How to Think About the Mind

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How to Think About the Mind

Neuroscience shows that the 'soul' is the activity of the brain

By Steven Pinker


Sept. 27 issue

Every evening our eyes tell us that the sun sets, while we know that, in
fact, the Earth is turning us away from it. As
tronomy taught us centuries ago that common
sense is not a reliable guide to reality. Today it is neuroscience that is forcing us to readjust
our intuitions. People naturally believe in the Ghost in the Machine: that we have bodies
made of matter and spiri
ts made of an ethereal something. Yes, people acknowledge that
the brain is involved in mental life. But they still think of it as a pocket PC for the soul,
managing information at the behest of a ghostly user.

Modern neuroscience has shown that there
o user. "The soul" is, in fact, the information
processing activity of the brain. New imaging techniques have tied every thought and
emotion to neural activity. And any change to the brain

from strokes, drugs, electricity or

will literally change y
our mind. But this understanding hasn't penetrated the
conventional wisdom. We tell people to "use their brains," we speculate about brain
transplants (which really should be called body transplants) and we express astonishment
that meditation, education a
nd psycho
can actually change the brain.
How else
could they work?

This resistance is not surprising. In "Descartes' Baby," psychologist Paul Bloom argues that
a mind
body distinction is built into the very way we think. Children easily accept stor
ies in
which a person changes from a frog to a prince, or leaves the body to go where the wild
things are. And though kids know the brain is useful for thinking, they deny that it makes
them feel sad or love their siblings.

The disconnect between our commo
n sense and our best science is not an academic
curiosity. Neuroscience is putting us in unfamiliar predicaments, and if we continue to think
of ourselves as shadowy users of our brains we will be needlessly befuddled. The Prozac
revolution provides an exa
mple. With antidepressant and anti
anxiety drugs so common,
critics wonder whether we're losing the ability to overcome problems through force of will.
Many an uncomprehending spouse has asked, "Why don't you just snap out of it?" But
depressed people don'
t have lazy souls. The parts of their brains that could "snap out of it"
are not working properly. To depressed people it is objectively obvious that their prospects
are hopeless. Tweaking the brain with drugs may sometimes be the best way to jump
e machinery that we call the will.

Prozac shouldn't be dispensed like mints, of course, but the reason is not that it undermines
the will. The reason is that emotional pain, like physical pain, is not always pathological.
Anxiety is an impetus to avoid inv
isible threats, and most of us would never meet a deadline
without it. Low mood may help us recalibrate our prospects after a damaging loss. But just
as surgeons don't force patients to endure agony to improve their characters, people
shouldn't be forced t
o endure anxiety or depression beyond what's needed to prompt self

To many, the scariest prospect is medication that can make us better than well by
enhancing mood, memory and attention. Such drugs, they say, will undermine striving and
ice; they are a kind of cheating, like giving the soul a corked bat. But anything that
improves our functioning

from practice and education to a good night's sleep and a double

changes the brain. As long as people are not coerced, it's unclear why

we should
tolerate every method of brain enrichment but one.


In Galileo's time, the counter
intuitive discovery that the Earth moved around the sun was
laden with moral danger. Now it seems obvious that the motion of rock and gas in space
has nothing to d
o with right and wrong. Yet to many people, the discovery that the soul is
the activity of the brain is just as fraught, with pernicious implications for everything from
criminal responsibility to our image of ourselves as a species. Turning back the clock

on the
ultimate form of self
knowledge is neither possible nor desirable. We can live with the new
challenges from brain science. But it will require setting aside childlike intuitions and
traditional dogmas, and thinking afresh about what makes people be
tter off and worse off.

Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the psychology department at Harvard. His
books include "How the Mind Works" and "The Blank Slate."

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

Causal Powers of the Natural Mind

review of

Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?


Nancey Murphy & Warren Brown

body du
alists, perhaps the majority of folks in the West, suppose, as Steven
Pinker once put it in
, that the brain is a something like a pocket PC for the
soul. The brai
n isn’t enough on its own to support rationality, memory, emotion, the
sense of self and all the other riches of mental life. There must be something else,
something more than our physical selves, that uses the brain as a kind of interface with
the materia
l world. That they think this isn’t surprising, since 1) we’re likely natural
born dualists to some extent (as
Paul Bloom

has argued), 2) the meme of dualism is
heavily reinforced in our culture by re
ligion and new age thinking, and 3) it sure feels
like there’s something immaterial in here, doing the mental work.

The same point often applies to such things as morality and responsibility: for us to be
morally responsible agents people think there’s go
t to be something more than the brain
in charge. If there weren’t, we could simply plead that, your honor,
my brain made me
do it
, and brains, however complex, are physical, deterministic mechanisms.

the freely willing, determinism
evading soul to take the ultimate credit and blame, on
what grounds do people really deserve praise and punishment?

Dualism is also a refuge for many mainstream religionists, who see in the apparently
immaterial sel
f a reflection of god’s essential spiritual nature. Indeed, the soul or non
physical mental agent is often thought of as a virtual
little god
, which has special
powers of choice and ration
ality that transcend what mere materiality could possibly

such as Alvin Plantinga and John Haught argue that in order
to have trust in our reason, we must suppose we are more tha
n physical beings.


Evolution operating via natural selection could only assure that our beliefs are adaptive,
not that they are true. Although they might not be theists, adherents of various

dviews often join with religionists in celebrating the virtues and wonders of
the categorically spiritual realm, one that ranks considerably above the physical in their

Given the widespread prejudice in favor of dualism, we need a book that ex
plains how
the brain might be enough, one that makes a case for an unapologetic physicalism as
sufficient for reason and responsibility. Were its authors religionists, that would add to
its credibility, since they couldn’t be accused of grinding an axe aga
inst god and
spirituality. So I’m pleased to report that there is at least one such book, Nancey
Murphy and Warren Brown’s
Did My Neurons Make Me Do

. Both are card
theists resident at Fuller Theological Seminary, but as the book makes abundantly clear,
neither are dualists, at least with respect to human persons (god and ultimate reality are
not discussed).

The title, looking to attract

a wide lay audience, is a bit misleading, suggesting that the
main focus is on moral, and in particular, criminal responsibility. Although the last two
chapters take up moral responsibility and free will, the bulk of the book is a systematic
defense of no
reductive physicalism about the mind. The authors want to construct a
clear explanation of how “reason gets a grip on the brain” without resorting to any
obscure dualisms or simplistic reductionisms, and it’s on this basis which viable notions
of freedom

and responsibility can then, finally, be introduced. So what we get is a very
deliberate, detailed consideration of some of the latest thinking about thinking,
meaning, reference, mental causation, reductionism, emergence, representation and
all presented in an empirically
based and philosophically
theoretical context.

It’s a nicely layered presentation, building the relevant concepts by traversing the
“hierarchy of complexity in the animal world,” from simple biological mechanisms,
ant colonies, to brain physiology, to neural nets, and ultimately to natural symbolic and
semantic creatures such as ourselves. By the time we’re ready to consider what it means
to be a moral agent, we’ve got a good overview of cognitive neuro
y under
our belts, at least one broad take on it. All told, it’s a very rich, well
referenced book,
drawing on a wide range of experts who each contribute solutions to parts of the
puzzle. Those of different philo

suasions, not to mention dualists, will of
course differ on whether its thesis holds water, but whatever its ultimate fate, it’s a
good stab at a all
one, comprehensive theory of how strictly physical beings can have
causally effective and rational mind
s. Having such minds, the authors argue, is
sufficient for moral responsibility and free will of the compatibilist variety

that is,
compatible with not having libertarian,

free will
. We
don’t have to be
unmoved movers, just self
controlled movers that can appreciate reasons and be
responsive to moral norms. All of this is perfectly possible for beings with complex,
instantiated and socially
situated minds like ours.

ts and naturalists like myself will find little to object to in the overall
approach, which eschews any appeal to supernatural, occult causation in accounting for


level human cognition. But having accepted the basic naturalistic premise about
ning persons, the fun begins, since there are interesting disagreements about how
we get from mindless organic parts

neurons and neurotransmitters hooked up to

to conscious beings that act on the basis of reasons. Murphy and Brown
defend what’s

become known as non
reductive physicalism, the idea that, although
we’re strictly physical creatures, the complex organization of our parts gives rise to
categorically new causal powers, such that “higher level patterns of action…do some
real work, and th
us [are]

…reducible to the mass effect of lower level constituents”
(53, original emphasis). This move helps to certify the

of persons, of reasons, and
of higher
level mental and intentional phenomena (beliefs, desires, rationality)
If instead we are causal or atomistic reductionists, supposing that all the real
work gets done at the lower physical levels and that causation is all “bottom up,” we
might think persons and their mental lives are

in our description of what
ly exists. They don’t count as real entities in our ontological catalogue, at least not as
real as atoms, molecules and mechanisms. If so, the idea that we’re rational and
responsible moral agents that make a difference in the world seems hard to sustain.

But Murphy and Brown make a good case that neurons properly assembled in brains,
brains properly connected to bodies, and bodies properly situated in society do indeed
entail real mental phenomena that make for persons with real causal powers. The
comes from the fact that higher level organization, both in brains and in culture,
constrains and directs the ends toward which lower level parts and processes in brains
and bodies are put to work. This is so
called downward causation: parts of persons,
ch as neurons and muscles, are recruited for ends that none of the parts have in mind.
Having a mind just is to be constituted by a coordinated collection of higher
processes that operate in service to the continued existence of the collection. This
that “agents are causes of their own behavior,” as they put it, not the mere working out
of physical laws via their constituent parts as a strict reductionist might claim.

Since mental phenomena such as beliefs and desires require not just a brain a
nd body,
but an environment (physical and social) to which they refer and which gives them
content, Murphy and Brown argue, following philosopher Fred Dretske, that the mental
qua mental isn’t found “in the head,” but is in effect distributed between the p
erson and
their environment: “A mental state is a brain
body event relevant to or directed toward
a social or environmental context

past, present or future” (40).

