Why can't we stop influencing other people?

Interview with Thomas Fuchs

brand eins: Brain research has made impressive progress. Imaging methods can be used to easily observe how the brain reacts to certain external stimuli. Is the human brain ultimately a stimulus-response machine?

Thomas Fuchs: If that were the case, we wouldn't need any awareness. The mere conversion of a stimulus into a corresponding reaction takes place at a very low level of neural connection, which we already find in marine snails. In humans, the intuitive, so to speak automatic processes take place when the overriding goal is clear. But the task of the central nervous system is precisely to interrupt the immediate stimulus-reaction mechanism and to build in a processing mode that allows the comparison between the current stimulus and previous experiences. The brain increases this and brings the current perception into a complex overall context. The consciousness functions allow various options for action to be played out.

For the brain researcher Gerhard Roth, what we take for our consciousness is simply a product of the neural circuits in our head. Our ego is "a fiction, a dream of the brain". His conclusion: "It was not the ego but the brain that made the decision." The neurophysiologist Wolf Singer puts it even more pointedly: "Interconnections fix us. We should stop talking about freedom." Is belief in free will just an illusion?

The only tangible experimental investigations on this are the experiments of the American neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet, and their interpretation is very controversial. Libet took advantage of the fact that every time before a movement is triggered, a movement preparation can be observed in the premotor cortex, which can be measured with an EEG. He investigated the point in time at which this potential builds up and at what point in time a test person states that he or she feels the impulse to move a finger, for example. The readiness potential was measurable about 350 milliseconds before the impulse was felt. One could conclude from this that consciousness comes too late, so to speak, and that the impulse to move does not come from consciousness. But this willingness potential is obviously unspecific; it already occurs when test subjects prepare to press one of two buttons before they even find out which one it should be. Above all, however, the impulse to move the finger is not a real decision - the test subjects had made that long before when they took part in Libet's experiment. The time frame of the experiment, i.e. fractions of a second, is far too tight to map the process of a decision. The triggering of motor skills may in part occur unconsciously - but I do not consider it tenable to transfer this to complex thought processes.

So is all the debates about the limits of human free will just hot air?

Of course we are biological, in a certain sense physical beings. We are made of matter that is subject to certain regularities. Because this also applies to our brain, the question arises as to how this can be reconciled with our ideas of autonomy. But a determinism of the brain is far from proven. And: We can indeed locate certain brain functions in certain brain areas; certain actions or cognitive performance are tied to certain brain centers. But none of these services take place in isolation. It is involved in vital, affective functions in the entire organism, but also in the interaction with the environment and other people. Just the physical presence of a conversation partner with all the non-verbal signals influences a conversation. When I speak to you, it is not two brains that are communicating, but two people. The brain doesn't think.

I beg your pardon?

It doesn't work without a brain. But the brain doesn't think alone, and neither does your pancreas. In and of itself, it's just organic matter. Man thinks and uses the brain for this. Feel, think, act people and not groups of neurons. The functions of consciousness are not isolated activities of a single organ, but life expressions of the entire organism. Thinking does not take place in an isolated inner world either. You think differently when you feel differently, that is, when your whole body is in a different state. And you always think in terms of contact with other people.

In one experiment, mothers prevented their infants from communicating by holding their faces motionless for a few minutes. The babies then do everything possible to provoke a response again. Do we only learn to think and feel in exchange with others?

Refused communication leads to pronounced experiences of disappointment in the infants in this experiment. This can already be observed in children six to eight weeks old. A deficit in affective affection, communication and attention in infants also has organic consequences for brain development. From observations on Romanian orphans who were treated very carelessly, we know that under such circumstances the synaptic switching processes in the brain develop only to a reduced extent. Because these processes are necessary for the development of cognitive skills, intelligence cannot develop normally in these children. Other organs, the heart or the liver, need certain physiological conditions in order to grow, for example food. For its development, however, the brain also needs psychological and social conditions that provide it with appropriate nutrition. A child who has received too little of this food in the first two years of life will never completely overcome it again, not only emotionally but also intellectually. It cannot exhaust the possibilities that its brain would have had when it was born.

They call the brain a "relational organ". Do people need social interaction in order to think?

