Determinism doesn’t mean that you can’t change your behavior, or help others to

January 6, 2019 • 10:45 am

I’m a free-will “incompatibilist”: someone who sees the existence of physical determinism as dispelling the idea of contracausal, you-could-have-done-otherwise “free will”, which is the notion of free will most common among people. Many people find my view disturbing and fatalistic, and I’m often posed this question: “If everything is determined by the laws of physics mediated through our neurobiology, what’s the point of trying to change somebody’s mind?”

My response is that no, we can’t choose (via contracausal free will) whether we want to change someone’s mind, nor can they freely choose (in the same sense) whether to change it. But human brains are wired by both evolution and experience in a way that alters people’s behaviors when (in general) they would benefit from those changes. So, for example, if you learn that treating people in a certain way makes them treat you better back, your brain circuits for “better treatment” might be activated, and you might begin treating folks better.  And if you see someone treating others badly, your circuits to give them that advice might be activated. You might then advise them, and their own brain circuits may “take” that advice.

None of this is incompatible with determinism. People learn, often in a way that helps them get along better with others, perform better on the job or other aspects of life, and so on. The possibility of such changes might have been produced by evolution since such malleability might correlate with your status and well-being, which in turn might have been connected with your reproductive success. Or, on the cultural side, we avoid pain and seek pleasure, and our brains are capable of taking in advice or experience that would increase our well being and decrease ill being.

Likewise, advice from someone else can act as an environmental stimulus that activates brain circuits that alter behavior. Again, we have no free choice about whether to render advice to others, but that doesn’t mean that the advice can’t effect changes.

Pacific Standard has an interview with Stanford biologist and writer Robert Sapolsky, the author of the acclaimed book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. (Click on screenshot below for the interview.) Sapolsky discusses a lot of things about tribalism, but I’ll reproduce two exchanges about free will. (Sapolsky’s writing have shown him to be, like me, an incompatibilist who thinks that the notion of “you-can-do-otherwise” free will is an illusion.)

Here he expresses the difficulty in explaining to others why determinism doesn’t entail fatalism. Perhaps his answer is better or clearer than mine, and here it is:

TJ [Tom Jacobs]: You write that you don’t really believe in free will, but we nevertheless have an obligation to try to understand our behavior and make things better. Isn’t that something of a contradiction?

RS [Sapolsky]: I’m realizing how incredibly hard it is to articulate how an absence of free will is compatible with change.

Gaining new knowledge, having new experiences, being inspired by someone’s example—these are biological phenomena. They leave biological traces.

There are all sorts of neuro-pathways that analyze the world in terms of cause and effect. The knowledge that one person—or a bunch of high school students—really can make a difference can be inspiring. That means certain pathways have been facilitated, and, as a result of that, certain behaviors become more likely. Pathways to efficacy can also be weakened if you find out you have no control in a certain domain. Learning to be helpless is also biological.

TJ: So the fact free will is largely illusory does not mean the way we react to the world is static and unchanging.

RS: Absolutely not. There’s a vast difference between a biologically determined universe and fatalism.

h/t: Tom

Reader’s wildlife videos

October 9, 2016 • 7:30 am

Tara Tanaka has struck video gold again with this heartwarming video of seven wood ducks (Aix sponsa) being set free. (Tara’s Vimeo site is here and her flickr site is here.)

Seven little ducklings were lovingly raised by the dedicated staff of St. Francis Wildlife in Tallahassee, FL during the summer of 2016. I picked them up at St. Francis on the day of this video, and at first they were just going to send six of them home with me and keep the 7th one – a female – since something had just happened to her flight feathers and they were afraid that she would be an easy target for a predator. We decided that she’d be better off with her peeps than alone in her flight cage at St. Francis, so we caught her and packed her up for her final time in a crate. When I got them home I took the big tub to the water’s edge, and very gently rolled it on it’s side so that when I opened the hinged lid that they would hopefully file out together, and not explode out, flying in every direction, which I unfortunately learned in a previous release. Everything went as planned and they slowly swam out in wide-eyed wonderment in their new home. The first 25s or so was videoed right after they were released, and the last clip was shot later that afternoon as they met the eight three-month old Black-bellied Whistling Duck juveniles who are the terror of the swamp. Ironically, the little raggedy hen who almost didn’t get to taste freedom was the one who chased off the Whistling duck, and flapped at the end. They’ve been here a month now and all seven are doing fine. “Raggedy’s” feathers are growing back, and her short flights are getting longer each day. She and a somewhat raggedy drake have really bonded (you can see them together at :42), and I’m so glad they are all together.

This video was shot in 4K with a Panasonic GH4 + Nikon 300mm f2.8 ED IF ais lens using manual focus.

