David Eagleman explores the unconscious brain, morality, and crime and punishment

David Eagleman (PopTech 2012) is a pioneer exploring the last great frontier of the human brain. He is particularly interested in the unconscious brain, how it drives our morality and decision making, and how what we know about those processes informs our thinking about crime and punishment in America. 

The complexity of the brain is dizzying. The human brain weighs only three pounds. But Eagleman notes that it contains tens of billions of neurons. Between those neurons are hundreds of trillions of connections. There are as many neuron connections in a cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way. 

Many of us probably think about the brain as being us: our personality and thoughts. But in fact only a small fraction of those neurons are dedicated to our consciousness — the mind. The large majority of that vast network is actually dedicated to the work of the unconscious brain, which is completely invisible to us. The conscious mind, Eagleman says, is the "broom closet in the mansion of the brain."

Eagleman shared some vivid examples to show how the unconscious brain affects some of our most important life choices. "If your name is Dennis or Denise you are statistically more likely to become a dentist," Eagleman explained. And we are all statistically more likely to choose a spouse with a name that starts with the same letter as our own. That unconscious drive to like things that remind us of ourselves is called "implicit egotism." Other examples were more subtle, but still surprising. If you are holding a mug of hot coffee, for example, you will describe your relationship with your mother as closer than if you are holding an ice coffee. 

But Eagleman also explored some more startling case studies, like how a brain tumor drove Charles Whitman in 1966 to climb to the top of the tower at the University of Texas in Austin and gun down more than a dozen people. Whitman, a previously sane man, knew something was the matter and in his suicide note requested a brain autopsy. Eagleman also showed how another brain tumor turned a man with a previously normal sexual appetite into a pedophile. "When the brain changes, you can change also," Eagleman said. "You are tied to your biology and there is no way you can escape that."

The growing body of knowledge about the power of the unconscious brain provokes some interesting philosophical questions about the human condition.  "Are we free to choose how we act? Is the mind equal to the brain?" Eagleman asked. "What seems clear is that if free will exists, it is a small player in the system."

Eagleman is also interested in more practical matters, like how what we are learning about the brain can teach us about American crime and punishment. "Nowadays, when we are talking about morality and decision making, what we are really talking about is the neural basis of this," Eagleman said. 

He established the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law at Baylor College of Medicine to bring together neuroscientists, judges and policy makers to wrestle with these difficult issues. The work there calls into question the current assumptions at the very heart of the U.S. justice and penal system. These assumptions include the belief that we fundamentally choose how we act, and that all brains are basically equal. "It is a very charitable assumption," Eagleman said. "But it is demonstrably false."

The implications of that are startling. "The problem with these assumptions is that it has led us to treat incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution," Eagleman said. As a result, America has highest percentage of citizens behind bars in the world, and 30 percent of inmates have mental illness, making American prisons the country's "de facto mental health care system." 

"This does not exculpate anybody," Eagleman said. "What this gives us instead is the capacity to do rational sentencing, to do customized rehabilitation, and to do realistic incentive structuring instead of imagining that everybody respons the same to the same sort of deterrent." 

Photo Credit: cgalvez777 via Compfight cc

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