News & Perspectives

On Brain Implants, the Neuroscience of Decision Making and Free Will

On Brain Implants, the Neuroscience of Decision Making and Free Will

An Interview with Moran Cerf, PhD.
Perspective// 4 Dec 2017

Dr. Moran Cerf uses methods drawn from neuroscience to understand the foundations of our psychology, behavior, emotions, and decision making strategies. He studies patients undergoing brain-surgery by recording the activity of individual nerve cells using electrodes implanted in the patient's brain. He’s been able to project patients' thoughts onto a screen by reading the activity of cells within their brain. Cerf’s current studies show how patients are able to use the feedback from the electrodes in their brain to regulate their own emotions, alter their decisions as they occur, and actually operate devices by sheer conscious thoughts. Not very long ago, he was a hacker; today he’s professor of neuroscience and business at the Kellogg School of Management and at the neuroscience program at Northwestern University. He’s also a visiting faculty member at the MIT Media Lab. He’s the author of the upcoming book Consumer Neuroscience.  Learn more about him on his website or follow him Facebook

Enter —  Moran, how would you summarize the work you’re doing now?

MC—Ultimately, we’re trying to use neuroscience to explain peoples’ psychology. We’re looking at your brain, rather than asking you questions or observing your actions.

Enter—  And much of your work has to do with the decision-making process, yes?

MC— Right. Let’s say you go to the supermarket to buy toothpaste, and you’re deciding between brand #1 and brand #2. The truth of the matter is that after you have made a decision, you have no idea why you made the choice you made. You’re going to say,  “well I really like the price of this one and the package of that one and the minty taste of the third one.” But those parameters are only part of the answer. A lot of it happens ‘under the hood,’ and you have no access to that. Today, neuroscientists can actually give you more access to what’s happening in your brain when you’re making a choice, and give you more reasons to be accurate in what you want and what you get.

Enter —So we’re really not aware of what’s behind a choice?

MC— Right. There’s very little of what we call “me” that’s accessible to us. Everything happens to us, and we’re just machines that just explains our narrative after the fact.

Enter — This, of course, brings up the question of free will. Do you have a position on that thorny subject?

MC—That’s the million dollar question! I think that neuroscientists, when it comes to free, will are similar to physicists when it comes to the Big Bang. We can explain everything through the moment of it, and afterwards, but nothing before. We don’t yet know if there really is a channel of thought that starts everything. But what we do know is that the moment that we perceive as the moment of choice is definitely not the moment the choice was happening. If I ask you whether you prefer the salmon or the steak, you think you made answer right now. But seconds before “you” actually made a choice, all the mechanisms were working to make the decisions, and already had the answer —‘way before you experienced the choice being made. So whatever it is, your [perceived] choice happens after the fact, and you only come later to explain it.

Enter — So it really is like the Big Bang, in that there’s an unknown point from which our thoughts and decisions originate. We can get close to that point, but we don’t know exactly what occurs.

MC— Exactly right. We’re getting closer and closer—and farther and farther from the moment we think the moment of free will is. But the big question that gives room for spiritualism and religion and ethics and so on is the Point Zero : Is there an amazing moment where something emerges from nothing? Or is it something that’s written in your DNA? Or is it something even more complex than that?

Enter — Your upcoming book, Consumer Neuroscience, describes how neuroscience can encourage all sorts of behaviors -- healthy and unhealthy. Can you provide an example of each?

MC— A lot of times, we think we know what we want to do, but we don’t do it day to day. One example would be dieting. We know what we need to do in order to diet: We need to eat healthier, and maybe exercise. We know what mechanisms are, but some people don’t do it. Yet it’s the same brain that makes the choice to diet, and that chooses to eat the banana cream pie the day after.

Enter —So how come my brain fights against me?

MC— What we’ve learned is that there are actually many “voices” inside our head that vie for dominance—and they all have different desires. Neuroscience is now able to listen to all of those voices simultaneously, figure out who “you” really are, and use that voice to make you behave differently.

Enter — I’m sure you’re familiar with the legal word “tort” - a civil wrong that causes someone else to suffer loss or harm. Futurist Christine Mason had floated the idea of Neurotorts, based on the idea that the unauthorized invasion of manipulative content into our brain causes harm against which we’re essentially defenseless. When big data and market research are combined with neuroscience and arrayed against our human brain, do we lose our agency to make any authentic decision at all?

