need to understand how the auditory system is interpreting and transmitting the sound received from the IHC’s into the brain.

In a study titled ”A Gata3–Mafb transcriptional network directs post-synaptic differentiation in synapses specialized for hearing” (Yu et al. 2013), they demonstrate that the transcription factor Mafb is the key player in formation of auditory ribbon synapses. These synapses specialize in “rapid transport” from hair cells to spiral ganglion neurons (SGNs). SGNs have shown to be the vehicle in which the representation of sound moves from the cochlea to the brain. 5 The findings point to potentially re-establishing connections with the IHC’s via stimulation of the Mafb. Given the relationship between Gata3 and Mafb as “key players in a transcriptional cascade,” what would the results look like if the methodology was applied to cochlear toxicity in hopes of reversing morphologic damage?

Schematic drawing of the innervation of hair cells. IHC: inner hair cell; OHCs: outer hair cells; AF: afferent fiber; EF: efferent fiber; LOC: lateral olivary complex; MOC: medial olivary complex.

Yu et al., like other similar studies, provided the needed insight to allow other research programs the opportunity to continue pushing the discussion. Toward the end of 2016, a new study was published, “Mammalian Cochlear Hair Cell Regeneration and Ribbon Synapse Reformation.” (Lu et al. 2016). The basis was to expand on what was learned with the Yu team to truly focus on regenerating IHC’s that were the direct result of ototoxicity. They discovered promising results for reinnervation of newly generated IHCs by encouraging regeneration of the ribbon synapses via signaling pathways/factors such as Gata3-mafb. However, they also discovered a limitation on capability to maintain and mature the newly formed IHCs - “we are still quite far from restoring the hearing function in the damaged inner ear. The maturation and survival of newly generated HCs are still challenging. Furthermore, the maturation of reinnervation of the regenerated HCs and the function of the reformed ribbon synapse remain open to question, such as the contact between stereocilium and tectorial membrane, reorganization of the innervation of afferent Type I and Type II spiral ganglion neuron, and the integral interplay of outer hair cell based cochlear amplification.” 6

How will all this help those 123 patients who are suffering because of ototoxicity? Sadly, right now it won’t, however, these are crucial steps to one day having the ability to repair and restore hearing. Loss of hearing is a debilitating disorder that can lead to confusion, frustration, social isolation and depression. Keeping your hearing “front of mind” as well as taking the proper preventative steps is the best approach. After a hearing test, your Audiologist can make a proper diagnosis and recommend aids, implants, or rehabilitation.

Support and funding are the most critical factors to enable continuing research in these fields.

1. Singh, K. (2017, September 06). Over 100 TB patients go deaf because of negligence – DA. Retrieved October 18, 2017, from

2. Poling, G. L., Ph. D. (2016, February 6). The Five W’s of Ototoxicity Monitoring: Who, What, Where, When, & Why. Retrieved October 18, 2017, from

3. Schroeder, M. O. (2015, October 27). Silent Side Effect: Could Your Medication Cause Hearing Loss? Retrieved October 18, 2017, from

4. Haybach, P., RN, MS. (2015, December 28). Ototoxicity. Retrieved October 18, 2017, from

5.  Yu, W., Appler, J. M., Kim, Y., Nishitani, A. M., Holt, J. R., & Goodrich, L. V. (2013). A Gata3–Mafb transcriptional network directs post-synaptic differentiation in synapses specialized for hearing. ELife, 2. doi:10.7554/elife.01341

6. Lu, X., Shu, Y., Tang, M., & Li, H. (2016). Mammalian Cochlear Hair Cell Regeneration and Ribbon Synapse Reformation. Neural Plasticity, 2016, 1-9. doi:10.1155/2016/2523458

