Michael Gazzaniga: Split brains and other heady tales – ‘All in the Mind’

I’m still mostly offline, hence the brevity of posting in recent weeks, but nevertheless I still have time today to point readers in the direction of this week’s podcast from ‘All in the Mind’, from ABC Radio National, in which cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga’s chat on left-brain/right brain research is reprised. I’d recommend this to everyone with an interest in not only how the conscious mind arises from the brain, how the two different brains operate and govern our actions and perceptions of the world around us, but in the increasingly controversial and at times acrimonious debate as to what degree people have criminal responsibility for their misdeeds with regards to the legal system. Here’s a word of introduction from Natasha Mitchell:

How does your brain give rise to your mind, are there really left-brained people and right-brained people, and do brain scans have a legitimate role in the legal arena? Michael Gazzaniga is one of the big names of 21st century neuroscience, professor of psychology and director of the Sage Centre for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He’s well known for his many popular science books including The Ethical Brain, the Mind’s Past, and The Social Brain, among others. He sits on the US president’s bioethics council and heads up a major new law and neuroscience project too. But it’s his work with so-called split brain patients that many folk know him for, it really changed our understanding of how our brain’s two hemispheres, left and right, work differently.

Michael Gazzaniga takes up the story:

An argument was born between Sperry and Popper and Eccles, I think Popper and Eccles were more correct, as we look back on it. What was shocking at the time was that there were these two systems that could respond independently—one not knowing what the other was doing. That is as true today as it was then; an extremely dramatic finding, as can be witnessed by the following of these patients. But the question was were they really co-equal. We knew from the start that there were differences, obviously: the left hemisphere spoke, the right hemisphere did not, and then over the years differences began to emerge that one side was really quite different from the other.

Whilst on the legal side of things, we have this from later in the interview, in response to a question about culpability and how it is currently addressed in the court-room with regard to ongoing research:

Right now I would say it’s low, that it should be even less. The neuroscientists are very cautious about this because they know what a brain scan means and what it doesn’t mean, and we don’t want it to be overplayed in the courtroom. The general public takes maybe too seriously a brain scan and what it means, and they say, oh well if it’s on a brain scan then we can reason one way or the other. I did want to come back to the one point on the free will thing because I just think it’s a kind of a red herring. People talk about free will, you should return the question and say free from what, what are you talking about?

I mean what we all are, are information gathering organisms that have learned through a life’s experience what to do, what not to do, what’s good, what’s bad, does this payoff versus that payoff? And when a new situation presents itself we call upon our knowledge of the world from past experience to decide what to do. And that decision goes on through mechanisms of the brain, and once the brain decides, based on all your past experience, to do something, you want it to do it right. It’s not clear to me what free will means in that way of knowing that we have all these automatic processes that are going on in the brain that we’ve trained through time.

I think how you think about it is that personal responsibility, which is a key concept in our culture, is alive and well because it really isn’t in your brain, it’s in the social rules of a group. So think of it this way, if you’re the only person in the world, the concept of personal responsibility means nothing. Who are you responsible to? If there are two people to six billion, all of a sudden the rules develop. If we are going to socially interact, which is crucial for the human condition, we are going to have these rules. Almost everybody—you’d have to be extremely neurologically compromised—almost everybody can follow a rule.

Fascinating stuff, and with the prospect of more research and data being made available in the near and long-term future, the implications for this and related fields of research will fuel many an argument as to exactly what degree each human being is ultimately responsible for his or her actions, whether free will exists or is merely a societal construct, as well of course, the true nature of consciousness itself, if indeed that can ever be truly understood.

Michael Gazzaniga’s web-page can be found here.

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