by Sylvain Comeau
Science still does not understand very much about the human brain, and
maybe some of the limitations to that understanding lie in the brain itself.
German neurologist Wolf Singer said in a recent Concordia lecture that
unconscious impulses run much of the show in our minds, to the point where
even freedom of choice comes into question.
Singer, director of the Max-Planck Institute for Brain Research, in Frankfurt,
explained that the brain works through interacting neurons, which form
different assemblies depending on the task at hand. But while everyones
brain works that way, that does not mean that everyone will come to the
same conclusion about the world. Quite the contrary.
We have ample evidence that the brain is a highly idiosyncratic
system. It is hard to say whether it really tells us what it should
if it is telling us what the world is really like.
In other words, interpretations, conclusions and answers that come through
to the individual from the barrage of sensory data plus the interplay
with our fevered thoughts can produce a view of the world which is not
necessarily on speaking terms with reality. Or, as Singer says, perception
is filtered by the first-person perspective.
There are many areas of the brain which talk to each other all the
time, he said, a very impressive and complex system, but also very
In an interview following his lecture, Singer explained that his view
is not jaundiced but quite realistic.
Evolved brains complex brains of higher mammals, with a developed
cerebral cortex have a lot of knowledge of the world, partly inborn
and partly through learning. They can use this knowledge to deliberate,
formulate expectancies and hypotheses, and develop predictive models of
the world, which they then match with input.
What is actually perceived is the result of a comparative operation
between these self-generated hypotheses and the actual input. So its
That systems first-person filter twists the interpretation in any
number of ways.
Its autistic because its so self-referential. It spends
a lot of time with its own preoccupations; [the brains] knowledge
base is so huge that it can get away without taking in much input from
outside while it is busy constructing models of the world. To the individual,
the answers the brain comes up with appear to be the only way to interpret
But why is the interpretation so compelling to the individual, even when
ones view of the world may seem nonsensical to others?
Maybe because we only become conscious of solutions, not of the
way we came up with them. Without examining the thought processes that
led us that way, we are not conscious of other possibilities, nor of how
we might have gone wrong. Only when we talk to others do we discover other
interpretations which could be valid.
Singer feels that current understanding of how the brain works does not
leave any room for free will.
I think the issue of free will is an all-or-nothing question. Either
we have it or we dont. I think we cant have just a little
bit of free will. If what we do is the result of the neuronal interactions
in our brain, including our thoughts, decision-making processes and values,
then there cant be another entity on top of this which makes choices
which are then executed by neurons.
Singer says that if there is a free-will mechanism in this system, science
has yet to discover it. If our understanding of neurobiology is
valid and complete, there can be no free will. If there is free will,
there must be something in addition that none of us has ever come across.
There are processes that underlie decision-making, but again, these
are neuronal processes. For example, a winner-take-all mechanism, in which
there is a competition between two neuronal states, one wins, so that
action A takes place rather than action B. The reason that A or B wins
is that there was a bias in the likelihood that one of the two will make
it. This process is not governed by free will.
As for human consciousness, that may be over-rated. Singer says that the
unconscious mind is far more active.
The large majority of the processes in the brain remain unconscious.
The consciousness platform is so limited with respect to the capacity
of contents it can keep at the same time.
We constantly have to select, through attention mechanisms, what
we will have in your conscious mind, so most of the processes influencing
behaviour are not present in consciousness, but still influence what you
do. That is why explanations people provide for their behaviour are often
Singers lecture on April 10 was presented by the Science College.