Monthly Archives: June 2015

Metabolic Activity Setpoint Regulation In The Body – Conundrum Of How We All Are So Similar Deep Inside

This week I have had a bad bout of flu, along with the rest of the family, and apart from feeling pretty miserable, everything in my body feels disjointed and not functioning well because of the illness. I have been researching how the brain and body works for more than 25 years, and while the old adage that the more one learns about something, the less one knows about it is certainly true in my case, each journal article I read, or data I examine on how the body and the brain ‘work’ and are regulated, I marvel still at what a brilliant piece of work the human body is, and ‘feeling’ my own body not working well this week reinforced this perception for me. One of the most fascinating things about the body is how all the different organs, systems and metabolic activity are regulated to ensure that all its activity functions in a synchronous way and successfully from an integrative perspective. Even at rest, vast numbers of anatomical and physiological functions are operative and interacting with each other continuously in order to sustain life as we know and ‘feel’ it, whatever life really is. When one moves or performs activity, all these variables and interactions change in both quantitative and temporal domains, with metabolic activity increasing and the interactions between different organs and physiological systems occurring at a faster rate. Given the large number of physiological processes and activities occurring at any one time in the body, one would expect large variability between different individuals for the value of any single substrate, metabolite or regulatory factor operating at the cellular, tissue, organ, or system level in the body. Furthermore, one would expect that this potential inter-individual variability in physiological function would alter continuously with time. But, astonishingly, the range of values for any metabolic variable or its activity, and baseline levels of activity for most physiological variables, is relatively similar in different folk who are healthy. For example, blood glucose concentrations are usually maintained between 4 and 6 mmol/l in all healthy individuals, and breathing rate between 12 and 16 breaths per minute. Therefore, a similar metabolic regulator appears to occur in all individuals, although what sets these similar metabolic ranges in all folk is still currently not well understood.

The first potential regulator of all our metabolic and physiological system setpoints is a control mechanism in the brain or central nervous system. If this is the case, the values of each metabolic setpoint level, and the requirement for every single physiological system at every level in the body, as well as mechanical restraints and cellular architecture are present in the brain. The hypothalamus, a small area of brain tissue at the base of the brain, which has been shown to regulate hormonal function and has signalling connections with the body, has been suggested to be the key area of the brain where metabolic regulation occurs, along with a host of other brain and brainstem regions. These potential areas in the brain have been suggested to have a collection of neural networks that contain a register of the set values for each metabolic and physiological constituent of the body which is ‘stored’ somewhere and somehow in the these brain neural networks. Two innovative researchers, Joseph Parvizi and Antonio Damasio, in the early 2000’s suggested that a ‘proto-self’ exists, as a collection of neural networks that ‘map’ the physical and physiological state of the body. In their theory, the proto-self is a first-order map describing the state of every physiological variable in the body, and when a change to the internal physiological milieu occurs, such as when one moves or performs exercise, these changes become a further first-order map in other neural networks. When the proto-self values in the one neural network is compared to this ‘change map’, the difference between the two become a second-order map, which is used by some regulatory process in the brain to initiate changes at either the psychological, physiological system or cellular level by either sending out efferent neural commands (brain signals flowing out to the muscles or organs of the body) or humoral (blood borne) hormonal changes, both of which would attempt to restore the altered metabolic variables to their proto-self values by reducing pace during physical activity or terminating the physical activity, or ingesting fuel or fluid as required to replace the increase in its use, or changing cardiac output or fuel utilization composition to as near what is routine / ‘normal’ as possible.

This is an attractive idea, but like all things related to the brain, there has been no real development in identifying the mechanisms or components of the brain that would be responsible for the storage of the metabolic proto-self maps and register of all the physiological and metabolic setpoint variables. Two distinct shortcomings of these proto-self and brain storage concepts are firstly, the level of requirement for ‘storage space’ given the huge number of variables that would have to be stored, and the intellectual brain activity required to occur continuously to integrate and manage all the different variables at the same time. Secondly, if the values were ‘stored’ in the neural circuits, one would have expected over the generations there would be slow but substantial changes to these values as part of normal genetic variation that occurs over time, which would create an increasingly diverse array of anatomical brain neural network variations and an associated diverse array of setpoint values with time. Therefore, it is likely that some other mechanism is responsible for the similarity between the metabolic setpoint variables of different folk.

