Tom Wolfe & Michael Gazzaniga - Religion, Free Will, Confabulation - Come Get Some!

A great conversation between neuroscientist/psychologist, Michael Gazzaniga and writer, Tom Wolfe discussing some of my favorite neuro topics (see the video here).

From Tom Wolfe:

Many of today's leading theorists, such as E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Dan Dennett, probably know about as much on the human brain as a second-year graduate student in neuropsychology. That isn't their field. Wilson is a great zoologist and a brilliant writer. Dawkins, I'm afraid, is now just a PR man for evolution. He's kind of like John the Baptist — he goes around announcing the imminent arrival. Dennett, of course, is a philosopher and doesn't pretend to know anything about the brain. I think it has distorted the whole discussion.
This always astounds me - these guys on the front lines attacking religion avoid the best argument against God's existence - that it's generally impossible to see through the illusions created by the brain (which is why there are so few atheists). It's actually a simple explanation for the phenomenon of God - all of our consciousness is a brain-created illusion afterall. This is particularly ironic given Dennett's book "Consciousness Explained." (If you were wondering, I read it in college, and it wasn't explained, but keep fighting the good fight Danny!.) In my experience, philosopher's explanations of brain and consciousness rarely yield anything of substance.

Another sound bite I really loved:

MG: Okay, so what do you think language and speech are for? I mean, it's probably an adaptation. We're big animals, and that's one of the goodies that we got.

TW: I think speech is entirely different from other survival benefits. Only with speech can you ask the question, "Why?"

MG: Right.

TW: Animals cannot ask why. In one way or another, they can ask what, where, and when. But they cannot ask why. I've never seen an animal shrug. When you shrug, you're trying to say, "I don't know why." And they also can't ask how.

MG: Yeah.

TW: With language you can ask that question. I think it's at that point where religion starts.

MG: Right.

TW: Humans got language and they were suddenly able to say, "Hey, why is all this here? Who put it here?" And my assumption is that they said, "There must be somebody like us but much bigger, much more powerful, that could make all these trees, the streams. God must be really something, and you'd better not get on the wrong side of him." I think that's the way it started.

I love the idea that only humans shrug, but are you telling me an ape has never shrugged before?

This is my favorite quote from Gazzaniga:
As you may know, I came across this phenomenon that I call the Interpreter. It's something that's in the left hemisphere of the human; it tries to put a story together as to why something occurred. So, we found this in patients who've had their brains divided. What we could do is sort of tiptoe into their nonspeaking right hemisphere and get them to do something like walk out of the room or lift their hand up. Then we would ask the left hemisphere, "Why did you do that?" And they would cook up a story to make sense out of what their disconnected right hemisphere just did. The left brain didn't know that we'd pulled a trick on them, so they concoct an explanation for why they walked out of the room. And it's because this left hemisphere can ask, "Why? What's that all about?" But one of the things we've never been able to unpack is whether this Interpreter is completely overlapping with the language system and is therefore a sort of press agent for its own mechanism. What we do know is that there are separate systems for different types of cognition. And the Interpreter seems to be located in the parts of the brain where language is located. So many people do think that interpretive capacity comes with language; that this is the deal with language — it comes along for the ride. Others believe that there are actually all kinds of different cognitive mechanisms happening, and language reports them out. So the function of language is to talk about it, talk about what you know and communicate, "Hey! Look here, I know how to cook a fish. Here, let me show you how.
The idea of the "interpreter" is dramatically explained in Jill Bolte Taylor's amazing Ted talk. The other amazing quality of the interpreter is its propensity to confabulate. We're story telling machines, and when we don't know the answer to something, we fill in the blanks like it's a mad lib puzzle. This is another reason there are fables, myths and religion - they are our attempt at explaining things we don't quite understand.

Confabulation is normal, but it gets more extreme for people with memory impairments like Korsakoff Syndrome sufferers. What's even more interesting is that "confabulation" is a neuropsychiatric term that, in addition to describing a neurological phenomenon, also describes a phenomenon of consciousness. To me, it is a magic words because it incorporates both fields seamlessly. It's ideas like this that are so key to bridging the gaps between brain and consciousness.


Gazzaniga touches on another idea that is quickly (and unfortunately) gaining traction these days, which is that we basically don't have free will.
I'm involved in a new project called "Neuroscience and the Law," which I think you're familiar with. It brings up the idea that there are these causal forces that make us do the things we do, that by the time you're consciously aware of something, your brain's already done it. How else could it be? Because the brain is what's producing these mental events that we're sorting through. So these ideas — what I call the ooze of neuroscience — are going out everywhere, and people are willing to accept that: "My brain did it. Officer, it wasn't me." These defenses are popping up all over the judicial system. But if we adopt that, then it's hard to see why we have a retributive response to a wrongdoing. It would seem to me to be morally wrong to blame someone for something that was going to happen anyway because of forces beyond their control. So people get into this loop, and they get very concerned about the nature of our retributive response. This puts you right smack in the middle of the question: Are we free to do what we think we're doing?
I wrote a bit about this in the context of a short story by Kurt Vonnegut called Unready to Wear about the ability to leave your body, but maintain consciousness. Regretfully, I got into a fight at a baseball game once (my first and last I think), and it was one I could have diffused. I remember very distinctly time slowing down and having a moment to make a decision. My body was in its survival mode, so the adrenalin coating my cells was making its argument pretty convincingly. Still, I made that decision to fight, and I suffered a gouged eye by the end (no permanent damage, thank you). In the language of the Wolfe/Gazzaniga conversation, I suppose this was my interpreter, walled in by a mess of other cognitive and subcortical streams trying to make a decision. Makes me wonder if there's a right-brained, pre-linguistic interpreter? Or is the very idea of "interpreting" more of a serial left-brain phenomenon?

This idea that there is no free will is dangerous, it strips people of accountability. During the Monica Lewinsky debacle, Bill Clinton made the idea of being a sexaholic a semi-acceptable excuse for being a horny bastard - as if he had no choice but to receive blowjobs in the oval office. Poor guy has an addiction dammit! It's neurological!

The same issue applies to something like quitting smoking - people are so afraid to take responsibility for quitting that they'd rather take a psychotropic SSRI like Chantix (which is known to cause very serious movement disorders) instead of using their will to quit at every moment they are tempted.

Okay, this post is long enough, if you'd rather hear the more brilliant scholars go on about this stuff, skip me, and read them, I won't be hurt!

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