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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Zombies Learn Too, But Not Well

I recently had a scholarly paper on free-will research published in a cognitive psychology journal. This experience has caused me to think about the role of free-will in learning and memory. Though it might seem like a stretch, how one approaches learning affects how well it is done. If you learn subconsciously, as in  being conditioned like Pavlov's dogs or trained seals, the learning is primitive and limited because it is hidden from consciousness. I call this zombie learning (anybody who has lectured to students has seen this happening throughout the room). On the other hand, when one consciously and freely wills to learn, he becomes engaged as an active learner. Such learning, being mediated in the consciousness, is available for refinement, expansion, application, and integration into other learning, past and future.
       Let me explain the point of reference. Ever drive a route so familiar you don’t remember getting there? It is as if your brain was on autopilot. Many scientists think this zombie-like behavior is the norm. They say that even when we are aware of having done something, it was willed subconsciously, and we only became consciously aware after the fact. This has led to a common notion among scholars that free will is an illusion. At least that is the argument promoted long ago by scholars like Darwin, Huxley, and Einstein. Many modern scientists also hold that position and have even performed experiments they say prove it.
        These experiments supposedly show that the brain makes a subconscious decision before it is realized consciously.  Well, I am not intimidated by science’s giants, past or present. In a paper in the current issue of Advances in Cognitive Psychology (Vol. 6, page 47-65), I challenge a whole series of experiments performed since the 1980s purported to show that intentions, choices, and decisions are made subconsciously, with conscious mind being informed after the fact.
       But these experiments do not test what they are intended to test and are misinterpreted to support the view of illusory free will. In the typical experiment, a subject is asked to voluntarily press a button at any time and notice the position of a clock marker when they think they first willed the movement. At the same time, brain activity is monitored over the part of the brain that controls the mechanics of the movement. The startling observation typically is that subjects show brain activity changes before they say they intended to make the movement. In other words the brain issued the command before the conscious mind had a chance to decide to move. All this happens in less than a second, but various scientists have interpreted this to mean that the subconscious mind made the decision to move and the conscious mind only realized the decision later.
My criticisms focus on three main points: 1) timing of when a free-will event occurred requires introspection, and other research shows that introspective estimates of event timing are not accurate, 2) simple finger movements may be performed without much conscious thought and certainly not representative of the conscious decisions and choices required in high-speed conversation or situations where the subconscious mind cannot know ahead of time what to do, and 3) the brain activity  measures have been primitive and incomplete.
I identify 12 categories of what I regard as flawed thinking about free will. Some of the more obvious issues that many scientists have glossed over include:
  • Decisions are not often instantaneous (certainly not on a scale of a fraction of a second).
  • Conscious realization that a decision has been made is delayed from the actual decision, and these may be two distinct processes.
  • Decision making is not the only mental process going on in such tasks.
  • Some willed action, as when first learning to play a musical instrument or touch type must be freely willed because the subconscious mind cannot know ahead of time what to do.
  • Free-will experiments have relied too much on awareness of actions and time estimation of accuracy.
  • Extrapolating from such simple experiments to all mental life is not justified.
  • Conflicting data and interpretations have been ignored. 
In the real world, subconscious and conscious minds interact and share duties. Subconscious mind governs simple or well-learned tasks, like habits or ingrained prejudices, while conscious mind deals with tasks that are complex or novel, like first learning to ride a bike or play sheet music.

We do act like zombies driven by our subconscious when we act out of habit, prejudice, or prior conditioning. But we should and can  be responsible for what we make of our brains and for the choices in life we make. In a free-will world, people can choose to extricate themselves from many kinds of misfortune — not to mention make the right choices that can prevent misfortune.
An earlier book of mine on personal responsibility, Blame Game, How To Win It ( provided the inspiration to explore why people are not more responsible. It is not that we lack the capacity for free will. Rather, we fail to exercise it.
Relating these ideas to learning, we should strive to become active learners, consciously thinking about what we are learning, not trying to memorize it by rote. Rote memory doesn't work very well anyway, and it puts us in a zombie mode that prevents us from full understanding and capability to use the learned material.

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