An external agent or force, rather than an internal brain mechanism, may be responsible for establishing metabolic setpoints, either directly or by maintaining similar function in the brains of different individuals by preventing changes which would be produced by the evolutionary pressure of passing time. Each individual would need to respond to the external agent or energy force in the same way, and this similar response would set a similar internal physiological and metabolic state in all individuals. For this type of external regulation to occur, the external energy force would need to be consistently present to allow the physiological response to occur continuously in all individuals. A putative energy force which would fulfil these criteria is the force of gravity. Gravity occurs over the entire surface of the earth, and energy is continuously required by all humans to counteract the effect of gravity on body structures. For example, merely standing upright requires constant force and hence muscle activity, which requires as a result a certain continuous level of metabolic activity. Experiments performed in zero gravity environments show that physiological activity levels are profoundly altered by lack of gravitational force. Therefore, there is a strong possibility that gravity, or other electromagnetic forces around the earth such as the coriolus force, are, at least partly, responsible for maintaining the similar homeostatic setpoints found in all healthy individuals.

There are of course times and conditions when metabolic setpoint variables alter, and can be altered. After long term physical training, a number of setpoint levels are altered associated with increased ‘fitness’ induced by training. For example, resting heart rate is reduced, blood lipid and cholesterol profiles are reduced, and muscle enzymatic and mitochondrial setpoint functions are altered. These changes are probably due to adaptations in protein regulatory function at the genetic and molecular level, which alters the physical and neural structures associated with physiological activity by changing their size, number and efficiency of function. But, these alterations are maintained only as long as the training bouts are continued. Once the training stimulus is removed, the metabolic setpoint levels in the different physiological systems return to their original values associated with the ‘untrained’ state, and these reversions occur at a faster rate than do the changes associated with training, indicating that it is easier to return metabolic setpoint values to their untrained values, then it is to alter the setpoint values away from their untrained state.

Chronic disease can also alter resting metabolic values, and in a permanent manner, if the disease is permanent and related to some cellular death. For example when an individual suffers a big heart attack, there is permanent loss of heart tissue in the affected area, which results in the contractile state of the heart changing, which leads to a number of other changes occurring, such as increased (or decreased) heart rate or stroke volume, blood pressure changes, and alterations in the flow of blood and fluids between organs. If the body can tolerate these changes, the individuals will survive in this damaged state for a substantial period of time, with altered resting metabolic variables and setpoint values, until death occurs from some other pathology / disease process. One could describe this as being a functionally different setpoint state, and in complex system research terminology / parlance this is known as a functional bifurcation from the resting state, but it is an artificial state related to illness, and the individual is in effect not functioning in an optimal state, but rather in state of chronic systemic compensation. In diseases such as diabetes mellitus, there appears to be marked changes in the concentrations of blood glucose, with levels measured at different times of the day either being higher or lower than the concentrations present in healthy individuals. However, these changes appear to be caused by the increased variation in blood glucose concentration associated with changes in the gain (the capacity of the system to return to baseline), and time constant of the gain, of the blood glucose control system in individuals with diabetes, rather than by changes in the metabolic setpoint values themselves.

The metabolic setpoints can also alter in response to acute infection, as happened to my body this week, with increased baseline temperature levels, heart rate and cardiac output. Interestingly, in what has been called the ‘setpoint controversy’, during a bout of fever such as I have had, changes occur which are not immediately corrective and which return the core temperature to previous homeostatic setpoint levels, but rather create conditions which would lead to further increases in temperature, or maintenance of the raised temperature away from the routine setpoint levels. These include seeking a warm environment, increased vasoconstriction, and shivering, all which increase metabolic rate and increase generation of heat, despite the individual already having an increased core temperature. The usual response to an increased core temperature when one is in a hot environment, or when the body’s core temperature increases due to exercise or physical exertion (hyperthermia), would be to seek out a cold environment, reduce locomotion, increase vasodilation and reduce metabolic rate. Therefore the responses to hyperthermia and fever, which similarly cause core temperature to increase above baseline setpoint levels, induce directly opposite effects, which in the case of hyperthermia lead to a reduction in core temperature, and in fever, maintains the increase in core temperature, and these different responses are the nub of the setpoint controversy. The teleological value of the responses to fever would be to allow optimal function of the inflammatory and immune response to remove the threat caused by the organism or process (in my case a flu virus) which induced the fever. The teleological value of the responses to hyoperthermia would be to prevent catastrophic overheating of physiological systems. How the ‘decision’ is made by the brain and body to initiate either of these different metabolic setpoint related strategies in response to an increase in core temperature is not currently known.

