Free Will, Confabulations, and Schizophrenia

I have often been surprised at how many people, when I say something like “I don’t believe in free will”, are completely and utterly surprised. For the most part, I almost assume that most of my friends, or acquaintances, who have some sort of post-secondary education, will do not believe or ascribe to the idea that we have this “ghost in the machine” or soul, that determines our actions, freely without (or with little) constraint by the natural, physical world. But again and again, I get people accusing me of being stupid or insane (well, with nicer words).

Here are two quick videos I found on youtube, sort of explaining what I believe:

Right, so to sum up: I believe that I am an agent, a being, that has a brain that is made up of neurons (and glial cells and so on) that form a network and, through its synaptic firing and ‘computations’, my brain creates my thoughts, my actions, so on and so forth, and even creates this illusion that I, Alex, am somehow a free agent. By free agent, I mean, not constrained by my neurophysiology, that I am this distinct, indivisible thing that has feelings and thoughts that are spontaneous freely chosen and decided upon, or something like that.

A simpler way of looking at it: I have a brain, it creates mental thoughts, and further creates this illusion that these mental thoughts were created by ‘me’, and has an causative ability (causes other thoughts and actions).

Psychology and neurology (and other related fields) have continuously been chipping away at this belief, this idea of a ghost in the machine. Descartes believed that the brain was connected to the soul through “animal spirits” that acted through the pineal gland. The soul, animal spirits, and the pineal gland having any function even remotely resembling this have by and large been tossed aside for something closer to materialism/physicalism.

There are still dualists out there (by dualist I mean explaining consciousness without resorting to the physical world (chemistry, biology, neuroscience, etc.)), like David Chalmers. Anyways, I’m getting off topic.

We all know Freud to be that guy who introduced the fact that there’s a lot more going on in our brain than we are aware of (Freud’s originality with most of his profound thoughts have recently come under fire, with many claiming that these thoughts were common at his time, and further that he falsified many of his findings to fit his theories)[see Peter Watson’s Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention from Fire to Freud]

Later, Pavlov and B.F. Skinner would show how many of our beliefs, actions and reactions to the world can be explained through unconscious learning (or conditioning). One famous example is where Skinner unintentionally had a pigeon learn a coordinated set of movements because it misattributed these actions to be responsible for the appearance of food (the food was given, regardless of behaviour, at random, if I remember correctly). This simple experiment has been used by some as an analogy for some religious/supernatural rituals.

A lot of what we know about the brain has come from neurology, where someone has experienced some form of damage to an area of the brain, and their brains then work in a way that is like before, but perhaps missing something specific. The most famous example would probably be Phineas Gage, who had a railroad spike explode into through his frontal lobe, which left him with a different personality then before the accident. To quote:

The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.”

H.M. is another example of someone who lost a piece of their brain which had dramatic consequences on our understanding of how the brain works. With H.M., (Henry Gustav Molaison, which was revealed after he died two years ago) an operation that removed his hippocampus and some of his temporal lobes, in order to cure him of epileptic seizures, lost the ability to form new declarative and episodic memories (I think he still had a working memory and some long-term procedural and implicit memory forming abilities). He was widely studied throughout his whole life, which lead to insights into how we form long-term memories.

One of my favourite surgery-to-disfunction-to-insight experiments is the split brain experiment, done in large part by Michael Gazzaniga (and Roger Sperry), who studied patients who had their corpus collosum surgically cut (it’s the tissue that connects your left and right hemispheres, although the hemispheres may still be able to communicate on a simple level through the subcortical regions). Ok, so, to explain the basics of the experiment, here is a picture:

Right, so what’s happening in the picture is the following: our left eye and left arm take in sensory information and are controlled by the right hemisphere of our brain, and vice versa for our right eye and arm (and legs and so on). So, in this picture, the person’s left eye can only see the picture on the left, and the person’s right eye can only see the picture on the right. The person is asked to point to what card (which both eyes can see) in front of them is related to the picture they are seeing. The right arm will go to the chicken (cause the right eye see’s the foot) and the left hand will go to the shovel (cause the left eye sees the snowy scenery.

This gets interesting when we talk about language, since most of our language is dealt with from one side of our brain, our left side (..I think..). Because of this, if you show the person’s right eye something, like “get up and close the door” they will get up and close the door. When you ask why they did that, they will answer “you told me to, on that piece of paper”, since the part of the brain that is answering is the part of the brain that saw the slip of paper. That makes sense. Ok, but when you show their left eye an instruction, such as “go get a soda” (yes, their right brain still has the ability to read and comprehend instructions), the person will get up and get a soda. When asked why they got the soda, they don’t answer “How should I know? I’m a split brain patient, and you keep doing these ridiculous tests on me”, but (I believe most of them) will answer “because I was thirsty”.

No, they’re not liars, they really do believe that the reason that they got up to get a drink was because they were thirsty. This is an example of a confabulation, where the brain, given what it knows, will try and make the pieces fit the puzzle. Without any evidence to the contrary, the conscious part of the brain thinks “I did that of my own volition”.

Ok, so, you say “well, that’s split brain patients, they’re weird, I don’t do things like that”. Well yes, yes you do, you just don’t know it. An example of this comes from psychology experiments like change blindness. In this experiment (there’s lots of different ways of doing it), you show a person two pictures of the opposite sex (or same sex, or whatever they’re into) and you ask them to study them, and then to select the one they find most attractive. Ok fine, they select one. Now the experimenter puts away the picture you didn’t select, and gives you back the one you did, and then asks you to say why you found that person more attractive. The person than says something like “I picked this person because I like their long hair, brown eyes, etc. etc.” The tricky part of this experiment is the fact that the experimenter actually used slight-of-hand to give the person back the picture they did NOT choose, the one they thought was not as good looking. So, instead of saying “oh, this isn’t the person I chose, this person is not very good looking”, the brain assumes that, “well, this must be the picture I selected, because I saw the person give me back the picture I chose…huh” and the person, unconsciously, goes with it, and thinks that that person is better looking, even though the person they selected had short hair, and green eyes. (note, not everyone falls for this, and some people do say “hey, this isn’t the picture I chose”. The important thing is that a lot of people do fall for this, even though we would assume that that wouldn’t be possible).

