Q&A: What the Brain Reveals About the Self — And Self Control

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With the Obama administration planning a major initiative to map the brain, there’s more attention focused on what all of that new information will mean for how we see ourselves and how we take moral and legal responsibility for our actions.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who directs Baylor College of Medicine’s Initiative on Neuroscience and Law and the bestselling author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, provided some insights into what neuroscience can do for us.

Do you think there is a ‘real you’? If somebody makes a racist or anti-Semitic remark, is that what he really thinks, but hides most of the time because it’s not socially acceptable?

I think when we talk about a person and we use some sort of name or an identity, what we’re really talking about is something like the running average. What we care about, of course, is what the person proves himself capable of doing.

Let’s take a different case. Let’s say someone who wakes up out of anesthesia makes an obnoxious remark. Is that reflecting something about them or is that just reflecting that they have these attitudes in their brains that they’ve picked up from society?

What’s the difference? That’s my answer. It’s a rhetorical question, which is there is no difference between what somebody is and what they pick up from society. Those are all intertwined in a way. I mean, half of [ourselves is made up of] other people. Your attitudes or stereotypes, the way you think about situations— even though they belong to you [and] they’re somewhere in your neural system, they are definitely things that you picked up from other people.

Presumably, though, most of us would prefer not to have racist words or ideas in our heads…

That’s a good example. When people get damage to their frontal lobe, they say and do all kinds of things that they would not normally ever want to and normally these are inhibited because they want to function well in society and so on. If, God forbid, that were to happen to you, then you might use [those words]. And so this question of who are you is a very deep and difficult one to answer because it’s not how we typically think it is.

This is precisely why you can be angry at yourself or you’d have regret over things you’ve just recently done. You think, ‘How am I the kind of person who did that?’ We constantly surprise ourselves because there’s so much in these subterranean caverns of our brains that we don’t always have access to.

Before we judge the gambler on Parkinson’s meds or the sleepwalker who murders his parents-in-law or the killer who had a brain tumor, when we say, well, ‘I’m not that kind of person. I use my free will to make terrific decisions,’ [we need to think twice]. You probably wouldn’t want to know what’s down under your own surface because if you are unlucky enough to get a tumor or be on these certain meds or things like that, then who knows what’s down there.

So what normally keeps us on top of that?

You actually have competing drives. If I put some warm chocolate chip cookies in front of you now, part of you wants it and part of you doesn’t want it. You will argue with yourself about it. The analogy I use in my book is it looks like there are political parties and they’ve got their own drive and their own things that they’re trying to accomplish.

So you should feed the wolves that you want to feed?

I thought about that a lot and I don’t know the answer to the question about whether it’s true that the wolves you feed are the ones that survive. It’s a nice story, but I’ve thought about it a ton and I can’t decide if I think that’s true or not.

But isn’t it congruent with how we understand the brain works, so that the areas you use grow and change and the areas that you don’t kind of atrophy?

Sort of, but it depends on the outcome, I think the way that the [parties] get strengthened or weakened is by the outcome. So if I say, oh yeah, I’m going to have the cookies and then I feel really sick afterwards. I look in the mirror and I feel discontented with my body then maybe me having fed that wolf was exactly the right thing to do because I’m not going to do it again. I’ve taught myself the proper outcome.

But then there are things like addiction, which by definition is compulsive behavior despite negative consequences…

Quite right. Addiction might be a special case in the sense that it’s actually hijacking neural machinery. It’s the substances, it’s the chemicals that actually plug into the operating system and it sets things awry.

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So do you think we actually have free will? Do some people have more than others?

What seems clear to me is that there is no killer experiment now in neuroscience about whether or not we have free will. Some of my colleagues can be quite certain and forceful in their positions on this one way or another, but I have to say that I don’t think there is enough data to answer that question. What’s clear is that enough of our genetic and environmental background is outside of what you might call, free choice.

[And] under certain circumstances it might be useful to drop the question of free will and just assume that people are not at all the same on the inside. For example, if you were to look at Ted Bundy and say, well, I use my free will to make terrific choices in life and Ted Bundy over there had used his free will to make terrible decisions in life. What would be missing from that narrative is the fact that your brain and his brain are totally different.

The reason they’re different has to do with a very complicated conflation of genes and environment, which will take us decades or maybe centuries to really keep teasing apart how genes and environment interact with one another, but what’s already clear is that the combination of genes and environment sends each brain off on a different developmental trajectory. People are not at all the same on the inside and that’s the sense in which I feel like free will, if it exists in some way that we don’t quite know how to scientifically define yet, it’s not as free as we think it is.

But how would you deal with that in the legal system?  We can’t exactly let the Ted Bundys of the world run free.

The right thing to do for the legal system is to say, look, you might have gotten a really bad draw genetically or environmentally. That’s a lousy draw of the cards. We feel bad about that, but since we’ll never be able to disentangle that or understand that, all we could do is ask what to do from here. In the case of drug addicts, can you rehabilitate them? In the case of people who have mental illness, can you work to help them and reintegrate them into society? In the case of somebody who’s really dangerous and aggressive, you might have to lock that person up.

How does our understanding of these constraints affect the way we see ourselves?

In a sense, I think it gives us a much more nuanced view. That’s important because there seems to be a lot of suffering that comes about from people thinking that they are just one thing, [not] understanding that you have different [parts of yourself that] are trying to steer the ship of state. I think this helps people figure out how to become the kind of person they want to become.

[For example], once you understand that you will behave badly in situation XYZ, then you can set up structures that can constrain your behavior.  It’s easier for the long-term decision making to win when the temptation is not right there in front of you. While the long-term decision making is in control, it can set things up in a smart way.

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