In summary therefore, one of the most fascinating aspect of our hugely complex bodies, is that despite this complexity, the setpoint values for each metabolic or physiological function appears to be very similar across all individuals, unless there are differences in fitness or health levels. While these setpoint values may be determined in brain structures and circuits, it is more likely that they are set in response to an external system force, likely to be gravity or other such forces that operate in a chronic and continuous manner similarly in all of us. In a world where our perceived external individual differences are often used politically and socially to differentiate and define us, it is a surety that deep inside we are all very much the same, and all are responding to the same challenges and forces we face, and are all so similar in all aspects of our bodies makeup and physical function because of this. So apart from being fabulously complex and mechanistically brilliant, perhaps the deep workings of our bodies, in all their brilliance, can teach us also something socially from how they are made, and how they are operate, reacting to external stimuli in the same way, responding internally in a host of different physiological systems in the same way, and returning to the same baseline values in the same way. No matter how different we or others think we are, deep inside, we are all very much the same, and this similarity is perhaps the fundamental tenet which allows the ongoing existence of life as we know it. Who would ever have believed that gravity would perhaps be the ultimate force potentially underpinning all of our body’s functions, and ensuring the physiological similarity of all us residing on this planet of ours, as we rotate daily around the sun and go about our daily business, if indeed this is the case. Sadly though, it wasn’t able to prevent me developing an illness as a result of a nasty flu virus, which appears to have knocked everything out of kilter this week, including most of my metabolic setpoints, to say nothing of my psychic harmony!

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Courage Under Fire – Both Physical And Moral Courage Are Complex Phenomena

The week past at work was a challenging one, with a number of different issues to deal with that were and are complex, and perhaps more political and moral than medical, and all which needed, or do need, some moral courage to resolve. I have also been reading the autobiography of American president and most famous civil war general, Ulysses S. Grant (Personal Memoirs), and watched a video called American Sniper, about the USA’s most successful sniper, who showed great physical bravery, albeit in a morally challenging environment. The advertising for the video suggested that it would be a great father’s day gift, but while being thought-provoking, I was left feeling distinctly ‘queasy’ after watching it, for a number of moral / ethical reasons (which the film subtly attempted to address). All three ‘events’ this week got me thinking about courage, how it is defined and what it really is. The dictionary definition of courage is the ability to disregard fear. Clearly, courage is related to fear, or at least resisting the life-preserving emotion which the sensation of fear essentially is. Courage is also defined as the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger uncertainty and / or intimidation, and not ‘back away’ from any of these challenges. There are also perhaps different types of courage, with two broad categories being physical courage, which is defined as courage in the face of physical pain, hardship, death or threat, and moral courage being defined a the ability to act ‘rightly’ in the face of popular opposition or the potential for shame, scandal or discouragement to be the consequence of enacting one’s moral standpoint. But, many acts of heroism and many human actions which have been defined as being courageous may be rooted in activity which is self-serving, or may occur in individuals who do not ‘feel’ fear to the degree that most folk do. In these cases the concept of courage becomes more complex, and may be underpinned by human impulses not as noble as they would be if ‘pure’ courage was the ultimate source of the actions.