MC— The answer in two parts: One part is the past, and the other is about the future.

First, the past. The idea you can actually manipulate someone’s brain by hacking into it is not new. Marketing companies have been using it for ages. Today we look at it as a technology issue, but companies like Coca Cola and McDonald’s have been changing your brain to like their products for years. We didn’t call that hacking—we called it marketing. And this is not malicious. No one tried to harm you. What happened, partially, is that your brain was penetrated by content. That content changed your brain.

Today, with our new understanding of neuroscience, we can actually see how the neurons change. We can actually think about ways to undo the changes. We can even find times in the day when the changes are more or less likely to happen. We now know that there are windows of time within a day where your brain, so to speak, rethinks its connections. That partially happens when you are sleeping. We now know that there are windows in your sleep where your brain thinks about the day, and decides what’s important and what’s not —what information to strengthen, and what to delete.

MC—This is the moment where we now can actually go into someone’s brain, and help them rethink life. You can [cause a person to] reevaluate the desire to smoke, such that when they wake up after a few hours, they may not want to smoke anymore. You can make people strengthen memories or weaken memories overnight, such that when they wake up they have different preferences and priorities.

All of this new neuroscience allows us to really think about the brain as a platform, where we can go in and change your experiences. This is new in the sense that we now know what’s going on. But it’s also not new, in the sense that companies and people have been putting messages into our brains as a way to have us buy products, vote in a certain way, and so on.

Enter — One big difference may be that those persuasive marketing tactics were temporary, whereas neuroscience can now permanently change the way we think.

MC— Yes. And the big interesting thing here is that once we change your brain, which takes very little, you will work with us to create a web of associations that will make the change stay.

Here’s what I mean by that. We have studies showing that if I somehow put into your grocery basket a product that you didn’t want, after you buy this thing you will believe that you wanted it. You will find reasons to explain to yourself why you wanted it. You’re going to come up with a story. And once you start coming up with a story, you’re going to believe the story. So if I stop you and ask, “Why did you buy this particular toothpaste,” you won’t know that you didn’t want it; instead, you’re going to come up with an answer. And as you come up with an answer, you’re going to create this web of associations in your brain. From then on, you will believe you really wanted this toothpaste. You will have answers as to to why this is the best one. And at no point will you suspect that I put the thought in your brain.

Enter — Does this explain why people who voted a certain way in a presidential election are unlikely to change their minds about their candidate, even if he goes against their interests?

MC— Absolutely. If I present to you a fact that violates your beliefs, you will most likely doubt the fact, but not your beliefs. It is very hard for people to say, “You know what? My beliefs are not true, let me change them.” You’re going to find evidence in me being flawed, in the fact being flawed, in the communication being flawed, before change your mind.

Enter — How much of what we’re seeing now, in terms of manipulation of social media, is based on hard neuroscience, as opposed to persuasion?

MC— There’s not a lot of difference between what is happening right now, and what happened with propaganda a hundred years ago. Today we have science to help us understand what’s going on, and this is helpful for us in fighting back—but this sort of propaganda was used during WWI and WWII, and it worked back then. It’s just that now we believe that it’s more powerful than we had thought.

Enter — Among the biggest places we can be manipulated are in the areas of identity and belonging: Who’s our tribe? That’s what we saw in the last U.S. election.

MC— Yes—and technology generally makes things faster and more efficient. I used to be a hacker. One of the differences between hacking 20 years ago and hacking 100 years ago and hacking 10 years ago and 5 years ago and today is just the sheer level of effect. A hundred years ago, in order to steal a million dollars, you had to rob a train. You had to wait for the train to come. Now you just have to get into the Bank of America’s database. Just as we benefit from technology, we also suffer from the fact that it’s now easier to do the same things on a much larger scale.

Enter — We have analog bodies, but we’re increasingly interfacing with digital information. Our devices are clearly changing our brains, for better and for worse.  As humans, we make a lot of decisions based on incomplete data. Could we one day use neurotech to give us passive support, and nudge our brains in the right direction?

MC— Yes, this is the future. Right now we think about it as science fiction, but we know how to do it;  we just don’t want to try it yet.

We have learned that people are not rational. There are biases that govern our thinking, and those biases are in many ways the main psychological things that drive our decision making. So a lot of tech Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are looking into the idea of embedding a “rational thinker” inside our brain.