The Border Between Organic and Synthetic Computers

It has been said within the Jonas, Kording paper "Could a Neuroscientist Understand a Microprocessor" that a microprocessor is not necessarily a full model to understand the human brain. Due to the complex, yet completely understood nature of microprocessors, they are not good examples for helping us understand the more intricate system that is the human brain.
However, does this necessarily mean that what we do understand about the nervous system can't be transferred into more in-depth knowledge of technology? Can't technology assist us in situations in which the nervous system has failed?
The New York Times article Prosthetic Limbs, Controlled by Thought discusses exactly that. The notion of interpreting motor, and in some cases, sensory neuron information into a language understood by a microprocessor. The purpose of this, as the paper details, is to augment the nervous system in order to allow a subject's brain to ultimately control the movements and sensation of a robotic, prosthetic limb.
What do you all think of this? What may be the prospect of the near, or distant future of nervously controlled prosthetics? How feasible is a microprocessor that fills in for other central Nervous system functions?

Free Will vs. Neuroscience

A major difference between animals and humans is the human capacity to make choices: the human free will. What would happen if science was able to prove that humans lack free will? What if human choices are simply the brain acting and making decisions depending on the environment? These kinds of questions relate to the branch of science called neuroethics. Beside dealing with the ethics of neuroscience, neuroethics also deals with the intersection of neuroscience and philosophy. Research done by Benjamin Libet opened up the possibility of there being a lack of free will which arose many questions. Libet’s research showed that the brain has a “readiness potential” which is defined as an activation of the brain several hundred milliseconds before the conscious decision of the participant when deciding whether or not to perform a wrist flexion.
Following Libet’s research, a scientist named Chun Siong Soon, “investigated which regions of the brain predetermine conscious intentions and the time at which they start shaping a motor decision”. In the experiment, participants were asked to press a button, right or left, whenever they felt the need to. Participants were also asked to remember the letter shown when their decision was made. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) the activity of the brain was measured during the experiment. It was seen that the motor decision while the participant was performing the act was located on the primary motor cortex and the SMA. Furthermore, seven seconds before these regions were activated the frontopolar cortex was active, followed by the activation of the precuneus into the posterior cingulate cortex.
Furthermore, the research also aimed to discover whether it was possible to predict which side, left or right, the participants where going to chose. To perform this, the patterns shown in the fMRI were located and by using statistically pattern recognition techniques it was possible to predict the outcome with a 60% accuracy.
While the research just mentioned caused a lot of disturbances in society, neuroscience has not yet proved the lack of existence of free will. The article written by Christian Jarrett titled “Neuroscience and Free Will Are Rethinking Their Divorce” talks about how Libet’s findings and the ones who followed do not necessarily discard free will. While Jarrett does not negate the existence of the “readiness potential”, he introduces the idea of “free won’t”. This concept was introduced by a German neuroscientist that defines “free won’t” as the ability that humans have to veto the subconscious “readiness potential”. Participant were asked to press a pedal when the green light was shown and press another pedal when the red light was shown, which veto the first action. Furthermore, the computer would detect the “readiness potential” and turn the red light on in consequence. The findings showed that indeed we are capable to veto that unconscious preparatory motor signal. Jarrett debates that despite there is activity in the brain before we are conscious of our action we are still using our free will by deciding to veto the action or not. Therefore, it is not possible to say that humans’ actions are purely our brains deciding for us.
Together with the fact that we are capable to veto our brain activity to perform something we must take into consideration that the task performed in both Libet’s and Soon’s research by the participants was rather simple. Decisions can be classified into Type A and Type B. Type A decisions are those in which there is a lot more thinking behind them while Type B decisions are those that are made quickly. In order to determine whether humans have free will or not, both Type A and Type B must be tested.
There is no doubt that the brain makes some decisions and we are unconscious of it, for the “readiness potential” does exist. Despite all these findings, neuroscience has not negated the existence of free will.