To understand courage one also has to understand and acknowledge the existence of fear. Fear is defined as an emotion induced by a threat perceived to be a risk to life, status, power, security, wealth or anything perceived to be valuable to the individual who becomes aware of the threat, which causes changes in brain and organ function, and ultimately behavioural changes, such as freezing, hiding, running away from, or confronting, the source of the fear in order to attenuate it by removing the threat. There are physical symptoms of fear, including increased breathe rate, heart rate, increased muscle tension, ‘goose bumps’ and raised hair follicles, sweating, increased blood glucose, sleep disturbances and dyspepsia (nausea and ‘butterflies in one’s stomach’). All of these changes serve purposive functions, and result from primitive protective functions known as the ‘fight or flight response’, which make the individual ‘ready’ to either flee or fight the danger which causes the development of these symptoms, with the sensation of all of these changes as a collective becoming the ‘feeling’ of the emotion we call fear. Fear is an important life-preserving complex emotion, without which both humans and animals would not last long in either wild or modern environments. It’s important to note that not all people ‘feel’ fear, for example sociopaths and psychopaths do not, while in some folk fear is felt to extreme levels, where it is defined as a phobia. A 2005 Gallup poll of adolescents in the USA between the ages of 13 and 17 suggested that that the top 10 fears of the folk interviewed were, in order, terrorist attacks, spiders, death, being a failure, war, criminal or gang violence, being alone, the future, and nuclear war. A further analysis of top ten online searches with the phrase ‘fear of…’ by Bill Tancer in 2008 described fear of flying, heights, clowns, intimacy, death, rejection, people, snakes, failure, and driving as being the most searched for. It is clear from these that folk have fear for a wide variety of ‘thing’s, some personal, some social, some physical and some psychological.

As described above, the ability to ‘stand up to’ one’s own personal fears, whatever these are, is described as courage. Courage appears to be a ‘learnt’ behavioural trait, with most folk remembering with clarity the first occasion they showed physical courage / stood up to the local bully that was tormenting them, and understood what it meant by doing so. For example, in his excellent book on Courage, the previous Prime Minister of the UK, Gordon Brown, could pinpoint / remembered the age / date / time of the situation that required him to be courageous and which made him aware of it as a concept. In the classic book on courage written by Lord Charles Moran (also well known for being Winston Churchill’s personal physician during World War Two), titled The Anatomy of Courage, four ‘orders’ of people were described based on how they showed physical courage, or the lack of, according to his observations of soldiers under fire in World War One. These were firstly people who did not feel fear (today these would be called sociopaths/psychopaths), secondly people who felt fear but did not show it, thirdly people who felt fear and showed it but did their job, and fourthly people who felt fear, showed fear, and shirked their responsibilities. He perceived that level of fatigue or length of exposure to situations which induced fear (such as constant shelling during World War One) could ‘wear out’ any person, and could lead to any person changing who were in one of the first three categories to eventually ‘fall into’ the fourth. He suggested that imaginative / intelligent (sic) folk felt fear more than unimaginative ‘bovine’ individuals (one could add sociopaths to this latter group, though he did not discuss them), and that it was more challenging for ‘imaginative’ folk to show courage because of this, and perhaps more exemplary when they did. Finally, he felt courage was all ‘in the head’, and that moral courage was one step ‘higher’ than physical courage, and needed even greater ‘levels’ of whatever it was that created courage in someone to occur, and that ‘few men had the stuff of leadership (moral courage) in them, they were like rafts to which all the rest of humanity clung for support and for hope’

Moral courage is usually understood and enacted later in life, often when one is in a leadership position for the first time. For Ulysses S. Grant, it was in 1861, when being confronted by a rival ‘rebel’ force led by a General whom he knew. Grant felt terrified that if he ordered an attack it could potentially fail and he would be both blamed for and responsible for it. He perceived that, as had been the case in his military career to that point in time, if he was one or any rank lower than the General in command, he would have no hesitation on acting on the orders given, but that it was very different when all the responsibility for success or failure rested on him, and for the first time he felt ‘moral fear’. In a life changing moment for him, and perhaps the history of the USA, when he finally ordered the attack, his troops found that the rebel General and his troops had deserted their camp and retreated, and Grant realized that his opposite number was as fearful as he was and had acted on this fear before Grant had. In Grant’s words, ‘From that point on to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.’ While some historians have pointed out that Grant may have taken this lesson too much to heart, and that he should have respected his enemies capacities more in later engagements, a lack of which perhaps resulted in high levels of blood-letting in all the future battles Grant led, ultimately it was his moral courage that led to the war being won for the United States’s Union armies.

