Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Science?

I’m going to step away from the two sensational articles I’ve written on drug addiction and decision making to discuss some feedback I’ve been getting about some of the articles I’ve posted. Don’t worry, I will wrap up my discussion on drugs soon.

Have you ever been told something you were quite surprised by and didn’t want to believe at all, only to see over time that it was in fact true? Perhaps, at first, you denied it vehemently. Then you accepted it begrudgingly. Then you regarded it as a a mere fact. Perhaps you have even come to a point where you find it interesting and take a pride in it.

For example, maybe you’ve been told that you look just like someone else whom you’d rather not look like, perhaps a celebrity that you don’t see as particularly attractive. At first you may be insulted and claim you look nothing like them. Over time, however, enough people point out the resemblance and you begin to see objective truth in their observations and eventually impersonate this celebrity every year on Halloween. Though I was mortified when it was first brought up in high school, I’ve simply come to terms with and embrace the fact that I’m a near perfect duplication of a young Brad Pitt:

I work out.

I work out.

This exact thing seems to happen often with respect to scientific knowledge, especially when there is a discrepancy between fact and what we have always believed or want to be true.

While earning a bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Neuroscience, i.e., the relationship between the brain and behavior, many of my views and opinions began to change dramatically, as often happens when we become informed about something – especially when we previously thought we already knew everything about the subject that there is to know. So, it was of little surprise to me to see that many people were taken aback by some of my writing, particularly when it exposes just how vulnerable we are behaviorally to events and influences over which we have no control.

Let’s hear a bit from Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel on the influences that unconscious activities have in our brain:

Essentially, what neuroscience has shown is that our behavior, decision making, emotional states, thoughts – our mental processes as a whole – are much less under the control of our conscious brain than may have originally thought. Many people find this troubling because of what they perceive to be the consequences that this knowledge may have for certain things such as our philosophies and social policies. Others find it depressing to realize that we are not as in control of ourselves as we would like to think, that much of our behavior is the function of brain activity that we do not control. And so, most unfortunately, such assertions, based on scientific fact, are regarded as false and discarded.

This is done by those who, if such things are true, cannot reconcile it with what they believe or can only arrive at grave and disturbing conclusions for what this would mean both for us as individuals and for society. For instance, upon hearing about the case in which a brain tumor caused pedophilia, people have jumped to the conclusion that what science is trying to say is that we have no free will and that no one can be held accountable for their crimes. These are misapprehensions that represent an incomplete analysis of this information.

There remains debate, such as that between Sam Harris who asserts there is no free will and Daniel Dennett who defends it. Neuroscientist David Eagleman, after writing on how our subconscious brain influences our behavior, has stated that if there is free will, we have much less of it than we would normally think. I, personally, have not made up my mind as to whether or not it exists. However, either way, it won’t change at all how I live my life.

Whether neuroscience ever undeniably proves or disproves the existence of free will, we should not be morose or depressed. We should not give up on life and live as if there is no meaning. We should not reject what can indeed be shown as fact because we don’t like it. A fact is a fact, whether you like it or not. Further, the existence or nonexistence of free will does not change the fact that we have subjective experience or make decisions. We can still experience emotions. We can still experience the pleasure of a great song, or experience the pain of loss, or appreciate the eloquence of nature. We would simply have a different and more accurate understanding of why we are the way we are.

As for crime and justice, to say someone has no free will and that their (criminal) behavior is the result of physical processes and thus we cannot justify punishing them in way way is simply incomplete and absurd. In studying the biological basis of crime, We’re looking for better ways to deal with it. We’re seeking to more completely understand why we may behave perniciously. In understanding that, we can begin to understand how best to deter criminal behavior and rehabilitate those who have have committed crime. One important revelation that I’ve perceived from the research on neurocriminology is how different everyone is and thus, how individualized preventative and rehabilitative approaches will have to be.

Indeed, in some instances, certain punishments may be a successful deterrent, as in the case of discouraging a healthy person from littering or minor shop lifting. But, we have to ask ourselves is it ethical, or even necessary, to punish someone whose dopamine therapy to treat their Parkinson’s Disease has caused them to become a compulsive exhibitionist? Is it appropriate for someone who was abused and tortured early in life to receive harsh prison sentences, ultimately placing them in a  similar environment to the one that stunted their brain development in the first place, if we can instead attempt to prevent that abuse becoming manifest in their behavior by developing effective interventions, thus minimizing the damage they may cause to others as well as helping them live fulfilled lives?

The goal of science is to learn what we don’t know. We must be willing to use new information to increase our understanding of the natural world and, if need be, change our minds. We should never be afraid to challenge what we know in the face of new, validated facts. We should rather be afraid of clinging to dated, false beliefs in light of new evidence.

As was the case with the understanding that the earth revolves around the sun, the discovery that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, or the fact that Pluto isn’t a planet (which despite having absolutely no effect on our lives, caused much angst), much of the new facts that conflict with our current understandings will not be immediately accepted but will instead be met with friction. Skepticism is of course natural and healthy. However, we must keep our minds open and ready for change so we can continue to facilitate human progress in knowledge and to develop a deeper understanding of ourselves.

I hope this has helped to address misunderstandings and uncertainties about my articles. As I’m sure I likely haven’t addressed every question that there may be on this topic, feel free to comment with your most rousing concerns, your deepest questions, your most vitriolic objections, or your inevitable praise of such a well-spoken rant.

Subscribe to stay up to date and to learn more and more about how what is known about the brain is important to your life.

Thanks for your time and for being such a well-read, devilishly handsome scholar.


  1. Great post, Jake!

    You are describing the human process of holding to a belief no matter what the evidence or the logic says. From what I know, when humans have their strongest beliefs challenged in a fundamental way, they feel “in danger” like if they are attacked by a wild animal: indeed the challenge is perceived as a threat to our mental status quo. Unfortunately very primitive brain areas, that we share with reptiles and fish, are in control of this threat-response (fight-or-flight) behavior. But the neocortex can overcome this primitive response IF the subject trains or prepare himself/herself to do so.

    Davide (from Nerf)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s