Beckie's Blog / Students Blogs

It wasn’t me it was my neurons! (Day 5 with Beckie)

It would appear that I’m starting everyday with some psychology. Today we look at what level of control we have as humans…

“We feel we choose, but we don’t,” says Patrick Haggard a neuroscientist at University College London, “you may have thought you decided wether to have tea of coffee this morning, for example, but the decision may have been made long before you were aware of it.”

Smith K, (2011) Nature

So if, for instance, I were to decide to move one of my arms how would this correlate with brain activity? Experiments show that activity in areas of the front of the brain preceded the conscious decision of movement by up to 8 seconds. In essence your brain knows you are going to move before you do so, and with an MRI scanners scientists would know which arm you were going to move far in advance of the movement. The 8 second delay isn’t hard to understand with a reductionist, bottom up, approach to physiology- where all conscious behaviours depend on molecular events that change electrical activity in neurones and nerves, and every molecular event in between, before finally resulting in movement. It could take 8 seconds for the signal starting in the brain to result in a behaviour we are aware of. What about sport where there simply isn’t enough time for 8 seconds to allow for conscious processing of information? We see that constant, continuous activity or practice alters the brain to allow for an automatic response, suppressing the need for conscious decision making and allowing a much faster reaction time. Repeated practice of a skill can alter the brain in other ways; If we consider London Taxi drivers, who have to learn London road maps prior to even getting in the cab, time as a taxi driver correlates with altered brain architecture and neural connections as more and more is devoted to spatial navigation.

The question is are humans only free to make choices within limits determined by the biological consequences of past deliberations and practice which are literally embodied in the brain structure? If brain activation precedes conscious decision of movement, does this experiment show our intentions have no influence on our actions that had already been determined without our  knowledge? If so is there an issue with control and responsibility and can we validate people saying “It wasn’t me, it was my neurons?”

Well, let’s start by stating that the Libet experiment, which shows the 8 second delay between brain activity and movement, had flaws. People tend to want to make a spontaneous decision look random so influencing the decision they make. Also a spontaneous decision can hardly be made if you are told to go when you feel like it, “should I go now, no wait a little longer, right now”. In life decisions are, for the most part, more immediate. Unless we are considering a coffee shop situation and you are one of those people who spend 5 minutes deciding what coffee to get only to end up with the same cappuccino you order every time. You probably knew you would get a cappuccino but were entertaining the idea of being more adventurous today.

In life there doesn’t need to be consciousness for decision in many situations: step left to avoid the man on the street, try to catch the spoon you have just knocked off the side. With all this automation can we blame our neurones for our actions which happen without knowledge? Well no, firstly if you are planning to blame your neurones where are you when you do so? You are after all embodied in your brain. But maybe we can look at damage affecting decision making, personality, control of action, risk-adversity and even motivation.

There are many examples of accidents that have done these things to the individual involved. There are also chemicals, such as L-dopamine, which are sufficient to change decision making and action. If there is a reason your neurones might not be acting normally would this stand up in court affecting culpability or altering the sentence? Or if morality is intact should regrettable actions have been avoided, and if you cannot control impulses does that mean detainment for the safety of others? Many questions that I shall not attempt to answer but, with the ever increasing frequency of neuroscience being used to look at the culprit not just the injured in court, they are interesting to ponder on. People will act differently due to the pulls and tugs of society and situation, how much really depends on will when motivation for time and resources may be in competition?

Victorian Science

After so many philosophical questions if was a nice to learn some fun things about Victorian science. We saw the animals of the Victorian zoo including the mischievous rhesus monkey, the oranatang who would rather put his hairy hand in an English cup of tea than drink it, and the brown bear who will hold his feet in play until thrown a sugar cube or a bun. The Victorians learnt lessons from looking to Natural History, the crowded cities of the ant hill and the restless nomads that are wild horses. It was also the time of Darwin, and his theory of Natural selection, invention, such as Alexander Bell’s telephone and the first recording of sound, and chemical wonder. We were treated with films, recordings, stories and chemical demonstrations from the era in a truly marvellous two hour show.

The day finished off with the “End of the World” party. On arrival we were dressed in hazmat suits and journeyed into the tunnels under Abredeen’s streets. We learnt about comfort foods, time capsules, extinction and made viruses out of glow in the dark air dough. At the end of the tunnel we made weapons and painted ourselves “Lord of the Flies” style.

The forest near them burst into uproar. Demoniac figures with faces of white and red and green rushed out howling… the tallest of them, stark naked save for paint and a belt, was Jack” -William Golding’s Lord of the Flies

The end of the World?

Well we didn’t go quite that far but I did have a X-men belt, hunger games-esque bow and arrow and a ninja mask (maybe deciding on a theme would have served me well before being let at the paint, glue and cardboard). The night continued with live music by Found and then a 1950s disco. A wonderful end to the day but as for the end of the world; I think we are safe, at least until the Mayan calendar runs out.

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