Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Neurology of running

Modern scientific discoveries in the area of decision making have threatened older established ideas of "free will." Regardless  of what we used to think caused this free will (many posit its origin in "God's" creation) the attraction of the idea of humans being their own agents has a natural and logical appeal that seems to meet our psychological need for self-efficacy and self-determination. Not only do we think we make conscious decisions every day, but we seem to do so against a backdrop of seemingly plausible options that, if selected, would lead to alternate outcomes. These choices seem real. But did we make those choices freely? If we were able to replay the reel of life would we (could we) make different decisions?

The more science uncovers about neurological processes the less likely it seems that we control what our brain suggests we should do. Experimentation has shown that electrical activity in the areas of the brain associated with certain types of "decision" occurs split seconds before we become aware of the actual "decision." This isn't a speculative discovery and repeated tests have established a consistent pattern. The fact that we feel we made a specific decision could well be an illusion if our brains are narrowing options before we are aware of them.

I don't want to dwell on the significance of the implications of this discovery on our sense of individual and personal responsibility, but they are immense. They include our whole approach to criminal responsibility, for example. But these discoveries shouldn't really be that surprising as examples occur naturally that we can see and understand. Trail running provides perhaps the very best illustration.

It's funny that we have developed a set of words and language to describe what these experiments are now revealing. We use terms like "instinctive" and "reactive" to describe actions that seem to be impulsive, or certainly not deliberate or deliberative. We have all seen the Moro reflex in babies and we see parallels as adults as we instinctively brace ourselves when falling or to protect our face from flying debris. Clearly these are not choices in the sense that free will implies, but we get out of this bind by attributing them to instinct...instinct related to "fight or flight" and survival. It's hard to make a conscious choice not to flinch when someone throws a fake punch. The problem occurs when we assume that all other decisions are made freely and without constraint. This could well be an illusion that provides comfort to our psychology and self-efficacy.

I've always prided myself on being a fast descender when running on rocky and steep ground. Never a fast runner I noticed that I could make up huge amounts of time and distance by running quickly down steep slopes when most others seemed more tentative. Call me reckless, but I seemed to be pretty good at descending quickly. I worked out that if I could descend twice as fast as another runner, I knew they couldn't ascend twice as fast as me, and this would result in me being ahead. Of course, in practice it never worked out so cleanly, but I was rarely passed when descending.

During the descent of a steep rocky trail it is remarkable to consider the sheer processing power of the brain. While preservation of the integrity of the body is prime, seemingly reckless decisions are taken within split seconds that are generally executed with near perfect precision. Leaving aside the processing power that starts by correcting inverse images of our world, the brain controls eye movement to highlight foot placements that lead to minor or major adjustments to balance, stride pattern and landing area - all to ensure that one foot lands in exactly the right spot to maintain momentum, usually at high speed. The brain uses sight to anticipate several of these steps ahead of current activity. There is no indepth study - the eyes flicker over the terrain and images are scrutinized in rapid succession. The brain is able to see safe foot placements and store them in order in a way that enables control of speed and movement of muscles and limbs. The position my foot lands in at the present moment was chosen from rapidly processing several options a few seconds earlier. As I reflect on the experience of running these trails, at no point am I aware of selecting decisions from options. Indeed, there are any number of occasions where I am unable to recall whole sections of trail that I have run. The concept of being on "auto-pilot" is very real, if a little discomforting. I know all this activity is taking place, but I have almost no conscious control or memory of it.

Sometimes things go spectacularly wrong. I've fallen many times...not because the brain failed to do its job, but usually because information feedback was interrupted - such as an obstruction to vision - or there were simply bad options and any foot placement would have resulted in a fall. Ultimately, the idea that I, personally, am making a whole series of decisions controlling my body movement is ridiculous. Why should it be otherwise when I think I have processing time to properly evaluate all of my other "options"?

Do we exercise any real discretion? I don't know the answer to this question. There seems no doubt to me that our options on any issue are not infinite. They seem shaped by our experiences, our environment, our values. The kind of options that might present to me in a particular situation may appear differently to someone else with different experiences and capacity - this might explain why, for example, some runners descend very quickly and safely and others do not. This may mean that a criminal, for example, hasn't chosen a life of crime, but that their experiences and conditioning have only surfaced these possibilities. I'm not looking to excuse personal responsibility...just explain that it is not as simple as we might have thought. And in any event, the reasons why people take the actions they do can be separated from whether they are held to account for those actions. The evidence seems to suggest that from whatever options our brain surfaces, our brain makes decisions without us showing any conscious awareness of them...indeed, we create the illusion of having made those decisions ourselves and then are able to build a narrative convincing us of that reality.

It's an interesting thought that, as we debate the age of criminal responsibility, discoveries in neuroscience might completely change the nature of the question we are trying to answer.

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