You can compare thinking to breathing. Just as breathing needs air, so thinking needs the social and linguistic environment. In particular, it requires processes in which one learns to put oneself in the shoes of others and to think about their point of view. Thinking is a process that always takes place with a self-reflective part. I do not gain the necessary reflection loops from myself alone, but only through interaction with others. I have to be able to see others' perspectives. I have to be able to focus on something with them. This happens in babies around the ninth month of life. These are decisive steps that make it possible to develop self-confidence and self-perception and to train thinking in such a way that it not only forms an accompanying consciousness for ongoing events but also becomes a real reflection.

But when I land on a lonely island as an adult, my ability to reflect doesn't automatically wither.

Because you have internalized these mental processes and can reproduce them yourself, even without the immediate presence of other people. But even on a lonely island, I am connected to others. I have memories, I talk to myself in my head, taking on the role of people I know. When you talk to yourself, different parts of yourself talk to each other. We all took in these parts from different people with whom we lived.

So you don't think alone even in solitude?

If you will, yes. Thought has a dialogical structure in itself. Thinking is the soul's conversation with itself, Plato said. That's true. In order to be able to think, we must have spoken to others. We internalize that and we carry on these conversations with ourselves. We also continually relate to a common environment, to books that we have read, to messages that we have heard. These are, so to speak, outsourced branches of our brain, a kind of external memory that we use. When we think, we always ask implicit questions of ourselves, as if we were constantly commenting on our own thoughts. That too is a self-talk. When asked carefully about schizophrenic patients, the voices they hear are often comments. Something that takes place in our minds has taken on a life of its own. Individual components of thinking are decoupled so that the patient himself no longer experiences them as his own thoughts, but rather seems to come from outside.

Does social interaction also change the brain organically?

Any interaction with others also leaves traces on the neural level through synaptic learning. With every brain activity certain pathways and connections are strengthened, patterns solidify. These interconnections determine our behavior in a certain way. But we can change these patterns, we shape them through our behavior. A learning process, for example when we learn to play the piano or speak a language, is nothing more than reinforcement of certain connections on the neural level. "Only through thinking does the brain develop into a thinking organ, it becomes used to thinking," writes the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Thinking shapes the brain - and vice versa, continues Feuerbach: "But only through the trained organ of thought does thinking itself become formed, familiar, secure." It's a circular, self-stabilizing process. We shape ourselves with our activities, right down to the structure of the brain.

Do not only the hands but also the brain of a violinist look different from that of a bricklayer?

In any case. In the violinist's brain, certain connections between specific muscular movement patterns of his fingers and the areas that are responsible for acoustic stimuli, for melody perceptions, are very well developed. He connects the corresponding tones with certain finger movements. This is reflected in the neural interconnections. You won't find these couplings in the master bricklayer's brain.

The brain of a young person who spends a lot of time playing computer games will, in turn, have different interconnections than that of a bricklayer or a violinist. The brain, this fantastically malleable organ, allows all of this. This possibility of self-formation means freedom. The neural circuits do not determine my behavior, as some brain researchers believe. On the contrary, they enable me to learn and do what I want to do within a given space of possibilities, which is defined, for example, by my genes.

What happens when there are no external stimuli that we can process with our brain?

Research on sensory deprivation, i.e. stimulus withdrawal, describes that people who are exposed to an extremely low-stimulus environment suffer from very unpleasant and consciousness-altering conditions without colors, without noises, without changes of light, without social exchange. This can lead to hallucinations, for example - the brain tries to create the missing stimuli itself in an illusionary way. An empty room is unbearable. Extreme stimulus deprivation is also used as a torture method. Consciousness is just not a worldless monad.

Even if, as you say, the human brain is a malleable "relational organ", it obeys its own laws. With imaging methods, brain research tries to assign certain brain activities to individual brain areas. Does morality have a permanent place in the brain?

It's definitely not that easy to say. There is currently a pronounced criticism of the very straightforward and hasty conclusions of this research. We don't know whether what lights up in the tomography is the decisive factor. We don't know what's going on in the other areas that don't light up and how these are related. It is of course fascinating to look inside the person, so to speak. This fascination is seductive. For some brain researchers, it leads to a pathos of disillusionment that announces the departure from self-determined people with a grand gesture. You see yourself as a disenchanter, a role like that feels good and attracts attention. In the end, however, this determinism leads to a nihilistic anthropology that is not without danger. We cannot understand the role of the brain processes in the development of consciousness and our conception of the world without constant feedback with the entire organism and with the environment. In psychiatry we don't treat brains, we treat people. ---