Let’s say you see three bottles of wine for $5, $20, and $50. Market research shows that if you don’t know anything about wine, you’re going to buy the $20 bottle, because we’re biased toward the middle. But maybe the $5 one is equally good—you just don’t know it, because of this bias.

Now let’s imagine a device that is external to you, and have this device analyze all your options—using the power of Wikipedia and Google and whatever—and come up with the best answer for you. What if we can put this thing inside your brain, have it do the processing for you, and come up with an answer?   

What’s remarkable is that the neuroscience about that suggests that, if we do put something into your brain, not only will it be faster and more rational—it will also feel like a part of you. Just as after a heart transplant, it just feels like it’s part of your body. The same thing is going to happen to your brain. Once we plant something into your brain, it’s just going to feel like part of you. You will just think, and the answer will come up—just as if you were adding 5+2 in your head. You don’t think about outsourcing the question to your frontal lobe; you just come up with the answer.

And then you can make decisions rationally. You can vote in your best interests, rather than voting with biases. You will “outsource” the voting to a device that will say what’s best for you.

Enter— Who’s actually making the decision at that point? What percentage of our decision is still controlled by our own intuitions and biases? Would the fear of, say, a black of female president override our tax or trade wishes?

MC— That’s the reason we don’t have this right now. It becomes an algorithmic choice.

Imagine that we build an autonomous car. And this car gets to a moment where it could either run over a pedestrian, or kill you—the driver. The car has to make a choice. Right now, some programmer at Google or at Uber or whatever company builds this car has to put in an algorithm: a decision about what to do when you must choose between killing the driver and killing the passenger. Presumably this algorithm will be coded into the car—and when you go to buy a car you might say, altruistically, “ I want to buy a car that kills the driver.” In the same way, if you are buying a for chip inside your brain, you might say, “I want the chip that gives me 20% control, and 80% goes to the chip.” Or, I want 5% control.”

And the thing, you would know that you might suffer. So at first people will say, “I would want only 1% done by my chip.” But then those people might start realizing they are acting in ways that aren’t making them happy. Their marriages might fail, or they’re losing money in the stock exchange, and they’d say, “You know what? Increase my chip control to 20%.” Eventually we will realize that our biases are not great for us, and we’re going to give more and more of our power to devices that work for us.

Enter— How close are we to implants? I would argue that smart phones are already add-on accessories to our brains. And we do listen to their advice, almost whenever it’s offered. Maybe an actual implant will never be necessary—we’ll just delegate more decision-making power to our devices.

MC— In many ways, you’re right. As long as we have those devices we’ll listen to them. Our news comes from them. Our facts come from them. More and more of our thinking comes from those devices.

But there’s a big gap here. As long as it’s outside, and a foreign object, we tend to filter everything that comes in. We say “I don’t trust it entirely,” while we do have full trust in our own brains. There’s a T-shirt that says, “Don’t believe everything you think,” and that’s exactly the difference. We’re skeptical of our phones, to an extent, but we have no such filtering of our own memories. We believe that everything we remember happened—and that’s the biggest difference. Once we overcome that by putting the device inside our head we eliminate this barrier. [The information we receive] becomes totally our belief. It’s totally us thinking these thoughts.

Enter— You received some uncomfortable attention when it was falsely claimed, about seven years ago, that you could wire up brains to project peoples’ dreams. This was once thought impossible – but it has since been done by a Japanese neuroscientist. What is the state of the art right now, in terms of converting brain signals to real-world phenomenon?

MC—There are two streams. One of them is just trying to be more accurate, and one of them is trying to also go in and try to change the dreams themselves.

So the first stream is building better devices. In 2013 it was done using big machines that imaged the action of their brain and could predict, in a very crude way, that you may think about your parents, or about someone that you know. Now we’re getting much higher resolution, and we can say it’s your Mom that you’re seeing—and you’re seeing her in a blue dress, and she’s holding your hand. So that’s refined to get higher and higher accuracy in describing your dream.

Then there’s another movement, entirely independent, that tries to go inside your brain and change your dreams. So you might dream about whatever your dream created, but I’m going to go inside and spray specific smells or play specific sounds at the right moment, and in doing so will change the narrative of your dreams.

Enter— Do these brain researchers actually see words, or images, or what?