It must be noted that to take a stance or way of leading that requires moral courage requires a belief that there are virtues higher than ‘natural’ ones that needs to be protected, as the philosopher Hobbes pointed out. In the example of Grant, he was fortunate to win the war and be famous because of it, and in his case he was on the side of ‘good’, from the context that the American civil war, while starting out ostensibly as a conflict about states staying in or withdrawing from the Union, was really about slavery and its abolishment in the rebel states, and there are few folk that would not agree that the Union cause, and therefore that of Grant’s, had the moral high ground in the conflict. There are other examples, such as religious or national wars, where the issue of moral courage because more ‘cloudy’, as when folk take a stand, maintain a conflict or start a war against other folk due to some religious or national belief or doctrine, which could be defined as morally courageous (and indeed physically too) from that person’s or nation’s perspective, but would be defined by other folk as being that of a zealot or being misguided courage as best. There are also innumerable folk in history who took a morally courageous standpoint and ended up on the ‘losing’ side or died for their standpoints, or whose morally courageous standpoint was in the context of a greater morally corrupt environment, and for which they received no reward or respect for doing so. An example of this would be the Japanese Kamikaze pilots during World War Two, who sacrificed their own lives by crashing their planes into Allied ships in order to save the Japanese empire. These folk must have been hugely brave, and believe their stance was morally correct (Japanese dogma during the war was that it was the Allies, rather than Japan that were the aggressors). But most folk would now say, and said then, that the cause they were dying for was morally bereft. So for folk like these Kamikaze pilots, doing what was for them both a physically and morally courageous thing had no ‘upside’ in the long term. While this example is an extreme one, it perhaps does help explain why it is often so difficult to be morally brave in times where those against whom one takes a morally courageous standpoint are much stronger than the individual taking the morally courageous stand, or when the moral standpoint is perceived to be one which other folk believe is actually an immoral one, or later will declare it to be so, either for genuine or political reasons (and history is always written by the winners of any conflict or debate).

So how does this all help with the decisions on a daily basis that one has to make, and surely most folk do, that are complex, have many issues, and require moral courage to take a particular viewpoint or decide to enact a particular change that will not go down well with most folk one works with or interacts with, even if it is perceived by oneself as being the morally correct one. Firstly, one needs to think very carefully about the issue that is requiring a decision or action, to be sure that one is making a difficult decision with the highest level of certainty in the correctness of one’s decision as one can possibly be. Second, one has to be aware of one’s one moral ‘blind spots’, and that one is not doing something for personal gain or one’s own benefit when making a tough decision involving others or big groups of people that could be affected by one’s decisions. Thirdly, one has to valence the viewpoint, desires or ethical beliefs of a particular group of people, about whom the decision needs to be made or action taken, or are influencing one to make a decision, to be sure they are not out of kilter with the viewpoints of the greater society in general. Lastly, one has to be clear about the consequences of each potential decision, and whether one can live with these, even if it means a change to one’s lifestyle and circumstances which may affect not just oneself, but one’s family and loved ones, who will suffer if one is fired or even killed for taking a morally courageous standpoint. There are two opposing moral courage perspectives that could occur or be needed in each decision, firstly to be morally brave from a societal or situational perspective, or secondly to be morally brave in protecting one’s family and loved ones by not taking the morally brave societal or situational perspective. So being morally courageous can often be both complex and paradoxical. Ultimately, one has to decide each time one is faced with a challenging situation that produces a fear of consequences, whether to avoid it, or to act. To not act is often prudent. To act requires moral courage, but as above, moral courage is often complex. As Pastor Martin Niemoller’s haunting words remind us ‘First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me’. Unless one is a sociopath, each of us feels fear the same as everyone else. Each one of us has to learn first physical courage, and later moral courage. Each one of us on a daily basis has decisions to make which require either physical or moral courage. Each decision we make, or do not make, causes ripples that effect both our lives and those around us. In a complex world, full of complex issues, especially where there is no clear wrong and right, or paradoxically particularly when it is obvious what is wrong and right, physical courage, and perhaps even more so moral courage, is often all that stands in the way between societal annihilation and salvation, and perhaps more importantly, underpins us attaining our own state of grace, whatever its level or importance or influence. To be is to do. Or was that to do is to be?


The Libet Awareness Of Initiation of Action Study – Do We Have Free Will Or Are We Slaves To Our Subconscious

At a meeting of the South African Council of Deans which I attended earlier this week, what struck me most about the day, apart from the great discussions and wisdom of the wise folk I interacted with, was a bowl of popcorn on the table in front of me and my reaction to it. After having a few pieces of popcorn, I said to myself that that was enough, and I focussed back on the erudite discussion going on around me. But, seemingly without any control from me, my hand reached out and picked up more popcorn for me to eat on several occasions, and it felt like my hand was acting in a disembodied way and against my wishes. This reminded me of a great article by my mentor during the time I worked at the National Institutes of Health in Washington DC a few years ago, Dr Mark Hallett, one of the most highly cited and world renowned neurologists and motor control researcher, in which he described a similar scenario (in his case it was a bowl of peanuts). In his article, Mark proposed that ground-breaking research work by Dr Benjamin Libet performed a few decades ago perhaps explained what was happening in such examples where we feel that we are not in control of our body’s actions, and whether we ever have free will in any of the activities which we initiate and perform during our daily lives.

