The Awesome Power of Our Divided Brain

The following video from RSA explains how the hemispheric nature of our brains — which is poorly understood by most people — has profoundly affected human behavior, culture, and society. It’s part of a lecture given by renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist, whose full talk can be seen here. I hope you enjoy.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts and feedback.


The Workings of the Adolescent Brain

As neurology, psychology, and other social scientific disciplines advance and mature – namely through the help of new technology – we’re learning and more about the elusive workings of our own mind.

With that knowledge comes – albeit in fits and starts – an improved ability to work with one another and with ourselves. Once we realize that much of our behavior is shaped by forces beyond our control, we learn to appreciate the nuances and complexities of human nature. We learn that evil, ignorance, fallibility, hypocrisy, and other negative traits have at least some basis in our biology – thus we must confront them from a scientific framework that acknowledges their innateness and treats them as conditions to be understood and treated, rather than simply stamped out or punishment.

This is why I try to have patience with people, be they children, teens, elders, or adults. It’s hard to accept sometimes, but there are clearly certain deterministic biological factors that make some of our behaviors inevitable. This doesn’t mean we should excuse or accept such behavior, but rather that we must around it and adapt to it while the person (hopefully) grows out of it with time and experience. It’s easier said than done, but we were all there once, and responding negatively hardly helps matter — although research suggests that arguing with teens can ultimately be fruitful for their development in the long-term. Maybe we’re just supposed to go through the motions rather than try to fix everything.

Sam Harris’s Book on Free Will

Neuroscientist and arch-rationalist Sam Harris has shared some reflections about free will on his blog, introducing his short and digestible tract on the subject, eponymously titled Free Will (which I plan on purchasing and reviewing here at some point). Harris raises some though-provoking implications about whether we truly are independent agents in our own lives:

The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment—most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.

Not only would the consequences be grave enough to merit resistance, but the very idea that free will doesn’t exist strikes a visceral cord with most people. Who wants to accept that they’re not really in control of their own lives? Who wants to imagine a world where good and evil are, to some degree or another, products of circumstance, genetics, and other deterministic factors? Such a society would be incomprehensible to us.

Free agency just seems intuitive, and as Harris rightly notes, everything we know and do is built around the assumption that free will exists: our relationships, legal systems, personal feelings, and so on. Society itself is formed around the notion that we are autonomous individuals comprising a greater collective network. How would civilization look if we accepted that none of us is truly self-governing to begin with?

Harris goes on to describe the gruesome details of the infamous Petit family murders that took place in Connecticut four years ago. This graphic and heart-wrenching anecdote seems to be out context, until you realize its significance with respect to free will:

Upon hearing about crimes of this kind, most of us naturally feel that men like Hayes and Komisarjevsky [the perpetrators] should be held morally responsible for their actions. Had we been close to the Petit family, many of us would feel entirely justified in killing these monsters with our own hands. Do we care that Hayes has since shown signs of remorse and has attempted suicide? Not really. What about the fact that Komisarjevsky was repeatedly raped as a child? According to his journals, for as long as he can remember, he has known that he was “different” from other people, psychologically damaged, and capable of great coldness. He also claims to have been stunned by his own behavior in the Petit home: He was a career burglar, not a murderer, and he had not consciously intended to kill anyone. Such details might begin to give us pause.

Whether criminals like Hayes and Komisarjevsky can be trusted to honestly report their feelings and intentions is not the point: Whatever their conscious motives, these men cannot know why they are as they are. Nor can we account for why we are not like them. As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people. Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath. If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky’s shoes on July 23, 2007—that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did. There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this. The role of luck, therefore, appears decisive.

Of course, if we learned that both these men had been suffering from brain tumors that explained their violent behavior, our moral intuitions would shift dramatically. But a neurological disorder appears to be just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions. Understanding the neurophysiology of the brain, therefore, would seem to be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it.

How can we make sense of our lives, and hold people accountable for their choices, given the unconscious origins of our conscious minds?

Our approach to justice and morality would be very different if most evil acts resulted from an accident of birth: the environment we’re born into, the genes we inherit, and various biological vagaries in our brain chemistry or hormones. Needless to say, the implications here would probably merit the most resistance.

How many of us could look at criminals like these and convince ourselves that their heinous actions are ultimately not their fault? How many of us could accept that if we were in their place atom for atom, experience for experience, we’d be no different – that we too would be monsters, were it not for sheer luck? Again, not only is it objectionable to imagine that individual responsibility doesn’t exist, but inconceivable.

Still, however absurd it may seem, these are questions and considerations worth pondering. As we continue to advance our understanding of neurology, genetics, psychology, and human nature in general, we may soon have to treat this debate as a matter of practicality than philosophy.




Out of Control

A couple of nights ago, BBC Two Horizon aired a show called “Out of Control,” which challenges the existence of free will (an increasingly important topic among philosophers and scientists).The synopsis is as follows:

We all like to think we are in control of our lives – of what we feel and what we think. But scientists are now discovering this is often simply an illusion. Surprising experiments are revealing that what you think you do and what you actually do can be very different. Your unconscious mind is often calling the shots, influencing the decisions you make, from what you eat to who you fall in love with. If you think you are really in control of your life, you may have to think again.