For best results, go over to the Vimeo site and put it on full screen and 4K high definition.

In which Science goes on trial and is exonerated all in one morning

July 6, 2015 • 6:30 am

by Grania

As Dara O’Briain once noted, of course Science doesn’t know everything. If science knew everything, it would stop and probably go and eat ice cream for the rest of its days. But sometimes we all wish that science had the answer to our particular question du jour. Then again, sometimes just because we don’t know the answer doesn’t mean that science hasn’t already figured it out for us. (Magnets, how do they work?)

This morning on Twitter, writer and journalist Tom Chivers asked this question.

This response came moments later.

(He went on to apologise graciously.)

So what does science have to say on why we think we got a phone-call when we didn’t? The BBC says here:

When your phone is in your pocket, the world is in one of two possible states: the phone is either ringing or not. You also have two possible states of mind: the judgment that the phone is ringing, or the judgment that it isn’t. Obviously you’d like to match these states in the correct way. True vibrations should go with “it’s ringing”, and no vibrations should go with “it’s not ringing”. Signal detection theory calls these faithful matches a “hit” and a “correct rejection”, respectively.

But there are two other possible combinations: you could mismatch true vibrations with “it’s not ringing” (a “miss”); or mismatch the absence of vibrations with “it’s ringing” (a “false alarm”). This second kind of mismatch is what’s going on when you imagine a phantom phone vibration.

For situations where easy judgments can be made, such as deciding if someone says your name in a quiet room, you will probably make perfect matches every time. But when judgments are more difficult – if you have to decide whether someone says your name in a noisy room, or have to evaluate something you’re not skilled at – mismatches will occasionally happen. And these mistakes will be either misses or false alarms.

It’s apparently similar to the system smoke detectors use. A false alarm is much less costly and less dangerous than a missed positive.

So there you go, Science is safe for another day. And perhaps you will forgive your neighbours next time their alarm goes off for no reason at all at 3am.




The things rats dream about

June 30, 2015 • 10:15 am

by Grania Spingies

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest (4.1.168-170)

I should preface this with my regular caveat: I-am-not-a-scientist, nor do I play one on TV. My level expertise only allows me to say the rough equivalent of “Oh hey, this looks interesting.”

As a child I often used to watch my dogs dreaming. Clearly they were running, sometimes barking and huffing, sometimes panting. It used to fascinate me, and I wondered where in their heads they were running. Was it a field they knew? Were they alone or with companions? Were they chasing prey? Running for the fun of it? What does prey even look like to Canis lupus familiaris who may never met anything particularly prey-like in their modern suburban existence?

Once one of them barked so loud in her dream that she startled herself and woke up with a jump. I’d never seen a Labrador look more sheep-like when her eyes met mine. Unfortunately there was no way to ask her what she had been seeing in her dreams.

But it seems that remarkably a team of scientists has had a glimpse at what rats dream about.

Not an actual lab rat

Kiona Smith-Strickland over at Discover Magazine writes about a new study where a team looked at rats and determined remarkably that they dreamed about going places they were aware of but had not yet explored. She explains the process:

First, researchers let rats explore a T-shaped track. The rats could run along the center of the T, but the arms were blocked by clear barriers. While the rats watched, researchers put food at the end of one arm. The rats could see the food and the route to it, but they couldn’t get there.

Then, when the rats were curled up in their cages afterwards, scientists measured their neuron firing. Their brain activity seemed to show them imagining a route through a place they hadn’t explored before. To confirm this, researchers then put the rats back into the maze, but this time without the barriers. As they explored the arm where they had previously seen the food, the rats’ place cells fired in the same pattern as they had during sleep.

Neuroscientist Hugo Spiers, who co-authored the study, notes:

People have talked in the past about these kind of replay and pre-play events as possibly being the substrates of dreams, but you can’t ask rats what they’re thinking or dreaming. There is that really interesting sense that we’re getting at the stuff of dreams, the stuff that goes on when you’re sleeping.

You can read the paper here:

Hippocampal place cells construct reward related sequences through unexplored space by H Freyja Ólafsdóttir, Caswell Barry, Aman B Saleem, Demis Hassabis, Hugo J Spiers

Stunning duets in a neotropical wren

November 14, 2011 • 5:58 am

There’s a new paper in Science, brought to my attention by Ritchie S. King in the New York Times, that describes an amazing behavior in plain-tailed wrens (Pheugopedius euophrys). The species is neotropical: found in tropical forests in the mountains of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.  Here’s a photo from Wikipedia:

What’s amazing about this species is that the duet sounds like a single song, but actually consists of males and females alternating “syllables” at a rate of up to six per second.   When the female’s song has a tiny gap, the male fills in.  You can hear all this in the video below, and I’ll embed some songs from the paper.  The function of these songs is unknown, but they are probably involved in joint defense of territories.