Benjamin Libet was a neuroscientist who worked in the Physiology Department at the University of California in San Francisco, and was interested in brain function, particularly the neural activity and sensation thresholds associated with the awareness of intention to act during motor (muscle controlled) tasks. He performed a classic experiment in the 1970’s where he used an electroencephalogram (EEG), which monitors electrical activity emanating from the tissues of the brain, an electromyogram (EMG), which monitors electrical activities of muscles when they move, and timing devices to assess when participants in his trial became aware of their intent to move their finger, when brain activity in the motor cortex and other areas of the brain changed associated with the planned finger movement, and when the finger actually moved after the participant initiated the movement. Libet asked the study participants to decide themselves when to move their finger, so they would be in control of the initiation of the finger movement, rather than telling them when to move their finger, which was crucial to the trial’s outcome from an agency / control perspective, which was what the study was all about.

The participants became aware of their intent to move their fingers approximately 300 milliseconds prior to the movement of the fingers actually occurring, as objectively measured by the onset of EMG activity in the muscles of the fingers. Two further findings of the study were firstly that electrical brain activity, as measured by EEG activity in the motor and pre-motor areas of the brain, started changing approximately 1050 milliseconds prior to the actual movement of the finger (this early EEG activity prior to a muscle movement is generally known as a Bereitschaftpotential, which is the German word for ‘readiness potential’), which was well before the participants became ‘aware’ of their intention to act / decision to move their finger; and secondly that the ‘awareness’ of the finger movement itself, as opposed to the awareness of the intent to move it, was described by the participants to have occurred approximately 90 milliseconds prior to the finger actually moving. The first finding that there was brain activity in the movement control areas of the brain even before the participants became aware of the decision to move their finger indicates that subconscious brain activity occurred that controlled the finger movement before conscious ‘intent to act’ decisions occurred. Even more astonishing, the second finding that the ‘awareness’ of movement of the finger occurred prior to the movement actually occurring suggested that this ‘awareness’ of finger movement was ‘pre-dated’ by the brain to this time point and was not related to the actual physical movement of the finger itself – in other words the conscious awareness of the movement was ‘painted in’ by the brain to the time when the brain ‘thought’ it was the appropriate time. This finding indicates that our conscious awareness of movement appears to be a ‘figment of our imagination’, or more specifically, an artificial construct generated by unconscious regulatory processes.

Libet and his colleagues concluded from his experiments that unconscious control processes regulate most of our activity, and that conscious awareness of intent is a derivative of these unconscious control processes, and further that free will is an illusion created by them. This study and its conclusions generated a huge amount of interest, and does so to this day, given it was the first time the concept of ‘free will’ had been assessed in an objective way, and had been shown to not occur during the testing conditions of the trial. While a number of research folk, and in particular a number of philosophers (philosophers love to argue about free will, and believe concepts such as free will and consciousness to be very much in their domain of study, even if they don’t often do any objective research on these topics themselves), have attempted to negate or pick holes in the study design, the findings have been replicated on a number of occasions, with further studies showing that brain activity in other brain areas such as the frontal cortex can occur even earlier than that which Libet demonstrated in the motor and pre-motor cortex prior to movement. These findings suggested that free will appears to be the ‘slave’ of the unconscious, or even further that it does not occur in activities we believe we ‘control’. While this study examined simple finger movement, there are a number of other ‘physical’ examples of unconscious control activity which Mark Hallett suggested support Libet’s finding, such as patients with chorea (a movement disorder) not perceiving their limbs are moving when in reality their limbs move around in wild patterns in a continuous manner, and in motor activities such as automatic responses to tasks, sleepwalking, and neurological disorders like alien hand syndrome, where after damage to certain parts of the motor control area of the brain, patients limbs can move, but the patients do not feel they have control or agency over these movements, and that the limbs are moving as if controlled by ‘another’.