Filling in this claim, of how mental phenomena refer, of how w
ords mean, of how it is
that we can act for reasons and yet be still fully natural beings subject to laws of physics
and chemistry, is a central burden of the book. Drawing on the work of Andy Clark,
Donald MacKay, Terrence Deacon and Alicia Juarrero, amon
g many others, the authors
put together a systems theory of embodied cognition which purports to explain how
properly contextualized brain events take on intentional properties. Such properties,
they claim, are essential, irreducible elements in a perspica
cious account of intelligent
behavior. Their account does much to suggest how emergence, a notoriously fuzzy
concept, might actually work. Not being an expert in all this

it’s a complex business

I won’t pronounce on its success. But it’s clear t
hat on their view, there’s no


conflict or competition between the physical story of what instantiates a cognitive
system, the behavioral story of why cognition is needed in the first place, and the
level informational story about representation, mea
ning and understanding
characteristic of human intelligence. All levels are real, which is to say they are all
necessary for an explanatory, predictive theory of human action in the world
(remember that basic

elements and forces are also theoretic
al entities). To be a
physicalist, therefore, is not necessarily to deny the existence of the mental,

one takes
the mental to be a higher
order property of a sufficiently complex and flexible physical
system that tracks its environment in service to sel

The mental, thus conceived, has real causal powers just insofar as the informational,
intentional (representational, referential) properties of complex systems play an
ineliminable explanatory role in accounting for behavior, and if Murphy

and Brown are
right (or something like their theory is right), they do. There’s no spooky mental force
that acts on matter which violates the laws of physics; it’s all matter acting on matter in
a way consistent with physical laws, but the

of acti
on typical of complex
cognitive systems like us isn’t something that can be accounted for or described by
physical laws. The domain of law
like explanation that does account for it constitutes
the mental domain, which although it’s constituted by the physi
cal, can’t be reduced to

What’s less clear on Murphy and Brown’s account is whether the subjective

aspect of conscious mental states

qualia, the what it’s like to be in pain, to see red, etc.

are causally efficacious. Most of us suppose

that consciousness is essential for flexible,
foresightful, goal
oriented human behavior, for being (usually) in control in the way
that makes us moral agents, but this claim is ambiguous. Certainly the mental (higher
order, informational, contextualized)

based processes that correlate with
conscious states are necessary for such control, but what’s the causal role of qualia per
se? As
Jaegwon Kim

has argued, if qualia are

reducible to something physical,
functional, or representational, then it’s problematic t
o accord them a causal role, since
from a systems
level view the causal work is already being carried out by the physical,
functional or representational goings
on instantiated by the brain. Since it isn’t obvious
how qualia could just

such goings
on (a

abound), then it seems
they might be non
functional epiphenomena. Indeed, in their discussion of Kim’s work,
Murphy and Brown concede this point: “Relations between qualia, such as t
here being a
difference between [the subjective experience of] red and green, can be functionalized
and reduced; qualia themselves (the redness of red) cannot, and are therefore
epiphenomenal. So, we would not categorically disagree with Kim…that

are epiphenomenal…” (235, original emphasis). From this it appears Murphy and
Brown think some qualia

play a causal role, but from their discussion of mental
causation (193
237) it isn’t clear to me which, or how. But in any case, their theory

the possibility that the phenomenal particulars of our conscious, subjective lives

the redness of red, the painfulness of pain

which likely supervene on causally
efficacious neural processes (what we can justly call mental processes from a systems
ndpoint), may not themselves be causally efficacious.


Should this worry us? Only if we suppose qualitative consciousness is the
sine qua non

of human freedom, responsibility and dignity. And many do. But this worry forgets

the neural processes that accompany consciousness (and that may in some sense
constitute it)

causally effective and central to those higher
level capacities which
support moral agenthood. Even if it turns out that qualia per se are epiphenomenal,
r neural basis is not, so responsibility, like reason, gets a grip on the brain via purely
physical means. We can and must hold mechanisms

organic, indefinitely recursive
modifying mechanisms like ourselves

responsible, whatever is the case about

The authors’ conception of moral agency draws heavily on Alasdair MacIntyre’s view
that, as he puts it, the capacity for moral responsibility is “the ability to evaluate that
which moves one to act in light of a concept

of a good” (243). This requires a rather
sophisticated cognitive architecture, involving the self
critical ability to evaluate one’s
goals on the basis of social norms, and even to evaluate the norms themselves. Murphy
and Brown make the case that their p
hysicalist theory of mind and personhood has the
resources to ground this conception of moral agency, but I think the conception itself is
too narrow and high
falutin’; it’s a conception of an

moral agent, perhaps, but not
the broader, general purpos
e conception that we ordinarily apply when holding each
other responsible. For most practical purposes, we needn’t suppose that moral agents
have the capacity or inclination to engage in a meta
level critique of their conception of
the good, but only that
they are standardly capable of internalizing norms and being
responsive to the prospect of being
held responsible
. Given their elaborate defense of
ideal moral agenthood, Murphy and

Brown’s theory should have little difficulty
supporting this simpler conception.

The final chapter provides a very useful critical survey of the current debate on free
will, highlighting the implausibilities of libertarianism (the idea that we’re

responsible for ourselves and our choices) exemplified by Robert Kane, but also taking
issue with Daniel Dennett’s compatibilism as described in his book
Freedom Evolves
. The
authors charge Dennett with a sort of reductive materialism that leaves us wi
th only an

sort of freedom

free will in name only, not the robust freedom they think is
possible on their non
reductive physicalism. I’m not convinced, however, that their
compatibilism is all that different from Dennett’s, and indeed they acknowle
dge many
similarities between his account of cognition and action and their own. The sticking
point is their contention that Dennett is an instrumentalist, not a realist, about
intentionality and consciousness, and that he’s a mechanist
reductionist about
agency, ignoring the role of top
down causation. So he only gives us “a very
imaginative account of how complex machines could

to have language, beliefs,
morality, and free will” (298, original emphasis). However, Dennett doesn’t discount
reality of our capacity for self
reflective, socially
guided self

constraining influence on behavior of the rational appreciation of reasons for ethical
action. He too has inveighed against the “
greedy reductionism
” of those who imagine
that higher level capacities are explicable on the basis of a strictly bottom
up view, even
though we are complex machines (see note 4)
composed of
millions of “mindless robots”


(the physicalist th
esis). If Dennett is an anti
realist or eliminativist about some things, a
robust, desert
entailing compatibilist freedom based in our real capacity for assessing
choices in the light of normative considerations is not among them.

Although it isn’t discus
sed in their book, Murphy and Brown seem to agree with
Dennett that a compatibilist conception of freedom and moral responsibility, that is,
compatible with our being fully subject to causation (even if we gain a great deal of

autonomy from simple

biological and cultural determinism),

leaves our moral
responsibility practices untouched. As they put it: “We noted (in the Introduction) that
the most significant reason for wanting free will is to preserve traditional notion
s of
moral responsibility and associated practices of social rewards and punishments” (266).
This essentially conservative position puts the cart of culturally embedded notions of
agency and responsibility practices before the horse of science
based theory
. Yes, we are
complex creatures who are proximately self
authoring on a naturalistic view of
ourselves, but does this sort of non
ultimate autonomy support notions of desert, for
instance desert
based retribution, that have historically been justified by t
he idea of
supernatural, contra
causal free will? This is the important, real
world, policy
question about free will and moral responsibility that
Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?

doesn’t address, which short
changed my expectations to some extent.

But that and a
few other quibbles aside, this book is an illuminating contribution to a naturalistic
understanding of mind and agency, well written and argued by supernaturalists, that I
heartedly recommend.

TWC, January,



My adjectival neologism to describe approaches combining both philosophy and
science, of which this book is an admirable example.


But arguably mental states

in the head in
the sense that conscious
phenomenology supervenes on brain states independent of environmental contexts.
Brains in vats, the dreaming brain, and

all support conscious mental states,
even if suc
h states don’t properly

to anything.


The irony here is that it’s irreducibility, what Murphy and Brown are most
concerned to defend in this volume, that bars qualia from playing a causal role.


See for instance
Holding Mechanisms Responsible
. Murphy and Brown would object
to characterizing human beings as mechanisms, since they define a mechanism as not
having the capacity for self
fication and environmentally responsive, adaptive and
purposive behavior. But calling ourselves mechanisms simply serves to highlight the
cause and effect, physicalist, non
spooky basis for even our highest capacities; it isn’t to
limit those capacities to

what’s typical of most man
made machines (thus far).


Murphy and Brown’s conception of determinism seems to be that of simple push
pull causation. But the thesis of determinism is “the idea that every event is necessitated
by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature” (
Encyclopedia of Philosophy
). This means that our being complex, recursively self
modifying, reasons
ve creatures, with lots of internal buffers against direct


biological and cultural influences, is no bar to our being fully determined. But as the
authors recognize, being

wouldn’t give us free will or responsibility either
(280), so the truth

or falsity of determinism isn’t central to the debate about moral


It gets addressed in
The Scandal of Compatibilism

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Book Review

Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?


With the increasing reliance
on neurology to define human behavior, we are at a
crossroads in our understanding of morality. Can there be free will, and hence, criminal
action, when all behaviors are reduced to the firing of neurons? Is anyone actually
responsible for their actions? O
r are they merely meat sacks doing what the hardware
programs them to do?

This interesting book looks at some of these issues.

by Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown

Oxford University Press, 2007

Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D.

Apr 22nd 2008 (Volume 12, Issue

I approached this book with trepidation. The authors

one a philosopher and one a
cognitive neuroscientist

both work at the Fuller Theological Seminary, and I feared this
would be an uninformed and credulous exercise in Christian apologetics. In
fact the book
is a lot better than that. Though there is a theological motivation, it is not allowed to blind
the authors to the evidence. They aim to reconcile a robust picture of human agency with
science, by way of a defense of a nonreductive physicalis
m. The view is physicalist in
that it presupposes no laws or substances other than those that are (or ought to be)
countenanced by science; it is nonreductive in that it holds that agents are themselves
causes of their behavior.

Though the research strate
gy pursued here is a sensible one, the book is wildly over
ambitious. It seeks to develop a full account of agency, topdown causation and language,
not to mention free will and mental causation, along the way defending controversial
positions in metaphysic
s such as emergence, and taking positions on the function and
nature of consciousness. Any one of these topics is fit for a book; attempting to solve
them all, while laudable in one way, is rather foolhardy. Inevitably, the views defended
are often sketche
d, rather than adequately defended, and pressing objections go
unanswered. An example, almost at random: Murphy and Brown argue that we couldn't
have been zombies; ie, that phenomenal consciousness plays a functional role such that
any being that lacks phe
nomenal consciousness could not be a functional duplicate of us.
This, allegedly, is because consciousness supplies us with 'second
order knowledge'



knowledge that we know something

and we can and do use second
order knowledge to
guide our behavi
or. This, they argue, is why sufferers from blindsight can use visual
information to guide their actions, but cannot do so unprompted: they know but do not
know that they know, and therefore cannot use the knowledge spontaneously. This is an
interesting id
ea, but it is also clearly underdeveloped and open to apparently devastating
objections. First, Murphy and Brown owe us an account of second
order knowledge such
that blindsight sufferers lack it, since there is obviously a sense in which blindsight
ers do know that they possess visual information (they have been told about their
success on trials). Second, the account seems to be vulnerable to counterexamples, since
there are disorders of consciousness which cause a loss of conscious but not unconsci
visual information and in which sufferers can apparently guide their behavior
spontaneously using this visual information (this seems to be true of Milner and
Goodale's famous patient). Third, the thesis Murphy and Brown are defending apparently
ns the necessity of phenomenal consciousness for agency, not its actual function
(they ask whether there

be zombies functionally indistinguishable from us). So
even if their story is true, why should we think that second
order knowledge must be
ded by phenomenal consciousness? Murphy and Brown respond to this question,
calling the supposition incoherent: zombies couldn't know that they have first
conscious perception, since it is false that they have first
order conscious perception. But
is response misses the point: the objection is not that we could have unconscious
order knowledge of first
order conscious knowledge, but that we could have
unconscious second
order knowledge of first
order unconscious knowledge. Presumably
if uncon
scious first
order informational states are possible (and they are) then so are
unconscious second
order information states.