MC—It depends. There are some scientists who just look at the visual areas of the brain. So they see that you’re seeing in your mind a person, or the Eiffel Tower. They see the same visual that your brain creates. Then there’s another movement that looks in your memory areas. They just see the semantics. They see that you’re thinking of your mother, but these guys don’t know what you’re actually seeing.  So the images will be a little different, but they will be much more accurate in getting a narrative.

Enter— But how do the researchers actually see what you’re thinking of?

MC— So while you're awake they [use an fMRI and] show you a lot of pictures—say of the Eiffel Tower and a banana and Big Ben and an Apple computer and your Mom— and when they show you a picture of, say, your mom, a brain cell lights up and starts being very active. They would say a-ha. This cell seems to come to life when he’s thinking of his mother. Once we isolated this cell when you’re awake, you can go to sleep, and if this cell lights up when you are dreaming we know you’re thinking about your Mom. And they do it for many, many cells, until we have a clear understanding about a lot of thing in your brain—and a lot of narratives.

Enter— What is the most surprising thing you’ve discovered in your research?

MC— To me, the most interesting result right now is the idea that the brain is not for what we thought it’s for. We thought the brain was a kind of machine—one that processes information, gives us consciousness, and so on. What we’ve learned in the past couple of years is that it seems the brain is a machine that creates narratives. It  doesn’t really care where they come from, or even how they are created. And maybe this is what the brain is for.

I think this is profoundly surprising. It means that we can actually change our story in a big profound way. It also means we’re not slaves to our brain. If you’re suffering from some things, they’re not necessarily there forever. We can start helping you change your narrative, and get better. We’re beginning to understand that we can change your brain in the long term, and create a new, better way to live your life. So a lot of things that would make us suffer, or not live a viable life, are now becoming optional. This is a summary of a lot of things in one, but it’s a basic understanding that the brain is the platform that nature gave us to change ourselves.

Enter—So humans, as Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens,  are essentially narrative machines. We are motivated, and united, by our storytelling. And you yourself are an accomplished storyteller.

MC—To me, telling stories is a way to practice our unique ability to come up with a narrative, and to change our memories. Take a narrative that was painful when it happened, and tell it in a story—and while telling it, find new angles. As you tell it you make your brain process it again, and you come up feeling differently about it.

Enter— Today, many people can’t imagine life without their smart phones. In 20 years’ time, what won’t be able to live without?

MC— I have better answers to what we could live without than what we could not! Bodies, for instance, would be something that we can dispose of and replace. People will think it was ridiculous that we’d just use the same body for all our life. They would say, “People didn’t use the same laptop for 80 years, but they used the same body all their life without changing anything, and without fixing it.”

So that’s one thing. I think that a lot of things that we die from right now will seem barbaric. I think that a lot of the gadgets we have right now won’t exist anymore, because they’re going to be part of us.  We’ll have access, using our brain, to increased knowledge—but devices in the way we use them right now will be unnecessary.

I also think a lot of emotions [that we experience] right now might not exist—I’m talking about complex emotions like embarrassment, shame, or emotions that don’t serve us, but were just created as part of our narrative.

Enter— Is there a question you wish I had asked you?

MC— There’s one thing I’d like to touch on, which is ethics— from the point of view of scientists.

I think that what’s happened in the last couple of years, which didn’t happen before, is that scientists are super fast in finding new things. Ten years ago, when I started my PhD, we didn’t know anything about how dreams could be changed and read. Now this is something that’s done; we’re just trying to speed it up and be more accurate. CRISPR  didn’t exist 10 years ago; now it’s just a question of how cheap it will be, and what you can and cannot do with it. Things are changing faster than regulators can agree as to whether the changes are good or not. And society’s also slow to understand.

And there’s also a race on between countries. Some countries allow things that other countries do not. Scientists can go work in China, the same way people used to go to Switzerland and hide their bank accounts there.

I think one of the responsibility of scientists right now is find ways to explain and communicate their results in a way that everyone understands. And this is something that we don’t yet encourage scientists to do. There’s not really a mechanism for that yet. I think you’re doing a great service by helping me and my colleagues find the language to explain, and by asking the right questions.

And maybe that’s the job of society: making it so that we can solve the ethical problems by making them clear, so everyone knows, and so that everyone has an opinion. Then we can decide how we want the world to go after that.

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