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Tuesday, December 04, 2018

How Learning and Memory Relate to Free Will

One common definition of "free will" is that a person can decide or choose among multiple alternatives without being forced by physical laws, luck, fate, or divine will. Most of us feel we are in charge of our choices when no outside force requires us to make a particular choice. But it is fashionable these days for scholars to insist that free will is an illusion, a trick the brain plays on us. I will spare you the philosophical knots of specious assumptions and convoluted logic that that scholars tie themselves into.

Why do I bring this up? What has the "free will" issue have to do with learning and memory? Everything. Rather than memory dictating our choices, either we have chosen what to learn and remember or we can veto or amend the influence in our decision-making.

Human brains make choices consciously and unconsciously by real-time evaluation of alternatives in terms of previous learning from other situations and their anticipated usefulness. This learning occurs in the context of the learned sense of self, which begins unconsciously in the womb. The conscious brain is aware that it is aware of choice processing and makes decisions in light of such understanding. When a given alternative choice is not forced, the conscious mind is aware that it is not obliged to accept any one choice but is "free" to select any one of the available options. Such realization might even guide many decisions at the subconscious level. In either case, neural networks weigh the probable value of each alternative and collectively reach a "decision" by inhibiting networks that lead to less-favored alternatives. Thus, network activity underlying the preferred choice prevails and leads to a selective willed action. What governs the network activity causing the final choice is the activity in other networks, which in turn is governed by stored memories and real-time processing of the current environmental choice contingencies.
What usually gets left out of free-will discussions is the question of how a brain establishes stored-memory preferences and how it evaluates current contingencies. These functions surely cause things to happen, but what is the cause of the cause? Any given brain can choose within certain limits its learning experiences and stored memory. We govern those choices by what a brain has learned about the self-interest value associated with given contingencies. Brain circuitry assigns value, and values chosen are largely optional choices. The conscious brain directs the choices that govern value formation, reinforcement, and preservation in memory.

Now we are confronted with explaining how neural circuit impulse patterns (CIP) representing the sense of self can have a free will. First, I reason that each person has a conscious Avatar that brain acts as an active agent to act in the world on embodied brain's behalf, as explained more completely in my recent book. This is reminiscent of the 3rd Century idea of a homunculus, a "little person" inside the brain. The modern view is that this homunculus exists in the form of mapped circuitry.

Certain maps are created under genetic control. These include the topographic map of the body in the sensory and motor cortices. Then there is the capacity for real-time construction of maps of the body in space that resides in circuitry of the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex. Other maps are created from learning experience from the near-infinite circuit capacity of association cortex. What these maps learn is stored in memory as facilitated circuit synapses and deployed "on-line" in the form of CIP representations of what was originally learned. New learning likewise exists as CIP representations in sub-network populations.

The Avatar itself is a constellation of CIPs representing the conscious sense of self. Certainly, by definition, the Avatar can make choices and decisions. Wakefulness releases consciousness to make its own choices and decisions. Avatar processing is certainly not random, and presumably can occur with more degrees of freedom than found in unconscious mind.

If the Avatar exists as CIPs, how can something as "impersonal" and physiological as that have any kind of "will," much less free will. Let us recall that "will" is little more than an intent that couples bodily actions to achieve the intent. This kind of thing occurs even in the circuitry that controls unconscious minds. These circuits automatically generate actions in response to conditions that call for a response. Such actions are stereotyped and inflexible only when there is no conscious oversight.

Each alternative is represented as circuit impulse patterns (CIPs) within a subpopulation of brain, which be considered as constituting part of the sub- or non-conscious mind. Each population's activity interacts with the others - and with the CIP representation of the Conscious Avatar. When activity level in any one subpopulation reaches a threshold, it suppresses activity in the alternative representation populations, leading to selection of that population's activity as the choice result. The Avatar CIP is poised to influence activity in the alternative sub-populations and thus can help direct the final processing result.

The Avatar must have some criteria that its circuits use to make a given decision. Those criteria have been learned and remembered. When CIP processes operate in Avatar circuitry, the Avatar population activity can modulate the alternative-choice representations in the context of self-awareness according to the informational representations of past learning and value assessments of current contingencies. You might say that when the brain generated the CIPs to represent the sense of self, those CIPs came endowed with a certain autonomy and freedom of action not available to the other CIPs in the brain that constituted unconscious mind.

People who believe that humans have no free will are hard-pressed to explain why no one is responsible for their choices and actions. What is it that compels foolish or deviant behavior? Is our Avatar compelled to believe in God or to be an atheist? Is our Avatar compelled to accept one moral code over any other? Is it compelled to become a certain kind of person, with no option to "improve" itself in any self-determined way? Do learning experiences compel us to make our choices of learning experiences? Of course not. We are free to reject learning that does not serve us well.

It seems to this Avatar that current debates about determinism and free will tend to obscure the important matters of our humanness. The door to understanding what is really going on is slammed shut by assertions that value choices and the decisions that flow from them cannot be free because they are caused by neural circuit impulse patterns. Free will debates distract us from a proper framing of the issues about human choices and personal responsibility.

While it is true that genetics and experience help program the Avatar circuitry, the Avatar does its own processing and makes choices about who to interact with and what experiences to value, promote, and allow. The Avatar can insist that it has a need to remember some lessons of experience and makes it a point to remember it. In short, the Avatar gets to help shape what it becomes.

Klemm, W. R. (2014). Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate. New York: Prometheus.
Klemm, W. R. (2016). Making a Scientific Case for Conscious Agency and Free Will. New York: Academic Press.

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