The kinds of sketchiness of argument epitomized above seems to characterize the entire
book and its major claims, as well as its m
inor. It is far from clear to me that at any stage
Murphy and Brown's arguments, successful or unsuccessful, actually have the upshot
they claim. They aim to defend nonreductive physicalism; they do so by way of
attempting to show the reality of mental cau
sation and the existence of causal powers that
are supervenient on ensembles of elements. But reductivists need not deny either mental
causation or the existence of these causal powers, hence the majority of the arguments
simply miss their target. Consider

their claims about top
down causation. So far as I can
tell, their argument comes to this: wholes which are constituted of parts have causal

i.e., causally produce effects

which their parts could not produce on their
own (Murphy and Brown hav
e no truck with exotic causal
; the powers they claim
for wholes are explicitly held to be compatible with and explicable by the same laws of
physics that apply at the level of their parts). Clearly this is true: my pressing the keys on
my keyboard cau
ses letters to appear on my screen, and were my computer to be
decomposed into its constituent atoms, my pressing down in their vicinity would not
cause letters to appear anywhere. Just as clearly, though, no sensible reductivist would
deny this claim. Yet

Murphy and Brown seem to attribute it to them. They claim, for
instance, that reductivists cannot explain the behavior of an ant colony, because they are
committed to holding that the ants are atoms whose 'characteristics are not affected by
relations wit
hin their colony' (p. 96). No reductivist would hold this. Instead, they would
claim that the ways in which the behavior of ants is altered by their relations within their


colony could be captured by extremely long and unwieldy equations at the level of ba

This problem gets repeated unchanged in Murphy and Brown's discussion of mental
causation. They argue that mental states are not reducible to the physical state upon
which they supervenes because they are embedded in a broader context, which
beyond the brain (in other words, they side with externalism, apparently on both content
and location of mental states). But this would be a good argument only if mental states
were required to supervene only on brain states. The obvious move, in r
esponse to
externalism, is to hold that mental states supervene on (and therefore

be reducible to)
brain states plus whatever elements of its broader context are relevant. Moreover, even if
it were true that the informational content of mental states c
ould not be reduced to
whatever its supervenience base turned out to be, it would not follow that that
informational content did any causal work.

The purpose of the book is to show that free will and moral responsibility are possible,
given the truth of p
hysicalism. The upshot of the work on mental causation and agency is
a picture of human action as flexibly responsible to reasons. This is, of course, a standard
kind of compatiblism (Murphy and Brown acknowledge that their view is similar to
Dennett's, th
ough also and sensibly realist about consciousness and rationality). The
picture of agency here is rich and plausible. But it is far from clear that it is adequate as a
picture of moral responsibility. Murphy and Brown give us an account of moral
ility which agents like theirs appear to satisfy, but it is clearly inadequate. For
them, 'one is morally responsible when one has the ability to evaluate, in light of some
concept of the good, the factors that serve to shape and modify one's action' (240)
. This
may be a satisfactory account of moral agency, but it cannot serve as an account of
morally responsible action, since it fails to exclude actions that are the result of
manipulation, coercion or compulsion (for a start). Indeed, almost everything th
Murphy and Brown say in their chapters about moral responsibility and free will is
defensible only if they are understood as presenting an account of morally evaluable
action. The problem, of course, is that no major incompatibilist denies that human be
regularly engage in morally evaluable action, nor believes that such action is threatened
by determinism. The free will debate has other concerns, which Murphy and Brown fail
to appreciate.

The incompatibilist concern, of course, is that if our actio
ns are necessitated by the laws
of nature and past states of affairs, we lack true control over their unfolding (Murphy and
Brown do briefly advert to this concern, as expressed by Peter Van Inwagen, and argue
that it depends upon a 'dichotomous option' be
tween things being up to us or not up to so,
but clearly the argument would succeed just as well if we replaced 'up to us' with 'not
even partially up to us', since neither the laws of nature or past states of affairs are even
partially up to us). Now, it
may well be, as compatibilists have often argued, that the
concern is misplaced, but in the absence of an argument to that effect, arguing that agents
act for reasons simply begs the question against incompatibilism.

The picture of agency presented here i
s one well worth pursuing. Murphy and Brown
have not presented us with a view that is defensible, both because it is far too sketchy to
be properly assessed, and because many of the claims made will no doubt turn out to be
false. However, the general outli
nes of the view are plausible, and there is a rich research


agenda here. Perhaps future work will see some of the details worked out, and the gaps

Neil Levy
, Ph.D., Senior Research Fe
llow Program Manager, Ethical Issues in
Biotechnology, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of

Chapter abstracts:



Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Neuroscience, Emergence and Free Will

Speaker(s): Warren S. Brown

Date: October 2008

Length: 1 hr 10 mins

Price: $CDN5.00


A Graduate and Faculty Christian Forum from the University of British Columbia. This lecture
will summarize the neuroscience research on moral behavior and decision
making, and evaluate
its implications for our understanding of free will and moral agen
cy. Are our actions entirely
determined bylow
level neural processes? Is body
soul dualism the only answer? Philosophical
and theological resolution of these questions depends on our understanding of what is meant by
emergence. Professor Brown will argue t
hat the free
will problem is badly framed if it is put in
terms of neurobiological determinism (“my neurons made me do it”); the real issue is
neurobiological reductionism. Brown will bring together insights from both philosophy and the
cognitive neuroscie
nces to challenge various forms of neurobiological reductionism.

Warren S. Brown PhD (University of Southern California) presently serves as director of the
Travis Research Institute and professor of psychology at Fuller Theological in Pasedena,
ia where he has been since 1982. He was the recipient of a prestigious National Institute
of Mental Health Research Career Development Award. His areas of expertise are
Neuropsychology and Psychophysiology. Brown has authored or coauthored over 75 scholarl
articles in such scientific journals as Neuropsychologia , Psychophysiology , Neurobiology of
Aging , Biological Psychiatry , Developmental Neuropsychology , Cortex , and Science . He is
also interested in philosophy, neuroscience, and the relationship b
etween science and religious
faith: in this vein, he is principal editor and contributor to Whatever Happened to the Soul?
Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (1998) and wrote (with Nancey Murphy)
Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophic
al and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral
Responsibility and Free Will (2007).


This is the first volume co
authored by these two scholars, professors at Fuller Theological
Seminary: Mu
rphy of philosophical theology and Brown of physiological psychology. They have


previously co
authored articles and edited, with H. Newton Malony, Whatever Happened to the
Soul? (2001, Fortress). The present volume is a magnum opus of their work together a
nd is an
extensive consideration of materialistic reductionism coupled with an affirmation of top
causation as it relates to consciousness and free will. Readers of PSCF will find that reading this
volume leaves them much more appreciative of the imag
o Dei and much more confident in the
possibilities of human beings to participate in emergent restoration of this world to the will of

Sections of the volume include (1) Avoiding Cartesian materialism, (2) From causal
reductionism to self
directed sys
tems, (3) From mindless to intelligent action, (4) How can
neural nets mean? (5) How does reason get its grip on the brain? (6) Who's responsible? and (7)
Neurobiological reductionism and free will.

Labeling themselves, in both this and their previous volu
me, as nonreductive physicalists,
Murphy and Brown present a view that human mental functioning, while embedded in the brain,
cannot be explained either by biological reductionism (bottom
up causation) or Cartesian
dualism (physical body, nonphysical mind)
. Instead humans are best understood as agents in a
social world whose functioning is best understood through a top
down model in which higher
level capacities (e.g., language, consciousness) function systemically to constrain the physiology
of the brain i
n an emergent manner that results in reason, freedom, moral responsibility, and self

There is a sense in which this volume could be considered a penetrating survey of modern
philosophy. One might have hoped that the views expressed here woul
d have included an equal
balance of current thinking in psycholinguistics, learning theory, and cognitive psychology. As it
stands, the volume is weighted heavily toward philosophy. Only the Gifford lectures of Donald
MacKay, the noted Scottish neuro
ologist, are referenced in any consistent manner. Even
here, MacKay's well
known counter to reductionist determination is curiously absent. MacKay is
often referenced as noting that even if a behavior is predicted to occur (on the basis of
physiology, envi
ronment, or past training), humans can always say "I don't think I'll do it."

This is not a book for the unsophisticated in either philosophical or neurological terminology.
The questions the book addresses are, nevertheless, foundational, if not universal
. Yet, the
authors make little accommodation for the implied "average" reader in the fetching title of the
book, i.e., Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? While the title indicates an intention, the writing
style does not support it. Understanding the content wo
uld have been greatly enhanced by more
human examples. The most memorable illustrations of their conceptualizations were from lower
forms of life.

At the same time, this is a foundational volume
erudite and convincing in a way that does
indeed affirm the
unique capacities of the human being. While B. F. Skinner is often maligned as
an advocate of social control through mindless behaviorism, it should not be forgotten that
Skinner would agree that all organisms, especially humans, are active social agents w
actions are "emitted" rather than "elicited." While Murphy and Brown spend much less effort
than Skinner in describing the social outcomes of their theorizing, they are, by implication, much
more hopeful that the humans they describe can create a soci
ety where moral reasoning and free
will have full sway. Their thinking goes far beyond either environmental or neurological
determination.While they continue to malign Cartesian mentalism, they affirm the importance of
social interactionism. As their posts
cript states, "Go meta, regularly: remember the value of


Reviewed by H. Newton Malony, Senior Professor, Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller
Theological Seminary, Claremont, CA 91711.


Dr. Warren S. Brown,
Director of the Lee Edward

Travis Research Institute and Professor of
Psychology, Department of Clinical Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary.

Thursday, September 25, 4:00
5:30 PM,
Woodward IRC 1

Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Neuroscience, Emergence and Free Will


This lecture will summarize the neuroscience research on moral behavior and decision
and evaluate its implications for our understanding of

free will and moral agency. Are our
actions entirely determined bylow
level neural processes? Is body
soul dualism the only answer?
Philosophical and theological resolution of these questions depends on our understanding of
what is meant by emergence. Pro
fessor Brown will argue that the free
will problem is badly
framed if it is put in terms of neurobiological determinism (“my neurons made me do it”); the
real issue is neurobiological reductionism. Brown will bring together insights from both
philosophy an
d the cognitive neurosciences to challenge various forms of neurobiological


Dr. William T. Newsome,
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Ins
titute and Professor and
Chair Department of Neurobiology, Stanford University.

Friday, September 26, 12
1:30 PM,
SUB 2nd floor Party Room

ning neurons and personhood: scientific explanation and interpretive reductionism.


