science | March 18, 2013

Does Free Will Exist? David Eagleman Discusses Human Nature In TIME

"Under certain circumstances it might be useful to drop the question of free will and just assume that people are not at all the same on the inside," science speaker David Eagleman says in a new interview in TIME.  "For example, if you were to look at Ted Bundy and say, well, I use my free will to make terrific choices in life and Ted Bundy over there had used his free will to make terrible decisions in life. What would be missing from that narrative is the fact that your brain and his brain are totally different." There's a lot about our brains that we still have yet to uncover. As Eagleman says in this article, free will is one element of brain function that he doesn't think has been definitely proven yet. What is clear, however, is that each of our brains develops differently based on a combination of our genetic makeup and our environment. The complex ways in which our genes and environmental cues combine sends each of our brains on a different "developmental trajectory." How they combine and impact us, however, is still extremely convoluted.

How we come to do the things we do, and what makes us who we are, are questions that the Obama administration hope to answer in their new brain map project. Eagleman—who directs Baylor College of Medicine’s Initiative on Neuroscience and Law and is the bestselling author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain—believes that the $3 billion initiative will be a good investment. While we have become more adept at diagnosing brain diseases and problems with brain function, we haven't been able to effectively treat these illnesses. In his talks and his media appearances, he prompts audiences to rethink what they know about the brain and to dig deeper into the way our minds work.

As he tells TIME, we still do not completely understand why we do the things we do. What we can do in the present, however, is acknowledge that not all brains work the same way. We then have to analyze people's actions with that in mind—and determine what the most appropriate consequences for their actions would be. "In the case of drug addicts, can you rehabilitate them?" he asks. "In the case of people who have mental illness, can you work to help them and reintegrate them into society?" Or, he adds, "in the case of somebody who’s really dangerous and aggressive, you might have to lock that person up." The more we study the brain, the more we can learn about who we are and what drives our behavior. And, the more we learn, the more it becomes obvious that we still have a great deal to learn about humanity's true nature.

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social change | March 17, 2013