Monday, 21 May 2007

Do fruit flies have free will?

In scientific spheres, insects have a reputation similar to that of complex robots that respond predictably to their surroundings. However, a new study has claimed that fruit flies might not be as simple as previously believed, and could actually exhibit free will.

The concept of free will has been a topic of debate, even in relation to humans. Some scientists believe that the purpose of human consciousness is merely to rationalise every decision made by chemical processes in the brain a few milliseconds after the fact. Others believe that once enough is known about the human brain, it will be possible to explain and even predict a person’s behaviour.

"Given this strong claim for humans, it is surprising if prediction should be principally impossible in flies," said Björn Brembs, a biologist from the Free University Berlin and senior author of the fruit fly study. "[But] our work shows that for flies such a prediction will not be possible to the extent claimed."

Together with an international team of researchers, Brembs tethered fruit flies in completely uniform white surroundings and recorded their turning behaviour. In this setup, the flies do not receive any visual cues from the environment, and since they are fixed in space, their turning attempts have no effect.

Without any external stimuli from their surroundings, the scientists expected the flies’ behaviour to resemble random noise, similar to a radio tuned between stations. However, researchers observed the flies behaving non-randomly.

The researchers then tested a plethora of increasingly complex random computer models, all of which failed to adequately model fly behaviour, leading to the conclusion that variability in fruit fly behaviour is not due to simple random events, but is generated spontaneously and non-randomly by the brain.

Björn Brembs came up with the idea to study spontaneous behaviour almost 10 years ago in 1998, as part of his work on operant conditioning. However, as he lacked the tools required to conduct experiments, the study was put on hold until late 2004, when discussions with colleague Mark Frye sparked his interest in fruit flies.

As a biologist, Brembs is interested in the biological aspects that might enable or prevent the existence of free will. While he believes that absolute freedom is impossible, Brembs questions the extent to which humans and animals are free, and expects this to be where the species differ.
"Scientifically, the most important aspect is that we found evidence for a brain function which appears evolutionarily designed to always spontaneously vary ongoing behaviour," Brembs explained.

"There is tentative evidence that such a function may be very widespread in the animal kingdom, including humans. If this were indeed the case, we might
have discovered the first evidence for something truly fundamental," he said.

The next step will be to use genetics to localize and understand the brain circuits responsible for the spontaneous behaviour. This step could lead directly to the development of robots with the capacity for spontaneous non-random behaviour and may help combating disorders leading to compromised spontaneous behavioural variability in humans such as depression, schizophrenia or obsessive compulsive disorder.