At its deepest level, cognitive neuroscience is exerting profound influence on our understanding
of who we are as human beings. What are the deepest sources of our

behavior? How modifiable
is behavior ultimately? How much freedom do we actually have, and to what extent is our
freedom limited by the biology of the brain? The central conviction of modern neuroscience is
that all of our behavior and all of our mental l

including our sense of a conscious, continuing

emerges from and is inextricably linked to the biology of the brain. In daily neuroscientific
practice, this belief is overwhelming pursued by seeking lower level, mechanistic explanations
for higher
level phenomena of mind. A persistently vexing conclusion of successful interpretive
concerns the subsequent status of this higher
level phenomenon. Such phenomena
have been reduced to a mere product of lower level neural mechanisms. If the hu
man mind is
ultimately reducible to the biophysics of neurons in the brain, can the mind be regarded as a
entity that exerts causal influence on organismal behavior and thus the world? In other words, is
mind more than an epiphenomenon of brain? Newso
me will argue that, on this issue, reductionist
neuroscience is
or lacking in the richest explanation of mind. Reductionist
investigations capture only one part of the truth. As a natural scientist, he will explore some
tough questions concern
ing certain
emergent properties
which transcend neural activity, while
respecting the full explanatory power of neuroscience. These emergent properties within
complex systems such as the brain include human consciousness and the ability to make free

or determine one's own behaviour and thereby take responsibility for it. The critical
understanding of freedom is one of the most important and troubling issues facing
neuroscientists today; their methodology often hits a limiting wall of explanation. New


argues that neurologically we are
by the laws of physics but
not determined
by them.
He contests that there are profound insights from the field of religion and philosophy which can
help us discern a richer explanation of the nature of min
d and brain in human beings.


Professor Newsome received his PhD. in Biology from California Institute of Technology in
1980. He is now chair and professor of neurobiology at Stanford University. Highly respected in
the scientific community, he b
uilt his career on elegant experiments that have helped explain the
neural basis of behavior . Identifying the neural mechanisms that underlie visual perception and
based decision
making has been the research focus of Dr. Newsome over the past 30
ars. To this end he conducts parallel behavioral and physiological experiments in animals that
are trained to perform selected perceptual or eye movement tasks. By recording the activity of
cortical neurons during performance of such tasks, he gains initia
l insights into the relationship
of neuronal activity to the animal's behavioral capacities. Computer modelling techniques are
then used to develop more refined hypotheses concerning the relationship of brain to behavior
that are both rigorous and testable
. This combination of behavioral, electrophysiological and
computational techniques provides a realistic basis for neurophysiological investigation of
cognitive functions such as perception, memory and motor planning. Newsome has numerous
publications to h
is record and several academic prizes such as: Dan David Prize from the Dan
David Foundation and Tel Aviv University (2004), and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution
Award from the American Psychological Association (2002). He is an esteemed member of

National Academy of Science since 2000.


Simon Conway Morris
, Paleontology, Cambridge University

If Humans are Inevitable, What Are the Theological

Thursday, January 22, 2009, 4:00
Hennings 202


That evolution is a fact is as secure a truth as the existence of
the Periodic Table or the mass of
an electron. Yet we are in the curious position of not only understanding all three, but finding
ourselves in a Universe that not only is curiously fit for purpose but one which at many levels
ignites our capacity for imag
ination. Thus humans are products of evolution, but transcend it. In
this lecture, Professor Conway Morris will explore the implications that not only is evolution
forced to navigate what is effectively a pre
existing landscape of possibilities (a view gua
to rattle most pious neo
Darwinians who are still wedded to randomness), but can be seen as
being analogous to a search engine, an engine that just happens to stumble not only on science
but other truths.


Simon Conway Morris, Fellow of t
he Royal Society, has been Professor of Evolutionary
Palaeobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge since 1983.
In 1995, he was elected to an ad hominem Chair in Evolutionary Palaeobiology and is renowned
for his insights
into early evolution. He received his PhD from Cambridge in 1976, and made his
reputation with his work on the Cambrian "explosion." This work contained a very detailed and
careful study of the Burgess Shale fossils in China and Greenland, an exploit celeb
rated in
Stephen Jay Gould's
Wonderful Life.
(Conway Morris' own book on this subject,
The Crucible of
is somewhat critical of Gould's presentation and interpretation.) His thinking on the


significance of the Burgess Shale has developed, and his
current interest in evolutionary
convergence and its wider significance

the topic of his 2007 Gifford Lectures

was in part
spurred by Gould's arguments for the importance of contingency in the history of life.

Conway Morris is a former student of Harr
y Blackmore Whittington. He was elected a Fellow of
the Royal Society 1990 at 39, was awarded the Walcott Medal of the National Academy of
Sciences in 1987, and the Lyell Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1998. In recent
years, he has been inves
tigating the phenomenon of evolutionary convergence, which is
explained in his book,
Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe.
Currently he is
involved in a major project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, to investigate both the
ntific ramifications of convergence and also to establish a web
site (Map of Life) that aims to
provide an easily accessible introduction to the thousands of known examples of convergence.

Morris website:


Brain Science Podcasts:

Brain Science Podcast #15: Interview with Read Montague

Posted on June 28th, 2007 by Ginger Campbell, MD

Show Notes

Episode #15 of the
Brain Science Podcast

is an interview with
Dr. Read Montague

of the Baylor
School of Medicine. We discuss his recent book,
Why Choose this Book? How we Mak


Here are some of the questions we discussed:

What is computational neuroscience?

What is the computational theory of the mind (CTOM)?

How is the objection that the CTOM doesn’t account for meaning answered ?

What about choice and respo

Is there room for free will in this model?

I also announced that because of the recent technical problems, the new discussion Forum will
probably not be up and running for a few more weeks, but I hope that many of you will

12 Respo
nses to “Brain Science Podcast #15: Interview with Read Montague”



Patrick Pricken
, on
June 28th, 2007 at 7:06 pm


It’s obviously true what Montague says about true free will, that
total freedom inhibits us
more than it does liberate. “Tell me something” is too vague for at least my brain to


easily come up with ideas; “tell me a story about a licorice vendor”, now that’s something
I can start from.

I must say when I hear “computation
al model”, I think of unchangeable and predictable
patterns or programs; I’m not sure decisions can yet be predicted, can they? Also, if we
have this system, why do our decisions so often prove to be suboptimal or “bad”? (I
obviously have to read this book
, eh?)

Have you considered interviewing Dr. Steven Novella

He’s a neurologist and host of the Skeptic’s
Guide to the Universe (I guess you could also try to

get interviewed by them). Anyway,
they’re up to 20,000 listeners or so, and if he plugs your podcast (say, because he’s
interviewed there), some of them will surely keep on listening to further shows.

Interesting story: I just recently attended a talk abo
ut homeopathy and the lecturer (a
skeptic) made a great show about how our immediate decisions sometimes come out
wrong. Armed with the memory of show #13, I spoke up and declared snap decisions to
not be generally bad, but in fact helpful some of the time
s. I’m still not sure what seeing a
bear in the woods has to do with homeopathy, though.


, on
June 28th, 2007 at 11:31 pm


I am familiar with Dr. Novella’s podca
st and I certainly admire his work and wish I had
his large number of subscribers!

Thanks again for commenting. Hopefully, the discussion forum will be up within a
couple of weeks.

I highly recommend Dr. Montague’s book to everyone interested in learning m
ore about
the computational model of the mind. I will be discussing other viewpoints in upcoming


Leon McGahee
, on
July 2nd, 2007 at 5:45 pm


Hi, Ginger,

I enjoyed very much your interview of Dr. Montague. As u
sual, he was allowed to
present the gist of his ideas concisely in response to well formulated questions. Sure
makes one want to read his book. I too am very interested in knowing more about the
“computational model.”

The whole area of how we make the choi
ces we do is an extremely fascinating one.
Whether our will is “free” (which I agree is not a well formed question) or not, we
certainly seem to have some interesting algorithms for making choices. Just today, Barry
Schwartz, another writer of a book on ch
oices that I haven’t read, “The Paradox of
Choice: Why More Is Less,” has an OpEd in the New York Times about the effects of
offering money for learning (link is ). The field of behavioral economics
(neuroeconomics) seems to be making rapid advances, thank
s to advanced technologies
in cognitive neuroscience.

I liked what Dr. Montague said about dichotomous thinking, which may be another of
those atavistic habits we should strive to overcome when trying to achieve a deeper
understanding of ourselves and real

Keep up the excellent work!



, on
July 13th, 2007 at 6:36 am




I am someone who has been fascinated with understanding what is consciousness and
free will. My perspective is of one who is also strug
gled with depression all my adult life
and who has had close personal and family relationships with people that have also had
chronic mental disorders.

I use what I learn to better understand myself. But, over and above that, I find the subject
of cognitio
n and brain function very interesting. I came accross your podcast on the
iTunes directory and have just begun listening. Your interview with Dr. Montague was
wonderful and I was so impressed by how lucid his explanations were and the kinds of
insights com
ing from his research. I definately will buy his book.

I also want to say that I find your podcast very illuminating and well
done. I believe I
have found an excellent resource to add to my thirst to understand more about how the
brain works and what about

our brains makes us human. Keep up the good work.


, on
July 13th, 2007 at 12:18 pm



Thank you so much for posting your comment about the Brain Science Po

I hope you will visit the new Discussion Forum, and if you are so inclined you could start
a thread about depression or mental illness. I would be interested in hearing your
thoughts about how learning more about the brain affects how you cope with

There is a book I think you might find particularly interesting, The Mind and the Brain:
Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (2003)

by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley. Dr. Schwartz describes his work with
patients with Obses
sive Compulsive Disorder, but I think you might find his ideas very

I look forward to hearing what you think about episode Episode 10, which explores


Books and Ideas Podcast #12: Does Free Will Exist? « Books and Ideas
, on
July 17th,
2007 at 9:24 pm


[...] Why Choose This Book?: How We Make Decisions (2006) by Read Montague (Dr.
e was interviewed on the Brain Science Podcast #15.) [...]


Dr. Ginger Campbell’s Podcasts » Blog Archive » Books and Ideas #12: Does Free
Will Exist?
, on
July 20th, 2007 at 11:00



[...] Why Choose This Book?: How We Make Decisions (2006) by Read Montague (Dr.
Montague was interviewed on the Brain Science Podcast #15.) [...]


Dr. Ginger Campbell’s Blog and Podcasts » Brain Sci
ence Podcast #25: Rolf Pfeifer
discusses Embodied Intelligence
, on
December 3rd, 2007 at 8:40 pm


[...] #15 Interview with Dr. Read Montague () [...]


Brain Science Podcast #25: Rolf Pfeifer discusses Embodied Intelligence « the Brain
Science Podcast and Blog with Dr. Ginger Campbell
, on
December 3rd, 2007
at 8:49


[...] #15 Interview with Dr. Read Montague (listen to episode 15) [...]


