Neuroscientist David Eagleman wants to figure out all the things we don’t know about our own brains. His research focuses on the subconscious, which dictates almost everything the conscious brain takes credit for.
In his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, Eagleman explains that even everyday activities originate in our subconscious.
“Most of what’s happening in the brain is totally under the radar of your conscious awareness. So most of what you do and act and feel and believe — all of this stuff is running with automated circuitry,” Eagleman said during an interview on Think Out Loud. “So for example, when I lift this cup of coffee, that’s actually a quite complicated operation, to make sure I grip it right and angle it just right and get it into my mouth and not spill it on my shirt. I have no idea how I do that … it doesn’t require any conscious input. You can speak, breathe, ride a bicycle, drive a car — you can do these things without consciously having to figure out how you’re doing them.”
Eagleman’s work also examines the consequences of our misunderstanding of how the brain actually works. He’s looked into how our changing understanding of the brain will affect courts and mental health research.
“When we incarcerate, for example, the mentally ill, we’re not helping them, and what we’re doing is breaking their employment opportunities, and their social circles and so on. We’re not helping them in any meaningful way … so what I want to point out is that a neuroscientific understanding of why people behave the way they do doesn’t exculpate anyone, it doesn’t let anyone off the hook. But what it gives us is a much more tailored and nuanced way to navigate people through the legal system, in a way that has much higher cost efficacy and higher utility in getting what we want out of it, which is a safer society while respecting the rights of citizens.”
So what role does Eagleman believe free will might play given the way our brains function?
“I think what we can conclude, is that if we have free will, it’s actually quite a small player in this system because the way you make decisions has to do with the confluence of your genetics and your entire history up to this moment, presumably neither of which you choose, and so if free will exists, it’s still going to be a bit player in the system.”