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Monthly Archives: September 2011

There’s a quiet thrill to be had from being able to spot less-than-obvious references in popular media. Does anyone remember this crossover ad on Cartoon Network that featured Johnny Bravo talking about his whirlwind romance with Velma Dinkley (from Scooby-Doo)?

It’s set late at night in a lonely cafe , perched at the intersection of two dark, empty streets. Somehow, it wasn’t the sort of thing you usually found in cartoons, and there’s unquestionably something that was very memorable about the scene, because I still do remember it, after all these years. In fact, it immediately came to mind when I chanced upon the painting that inspired it: “Nighthawks”, by Edward Hopper (1882-1967).

Nighthawks (1942), by Edward Hopper

The Cartoon Network version

“Nighthawks” is one of the most recognizable American paintings ever (here’s another one; you’ve almost certainly seen references to it, too, even if you never knew it) and it’s easy to see why. There’s a haunting sense of loneliness about it, but unlike the human figures in many paintings that sought to express the isolation that’s inevitably a part of modern urban life (see Mark Rothko’s “Subway Scene”, for example), the people here are real people, not just faceless creatures. You can actually imagine meeting the woman in the red dress, or ordering a drink from the waiter in a sailor’s uniform. And you can’t help asking yourself what the individual circumstances were that brought each of these people to this place.

“Nighthawks” was painted in 1942, almost immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbour (which was on December 7th, 1941). It was a dark time for the United States, and this is reflected in the mood of the painting – it’s hard to tell whether any of the people there are interacting with one another at all. That’s probably how it often is after a tragedy – there doesn’t seem to be anything worth saying to anyone.

Could "Minority Report" become reality?

Well, it’s probably not terribly likely that things’ll go that far, but consider this:

“There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively ‘free’ decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.”

That’s from a paper published in Nature Neuroscience (you’ll find it here) in which the authors used functional MRI scanning to peer into subjects’ brains as they were making the (rather simple) decision of whether to click a button next to their right hand or their left hand. And as they say in that quote from the abstract of the paper, the researchers could predict which hand would be used, up to 10 seconds before the subject himself became aware of his final decision.

That’s a little scary isn’t it? I mean, what if there comes a time when there are remote fMRI scanners that can be pointed at anyone to see what they’re about to do in the future? What if you’re snatched out of your bed and thrown into prison for a crime you don’t even know you’re about to commit (a la Minority Report)?

Admittedly, there are a few ameliorating factors to counter the scariness of that vision. Firstly, there’s the fact that predictions can only be made about actions to be undertaken in the next few seconds; not minutes, days or weeks. So if you’re planning to assassinate a high-ranking government official, or something like that, don’t worry, they don’t have any chance of catching you until you’ve already got his head centered behind your rifle’s cross-hairs, when it’ll probably be too late anyway (good luck with that, by the way).

Secondly, the accuracy of prediction isn’t terribly impressive right now, to be honest. It was about 60% in the experiments performed for that study. And finally, decisions in real life may be infinitely more complex than “right hand button/left hand button” – and that may make them impossible to predict using brain scanners.

But this research does still raise some very interesting questions about free will. Don’t be too alarmed, though – just the fact that you’re subconscious makes a decision long before you become aware of it doesn’t in itself preclude the possibility of free will’s existence. After all, from a non-dualistic (visit this link for more on dualism) point of view, your mind is simply the firing of a whole lot of neurons, so it’s not like your neurons are holding “you” hostage.

But what if there are physical reasons (maybe something about the particular patterns of neural interconnections in a person’s brain, for instance) for why all of us make the kinds of decisions that we do? Does this mean that there may be limits to what we can think? Or what we can feel?

I hope we do find out some day.