Confabulations may play a large role in dreaming. When we dream, we are bombarded by random events, and our brain, being the natural confabulator, tries to make sense of what is going on, and makes up a coherent story. Thus, in normal waking life, we get a continous stream of sensory information that is easy to piece into a coherent story. For instance, right now I’m in front of my computer, typing this post, and, yup, still typing this post. Nothing much has changed. Easy to keep this together. However, while dreaming, we no longer have the use of our senses, and instead are treated to random memories/information nodes in our brain (a lot of researchers believe that dreaming is important for memory consolidation) and our mind tries to make up a story to deal with it all.

I once read about the further notion that dreaming may be similar to schizophrenia from a book by Edward O. Wilson titled Consilience. That book is amazing, and I definitely suggest you pick it up. Anyways, in it, Wilson describes the theory that people with schizophrenia for some reason have hyperconnections in their brain (or hypo natural brain inhibitions) that makes it so that random shit just enters their brain, and their mind tries to make sense of it.

I’ll get back to schizophrenia in a minute, right after I talk about Capgras delusion. In this delusion, people will say that they wife/husband/partner has been replaced by a pod-person/robot/alien. Actually, they will say this about all sorts of people who are close to them, including their parents, friends, and even their pets. Interesting, when they hear the person’s voice, they won’t have this feeling. But once they see them, they immediately feel as though the person (or pet) is an impostor.

Thus, this person would appear to be crazy. However, there is a simple neurological explanation for this, which then leads the person to unconsciously create delusional beliefs to explain their world. Let me explain. When you encounter a person, there are many complex processes that go on in your brain that you are unconscious of. For instance, you recognize their face. This may seem very mundane, but you may be surprised to learn that facial recognition has its own specially devoted area (or network) in the brain, that can be disrupted without disrupting your recognition of anything else (this is termed prosopagnosia. You can read a case study of one such person in Oliver Sacks’ book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. As you might be able to guess, that case study is the basis for the title of the book.) Another process that goes on when you interact with someone is that your brain will project human agency to the person, or a theory of mind (i.e. that that person will have emotions, desires, the capacity to feel pain and pleasure, etc.) It is believed that autistic people may lack this ability to project a theory of mind on other people. Finally, another interesting thing that occurs is an association of seeing that person with emotional memories they may have of them. What occurs in Capgras delusion is that person’s emotional memory association capability has been lost. Thus, when they see a loved one, they unconsciously expect to feel certain feelings, but don’t feel them. Their mind attempts to make sense of this and confabulates that something must be different about the person, that perhaps they have been replaced.

Many delusions may be of this nature. For instance, when auditory hallucinations begin, people may believe that the voices/noises/music/etc. are being beamed into their minds, either with alien technology, radiowaves, or parapsychology (or more, I’m not sure). However, sometimes (depending on how paranoid they are, or how much they may believe they are being persecuted) they can be convinced that, indeed, these voices are coming from their own brain: that some part of their brain has become functionally dislodged and independent, and it is that which is responsible for the audio they are hearing. This can sometimes completely eliminate the delusions the person has, and give them great relief (although they may still be very annoyed and concerned). Indeed, in the US, there are support groups for people who ‘hear things’, but acknowledge that it is merely a neurological problem, and have been helped with the coping process with the support of others who are experiencing a similar situation. You may even be surprised to find out that some people find their voices to be a source of comfort, and that they would not remove them if it was even as simple as popping a pill with no side effects.

Finally, I recently came upon a paper (which caused me to think about this stuff again, and made me want to write this post), which puts forward a similar theory about why schizophrenics have belief and perception problems (delusions and hallucinations, respectively). They propose their delusions are caused primarily from an attempt to understand their hallucinations (confabulations). Furthermore, the thing that causes their hallucinations in their brain is that they no longer ignore certain stimuli, specifically ones related to self-monitoring. So, for example, when I go to touch something, my brain makes a prediction about the fact that I will soon have a sensory experience, and goes about ignoring parts of this because things that are expected are not worth paying attention to. However, if this process breaks down, the person may be in a state where they begin to attend to things that should usually be ignored. For example, where they should usually ignore their own sub-vocal speech, instead they are forced to pay attention to it, and may then believe this voice is coming from outside of themselves. (paper can be found on Nature Reviews Neuroscience)
(interestingly, the reason you may not be able to tickle yourself is because your cerebellum knows to expect exactly where you’ll be touched, and thus ignores it, just like how it ignores the feeling of your clothes brushing against your skin when you walk, since it expects it and decides to ignore it).

A sever case of confabulation is reported in another Oliver Sacks case study, of a person who went blind but sincerely believed they were not blind. Instead, their brain just confabulated entire visual sceneries, which were very very real for the patient. I think this case study is related in An Anthropologist From Mars, in the essay titled “The Last Hippie”.

…I further want to talk about Dennett’s multiple drafts model of consciousness, and how this can help explain multiple personality disorders…but I think I’ll save that for another post…(however, if you’re really interested, here is the full explanation: clicky)


About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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2 Responses to Free Will, Confabulations, and Schizophrenia

  1. Pellia says:

    Hey, that was a nice review of very interesting issues. (It would have been nice if you had quickly verified your “I’m not sure’s,” but otherwise great stuff. 🙂

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