Philosopher’s Zone Podcast explores “Minds a
nd Computers” « Brain Science
Podcast and Blog with Dr. Ginger Campbell
, on
January 15th, 2008 at 11:03 pm


[...] issues of philosophy of mind, the relevance of the computational theory of the mind
(introduced in Brain

Science Podcast #15), and the importance of embodiment to the field
of artificial [...]



Rebecah Propst
, on
February 28th, 2008 at 5:49 pm


It seems that my personal experien
ce contradicts the theories discussed in podcast #15.
According to my neurologist, epilepsy destroyed my long
term memory. After my
seizures were controlled in 1997, my brain was once again able to create and retain long
term memories, but none of the memo
ries of my life prior to age 47 have returned.

In late 1997, I discovered that I had what I later decided were my declarative memories
(facts, details, experiences, acquaintances) were all lost. I still understood how to read
and write (I knew hundreds of
vocabulary words

and the words and melodies to dozens
of songs.) I also could walk, talk, read, move

all things I now consider to be implicit

I was told I had had temporal lobe seizures that generalized into grand mal seizures.

I wonder if it
’s possible to make generalizations about the functions of various parts of
the brain.


» Brain Science Podcast #43: Part 2 of “On Being Certain”
, on
August 9th, 2008 at
7:49 pm


[...] Episode 15: Interview with Read Montague about unconscious decisions [...]

NeuroMarketing: Is It Coming to a Lab Near You?

Mary Carmichael

is a
FRONTLINE web associate

For an ad campaign that started a revolution in marketing, the Pepsi Challenge TV spots of the
1970s and '80s were almost ab
surdly simple. Little more than a series of blind taste tests, these
ads showed people being asked to choose between Pepsi and Coke without knowing which one
they were consuming. Not surprisingly, given the sponsor, Pepsi was usually the winner.

But 30 years after the commercials debuted, neuroscientist Read Montague was still thinking
about them. Something didn't make sense. If people
the taste of Pepsi, the drink should
have do
minated the market. It didn't. So in the summer of 2003, Montague gave himself a 'Pepsi
Challenge' of a different sort: to figure out why people would buy a product they didn't
particularly like.

What he found was the first data from an entirely new field
: neuromarketing, the study of the
brain's responses to ads, brands, and the rest of the messages littering the cultural landscape.
Montague had his subjects take the Pepsi Challenge while he watched their neural activity with a
functional MRI machine, whi
ch tracks blood flow to different regions of the brain. Without
knowing what they were drinking, about half of them said they preferred Pepsi. But once
Montague told them which samples were Coke, three
fourths said that drink tasted better, and
their brain

activity changed too. Coke "lit up" the medial prefrontal cortex

a part of the brain
that controls higher thinking. Montague's hunch was that the brain was recalling images and
ideas from commercials, and the brand was overriding the actual quality of
the product. For
years, in the face of failed brands and laughably bad ad campaigns, marketers had argued that
they could influence consumers' choices. Now, there appeared to be solid neurological proof.


Montague published his findings in the October 2004
issue of
, and a cottage industry
was born.

Neuromarketing, in one form or another, is now one of the hottest new tools of its trade. At the
most basic levels, companies are starting to sift through the piles of psychological literature that
have be
en steadily growing since the 1990s' boom in brain
imaging technology. Surprisingly few
businesses have kept tabs on the studies

until now. "Most marketers don't take a single class in
psychology. A lot of the current communications projects we see are b
ased on research from the
'70s," says Justine Meaux, a scientist at Atlanta's BrightHouse Neurostrategies Group, one of the
first and largest neurosciences consulting firms. "Especially in these early years, it's about
teaching people the basics. What we e
nd up doing is educating people about some false
assumptions about how the brain works."

Getting an update on research is one thing; for decades, marketers have relied on behavioral
studies for guidance. But some companies are taking the practice several s
teps further,
commissioning their own fMRI studies à la Montague's test. In a study of men's reactions to cars,
Chrysler has found that sportier models activate the brain's reward centers

the same
areas that light up in response to alcohol and d

as well as activating the area in the brain
that recognizes faces, which may explain people's tendency to anthropomorphize their cars.
Steven Quartz, a scientist at Stanford University, is currently conducting similar research on
movie trailers. An
d in the age of poll
taking and smear campaigns, political advertising is also
getting in on the game. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles have found that
Republicans and Democrats react differently to campaign ads showing images of th
e Sept. 11th
terrorist attacks. Those ads cause the part of the brain associated with fear to light up more
vividly in Democrats than in Republicans.

That last piece of research is particularly worrisome to anti
marketing activists, some of whom
are alrea
dy mobilizing against the nascent field of neuromarketing. Gary Ruskin of Commercial
Alert, a non
profit that argues for strict regulations on advertising, says that "a year ago almost
nobody had heard of neuromarketing except for

readers." Now, he
says, it's everywhere,
and over the past year he has waged a campaign against the practice,
lobbying Congress

and the
American Psychological Association
(APA) and threatening lawsuits against BrightHouse and
other practitioners. Even though he admits the research is still "in the very preliminary stages,"
he says it could eventually lead to complete corporate manipulation of consumers

or citizens,
governments using brain scans to create more effective propaganda.

Ruskin might be consoled by the fact that many neuromarketers still don't know how to apply
their findings. Increased activity in the brain doesn't necessarily mean increased preference for

product. And, says Meaux, no amount of neuromarketing research can transform otherwise
rational people into consumption
driven zombies. "Of course we're all influenced by the
messages around us," she says. "That doesn't take away free choice." As for Ru
skin, she says
tersely, "there is no grounds for what he is accusing." So far, the regulatory boards agree with
her: the government has decided not to investigate BrightHouse and the APA's most recent ethics
statement said nothing about neuromarketing. Say
s Ruskin: "It was a total defeat for us."

Commercial Alert's campaign

thwarted for now, BrightHouse is moving forward. In
January, the company plan
s to start publishing a neuroscience newsletter aimed at businesses.
And although it "doesn't conduct fMRI studies except in the rarest of cases," it is getting ready to
publish the results of a particularly tantalizing set of tests. While neuroscientist M
'Pepsi Challenge' suggests that branding appears to make a difference in consumer preference,
BrightHouse's research promises to show exactly how much emotional impact that branding can


have. Marketers have long known that some brands have a seem
ingly magic appeal; they can
elicit strong devotion, with buyers saying they identify with the brand as an extension of their
personalities. The BrightHouse research is expected to show exactly which products those are.
"This is really just the first step,
" says Meaux, who points out that no one has discovered a "buy
button" in the brain. But with more and more companies peering into the minds of their
consumers, could that be far off?


Posted on: July 7, 2009 7:28 AM, by
Jonah Lehrer

It is now abundantly clear that the global economy remains mired in a di
smal slump. Consumer
confidence is still hurting; the unemployment is still rising; home prices are still falling. Despite
the best efforts of Congress and the Treasury Department, nobody knows where the bottom is, or
when it will arrive.

Obviously, there
are no easy solutions. But it's worth considering how we got here if only to
better understand how we might get out. One way to look at the current mess is as a collective
breakdown of trust, which led (after the failure of Lehman Brothers, etc.) to frozen

markets: because financial institutions didn't "trust" the solvency of other institutions and
corporations, they weren't willing to lend money. Without trust, nobody will take risks.

In recent years, economists have devoted plenty of thought to th
e importance of trust in the
modern economy. Tim Harford had an excellent

on the subject in Forbes:

Being able to trust people might seem like

a pleasant luxury, but economists are
starting to believe that it's rather more important than that. Trust is about more
than whether you can leave your house unlocked; it is responsible for the
difference between the richest countries and the poorest.

If you take a broad enough definition of trust, then it would explain basically all
the difference between the per capita income of the United States and Somalia,"
ventures Steve Knack, a senior economist at the World Bank who has been
studying the economi
cs of trust for over a decade. That suggests that trust is worth
$12.4 trillion dollars a year to the U.S., which, in case you are wondering, is
99.5% of this country's income. If you make $40,000 a year, then $200 is down to
hard work and $39,800 is down
to trust.

How could that be? Trust operates in all sorts of ways, from saving money that
would have to be spent on security to improving the functioning of the political
system. But above all, trust enables people to do business with each other. Doing
ness is what creates wealth.


Here is where the brain comes in handy. Looking at how trust unfolds in the cortex won't solve
the economic crisis, or even lead to new proposed solutions. The mind is way too mysterious for
that. But I think there's some exper
imental evidence that can help clarify our thinking about what
economic trust is and why it breaks down.

Consider this elegant

of trust, led by Brooks King
Casas, Colin Camerer, Read
Montague, et. al. The research was born out of a serious limitation of conventional fMRI, which
looks at the brain by itself. (An individual is put in a claustrophobic scanner and told to perform
a task.) Humans, of course, are a

social species, so the scientists (led by Montague) pioneered a
technique known as hyper
scanning, which allows subjects in different fMRI machines to
interact in real time.

The experiment revolved around a simple economic game in which getting the maxim
um reward
required the strangers to trust one another. However, if one of the players grew especially selfish,
he or she could always steal from the pot and erase the tenuous bond of trust. By monitoring the
players' brains, the scientists were able to pre
dict whether or not someone would steal money
several seconds before the theft actually occurred. The secret was a cortical area known as the
caudate nucleus, which closely tracked the payouts from the other player. (The caudate is usually
discussed in the

context of addiction, since it plays a central role in modulating our expectation
of pleasure.) Montague noticed that whenever the caudate exhibited reduced activity, trust tended
to break down.

But what exactly is the caudate computing? How do we decide
whom to trust with our money?
And why do we sometimes decide to stop trusting those people? At first the caudate didn't get
excited until the subjects actually trusted one another and garnered their separate rewards. But
over time this brain area started t
o expect trust, so that it fired long before the reward actually
arrived. Of course, if the bond was broken

if someone cheated and stole money

then the
neurons stopped firing; social assumptions were proven wrong.

The moral is that trust is ultimately

about the expectation of rewards. Trust may be an admirable
social trait, but it's ultimately rooted in a greedy calculation, emanating from our primal
dopamine reward circuitry:

Taken together, these results suggest that the head of the caudate nucleus r
or computes information about (i) the fairness of a social partner's decision and
(ii) the intention to repay that decision with trust. In early rounds of the game, the
''intention to trust'' is evident only after an investment is revealed. With
perience, this signal shifts to a time preceding the revelation of the investment.

What does this have to do with the economy? Over the last few decades, investors have grown
accustomed to predictable rewards coming from the financial markets. We were use
d to our 7
percent return in the stock market, that 4.5 percent return from a money fund, and that 2 percent
return from our bank account. We assumed our homes would always increase in value. In other
words, these "rewards" were taken for granted. (It hasn
't helped that the last severe recession
arrived in the early 1980's, more than 25 years ago. People forgot that these financial rewards


were contingent, just like the players in the trust game who were shocked that someone would
abscond with their cash.)

