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Free Will & the Brain

Date: 12-10-11
Host: Ian Punnett
Guests: Michael Gazzaniga, Andy Hines

The father of cognitive neuroscience, Michael Gazzaniga, joined Ian to offer a provocative argument against the common belief that our lives are wholly determined by physical processes and we are therefore not responsible for our actions. He explained that neuroscience research reveals that decision making is based on a combination of "the information that was built into us structurally" as well as knowledge of previous experiences. He marveled that the human brain is a "finely honed machine" that "provides us, also, with this believe that we're in charge of running this thing."

Despite this perspective on decision making, he argued, it does not free people from accountability and responsibility, since these are societal factors that exist outside of the brain. "Responsibility is something that we humans assigned to the other person," he mused, "so if you are going to be a part of the human culture, I'm going to hold you responsible." In light of that, Gazzaniga suggested that criminal cases where the perpetrator is mentally disturbed, but clearly guilty, should result in a judgement of "responsible, but insane." He also predicted that neuroscientists may eventually be able to "fix" such mental issues, which will create a deep cultural debate over how to mete out proper punishment. "I don't say these are easy answers," he said, "I'm saying they're tough questions, but that's what we should be thinking about."

Gazzaniga was also dismissive of the religious connotations surrounding the debate over free will, which suggest that all of our actions have been predetermined by a proverbial 'higher power.' He contended that there were far too many variables and "there's no information system in the world that can possibly take that into account." With that in mind, Gazzaniga surmised that the concept of 'free will' essentially becomes antiquated because "we're not coerced by outside forces" and one is responsible for their own actions. Over the course of the conversation, Gazzaniga also talked about other brain-related topics such as research into the damaged brains of athletes and whether or not it would be possible to transplant a brain.

The Future of Consumerism

In the first hour, Andy Hines discussed how people's values are reshaping the consumer landscape. He observed that there appears to be a cultural backlash against consumerism where "people are rejecting this idea that consumption is going to make them happy." Hines noted that this perspective actually coincides with research which shows that, once our basic needs are met, "adding more money does nothing for our happiness." Hines put forward the idea that "authenticity" is one key concept which businesses would be wise to embrace as the future unfolds. He explained that the evolving consumer mindset expects to be treated with respect and told the truth, rather than be misled or coddled, which will lead to a greater level of appreciation from that customer.

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