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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The biological foundation for what we experience as free will 

Plos one via eurek alert
Animals and especially insects are usually seen as complex robots which only respond to external stimuli," says senior author Björn Brembs from the Free University Berlin. They are assumed to be input-output devices. "When scientists observe animals responding differently even to the same external stimuli, they attribute this variability to random errors in a complex brain." Using a combination of automated behavior recording and sophisticated mathematical analyses, the international team of researchers showed for the first time that such variability cannot be due to simple random events but is generated spontaneously and non-randomly by the brain. These results caught computer scientist and lead author Alexander Maye from the University of Hamburg by surprise: "I would have never guessed that simple flies who otherwise keep bouncing off the same window have the capacity for nonrandom spontaneity if given the chance.

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The fly's behavior is controlled by brain circuits which operate as a nonlinear system with unstable dynamics far from equilibrium.

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Only after the team analyzed the fly behavior with methods developed by co-authors George Sugihara and Chih-hao Hsieh from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego did they realize the origin of the fly's peculiar spontaneity. "We found that there must be an evolved function in the fly brain which leads to spontaneous variations in fly behavior" Sugihara said. "The results of our analysis indicate a mechanism which might be common to many other animals and could form the biological foundation for what we experience as free will".

Topics: Meaning | FreeWill

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