Brain, Free Choice, and the Limits of Knowing: The Crisis of Knowing How We Know – 1

In August 1966, I was seven years old heading into second grade.  My memory of the guy that went up into the tower at the University of Texas to kill a bunch of people is vague, but it’s there.  Turns out, according to David Eagleman’s Atlantic Monthly article “The Brain on Trial“, Charles Whitman knew there was something wrong with him, and that something in his mind and thought-life had changed.  He’d been an average guy with an average life, but that day, he was anything but average.   When it was over, Whitman had killed 13 people, wounded over 30 others, and was dead, shot down by police.   Police then discovered he’d began the rampage by murdering his wife and his mother first.

An autopsy showed Whitman’s intuition that something inside his head had gone wrong was confirmed.   He had a tumor pressing on his amygdala.  And a damaged amygdala means emotional trouble that nobody signs up for, and that anybody will have an extremely difficult time resisting by willpower and making right choices.

I said yesterday that I want to spend the week reflecting on “how we know what we know.”  Eagleman’s article makes an interesting stepping off point because he reasonably, and with a certain balance, asserts that many of our behavioral drives depend heavily on the intricacies of our particular neural makeup.   In other words, our  brains’ ability to make “free will” choices is, to some degree, determined by (and limited by) the particular biology of our individualized circuitry.   Eagleman’s context for this argument is “equal treatment under the law” and the tricky judgments courts must make when faced with folks whose behavior is being driven, to varying degrees, by biological factors that call their blameworthiness into question.

The quote I left you with yesterday starts like this: “Many of us like to believe that all adults possess the same capacity to make sound choices. It’s a charitable idea, but demonstrably wrong. People’s brains are vastly different.”  (emphasis mine.)

Obviously, Eagleman is talking to us about behavior that is on the edge of social acceptance, and therefore “not normal.”  But the implications of the article run deeper.  If the criminal in front of me has frontal lobe damage he did not himself cause, what (or who?) is responsible for his actions?  Himself, or his damaged brain?  Can the core of who we are be separated from our biology?  Where is the “I” located that is being subverted by “my” neural circuitry?   And as brain studies continue to map the astonishing fragility and resilience of our gray matter, proving over and over that what we eat, do, think, and say alters moment by moment the neural pathways that facilitate every aspect of this thought-life we equate with “I” or “me”, it seems obvious to me that our perceived measure of thought-control is not nearly as certain as we think.

Here’s another quote to chew on:

“…we cannot presume that everyone is coming to the table equally equipped in terms of drives and behaviors. And this feeds into a larger lesson of biology: we are not the ones steering the boat of our behavior, at least not nearly as much as we believe. Who we are runs well below the surface of our conscious access, and the details reach back in time to before our birth, when the meeting of a sperm and an egg granted us certain attributes and not others. Who we can be starts with our molecular blueprints—a series of alien codes written in invisibly small strings of acids—well before we have anything to do with it. Each of us is, in part, a product of our inaccessible, microscopic history. 

For some reason, the scripture “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” comes to mind.

The upside of realizing you may not be as much in the driver’s seat as you thought?   How about humility, respect, and responsibility.  Humility toward our own certainty of things, respect for the essential mystery of the other, and a renewed sense of responsibility to take care of this fragile gift of life, so connected to how we care for our “selves”, by which we mean something that cannot exclude our biology.

To underline my point (and making sure I understand it myself) here’s the deal: Our “knowing” is being informed by sources beyond our conscious access and control.  Why we are designed in such fashion, I have no idea.  But my faith is that God knows this very well, and that the startling degree to which our knowing is limited is not a fault, but a gift.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about brain, mind, and body as it relates to health, healing, and the practice of alternative medicine.   If you want to read the Atlantic Monthly article that I’ll be referencing, it’s called “The Triumph of New Age Medicine.”

Take care of your brain today…

5 Replies to “Brain, Free Choice, and the Limits of Knowing: The Crisis of Knowing How We Know – 1”

  1. Love this series, Jeff! As a mental health professional, I deal with, and struggle with, these very issues on a daily basis. Where is the line between ability to change behavior, and biology/genetics? In finding appropriate treatment/therapy for those who come to me for help, part of the process is trying to get as close to that line as possible without leaning too far in either direction. In dealing with criminal health issues, I believe that genetics/biology can EXPLAIN a lot about why someone does what they do; however, in our society there will still be consequences for their actions, and I feel that is appropriate. Many people in mental health treatment do not have the same degree of self-awareness of their deviant behaviors that “normal” folks assume that they should/do have. Education, of those who are afflicted AND those who are not, is essential to understanding. And with understanding, one can more effectively move towards a workable solution… Rebecca

    1. Hey Rebecca,

      Thanks for reading. I especially appreciate you weighing from your professional perspective. Obviously consequences in unlawful behavior are important, especially as it relates to public safety concerns. My interest is more along the lines of what the implications for us everyday folks who think we’re thinking what we’re thinking is totally under “our” control. There’s a lot of mystery in our thought-life….



      1. Jeff,

        I get where you’re coming from; I think about those things too. The brain is such an amazing, and mysterious, thing. There is so much we don’t know; even though many people THINK they know! What is reality, really, in the midst of all our biological and experiential filters?


  2. Hi, Jeff. I was surprised years ago to read the rest of that quote: “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling… for God is at work in you to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Of course, “Satan is prowling around, seeking whom he may devour.” The Good News is that God has won the war. Satan may win some of the battles, but God is the final judge. Thank you for helping me realize, once again, that I do not have the capacity to judge others. That’s probably why Jesus told us not to.

  3. Beliefs about volition have been the source of much contemplation. We tend to believe that we are most in control when things go well or when we want someone else to behave differently. Churches in past decades have tended to de-emphasize the role of biology/nature, acting as though we are merely cookie cutter replicas with the same inherent ability to choose our path/behavior. God has made us with equal value, but not with equal skills-hopefully our lack of control leads to the humility you mentioned and keeps us focused more on one another’s equal value than judging the differences.

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