When those rewards disappear

when home prices fall, and borrowers default, and the markets

the end result is a collapse in the bonds of trust that all markets depend on. The
problem, of course, is that restoring trust is ultimately about rewar
ds, not reassuring statements
or grand plans from Congress. Until those financial rewards start to feel predictable again

that may take a long, long time

investors will continue to be wary of each other, just like people
who got burned in the brain


Comments (6)


Very interesting!

This fits well with the tit
tat strategy that was described in Axelrod's "Evolution of

Posted by:
Valdis Krebs

July 7, 2009 8:28 AM


There has been some interesting macro
level research on the matter as well.

looks at
levels of

trust in African societies, which apparently correlate fairly strongly with how affected
they were by the slave trade.(Which suggests the very unfortunate punchline that trust isn't
something a society rebuilds quickly.)

Posted by: phisrow |
July 7, 2009 8:56 AM


It might also serve to demonstrate how we make the false assumption that predicting the future
will be stable once we perceive the relationship of patterns involved. But

Hume so correctly
pointed out that this is not the case with in his work known as the Problem of Induction. I think
there may also be an important factor in the degree of perceived betrayal. But when the full range
of economic incomes that are involved in

the market are considered it is probably not wise to use
an average of income capital as the base line. The percent of one's risk to asset ratio might be a
much better indicator but even then people value assets variably as well. Nevertheless studies

shown that there is a fairly strong ratio that bounds people's risk aversion. It is an extremely
messy problem. Retribution might also figure in. I am uncertain of any specific studies but it
seems that once some retributive action is rewarded the betraye
d party the playing field levels
more quickly. The problem with the current economic meltdown is that there is no perceived
perhaps even actual

means to dole out some kind of placating retribution to all the injured
parties to the correct complicit p

Posted by: rcheck |
July 7, 2009 11:02 AM


The world economy in general, and American capitalism in particular, have always essentially
been one giant Ponzi scheme, relyi
ng on an increasing base of consumers for smooth


functioning. For the time being that supply of consumers ran out, not simply because of 'trust' but
because of 'fear' which is paralyzing to the financial system. Like all Ponzi schemes it will re
appear in
a slightly altered, new
improved form for another run, in the endless boom
bust cycle.

Posted by:

July 7, 2009 3:32 PM


I'm not sure if it was planned, subconscious, or coincidental, but cooperation is a common root
in both this latest blog as well as Jonah's previous blog, "Population Density." In short,
cooperation was likely ins
trumental in the birth of human civilization (“Population Density”) and
without it our civilization breaks down (“Trust”).

Our global economy is a mess partly because people have taken advantage of cooperative
situations, resulting in a loss of trust as w
ell as other things. (Greed is the likely driving force for
this behavior.) To hold our global economy together, we’ve analogically placed rubber bands
around it, but our actions (fueled by our increasing wants and desires) continue to stretch out
these ne
w bands to their snapping point. Adding more rubber bands is a temporary fix that isn’t
going to work forever. We need to create a better system

Being less greedy is a potential starting point towards creating a new system. For example, to
control my wants

and desires, I indulge, and sometimes allow myself an added 10% luxury, but
only in the few things I truly love. So to reference another blog of Jonah’s, I wouldn’t spend
$170 on a pair of jeans, because I don’t really love jeans. If I bought them, I woul
d consider it
excessive, and my action would contribute to further strain on the rubber bands on our global

Another potential starting point is to seek out and invest in cooperative situations, but focus on
giving whenever possible and taking only

when necessary.

Posted by: Thomas Schroeder |
July 7, 2009 10:48 PM

Cooperation fundamentally relies on trust as well as win
win outcomes. Cheating is a constant
threat within
any cooperative framework because it relies on win
lose outcomes. This is why
humans are generally very adept at cheater detection and retribution. However, as the scale of
human activity gets global, complex and impersonal, the evolutionary faculties lose

relevance. A regulatory framework with checks on cheating and a compensation scheme with
couplings to win
win outcomes have to be a necessary part of financial systems and productive

Posted by: Prem Uppaluru |
July 9, 2009 2:08 PM

How a single neurotransmitter can provide the basis for the
nation of all social phenomena


Those of you who read this blog for sometime, already know some of my views concerning
psychology. I am an avid supporter of "hard science". Science that is based on solid facts and
follows the reductionist paradigm. Even though solid facts are not
always the answer and
reductionism could be replaced in the following decades by something else, such as a holistic
approach that focuses on "systems" rather than "reduction" (read this for example: Sacred
Using Faith to Explain Anomalies in Physics

Scientific American
), I believe that
this paradigm has just started to show its strength in cognitive science. Take this

post for
Neurons, politics and economics

The reason I am writing today is that I found this exciting article in
Seed Magazine

A New State
of Mind

The article speaks of
Read Montague
, director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab at Baylor
lege of Medicine in downtown Houston. He has participated in something very interesting
researches which I was aware of. I was surprised, because I had forgotten his name, despite the
fact that he was the mind behind some recent papers. However, what reall
y suprised me was how
all these researches are connected, what this man is studying and how his view on neuroscience
coincides with mine. I am going to present the article and then I’ll make a few comments. If you
are bored just
skip the article

Read Montague studies the acti
ons of dopamine in the brain. However, his methodology is not
an experimental (even though he is a researcher), but rather a theoritical one.

Montague, who is uncommonly handsome, with a strong jaw and a Hollywood grin, first got
interested in the brain
while working in the neuroscience lab of Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman
as a post
doc. “I was never your standard neuroscientist,” he says. “I spent a lot of time thinking
about how the brain
work, if
had designed it.” For Montague the cortex was a

system to model, since its incomprehensible complexity meant that it depended on some deep,
underlying order. “You can’t have all these cells interacting with each other unless there’s some
logic to the interaction,” he says. “It just looked like
noise, though

no one could crack the
code.” That’s what Montague wanted to do.


The code he chose was

is a neurotransmitter linked with many things, but
mainly with pleasure. It is also the neurotransmitter that is affected by most drugs (ecstasy,
cocaine, methamphetamines)

That’s when Montague discov
ered the powers of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain. His
research on the singular chemical has drawn tantalizing connections between the peculiar habits
of our neurons and the peculiar habits of real people, so that the various levels of psycholog

the macro and the micro, the behavioral and the cellular

no longer seem so
distinct. What began as an investigation into a single neurotransmitter has morphed into an
exploration of the social brain: Montague has pioneered research tha
t allows him to link the
obscure details of the cortex to all sorts of important phenomena, from stock market bubbles to
cigarette addiction to the development of trust. “We are profoundly social animals,” he says.
“You can’t really understand the brain un
til you understand how these social behaviors happen,
or what happens when they go haywire.”

The importance of dopamine was discovered by accident. In 1954 James Olds and Peter Milner,
two neuroscientists at McGill University, decided to implant an electro
de deep into the center of
a rat’s brain. The precise placement of the electrode was largely happenstance: At the time the
geography of the mind remained a mystery. But Olds and Milner got lucky. They inserted the
needle right next to the nucleus accumbens

(NAcc), a part of the brain dense with dopamine
neurons and involved with the processing of pleasurable rewards, like food and sex.


What is interestin
g about dopamine however, is not that it responds to rewards, but that it can
rewards! This was discovered by
Wolfram Schultz
, a neuroscientist at Cambridge

After hundreds of experimental trials, Schultz began to believe his own data:

He realized that he
had found, by accident, the reward mechanism at work in the primate brain. “Only in retrospect
can I appreciate just how lucky we were,” he says. After publishing a series of landmark papers
in the mid
1980s, Schultz set out to deciphe
r this reward circuitry in exquisite detail. How,
exactly, did these single cells manage to represent a reward? His experiments observed a simple
protocol: He played a loud tone, waited for a few seconds, and then squirted a few drops of apple
juice into t
he mouth of a monkey. While the experiment was unfolding, Schultz was probing the
rich areas of the monkey brain with a needle that monitored the electrical activity
inside individual cells. At first the dopamine neurons didn’t fire until the juic
e was delivered;
they were responding to the actual reward. However, once the animal learned that the tone
preceded the arrival of juice

this requires only a few trials

the same neurons began firing at
the sound of the tone instead of the sweet reward.

And then eventually, if the tone kept on
predicting the juice, the cells went silent. They stopped firing altogether.


Professor Dr. Wolfram Sch

So Schultz discovered by accident the reward mechanism
the mechanism of prediction of
rewards in the brain. Then the article goes on to describe how Montague met with Peter Dayan, a
researcher that introduced him into a computational learning mode
l called
temporal difference
reinforcement learning (TDRL)
. The model was purely theoritical, but when Schultz’s results
were out, the two discovered that this model could explain his findings on dopamine.

Peter Dayan, a colleague of Montague’s at Salk,
had introduced him to a model called temporal
difference reinforcement learning (TDRL). Computer scientists Rich Sutton and Andrew Barto,
who both worked on models of artificial intelligence, had pioneered the model. Sutton and Barto
wanted to develop a “n
euronlike” program that could learn simple rules and behaviors in order to
achieve a goal. The basic premise is straightforward: The software makes predictions about what
will happen

about how a checkers game will unfold for example

and then compares t
predictions with what actually happens. If the prediction is right, that series of predictions gets
reinforced. However, if the prediction is wrong, the software reevaluates its representation of the

Montague was entranced by these software prot
otypes. “It was just so clearly the most efficient
way to learn,” he says. The problem was that TDRL remained purely theoretical, a system both
elegant and imaginary. Even though computer scientists had begun to adapt the programming
strategy for various p
ractical purposes, such as running a bank of elevators or determining flight
schedules, no one had found a neurological system that worked like this.

But one spring day in 1991, Dayan burst into Montague’s small office. “He was very excited and
shoved thes
e figures from some new paper in my face,” Montague remembers. “He kept on
saying to me, ‘What does this look like? What does this look like?’” The figures were from
Schultz’s experiments with dopamine neurons, and they showed how these cells reacted to th
tone and the juice. “I thought he had faked the data,” Montague says. “Dayan was a big
prankster, and I assumed he’d photocopied some of our own figures [on TDRL] just to tease me.


It looked too good to be true.” Montague immediately realized that he and

Dayan could make
sense of Schultz’s mysterious neurons. They knew what these dopamine cells were doing; they
had seen this code before.

mine pathways and functions

Montague believes that the reason for their success was the fact that they had a theoritical view
from the beginning. He believes that sometimes to start with a theory than with data. I think that
this can be true in many occasi
ons. Data alone can’t provide a clue. A theory, however, can
provide the basis upon which you create and reject hypotheses.

“The only reason we could see it so clearly,” Montague says, “is because we came at it from this
theoretical angle. If you were an

experimentalist seeing this data, it would have been extremely
confusing. What the hell are these cells doing? Why aren’t they just responding to the juice?”
That same day Montague and Dayan began writing a technical paper that laid out their insight,
laining how these neurons were making precise predictions about future rewards.

