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RS50 - Neurobabble

Release date: December 18, 2011

The media is increasingly bombarding us with reports of advances in neuroscience which claim all sorts of amazing feats, like allowing us to read our thoughts and intentions. It sounds like neurobabble. Most of these reports though are either based on bad science, reach false conclusion, or are based on conceptual misunderstanding of how our psychology works. To be fair, much of this is manufactured by the popular media but, unfortunately, some of it comes from the neuroscience community itself. So, what information can we really get from fMRIs? As with the misunderstanding of what genes are (like whether there is a God or a conservative gene), are there really parts of the brain dedicated to categories of thoughts like some of these reports claim? And, perhaps more importantly, what are the ethical implications of this neurobabble, should we arrest people who we can tell, based on this research, will be committing a crime?

Julia's pick: "Rationality and the Reflective Mind"
Massimo's pick: ""


Reader Comments (6)

The slate piece on evil is a interesting article, but in my mind somewhat missing the point. Sure, we all understand what the word "evil" means, and it remains a useful adjective for describing certain behaviours, but as a noun, describing some "numinous nonmaterial malevolent force", or even as an adjective to describe people driven by such a force, it is manifestly unhelpful.

December 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

Regarding your comments on the illusion of "Free Will", is the real question not the following:

Given our genes and past experiences (including all environmental, epigenetic influences etc.), could any of the decisions we have ever made, have been made differently?

To me, the answer to the above is clearly, "no".

Does this mean that perpetrators of "evil" acts should not be punished and isolated from society - no, because that punishment becomes part of the environmental influence informing potentially "evil" decisions by them and others.
The jurisprudential implications as far as I'm concerned, are that we should throw away any vengeful motivations for punishment and instead concentrate on social isolation (for the protection of society) and rehabilitation, if at all possible.

December 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

I'm just listening to this podcast, and I noted a little confusion by Julia that you didn't clarify in the podcast (but you have in blog postings): It is the very definition of "moral responsibility" that we're talking about. It is not some mystical concept, it's actually an engineering problem: can you predict the outcome of your actions, and can you select from various actions? That's what makes you a moral agent.

PhineasG: I used to work at NIH on software for processing fMRI images, and we used to use examples like these when the researchers would use our software and statistical processing in a "novel" way to draw Amazing New conclusions.

December 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBubbaRich

It seems that every other person these days knows to tell you that their brain is "wired up differently." Their brains are different, they say, and that is why they find it difficult to perform certain amazing feats of social interaction, like staring at another person directly and unwaveringly in the eyes through a five course dinner, as if that sort of thing was normal for anyone. Oops, did I break eye contact again? Well, there's no need to get upset, it was just a bout of Asperger's! Have people become so alien to their own humanity that everything now seems like a disability?

December 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJon
Very heavy show with lots of cool informational tidbits. Enjoyed very much. ;]
December 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
As Julia posits, with or without free will and ultimate individual responsibility for one's conduct, we can still establish a system of deterministic moral responsibility on the basis of encouraging good conduct using rewards for social beneficial conduct and punishments for socially detrimental conduct. This view has a subtle but also important consequence. If we assume people lack the ability to exercise free will, but instead assume that their mental states merely amount to the result of deterministic events, then we can finally abolish the theory of vengeance and eliminate the pseudo justification of retribution as a basis for punishment. In other words, although a lot of this ultimately amounts to semantics, we can think about criminal justice in a manner that makes it more humane and just. Unfortunately, a great number of people continue to think of Vengeance as their theory of Justice, and therefore seek out retribution instead of the rehabilitative goals of modern Justice Theory.

How strange that empathy involves 13 different regions of the brain.

The News Media frequently does mischaracterize the relevance of genetic studies and fMRI studies.
January 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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