The researchers, Eric Fortune et al., spent several months in the bamboo forests of Ecuador, recording wild and captive birds.  They also did playback experiments using “artificial song”.  The main results are described very well in this three-minute Science video below, presented by Fortune.  You’ll hear the duets as well as the single songs of one sex, showing the gaps that are filled in by the partner.

The authors found that the partners don’t just sing a stereotyped song, but adjust their songs to fill in whatever gaps are provided by the partner.  In other words, they’re sensitive to audio feedback from their mate, and, as the authors note, “are not relying on fixed-action patterns in the brain to generate duet song.”  As Fortune notes above, the female seems to play the “lead” in these songs, much like a partner who leads during a waltz.

Now I’m not sure if you can see this for free, but I’ll put the links to two movies of caged, duetting wrens. Below each movie is a sonogram that shows which partner is contributing which syllable.

Movie 1. “Top bird is the male wren, bottom the female. At the bottom is an oscillogram with the male and female parts marked in blue and magenta, respectively. The female initiated the duet, and the male moves its beak in its first interval but did not produce a syllable (1.11 to 1.36 seconds in the movie).”

Movie 2.  “This movie shows duetting in a captive pair of plain-tailed wrens. The bird visible at the start of the movie is the male, and the female becomes visible in the upper right hand corner. At the bottom is an oscillogram with the male and female parts marked in blue and magenta, respectively. Singing-related movements can be seen in both birds, but is particularly evident in the tail of the female at the end of the duet.”

And some audio recordings from the paper, showing both duets and single-sex songs:

Audio S1 Audio recording of the plain-tailed wren duet song shown in Figure 1A.
Audio S2  Audio recording of the solitary female plain-tailed wren song shown in Figure 1A.
Audio S3  Audio recording of the plain-tailed wren duet song shown in Figure 1B.
Audio S4 Audio recording of a solitary male plain-tailed wren song shown in Figure 1B.
Audio S5 Audio recording of a plain-tailed wren duet song in which the male skips a motif, as shown in Figure 1C.


Fortune, E. S., C. Rodríguez, D. Li, G. F. Ball, and M. J. Coleman.  2011.  Neural mechanisms for the coordination of duet singing in wrens.  Science 334:666-670.

Computer chip replaces cerebellum in a rat

September 30, 2011 • 10:20 am

The amazing results reported in this piece from New Scientist, “Rat cyborg gets digital cerebellum,” haven’t yet been published in a scientific journal, but were reported in a meeting in the UK.  The details are sketchy, but scientists apparently built a computer chip using information from the inputs of a rat’s brainstem to its cerebellum as as well the output generated by its input.  (The cerebellum, a lumpy part of our brain located underneath and at the rear, is, among other things, responsible for motor control of the body based on input from the brainstem.)  How they got this information onto a chip is also unclear to me, but I trust some readers will enlighten us.

Once they made the artificial cerebellum-chip, they used it to see if it could substitute for the real one in an elementary brain-processing task.  As the journal describes:

To test the chip, they anaesthetised a rat and disabled its cerebellum before hooking up their synthetic version. They then tried to teach the anaesthetised animal a conditioned motor reflex – a blink – by combining an auditory tone with a puff of air on the eye, until the animal blinked on hearing the tone alone. They first tried this without the chip connected, and found the rat was unable to learn the motor reflex. But once the artificial cerebellum was connected, the rat behaved as a normal animal would, learning to connect the sound with the need to blink.

The journal also reports that another group used electronics to replace lost memory in rats.

While there are substantial differences in how brains process information versus computers, there isn’t any reason why computer chips couldn’t replace many of the functions of the brain.  It’s intriguing to contemplate, for example, the possibility that a computer chip might one day help blind people to see, or improve memory in those with diminished capacity.

A striking case of predator avoidance in fish

September 30, 2011 • 5:38 am

This YouTube video, sent in by a reader, shows how a school of fish reacts to hunting behavior of blacktip sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus) off the Maldive Islands.

Notice how the fish seem to move in a coordinated fashion, almost as one, and how they tend to group behind the sharks, where they’re less liable to be nommed.  Such “coordinated” group movement is not unusual in flocking animals; we’ve seen it before in the amazing behavior of flocks of starlings (see the videos here).  The thing is, biologists don’t really understand what cues animals use when groups of them appear to move as one.

It hasn’t escaped my notice that the sharks seem to be driving the fish toward the wharf, perhaps to either trap them or stun them against the pilings. (Dolphins, by the way, sometimes stun prey by whacking them with their tail.)