They tried to publish a paper on their findings, but no big journal would accept their research, so
they ended up publishing it in smaller ones


But the paper

an awkward m
ix of Schultz’s dopamine recordings and equations borrowed
from computer science

went nowhere. “We wrote that paper 11 times,” Montague says. “It
got bounced from every journal. I came this close to leaving the field. I realized that
neuroscience just wa
sn’t ready for theory, even if the theory made sense.”

Nevertheless, Montague and Dayan didn’t give up. They published their ideas in obscure
journals, like
Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems
. When the big journals
rejected their interpreta
tion of monkey neurons, they instead looked at the nervous systems of
honeybees, which relied on a version of TDRL when foraging for nectar. (That paper got
published in
in 1995.) “We had to drag the experimentalists kicking and screaming,”

says. “They just didn’t understand how these funny
looking equations could explain
their data. They told us, ‘We need more data.’ But what’s the point of data if you can’t figure it

You can always publish your work on smaller journals

And now, here’s where the fun begins. These findings are

important not because they simply
they provide the neuronal basis of reward, but that of
as well. As it seems, the brain is
using a very simple behavioristic model of reward versus no
reward to computate future actions.
This logic (reward
no re
ward) is something that the behaviorists had proposed as the explanation
behavior at the beginning of the 20th century. However, their work was focused solely on
behavior, since it was the only thing that it could be observed. At their time, neurops
was not so advanced as to take this model far into the brain. Even though, behaviorism is not
very popular now (it is still however strong in clinical practice as cognitive
therapy), I believe this to be a theoritical revival of its
core principles.


The crucial feature of these dopamine neurons, say Montague and Dayan, is that they are more
concerned with
rewards than with the rewards themselves. Once the cells memorize
the simple pattern

a loud tone predicts the arriva
l of juice

they become exquisitely
sensitive to variations on the pattern. If the cellular predictions proved correct and the primates
experienced a surge of dopamine, the prediction was reinforced. However, if the pattern was

if the tone soun
ded but the juice never arrived

then the monkey’s dopamine
neurons abruptly decreased their firing rate. This is known as the “prediction error signal.” The
monkey got upset because its predictions of juice were wrong.

What’s interesting about this syste
m is that it’s all about
. Dopamine neurons
constantly generate patterns based upon experience: If this, then that. The cacophony of reality is
distilled into models of correlation. And if these predictions ever prove incorrect, then the

immediately readjust their expectations. The discrepancy is internalized; the anomaly is
remembered. “The accuracy comes from the mismatch,” Montague says. “You learn how the
world works by focusing on the prediction errors, on the events that you didn’t
expect.” Our
knowledge, in other words, emerges from our cellular mistakes. The brain learns how to be right
by focusing on what it got wrong.

key juice

Then the story goes on to tell us how Montague published a paper that received 1.200 citations

Despite his frustrations with the field, Mont
ague continued to work on dopamine. In 1997 he
published a
paper with Dayan and Schultz whose short title was audaciously grand: “A
Neural Substrate of Prediction and Reward.” The paper has since been cited more than 1,200
times, and it remains the

definitive explanation of how the brain parses reality into a set of
accurate expectations, which are measured out in short bursts of dopamine. A crucial part of the
cellular code had been cracked.


That’s where my views coincide with Montague’s. Montag
ue describes how a simple system can
evolve into a complex one.

But Montague was getting restless. “I wanted to start asking bigger questions,” he says. “Here’s
this elegant learning system, but how does it fit with the rest of the brain? And can we take

beyond apple juice?”

At first glance the dopamine system might seem largely irrelevant to the study of human
behavior. Haven’t we evolved beyond the brutish state of “reward harvesting,” where all we care
about is food and sex? Dopamine might explain

the simple psychology of a lizard, or even a
monkey sipping juice, but it seems a stretch for it to explain the Promethean mind of a human.
“One of the distinguishing traits of human beings is that we chase ideas, not just primary
rewards,” Montague says.

“What other animal goes on hunger strike? Or abstains from sex? Or
blows itself up in a cafe in the name of God?” These unique aspects of human cognition seem
impossible to explain with neurons that track and predict rewards. After all, these behaviors
volve the
of rewards: We are shrugging off tempting treats because of some abstract
belief or goal.

Montague’s insight, however, was that ideas are just like apple juice. From the perspective of the
brain, an abstraction can be just as rewarding
as the tone that predicts the reward. Evolution
essentially bootstrapped our penchant for intellectual concepts to the same reward circuits that
govern our animal appetites. “The guy who’s on hunger strike for some political cause is still
relying on his m
idbrain dopamine neurons, just like a monkey getting a treat,” Montague says.
“His brain simply values the cause more than it values dinner.” According to Montague, the
reason abstract thoughts can be so rewarding, is that the brain relies on a common neur
currency for evaluating alternatives. “It’s clear that you need some way to compare your options,
even if your options come from very different categories,” he says. By representing everything in
terms of neuron firing rates, the human brain is able to
choose the abstract thought over the
visceral reward, as long as the abstraction excites our cells more than apple juice. That’s what
makes ideas so powerful: No matter how esoteric or ethereal they get, they are ultimately fed
back into the same system th
at makes us want sex and sugar. As Montague notes, “You don’t
have to dig very far before it all comes back to your loins.”


Complexity derived from s

Montague, as he had grown frustrated with the limitations of the regural fMRI he inveted an
fMRI where the participants could communicate with each other. He used this to perform simple
experiments on economics.

And so Montague pioneered a tec
hnique known as hyper
scanning, allowing subjects in different
fMRI machines to interact in real time. His experiment revolved around a simple economic game
in which getting the maximum reward required the strangers to trust one another. However, if
one of

the players grew especially selfish, he or she could always steal from the pot and erase the
tenuous bond of trust. By monitoring the players’ brains, Montague was able to predict whether
or not someone would steal money several seconds before the theft a
ctually occurred. The secret
was a cortical area known as the caudate nucleus, which closely tracked the payouts from the
other player. Montague noticed that whenever the caudate exhibited reduced activity, trust
tended to break down.

But what exactly is
the caudate computing? How do we decide whom to trust with our money?
And why do we sometimes decide to stop trusting those people? It turned out that the caudate
worked just like the reward cells in the monkey brain. At first the caudate didn’t get excite
d until
the subjects actually trusted one another and garnered their separate rewards. But over time this
brain area started to
trust, so that it fired long before the reward actually arrived. Of
course, if the bond was broken

if someone cheated a
nd stole money

then the neurons
stopped firing; social assumptions were proven wrong. (Montague is currently repeating this
experiment with a collaborating lab in China so that he can detect the influence of culture on


social interactions.) The point, he

says, is that people were using this TDRL strategy

strategy that evolved to help animals find caloric rewards

to model another mind. Instead of
predicting the arrival of juice, the neurons were predicting the behavior of someone else’s brain.

The the article describes the revision of his theory as well as a very interesting experiment

A few years ago,

Montague was reviewing some old pap
ers on TDRL theory when he realized
that the system, while effective and efficient, was missing something important. Although
dopamine neurons excelled at measuring the mismatch between their predictions of rewards and
those that actually arrived

these e
rrors provided the input for learning

they’d learn much
quicker if they could also incorporate the prediction errors of others. Montague called this a
“fictive error learning signal,” since the brain would be benefiting from hypothetical scenarios:
d be updating your expectations based not just on what happened, but on what
happened if you’d done something differently.” As Montague saw it, this would be a very
valuable addition to our cognitive software. “I just assumed that evolution woul
d use this
approach, because it’s too good an idea not to use,” he says.

The question, of course, is how to find this “what if” signal in the brain. Montague’s clever
solution was to use the stock market. After all, Wall Street investors are constantly co
their actual returns against the returns that might have been, if only they’d sold their shares
before the crash or bought Google stock when the company first went public.

The experiment went like this: Each subject was given $100 and some basic in
formation about
the “current” state of the stock market. After choosing how much money to invest, the players
watched nervously as their investments either rose or fell in value. The game continued for 20
rounds, and the subjects got to keep their earnings
. One interesting twist was that instead of using
random simulations of the stock market, Montague relied on distillations of data from famous


historical markets. Montague had people “play” the Dow of 1929, the Nasdaq of 1998, and the
S&P 500 of 1987, so t
he neural responses of investors reflected real
life bubbles and crashes.

This is called
, that is, the study of neuronal procesess when the brain performs
economic decisions. It is a much disputed new
found discipline, but I believe it to
be part of
what will be the core of cognitive science in the next decades. Montague describes some exciting

The scientists immediately discovered a strong neural signal that drove many of the investment
decisions. The signal was fictive learning.

Take, for example, this situation. A player has decided
to wager 10 percent of her total portfolio in the market, which is a rather small bet. Then she
watches as the market rises dramatically in value. At this point, the regret signal in the brain

ell of activity in the ventral caudate, a reward area rich in dopamine neurons

lights up.
While people enjoy their earnings, their brain is fixated on the profits they missed, figuring out
the difference between the actual return and the best return “tha
t could have been.” The more we
regret a decision, the more likely we are to do something different the next time around. As a
result investors in the experiment naturally adapted their investments to the ebb and flow of the
market. When markets were boomi
ng, as in the Nasdaq bubble of the late 1990s, people
perpetually increased their investments.

But fictive learning isn’t always adaptive. Montague argues that these computational signals are
also a main cause of financial bubbles. When the market keeps go
ing up, people are naturally
inclined to make larger and larger investments in the boom. And then, just when investors are
most convinced that the bubble isn’t a bubble

many of Montague’s subjects eventually put all
of their money into the booming market

the bubble bursts. The Dow sinks, the Nasdaq
collapses. At this point investors race to dump any assets that are declining in value, as their
brain realizes that it made some very expensive prediction errors. That’s when you get a financial


Neuroeconomics, the study of how the brain determines economic behavior

Remember what I had said in previous articles that what is most important in s
cience is the
structure, rather than the content? Read these findings to see how a simple neuronic model, that
in the above example explained the economic behavior, now explains other social behaviors. In
that example we have substance addiction.

Such fi
error learning signals aren’t relevant only for stock market investors. Look, for
instance, at addiction. Dopamine has long been associated with addictive drugs, such as cocaine,
that overexcite these brain cells. The end result is that addicts make
increasingly reckless
decisions, forgoing longterm goals for the sake of an intensely pleasurable short
term fix. “When
you’re addicted to a drug, your brain is basically convinced that this expensive white powder is
worth more than your marriage or life,”

Montague says. In other words addiction is a disease of
valuation: Dopamine cells have lost track of what’s really important.

Montague wanted to know which part of the dopamine system was distorted in the addicted
brain. He began to wonder if addiction wa
s, at least in part, a disease of fictive learning.
Addicted smokers will continue to smoke even when they know it’s bad for them. Why can’t
they instead revise their models of reward?