Work Cited
Jarrett, Christian. “Neuroscience and Free Will Are Rethinking Their Divorce”. 03/02/16. Science of Us. 14/10/17. Web

Soon, Chun Siong. “Unconscious determinates of free decisions in the human brain”. 2008. Nature Neuroscience. Nature Publishing Group. 09/10/17. PDF

The Brain’s Predetermined Decisions

The Brain’s Predetermined Decisions
            Often, humans like to believe that the decisions they make throughout their lives, simple and menial or complex and life-changing, are a product of their independent decisions. However, are these decisions really ours to make? Or are our actions predetermined, with us merely under the impression that we are controlling our lives? This concept of free will is one that has been hotly debated, not only by philosophers, but also by neuroscientists. In a marriage of modern neuroscience and philosophy, the field of neuroethics emerges, studying the neural basis of decisions and whether or not they are a product of one’s free choice or a predetermined factor. Studies done by various neuroscience labs, such as the lab of Benjamin Libet, have come up with a surprising result: the “timing these conscience decisions was consistently preceded by several hundred milliseconds of background preparatory brain activity.” However, Libet’s study, having been done in the 1980s, was supported by few accurate readings of the exact measurements of the difference between the brain already deciding and preparing for an action and a person making the conscious decision. However, the implication of this study, along with others, is quite clear: humans do not actually have free will. The actions we preform and the decisions we make may feel conscious to us, yet they are actually predetermined by ongoing neural processes. Dr. Joseph Vukov, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, presented research which studied the neural behavior associated with the unconscious actions of the brain, indicating whether or humans truly have free will.            
The study Dr. Vukov explained, Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain, done by Soon, Brass, Heinze, and Haynes, detailed an experiment in which the neural behavior associated with cognitive tasks was determinant of whether humans had free will or not. Based on the previously mentioned study done by Libet, participants were given tasks which measured their readiness potential through EEG readings and fMRI. The study demonstrated that the readiness potential that was measured indicated that before the participant had decided to do the action, the brain released the readiness potential, proposing that perhaps humans do not actually have free will. However, Vukov proposed 5 reasons as to why the idea of free will cannot be completely discarded by neuroscience, some of which include the complexity of free actions and that many free actions do not necessarily have to be conscious.
In the article What Neuroscience Says about Free Will, researchers Adam Bear and Paul Bloom, from Yale University, explored the connections between free will and the human mind. They sought to find out which decisions humans make consciously, and which decisions are just the predeterminations of our brains.  Bloom and Bear conclude that the concept of free will is merely an illusion, during which a decision was made unconsciously by our brains. Our conscious mind is not responsible for our actions, as we think. Rather, it is our unconscious brain which is controlling these decisions, and when the decision is made, we are made to believe that the result we sought was intentional. Therefore, we do not truly have free will in our choices and decisions.
In order to get their findings, Bloom and Bear conducted an experiment, during which subjects had to choose which of the dots on their screen would turn red. The participants would have to self record their predictions after they witnessed which dot would turn red. However, it was interesting to see that when the correct answer showed up, the participants said they had a higher accuracy rate than expected, while when the answer took a while to appear, they mentioned that the predictions which they reported were closer to the results which they expected. The conscious brain was not in charge of this situation, rather it was the unconscious simply observing the answer, concluding that it is in fact the unconscious that is in charge of decision-making before the brain is made aware.
Dr. Vukov and Bloom and Bear are of the common opinion that there is a link between neuroscience and the philosophy of free will. However, they differ in the degree to which they observe such findings. While Bloom and Bear believe that certainly humans are not in charge of their free will, Dr. Vukov is of the opinion that although there is a correlation, there is still not enough yet to concretely say that there is such a definite and tight connection between the two. Concisely, it cannot be completely proven that neuroscience disproves the concept of free will, yet the study of neuroethics is an important segway into future research on the topic.

Bear, A. (2016, April 28). What Neuroscience Says about Free Will. Retrieved October 18, 2017, from

Soon, et al. ”Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain,”, date accessed October 18th, 2017.