If our movements and actions are not controlled consciously or in a free willed way, where and how does the control of movement occur? Of course to answer this brings in the notion of the unconscious, and that control mechanisms occur in some manner and in some brain structures that occur automatically at a level which is ‘not available to introspection’ (if they were we would be consciously aware of this), which to most scientists is problematic given that such a concept would therefore be impossible to understand with the research techniques we currently have available. The concept of the unconscious is also unfortunately a controversial one for ‘political’ / moral reasons, because it is related to the work and ideas of Sigmund Freud, who suggested that unconscious sexual urges, and the gratification of these, was the basis of all planned human movement and actions. These suggestions perhaps unsurprisingly generated abhorrence for his theories from both colleagues and society after they were published, although the unconscious was described and discussed as a concept long before Freud theorized about its actions and existence. Unconscious processes such as memory storage and automated movement are routinely accepted as fact, but when intent, agency, motivation, phobias, complexes and desires are discussed, controversy rages regarding whether these do exist at an unconscious level, or are purely conscious entities. Libet’s study was the first objective study which showed that, at least from a physical / electrical brain activity perspective, action was indeed controlled by these unconscious processes, which were for so long theorized about, yet were essentially unproven until his seminal work.

So going back to the popcorn episode in my case, and that of the peanuts in Mark Hallett’s article, it would appear from Libet’s experiment that Mark and I, and surely all folk, are not completely ‘in control’ of our actions as much as we would like to be. While this is a worrying concept if one believes in free will, and that we are masters of our own destiny from a conscious, ‘choice’ perspective, it is helpful to all folk in explaining why one does things that seem contrary to what ones conscious wishes, or occasionally moral wishes, are. There clearly is an ‘agency’ that ‘drives’ what we do and what we want (dare I say desire), that occurs at an unconscious / subliminal level, and which often appears to create discordancy with our conscious desires and wishes. We currently have no idea where in the brain this unconscious ‘agency’ exists or how it ‘works’ – psychologists use dream assessment as one technique of understanding them, and neurophysiologists techniques like galvanic skin responses to psychological suggestion (saying something to a person which might make them feel uncomfortable, and monitoring their skin conductance changes as a measure of their discomfort – similar to what happens in a lie detector test), but these are all very nebulous measures of the function of unconscious processes. Perhaps even if we cannot at this point understand ‘where’ or ‘how’ unconscious agency occurs, an understanding that it surely exists in all of us, and that free will may be an illusion created by it, is helpful at least in assuaging the guilt most of us feel when ‘succumbing’ to our ‘desires’, such as those that I felt for the popcorn this week that lead to my hand reaching out for more almost ‘without control’. Of course most folk perceive that the danger exists, when accepting a potential lack of conscious control as part of our routine existence, of losing the capacity for ‘self-discipline’ and our life sustaining healthy habits and social structures, if we ‘agree’ to use this information as an ‘excuse’ to not worry about succumbing to each of our unconscious desires. However, whether one worries or not appears to not make make much difference to the actions of our unconscious agency, and the question perhaps should be why there is so often a ‘dissonance’ between what our conscious thoughts ‘tell us’ we should want or what we should do (or more often not do!), and what our unconscious agency insists on, as in the case of the popcorn incident. The concept of a lack of free will is also of course troubling to our sense of self identity, and the confidence we feel as a result of perceiving we are in control of most situations and our own destiny, at least on a personal level. As Freud put it, there have been three severe ‘blows’ dealt to human vanity by science (as Paul Ferris well described in his biography of Freud) – the first ‘blow’ being the cosmological one, which removed humans from their perceived position as the centre of the / their universe; the second being the biological one, when Darwin’s work showed our animal origins; and the third, and in Freud’s words, the ‘most wounding’, being the psychological, which ‘rearranged the mind to make it subject to a dilatory unconscious, and so demonstrated that the ego is not master in its own house’. The classic study performed by Libet was the first objective study to give us evidence that Freud may have indeed have been right about the third ‘blow’, or at least about the presence of unconscious agency. So I guess that at least until scientist folk work out how unconscious agency works, and I can perhaps better control and prevent my hand from reaching out for it after the scientists work out its mechanism of action, the only solution to the popcorn issue is in future to please hide that bowl of popcorn from me in order to protect me from my own unconscious drives!


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