I asked my colleague Steve Pruett-Jones to watch it and, as an animal behaviorist, send me his take. Here it is:

Animals form large groups for many reasons, from reproduction to migration to avoidance of predators. Some of the largest groups of vertebrates are seen when birds flock and fish school as an anti-predator defense.

This amazing video illustrates the apparent coordinated movement of individuals in a large school, although in fact the movement of each fish is thought to be independent. How the fish do this remains somewhat of a mystery. Obviously, vision is critical (fish don’t or can’t school after dark, and fish that have been blinded also don’t form schools) but fish also often have prominent markings on their shoulders or tails (schooling marks) which appear to serve as reference marks indicating their movement.

Other possible cues include pheromones, sound, and the sensitivity of a fish’s lateral line. Fish that have had their lateral line removed swim closer together, suggesting that the lateral line keeps fish at a minimum distance from each other; fish appear to be able to ‘feel’ when another fish comes close because the lateral line is sensitive to pressure. In contrast to the fish avoiding the sharks in this video, the movements of the sharks are clearly coordinated as it is in many predators.

By “independent” above, Steve means that the fish are not all responding to a single external cue (which may in fact be what the sharks are doing when they make their “hunting rush” in this video), but to the presence of surrounding fish.  This suggests two things: first, that this “coordinated” behavior is really a response to the movement of a single individual, who sets off a wave that propagates through the group.  Second, the speed of propagation seems much faster than can be explained by the sum of the reaction times of all the individuals.  The fact is that we simply don’t yet understand how this type of group movement works.  That seems like a simple question, but it’s a simple question that’s hard to answer.

h/t: Krishan

The pace of life: a crazy idea for an experiment

September 30, 2011 • 5:13 am

“The pace of life” was the title of a 1976 paper in Nature in which Marc and Helen Bornstein did something very simple: they went to 15 cities in Europe, Asia, and North America, and simply measured the rate of walking of unwitting subjects over a marked, 50-foot stretch of pavement on sunny days of moderate temperature.  What they found is summarized in this graph from their paper, which shows that people from larger cities walk significantly faster.  There was a threefold difference between the smallest and largest towns!

Their interpretation, which they based on the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram, was a bit dicey: they suggested that larger towns overload the mental processing ability of their inhabitants, and so the people simply walk faster in bigger towns “to minimize environmental stimulation.”  There are, of course, other interpretations—I’m sure you can think of a few.  (Rushing to and from work over larger distances is one.)

Regardless, this was one of those crazy but appealing ideas that we scientists get sometimes, and testing it did point to something interesting.  I’m sure, though, that these results would no longer be publishable in Nature.

This is by way of introducing another crazy idea I had a while back, and have been chewing over for some time.  It’s also about “the pace of life,” but about the pace of our entire lives.  If you’ve lived a substantial time, as I have, you may have noticed that the seasons and years seem to be passing more quickly than when you were younger.  This summer, for instance, seems to me to have vanished in a flash.  And I’ve noticed this more strongly as I’ve gotten older.

So I made a hypothesis: one sees the passage of time in relation to the length of one’s past life.  The duration of each moment is weighed in relation to how many moments have gone before, and so seems more fleeting when you’ve experienced more moments.  And that’s why, for older people, time seems to pass more quickly.  An alternative hypothesis is that as one gets closer to the close of one’s life, one senses “time’s wingèd chariot” more prominently, so time seems to pass more quickly because you don’t have as much left.  (I call this the Raitt Hypothesis after Bonnie Raitt’s song, “Nick of Time,” which includes this lyric: “Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.”)

Both of these theories, however, predict that as one gets older, one’s perception of time becomes compressed.

I realize that this is just a dumb idea, but it’s eminently testable. Here’s my experiment:  take a number of people of different ages, put them in a room, and ask them to tell you when an hour has passed.  Of course, you can’t let them count (that’s why I suggest an hour rather than a minute), and perhaps there should be some distraction so that people are doing quotidian tasks when asked to judge the time elapsed.  My hypothesis would predict that older people would  think that an hour had gone by after a shorter time than younger people; in other words, there would be a negative correlation between age and actual time elapsed.

I’m not aware that anyone has done such an experiment, though it’s an obvious idea, and maybe the notion is flawed, but surely a significant correlation (either positive or negative) would mean something.  If anything has been published on it—because, of course, I’ll never actually do this experiment—let me know.

Does this sound totally off the wall?

Just to round out this post, here’s an apposite song from 1966:  “Time,” by the Pozo Seco singers. It was their only hit, but it was popular in the U.S.  If you remember this, you’re old enough to have noticed how time seems to be passing faster.