‘Cutting to the Heart of Free Will and Human Nature’

How do the brain and body intersect to enact decision making? What role does vision play? These questions are driving new frontiers of research.

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Given a set of choices, how does the brain make decisions that guide how the body responds? That’s a question that neurophysiologist Jeffrey Schall investigates by studying eye movements.

“Those choices transpire through time, and sometimes moving too quickly leads to an error,” explains Schall, Scientific Director of the Neurophysiology Centre at York University’s Vision: Science to Applications (VISTA) program.

“You feel the sense of ‘oops’ and we want to understand where in the brain that feeling of ‘oops’ comes from, and how next, having made that mistake, you correct actions in the future.”

The visual system has a big influence on movement, and because we already know a lot about how it works, that makes it a solid launch point for new research. Understanding how the brain decides on where to look, finding a target amidst all the possible distractions, plays a big role in how people react. Schall’s work focuses on the intersection of neuroscience and psychology, trying to answer questions about domains that are not as well understood.

“There are problems that psychologists have articulated that they can’t answer because they don’t have access to the brain,” explains Schall.

“There are questions that neuroscientists have developed that have no psychological implementation yet because they don’t know how it works. And so finding the places where that intersection comes together and a bridge can be built creates real opportunities for synergy, breakthrough, and useful implementation.”

For instance, in some neurological conditions like schizophrenia, the ability to carry out certain tasks can break down. Understanding how the brain and body work together in health helps researchers like Schall better understand the nature of the impairment and which parts of the nervous system might be causing the disconnect. He works with clinicians to delve into these problems and find solutions.

But the work doesn’t stop at vision and motion. People have to make even bigger choices all the time, and most would like to believe that we aren’t purely reactionary creatures.

“The questions we are interested in cut to the heart of free will and human nature,” adds Schall.

“If all we do is neurons discharging and muscles contracting, where’s free will? And this has relevance for example in law and neuroscience, a new interdisciplinary area that I’ve been deeply involved in as well.”

Perception and cognition are central to all human decisions, making the things people see an important first cue for the behaviours and actions that follow. At its core, understanding this interplay helps us better understand human nature through a new lens.

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Jeff Schall is the Scientific Director at the York Visual Neurophysiology Centre, York University and Director of York’s New Neuroscience Centre. He earned a BS Chem degree from the University of Denver. He also earned his PhD in Anatomy working with Audie Leventhal at the University of Utah, where he investigated how the structure of retinal ganglion cells produced functional properties like orientation selectivity in visual cortex of rats, cats, ferrets and monkeys.

Schall’s postdoctoral training with Peter Schiller in the Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences at MIT produced the first comparison of the functional properties of two eye movement areas in the frontal lobe, the first description of the innervation of the basal ganglia by these two cortical areas and the first demonstration of a neural correlate of visual consciousness.

Research2Reality is a groundbreaking initiative that shines a spotlight on world-class scientists engaged in innovative and leading edge research in Canada. Our video series is continually updated to celebrate the success of researchers who are establishing the new frontiers of science and to share the impact of their discoveries with the public.