David Butcher of the Radio Times gives his own  summary, which highlights the innately deterministic processes of our brains.

There’s a lovely scene in this Horizon where the director gives each of the brain scientists he interviews a marker pen and a sketch pad. Then he asks each of them to show on paper how much of what the brain does is conscious, and how much unconscious, in their view. They vary: one shades in a tiny square, which he says is the conscious brain’s contribution; another shades off about a tenth of the page. But they all agree that, like an iceberg, the great majority of our brain activity lies below the surface. The sense we are consciously in control is an illusion – and the programme goes on to illustrate this with wonderful experiments involving golf, knitting and chasing toy helicopters. People assume they are in control of their lives, deciding what they want and when they want it – but scientists now claim this is simply an illusion. Experiments reveal that what a person does and what they think can be very different, with the unconscious mind often influencing the decisions they make, from what they eat to who they fall in love with. Horizon reveals to what extent people really do control their own destiny.

Whether you agree with the assertion or not, I think this is a vital discussion worth watching (I for one am undecided but lean towards determinism). The existence of free will is perhaps one of the oldest debates, and it’s starting to gain a lot of traction following our advancements in genetics, neuroscience, and social psychology.  

Click here to see the episode, which will remain posted for the remaining week (those of you reading this afterward should search it on Google of YouTube). I’m not sure how accessible the link is, since some of my friends were having difficulty seeing the video. But give it a shot and share your feedback.

The Better Angels of Our Nature

This is the title of a fascinating book by Steven Pinker, a prominent scientist known mostly for his work regarding psychology and the human mind, in addition to best-selling popular science books that deal with a wide-range of topics for a general audience. He’s often listed as one of the world’s most influential thinkers and innovators, and I can attest to how thought-provoking many of his publications, columns, and conferences can be. Needless to say, I’m rather enthusiastic about this.

The book is pretty massive – a little over 800 pages long – and it’s due to be released on October 4th, though it’s already available for pre-order at Amazon for around $25 (funny enough, Richard Dawkin’s latest popular science book – which I covered recently – is also going to be published around this time, making October a pretty good month for us science enthusiasts). The official description is as follows:

Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet as New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’s existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened?

This groundbreaking book continues Pinker’s exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly nonviolent world. The key, he explains, is to understand our intrinsic motives- the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels that steer us away-and how changing circumstances have allowed our better angels to prevail. Exploding fatalist myths about humankind’s inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious and provocative book is sure to be hotly debated in living rooms and the Pentagon alike, and will challenge and change the way we think about our society.

In other words, the author is challenging the widely-held – and increasingly popular – notion that modernity has led to unprecedented levels of rapaciousness and conflict, whereas our simpler and more primitive past was more peaceful, harmonious, and idyllic. While there’s some level of truth to this perception – such as how technology has amplified our capacity for destruction – Pinker is making the case that not only were historical times no better, but that they were actually far worse, and that violence has declined precipitously as time passes.

Given his reputation for meticulousness, and the tome’s voluminous amount of research and data, it’s sure to be a well-argued assertion, and a good read. I don’t doubt there will be contentions and debates, but that’s precisely what should be expected of any book that deals with such a difficult topic. I’ll certainly be looking out for reviews and rebuttals.

I must confess a bias for this subject matter, as human nature and mankind’s proclivity for conflict – both on an individual and collective scale – has always fascinated me. Violence is often viewed as a defining characteristic of human society and history, and most of us struggle to make sense of it’s origins and causes, all while coming to grips with the heavy toll that it takes on society, politics, and progress. Given the increasingly cynical attitudes of our time, it’d be refreshing to see some scientific evidence for us being far better than we popularly believe.

I’ve long argued that for all the troubles we face in modern times – both as individuals and as a whole – humanity has progressed much farther then we give ourselves credit for. More and more people are living longer, healthier, wealthier, and more peacefully than at any point in history (and this is both in terms of absolute numbers and proportionately). We have more democratic and free societies, relatively speaking, than ever before too.

Granted, all the corruption, moral depravity, and immense suffering that have mired us from the very beginning of our species remains present and widespread – in some cases even intensifying. Our progress is far from solid, and humankind’s achievements are arguably tenuous and reversible. But the evidence is clear that we’ve still come a very long way, and whatever the challenges and causes for pessimism, we shouldn’t underestimate our potential to evolved and improve.

It’s not just a matter of feeling good about ourselves, but also of education: as we explore the depths of our nature – our minds, psychological developments, social dynamics, etc – we’ll hopefully come to learn more about what makes us who we are, and what we can do to improve ourselves and the world. It’s still too early to say if such an endeavor will be fruitful, or even feasible, but it’s certainly worth a try.

If anyone is interested, they could also take a look at Pinker’s TED talk from 2007, which delves into some of the preceding material and thinking that led up to this book. I think it makes a very compelling case for how much we’ve achieved in terms of law, morality, ethics, governance, and social norms.

It goes without saying that I’ll definitely be exploring this topic again in the future.