Inferring human intentions from the brain data

Publication: ResearchPh.D. thesis – Annual report year: 2016

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The human brain is a massively complex organ composed of approximately a hundred billion densely interconnected, interacting neural cells. The neurons are not wired randomly - instead, they are organized in local functional assemblies. It is believed that the complex patterns of dynamic electric discharges across the neural tissue are responsible for emergence of high cognitive function, conscious perception and voluntary action. The brain’s capacity to exercise free will, or internally generated free choice, has long been investigated by philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists. Rather than assuming a causal power of conscious will, the neuroscience of volition is based on the premise that "mental states rest on brain processes”, and hence by measuring spatial and temporal correlates of volition in carefully controlled experiments we can infer about their underlying mind processes, including concepts as intriguing as "free will”, "agency” and "consciousness”. Recent developments in electrophysiology and neuroimaging methods allow for increasingly more accurate estimation of spatial and temporal characteristics of decision processes.

The work presented in this thesis is intended to contribute to our understanding of the dynamics of voluntary decision processes about prospective action. In the two presented studies we probe different types of decisions and compare them in terms of behavioral and EEG characteristics. We show that decision processes are manifested by complex, broadband modulation of brain oscillatory patterns, primarily in Alpha(8-12Hz) and Beta (16-30Hz) ranges. Our results suggest that decisions about whether to act or not, what type of action to perform, and about the timing of the action have distinct dynamic representations, and thus are to some extent mediated by different neural components. Furthermore, free action can be partially explained by low level behavioral preferences, especially in contexts where no explicit incentive favors one action over an other.

Apart from the investigation of volition, considerable part of the work presented in this thesis is dedicated to experiment design methodology and efficient EEG processing methods. We have developed a dedicated, flexible Virtual Reality Environment (VRE) platform, suitable for investigation of volition and action preparation processes with range of modalities, including electroencephalography (EEG), functional magnetic resonance (fMRI), eye-tracking (ET) and behavioral measures. By providing ecologically valid, semi-realistic experience we aimed at reinforcing the natural decision processes and minimize the problem of random-sequence generation and fatigue in participants undergoing highly repeatable cognitive experiments. Other methodological contributions presented in the thesis are related to efficient, automatized and highly data-preserving methods for processing of EEG data, based on minimal number of arbitrarily selected parameters.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationKgs. Lyngby
PublisherTechnical University of Denmark (DTU)
Number of pages189
StateSubmitted - 2016
SeriesDTU Compute PHD-2016
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