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Medical What are the physiological processes that initiate human choices and thinking?

  1. Jan 19, 2013 #1
    I have a question that maybe basic and psychological in nature but I'm hoping someone with experience in Neuroscience research or any related fields could answer it. As far as I understand it, there is a common debate as to what influences human decisions and what does not which leads to the concept of 'Free Will', but what I'm curious about is not the influence of human choices but what physiological processes exist that we know, give the human power to choose to begin with and is it similar to motor control processes?

    I guess a similar question might be, do we know of any physiological processes that gives an individual control over thinking?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 19, 2013 #2


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    This is a really tricky conversation to have because of all the philosophical baggage inherent in the question.

    "do we know of any physiological processes that gives an individual control over thinking?"

    How do you define individual? It's a very loaded term. And how do you define control? Libet's experiments suggest that there are deterministic processes in the brain that underlie decision making.

    Anyway, with that in mind, it's a little understood process, but here is an example of a go at it:


    Figure 1 includes a table of particular brain regions and associated behaviors.

    But basically, you have an amygdala weighing the emotional significance of stimuli, a prediction of what will happen given particular choices (given the choices you're aware of) and some kind of optimization consideration that chooses the best option (in terms of short-term and/or long-term rewards). Different people at different times tend to focus either on short or long term.

    For instance, one theory is that our frontal lobes project a lot of inhibitory connections to the rest of our brain and tend to weigh the consequences of actions. For some people though, their primal drives may be "stronger" so they're less likely to defer gratification and more likely to seek short-term rewards at the expense of long-term rewards.
  4. Jan 20, 2013 #3
    Thanks for the source Pythagorean, I'll check it out now inlcuding Libet's experiments.

    What I meant by control though, is what physiological process allows a person to engage in or manipulate the thought process? It just feels like there is a physiological process for thinking that shares similarities to features of motor control such as arms and legs whose movements can be manipulated.

    Now, there are various influences of motor control, even sensory reflexes that supposdely behave independent of high level thought but creativity in dance would allow a person to move as he wishes irregardless of the inspiration, not saying the dancers movement isn't inspired it is but he is choosing to react to that inspiration therefore what gives him that ability to react?

    I guess a better way to describe what I mean by control would be in computer science terms. In programming we have the FOR loop that can iterate over elements within an array. I view the memory bank that stores our memories as an array of data, this isn't to suggest that our thoughts are organized sequentially but rather to illustrate what I percieve as an analogy for the mechanism of thought.

    Now considering our memory bank is like a data structure and the FOR loop is the mechanism that iterates over that structure. What would be the FOR loop of the brain and how do we manipulate it?

    I'm new to researching these things therefore my vocabulary and thought process maybe off but I appreciate the response.

    Also forgive me if the answer was already provided via that link :)
    Last edited: Jan 20, 2013
  5. Jan 20, 2013 #4


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  6. Jan 20, 2013 #5
    I think this is just another way to pose a question about free will. It's been discussed endlessly in these forums. So far, PF has not come up with the answer. As far as I know, there is no scientific answer. In general, neuroscientists doubt it exists and don't address the question.
  7. Jan 20, 2013 #6


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    It's been addressed; evidence and theories suggests there's no need for free will to explain human behavior. Libet's experiments was the first; there's been a lot of similar experiments sinc (like Hayne's experiment in which brain scanner's can predict the choices people feel that they make spontaneously).


    This quote may address the OP better:

    "The unease people feel at the potential unreality of free will, said National Institutes of Health neuroscientist Mark Hallett, originates in a misconception of self as separate from the brain."
    -author of above article, Brandon Keim, paraphrasing Mark Hallett
  8. Jan 20, 2013 #7
    Right. I said, in general.
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