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Are the Mind and the Brain One and the Same?

For thousands of years, philosophers have gappled with the ideas of determinism and free will. Does human nature abide by the laws of physics — that actions are no more than reactions? Are our actions predetermined results of otherworldly forces, or do we have control — as we feel we do — of our destiny?

Most of us are happy to leave these sorts of questions to the deep thinkers of the world. But according to Michael Gazzaniga, Ph.D, director of the SAGE Institute for Study of Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, they are concepts about which we should all be thinking — even, and perhaps especially, neuroscientists.

“Thinking about how the brain may affect ethical issues is not the job of somebody else — it is the job of everybody in this room,” he said during the GW Institute for Neuroscience (GWIN)/Children’s National Medical Center-Center for Neuroscience Research Seminar Series, Nov. 30. Gazzaniga, who is known for his work characterizing the independent capacities of the brain’s two hemispheres, connected the many dots between the highly specific tasks of neuroscience and the broad social concepts of justice in his lecture, “Determinism, Consciousness, and Free Will.”

How we think about justice, he said, is influenced by our position on the determinism- free will spectrum. Those who lean towards a deterministic view of the world, for instance, may believe that criminals have little control over their wrongdoings and that punishment is arbitrary. This stance, then, is reflected in law, said Gazzaniga. “Laws are simply articulations of the norm values of how we want to live in the social group we are in. These questions that seem esoteric and far-reaching in fact have immediate consequences for our own behavior.”

But what does this have to do with neuroscience? Well, Gazzaniga explained, a compromise between determinism and free will is possible — if you understand that the brain has many levels of organization, one of which is neuronal In the same way that understanding that the atomic makeup of a billiard ball cannot predict the outcome of a shot, studying the neurons of the brain does not address how they relate to one another, nor can it predict a person’s actions. It’s the levels of interaction that matter, he emphasized

“We in neuroscience are trying to take the nervous system, see how it interacts in complicated ways, and see if that gives us an understanding of our mental life and about this grand issue of free will and determinism,” he said.

Gazzaniga further addressed some of his work studying “split-brain patients,” or people whose right hemispheres were disconnected with their left.  In a series of famous experiments that won his colleague, Roger Sperry, the Nobel Prize, Gazzaniga helped to confirm that the left hemisphere is responsible for speech. Even beyond speech, Gazzaniga said, the left hemisphere of the brain acts as an “interpreter,” translating independent events into a reasonable story. 

“This left hemisphere interpreter is the key thing that helps us understand particular capacities of our human life, and it comes down to maybe that we are of a story mind — that’s what humans do, we tell stories,” he said. And how we interpret events and form beliefs, he continued, influences our views of justice, responsibility, ethics, and the like. 

Gazzaniga detailed several other studies supporting that a sense of justice is as much a part of the brain as it is the mind. In the classic ultimatum game, he said, players prefer an option where neither player gets any money over an option where one player gets more than the other. In other words, people are inherently willing to sacrifice personal gain for the sake of retribution. Another experiment found that even infants get upset when they witness something unfair. These experiments show, said Gazzaniga, that “a sense of justice seems to be built into our fabric.”

If all of these concepts are built into our fabric and into our brains, the question remains: do humans have free will? According to Gazaniga, the answer is yes. Just as cars are automatic but traffic patterns are not, the human brain is automatic but human behavior is not. Behavior and personal responsibility are fully the consequences of our interactions with others, not the automatic processes of the brain, he said.

“It is clear to me that brains are not free, people are free. Even though we have these automatic brains, it doesn’t let us off the hook for being totally personally responsible for one another and to each other.”

About the GW Institute for Neuroscience (GWIN) Seminar Series

GWIN and Children’s National Medical Center-Center for Neuroscience Research jointly sponsor a frequent seminar series devoted to bringing investigators with a broad range of interests in neuroscience to the GW/CNMC campus for one hour seminar presentations, as well as one-on-one interactions with GW/CNMC faculty, fellows and students. The seminars are held on Thursdays at 4 p.m. throughout the Fall and Spring semesters, and the location alternates between SMHS/Ross Hall and CNMC. For more information about GWIN, visit smhs.gwu.edu/neuroscience