Can we have free will, if the brain’s actions are automatic? A scholar makes the case

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Dr. Michael Gazzaniga. ()
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 With the recent charging of George Zimmerman for the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin plastered across national headlines, personal responsibility and justice are top-of-mind.

It may be just these issues that drew several hundred New Yorkers through the Italianate brownstone arches of The Cooper Union Wednesday evening for a lecture by Dr. Michael Gazzaniga: Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain.

The industrialist Peter Cooper founded the Cooper Union in the 1858 to provide free science and cultural education. Its semicircular Great Hall has served ever since as a forum for controversial social, political and scientific discourse. Influential cultural figures from Salman Rushdie to Susan B. Anthony have spoken from its wide wainscoted stage. In his talk, Who’s in Charge, Michael Gazzaniga, a venerated researcher often credited with founding the field of neuroscience, helped his audience consider what knowledge about the brain’s structure and social behavior contributes to our public discourse on justice.

An online search on Gazzaniga brought up nine books and 195 research papers. He is Director of the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California Santa Barbara. This could seem like an intimidating speaker for listeners better acquainted with the humanities, but a plain-guy speaking style put his audience right at ease. This was important for following Gazzaniga’s journey from researching the roles played by the right and left hemispheres of the brain to thinking about justice and the law in an hour-long lecture—a progression which took even his brain 45 years to make.

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“Probably 99.999 percent of what goes on in the brain is automatic and unconscious. I have no idea what my next sentence will be, and sometimes I sound like it,” Gazzaniga began in his unassuming way. “We think the other stuff, the ‘me,’ the ‘self,’—we think that’s really important. We think there is somebody in charge—somebody pulling the levers.”

In promoting the book Who’s In Charge, Gazzaniga has learned that this is a subject on which everyone has an opinion.

“The next time you have a dinner party and you feel the conversation getting dull, bring it up and watch what happens!” he said.

But Gazzaniga would not cast his vote for or against, preferring to make his audience wait until after he had built his case.

Why is it that people object to a brain determined by its physical properties, but not to the same property in the cells that make up the brain, asked Gazzaniga. He sees himself as one in a long line of thinkers about the physical world, the brain, and its actions. In this he included Lucretius, the first-century-B.C. philosopher. Lucretius was troubled by the laws governing how atoms moved because they implied that behavior was automatic.

“He wanted some wiggle room [to account for our free will], so he said that atoms must swerve,” said Gazzaniga, laughing. 20th-century experimental psychology saw things differently. The brain was a blank slate and our behavior was determined by our experiences. Albert Einstein said he took comfort in his lack of free will because it protected him from taking himself too seriously.

Gazzaniga’s mentor, neurobiologist Roger Sperry, was one researcher who changed the outlook of psychology with a simple experiment. He surgically turned a frog’s eyes upside down in their sockets. If experience determined brain structure then a frog would learn to adapt to the upside-down messages that his eyes sent to his brain. The frog never learned. This suggested that after initial development, brain structure was fixed. But if structure is fixed, does the brain come with content built in as well?

The experiments of Dr. Rennee Baillargeon at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who studies human development, suggests that even infants under a year old expect some behaviors more than others. When puppet A steals a cookie from puppet B, and puppet B steals it back, infants showed no surprise. However, infants appear shocked when observing one puppet helping another, suggesting to Gazzaniga that certain expectations of behavior are hard-wired into the brain early on and one of them might be a sense of retribution.

Gazzaniga’s own work with patients whose right and left brain hemispheres were surgically separated, showed specific roles for each half. When separated, one half of the brain was not aware of what the other half was doing. Yet, if Gazzaniga asked his patient why his hand behaved in a certain way, even though that side of the brain had no access to the reason, the patient always made up a story that made sense.

“Something comes with our equipment that builds a sense of self, a sense we are in charge,” he said. This causes a huge problem with our thinking that our brain could be automatic.

The brain’s structure may be determined and some of our social rules established early in life, but thought processes do not proceed in an orderly way from A to B to C. Connectivity in the brain is characterized by much more complex structures. This is where the going got tough, because our teacher seemed torn between keeping the conversation at a level his audience could understand and delivering his punchline, which relied on complexity theory and a principle called emergence.

Although Gazzaniga did some hand-waving and cut to the chase, in a nutshell emergence says that complex patterns (like behaviors) can arrive out of multiple simple interactions. So what emerges from the interaction is different from the parts that made it up. This is why, said Gazzaniga finally casting his vote in the free will debate, “the brain is automatic but people are free. You are responsible. Get over it.”

Free will is not a useful concept at the level of brain biology, to summarize Gazzaniga, because the biology is fixed. We cannot control our brains. It is at the level of interactions between people where concepts like responsibility and justice can be addressed. Gazzaniga compared the problem to an analysis of traffic, which cannot be achieved by studying individual cars. “Traffic only exists in the interaction,” he said.

What to do regarding justice, accountability, treatment and punishment are all cultural questions, but biology can contribute to a culture’s decisions, Gazzaniga suggested. Recent research suggests to him that such thought is becoming urgent. He cites recent studies which show differences between the brain images of typical people and of psychopaths. What happens when we can predict criminal behavior, asks Gazzaniga? What happens the day someone comes up with a treatment for psychopathy?

While the evening took the audience on a journey that included the specialized area of brain science, Gazzaniga was more focused on its cultural implications. At times he oversimplified the science. For example, he ignored a body of research supporting the ability of adult brains to reassign new functions to areas once used for other purposes, work that would have argued against his deterministic view of the brain. This kept things simpler for his audience of nonexperts, but it did not eclipse his bigger idea, which supports free will despite the fixed properties Gazzaniga claims for the brain.

It is fitting to a lecture given in the same hall where Frederick Douglas defended President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, to consider the responsibility that comes with the freedom to pursue knowledge. The progression of knowledge is inevitable but is not unequivocally positive from a moral perspective. Sometimes potential threats are clear even to the non-specialist, as for example, with knowledge about splitting the atom. In considering how to use the knowledge gained by neuroscience, sitting at the nexus of biology, psychology, philosophy and information theory, it helps to have a broad view.

Warned at the outset that the topic ignited controversy, the evening’s Q&A featured an outraged tirade by a speaker so apoplectic over Gazzaniga’s claims of the deterministic brain, that he could barely make himself understood. This was balanced by the question of a more modest audience member worried only about his ‘senior moments.’ He had attended a talk given by Eric Kandel, Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist, and had also asked Kandel’s counsel, hoping there would be a simple solution such as eating “brain food.” “What do you advise?” he asked Gazzaniga. “Blueberries and martinis,” Gazzaniga answered. “What did Kandel say?” asked Gazzaniga. The man replied, “wine every night and forget about it!”