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Free Will: Is Your Brain the Boss of You? [Video]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Michael Gazzaniga

Philosophers have debated for years whether we deliberately make each of the many decisions we make every day, or if our brain does it for us, on autopilot. Neuroscientists have shown, for example, that neurons in the brain initiate our response to various stimuli milliseconds before we’re even aware that we’re taking such an action.

This heady debate has hit a very practical road in the past decade: whether individuals who commit crimes are actually responsible for them. Lawyers have argued in court that if the brain determines the mind, then defendants may not be responsible for their transgressions.

Michael Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is at the forefront of the research into free will, and its implications in courtroom trials and in the expectations of different societies. His thoughts and proclamations are captured in an engaging video called Free Will, created by Joseph LeDoux, a well-known expert on the emotional brain at New York University. The video is the second in a series he is putting together with director Alexis Gambis called My Mind’s Eye. (The first episode featured Ned Block on the mind-body problem.) They have given Scientific American the chance to post these videos first, on our site.

How Free Is Your Will? An interview with Michael Gazzaniga from Imaginal Disc on Vimeo.

The conversation between LeDoux and Gazzaniga (who is also an editorial adviser to Scientific American) runs about 12 minutes, and Gambis has inserted some compelling imagery, including clips of creepy old movies in which scientists probe the brains of live people. The film then morphs into a four-minute music video of the song “How Free Is Your Will?,” performed by LeDoux’s band, the Amygdaloids. A few highlights of the interview, offered freely, by me:

2:55  Split-brain patients. Gazzaniga explains what has happened to these people, and what they can teach us about how we make decisions.

6:50  Personal responsibility. This is the crux of the argument about whether responsibility for our actions lies in the neuronal structures of the brain or in our conscious minds, and whether biological mechanisms or society’s norms are most important in defining acceptable behavior. “There’s no reason to not hold people accountable for their actions,” Gazzaniga maintains. He then discusses how society can more intelligently decide on what to do with people who violate its rules.

9:05  Criminal trials. Gazzaniga discusses problems in referring to brain scans in courtroom trials and in sentencing people who are convicted, and considers the effectiveness of capital punishment, given what we know about free will.

12:00  Music video of “How Free Is Your Will?”

Further reading, suggested by Michael Gazzaniga:

For the Law, Neuroscience Changes Nothing and Everything. Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 359, 1775-1785; 2004.

The Law and Neuroscience, Michael S. Gazzaniga in Neuron, 60:412-415; 2009.

Who’s in Charge?  Free Will and the Science of the Brain. Michael S. Gazzaniga. Ecco, Harper Collins, New York; 2011.

Neuroscience in the Courtroom, Michael S. Gazzaniga in Scientific American, April 2011.

A Primer on Criminal Law and Neuroscience: A Contribution of the Law and Neuroscience Project. Oxford Series in Neuroscience, Law, and Philosophy; eds. Stephen J. Morse and Adina L. Roskies; 2013.

Image from this video courtesy of Imaginal Disc

Mark Fischetti About the Author: Mark Fischetti is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers energy, environment and sustainability issues. Follow on Twitter @markfischetti.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jtdwyer 6:38 am 07/1/2014

    Regardless of any “expectations of different societies”, is there any scientific evidence supporting the view that an individual (‘me’) can be considered separately from his brain? Can ‘I’ not be held responsible for my actions because my ‘brain’ ‘made me’ do it?
    Who the hell do they think we are?

    Link to this
  2. 2. jayjacobus 10:37 am 07/1/2014

    The hypothesis of these neuroscientists is that the brain operates automatically (without thought?) Apparently thought is a side effect of the brain. Yet to me many decisions come after thinking a long time.

    It seems to me that some smart people are hung up on mechanism and can’t see the obvious implications.

    Consciousness is a mystery. Still, it exists and it is more than just a passive observer.

    Link to this
  3. 3. rshoff2 11:28 am 07/1/2014

    It was interesting to hear the concept of ‘duality’. It’s how we must live our human lives in a rigid and structured universe.

    Of course our brain as part of our body which is part of a bigger system called the human species, is bound by the laws of the universe (let’s call it the laws of physics) and simply does what it’s programmed to do. We (as in “I” or “you”) are simply along for the ride -at best.

    Therefore, I suffer consequences when your programming or a group of peoples programming puts it into action. In other words, if I punch you in the nose, you will get me back. We are both programmed and neither are really in control.

    My point being, consequences are governed by free will to the same extent as our actions. Not at all.

    But consequences are real none the less.

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  4. 4. rshoff2 11:31 am 07/1/2014

    btw, societal norms are an expression of biological mechanisms as they interact amongst individuals. Societal norms is to people as the mind is to the brain.

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  5. 5. jayjacobus 11:42 am 07/1/2014

    Pain (as one example) stimulates the person. The brain does not create pain to stimulate itself. If the brain reacts automatically, pain would be superfluous.

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  6. 6. kebil 5:26 pm 07/2/2014

    Your brain is your mind, they are not two separate things. Just because thought does not feel “physical” does not mean it is not. How would a physical mind feel, and why would it be any different.

    The thing that trips people up, I think, is the feeling of making a decision makes it seem like our “mind” can do make what ever decision we choose. The thing is, that choosing is a physical process, it feels like we could have chosen differently than we did, but we also chose like we do (I realize this is a redundant statement).

    The activity of our neuronal circuits is what thought is. The fact that what we think can change these circuits is not evidence that something beyond the brain is affecting these circuits, it is just use dependent change.

    There is no mind-body problem, as our mind is part of our body.

    Link to this
  7. 7. kebil 5:30 pm 07/2/2014

    Pain does not stimulate a person, pain is the result of a stimulation. There is no thing called pain that can come and activate the brain, pain is a signal our brain creates to tell us that something potentially damaging is or has happened to us. Breaking a bone is not pain, if the nerves from the bone to the brain are not connected no signal would reach the brain. And it is not until our brain processes that signal that we can interpret it as pain.

    Link to this
  8. 8. jayjacobus 5:51 pm 07/2/2014

    You are right; without the brain there is no pain. But without consciousness pain would be useless (not felt).

    Link to this
  9. 9. jayjacobus 10:48 am 07/3/2014

    Also, I know there is a mental body (its in my mind). I infer there is a physical body (where else does my mental body come from?) If there is no duality, then my physical body doesn’t exist. My mental body is then all there is. Then where does my mental body come from? (The matrix?)

    Link to this
  10. 10. jayjacobus 10:45 am 07/5/2014

    Returning to the subject of free will, there are many triggers in the mind.

    Anticipate, apprehend, deliberate, respond, react, support, habit, provoked, aroused, inspired, calculate, plan, cooperate.

    Not all come from free will, but not all came from split second reaction either. Free will is not absolute. Neither is determinism.

    Link to this

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