Last year Montague decided to replicate his stock market study with a l
arge group of chronic
smokers. It turned out that smokers were perfectly able to compute a “what if” learning signal,
which allowed them to experience regret. Like nonsmokers they realized that they should have
invested differently in the stock market. Unf
ortunately, this signal had no impact on their
decision making, which led them to make significantly less money during the investing game.
According to Montague, this data helps explain why smokers continue to smoke even when they
regret it. Although their

dopamine neurons correctly compute the rewards of an extended life
versus a hit of nicotine

they are, in essence, asking themselves, “What if I
smoke this

their brain doesn’t process the result. That feeling of regret is conveniently

ignored. They just keep on lighting up.


So then, the article closes supporting the same opinion I had expressed in
Neurons, politics and

Montague exudes the confidence

of a scientist used to confirming his hypotheses. He buzzes
with ideas for new experiments

“ I g
et bored rather easily,” he says

and his lab is
constantly shifting direction, transitioning from dopamine to neuroeconomics to social
neuroscience. Montague is currently consumed with questions about how people interact when
they’re part of a group. “A
mob or a market is not just a collection of discrete individuals,” he
says. “It’s something else entirely. You would do things in a group that you would never do by
yourself. But what’s happening in your brain? We’ve got all these sociological studies but
hard data.” Montague’s been warned that the project is too complicated, that social interactions
are too subtle and complex to pick up in a scanner, but he’s convinced otherwise. “If I’d listened
to the naysayers,” he says, “I’d still be studying honeyb

Montague’s experiments take advantage of his unique fMRI setup. He has four people negotiate
with one another as they decide how much to offer someone else during an investing game.
While the group is bickering, Montague is monitoring the brain activ
ity of everyone involved.
He’s also infiltrated the group with a computer player that has been programmed to act just like a
person with borderline personality disorder. The purpose of this particular experiment is to see
how “one bad apple” can lead perfe
ct strangers to also act badly. While Montague isn’t ready to
share the results

he’s still gathering data

what he’s found so far is, he says, “stunning,
shocking even…. For me the lesson has been that people act very badly in groups. And now we
can see


Such exuberance is well earned. In the space of a few short years, Montague has taken his
theoretical model of learning

a model he borrowed from some old computer science textbooks


and shown that it’s an essential part of the human brain. He’s l
inked the transactions of a
single neurotransmitter to a dizzying array of behaviors, so that it’s now possible to draw a
straight line between monkeys craving juice and stock market bubbles. A neurotransmitter that
wasn’t supposed to matter is now our mos
t important clue into the secret messages of the mind
and the breakdown of social graces. The code hasn’t been broken. But for the first time, it’s
getting cracked.

Dr. Read Montague

So to recapitulate what we just presented (or to present it to those of you who were too bored to
take a look at the article

1. Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab at Baylor College of Medicine in
downtown Houston, studies the brain from a theoritical perspective, that’s it, how it

2.Wolfram Schultz, a neuroscientist at Cambridge Univers
ity, discovers how dopamine takes
part not only in the reward system in the brain, but also, in the system that

3.Read Montague and Peter Dayan discover how a model called
temporal difference
reinforcement learning (TDRL)
can explain Scul
tz’s findings.

4.The research community was not very fond of their views. However, they managed to publish
their work on smaller journals.

5.In 1997 they publish a paper, along with Schultz whose short title was audaciously grand: “A
Neural Substrate of Pr
ediction and Reward.” The paper has since been cited more than 1,200
times, and it remains the definitive explanation of how the brain parses reality into a set of
accurate expectations, which are measured out in short bursts of dopamine. A crucial part of

cellular code had been cracked.


6.Now Montague performs research on how the dopaminergic system can participate in other
actions, leading to the creation of complex and larger systems, which until now they could not be
studied at a level so close to t
he bottom (following the reductionist paradigm) as that of
neuroscience. Examples include: simple economic behavior, stock market, substance addiction.

7.The article closes with the final quote which finds me in complete agreement:

Montague’s been warned

that the project is too complicated, that social interactions are too
subtle and complex to pick up in a scanner, but he’s convinced otherwise. “If I’d listened to the
naysayers,” he says, “I’d still be studying honeybees.”

Complex systems

arise from a few basic principles. There are many things we have to mention if
we are to dig into this concept, but just for now, know that complex systems constitute the core
of our world. Every sci
ence, from
physics to economics
, one way or another, deals with
complex systems to some degree. I believe that the core problems that
poses deal
with complex systems. However, the limited scientific tools we had until now, limited our
n, data and theories. Montague’s work proves that for the first time, we can start to study
psychological phenomena at their most basic level and then see the effects of this most basic
level to the higher ones. I can only say that the next decades will pr
ovide even more exciting data
that, hopefully, will start to lead us to the beginning of a unified theory of psychology.


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Free will revisited in the face of quantum physics

Lately I have been reading this book:
The Hidden Pattern: A Patternist Philosophy of Mind
. The
book deals, quite obviously, with
philosophy of mind

and all the matters that touch this subject,
including free will. The author is
Ben Goertzel

ho happens to be a very interesting person. He
holds a PhD in mathematics, but has dealt with cognitive science, and economics and currently
focuses on AI research. He has written many more books, although this is the first one that I

Ben Goertzel

What seperates Ben Goertzel’s writing from that of others is his ability to combine philosophy
and eastern religion into a unified perspective, like a
ager, but unlike a new
ager, he creates
logical and mathematical proofs for his problems. Don’t get me wrongs, but those people into
new age philosophies have a tendency to mesh
up everything around, creating arguments that
seem plausible (at least to
those with no formal scientific background), but they are truly
meaningless. Ben Goertzel truly embraces the problems from a scientific perspective.

The reason I am writing this article is that I found a very interesting piece of theory in this book.

actually, the book is
of interesting theories (and facts) and even though I’m just in the
middle of it, it has got me into a lot of thinking. However, what really caught my attention was a
theory inspired by
quantum mechanics

that really simplified the problem of free will.


First, we must explain a few fundamental things about quantum physics.

In quantum mechanics a certain property of a particle can be in superposition of its
states, that
means, it holds many values all at once. The most famous example is
Schroedinger’s Cat
. In
wikipedia there’s a very good explanation of this experiment

Schrödinger’s Cat: A cat, along with a flask containing a poison, is placed in a sealed box
shielded against environmentally induced
quantum decoherence
. If a
Geiger counter

radiation then the flask is shattered, releasing the poi
son which kills the cat. Quantum mechanics
suggests that after a while the cat is
simultaneously alive and dead
. Yet, when we look in the box,
we see the cat eith
er alive or dead, not a mixture of alive and dead.

So, we can say that the cat is both alive and dead and when an observer arrives at the spot, the
superposition of the states collapses to a single one.
wave function collapse

is why our
world looks like classical physics, even though the underlying princinples are quantum in nature.

What Ben Goertzel proposes for the solution of the problem of free will is this. In each ev
there is a part of the brain in which the incentive for an action occurs and another part of the
brain that observes this action happening (but NOT the procedure). The observer part of the brain
lives in a world of superimposed multiverses of a virtua
l reality. This virtual reality is actually all
the possible outcomes of the future. Think of it like a tree with various branches. Once
something in the external world happens, the superimposition of the states of the virtual world
collapses down to a sin
gle one. This procedure happens instantaneously. The modelling part of
the brain can affect the actions of the part of the brain that produces the action. However, this
procedure takes a lot longer. So, it can be registered in the brain (unlike the instant
collapse of the multiverse states) and the brain ministerprets the events as if the modelling part of
the brain actually caused the event.


ll, the fact about the brain making decisions before we realize is well documented. We can
offer the studies of

and Haynes (
Brain Scanners Can See Your Decisions Before You
Make Them
). There is also an older article on

dealing with this very topic:
Free Will

plain and simple

Most people freak out when they learn about the results of these experiments, but for scientists
the problem is how to deal with the problem that while o
ur brain produces actions, we believe
that it is us that produce the actions. Many people believe that quantum mechanics can provide
explanations for problems that science based on classical physics hasn’t answered thus far. We
will not delve deeper into t
he subjects of quantum consciousness or add more theories. But I
promise I will do so some other time. There are very good resources on the web concerning these
topics, but the problem is that these topics are so theoritical and academic in perspective tha
t the
average person cannot even begin to grasp what we are talking about. For that, we need another
article unto itself.


Quantum mechanics requires s
ome serious study…

Now, concerning Ben Goertzel’s view, it is certainly an interesting one. However, whether this
solves the problem of free will is a completely different subject. Of course, there isn’t an
experimental procedure to test this theory, so it

remains just that: a theory. Nevertheless, the
applications of quantum mechanics to the problems of the theory of mind seem to be a good
solution to what seems a dead
end. So let’s just keep this theory in our minds
just for now.

18 April 2001

Human Brain Loves Surprises

by Kate Melville

Most people love surprises. Scientists at Emory
University and Baylor College of Medicine may have
discovered why some people actually crave the

Through a unique collaboration between Emory's
Functional Neu
roimaging Group, led by Gregory S.
Berns, M.D., Ph.D., and Read Montague, M.D.,
Ph.D., at Baylor's Center for Theoretical
Neuroscience, scientists are beginning to reveal the biological basis of the
human attraction to surprising events. Sam McClure, a Bay
lor doctoral
candidate, also contributed to the study published in the April 15 issue of the
Journal of Neuroscience.


The Emory and Baylor scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging
to measure changes in human brain activity in response to a se
quence of
pleasurable stimuli, in this case, fruit juice and water. In the study, a
controlled device squirted fruit juice and water into the mouths of
research participants. The patterns of juice and water squirts were either
predictable or compl
etely unpredictable.

"Until recently, scientists assumed that the neural reward pathways, which
act as high
speed Internet connections to the pleasure centers of the brain,
responded to what people like," said Montague. "However, when we tested
this idea
in brain scanning experiments, we found the reward pathways
responded much more strongly to the unexpectedness of stimuli instead of
their pleasurable effects." Study subjects were told nothing about what
would take place. As a result, the brain was a clea
n slate, allowing scientists
to clearly see what area of the brain was registering activity.

Contrary to the scientists' expectations, the human reward pathways in the
brain responded most strongly to the unpredictable sequence of squirts. The
area of the

brain called the nucleus accumbens, which scientists previously
have identified as a pleasure center of the brain, recorded a particularly
strong response to the unexpectedness of a sequence of stimuli.

"We find that so
called pleasure centers in the bra
in do not react equally to
any pleasurable substance, but instead react more strongly when the
pleasures are unexpected," Berns said. "This means that the brain finds
unexpected pleasures more rewarding than expected ones, and it may have
little to do with

what people say they like."

Both Berns and Montague think their work may provide a better
understanding of addictive diseases and disorders of decision making in
humans. They believe that the new findings may help clarify the pathways
involved in addicti
on to drugs such as heroin and cocaine, which are known
to disrupt the normal function of the nucleus accumbens Other addictive
disorders such as gambling also appear to influence this same brain