The Luncheon Society/The Father of Cognitive Neuroscience, Michael Gazzaniga MD, on Free Will/ San Francisco –Palio D’asti /January 5, 2012/Manhattan—Prime House/June 7, 2012

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Where does our brain end and where does our mind begin? Are we controlled by our own internal wiring or can we rise above our circumstances through free will? This is a luncheon where the physical collides with the metaphysical.

In the novel (and later a movie) “The Boys from Brazil,” a fictional Joseph Mengele implants genetic clones of Adolf Hitler into a the wombs of over 90 women in the hopes of creating the Next Reich. However, Mengele takes things one more step because he tries to recreate the emotional mindset of the young Hitler, complete with a domineering older father against the backdrop of a much younger and pliant mother. As the novel winds through the jungles of Brazil and then spirals outward to where these genetic Hitlers are growing up in a modern world, Mengele engineers the sudden deaths of the fathers to mirror the sudden death of Hitler’s father when he was a teen. A fictional version of Simon Wiesenthal is able to break up Mengele’s final medical experiment, but the novel leaves you hanging because in the final pages, one of the surviving teenage-Hitlers now begins to exhibit delusions of grandeur.

Can you replicate past behavior? Can the mind be that predictive? Does one impact the other—does the mind enable or constrain the brain?

Located in the private room at Palio D’asti to an overflow group of guests in January and in June to a group of group of smart Manhattan diners at Prime House, Dr. Michael Gazzaniga spent a good two hours with us debating that very point. In his latest book, “Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain,” he tackles this subject in book form, based on the series of his Gifford Lectures, which for the past century has been the home prestigious conversations on religion, science, and philosophy.

As author of “The Ethical Brain,” his current introduction reads, “Known as the father of Cognitive Neuroscience, Gazzaniga makes a powerful argument for free will. The question of free will versus determinism continues to vex scientists, psychologists and philosophers, but the biological evidence is not as stridently deterministic as it is often presented. Dr. Gazzaniga argues that the human mind constrains the brain and monitors our behavior, much as a government constrains its citizens. Drawing on cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology, as well as ethics and law, he offers a deeply considered case for human responsibility.”

We have moved miles since the popularization of pseudo-sciences like Phrenology, that suggested that bumps on our head would determine our behavior. However, as we learn more about the physiology of the brain and unlock those secrets, we will soon wander to where the black-and-white meets the grey—understanding how the mind works. Meshing science with philosophy will be the great race of the 21st century but advertising aggregators, like Google and others, are hard at work building out algorithmic proxies on how we think based on what we buy.

Understanding The Final Frontier. This field of study was coined by the founders of the field, George Miller and Michael Gazzaniga, in the rear of a Manhattan taxi in the early 1980’s. Those involved in Cognitive Neuroscience are as vast and as varied as the subject matter itself. For nearly two millennia, the mind was the sandbox for philosophers and ethicists because the scientific study of the brain was still far off beyond the horizon. However, as the science improves and the mysteries are unlocked, Gazzaniga believes that we are getting closer to “eavesdropping” on the brain to the point. We are slowly pushing back the religious and philosophical theories on what makes our mind work to replace them with more study scientific understandings.

However, Gazzaniga concludes that neuroscience is nowhere near ready competently to inform the justice system on the culpability of defendants who may have committed their offenses in one or another specific brain state.

The Abstract as Real. What does one make of John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate President Reagan in 1981? Found not guilty due to reasons of insanity, the Hinckley case raises a number of questions. Focused with an obsession on Jodie Foster, Hinckley began barraging her with a series of unwanted advances while also becoming interested in the events in Dallas surrounding the assassination of John Kennedy. It all came to a head three decades ago outside of the Washington DC Hilton where a hail of bullets wounded five people, including the President of the United States. Each side, the prosecution and the defense, produced their own psychological conclusions and returned with reports that buttressed each side’s legal arguments.

However, culpability was concluded as a question of fact by the jury—not by a field of psychologists–and Hinckley has spent the remaining time in psychiatric hospitals. Alarmingly, he has been given more unsupervised visits to his parents and the outside world. When Hinckley was planning out the attack, did he understand what he was doing? He meticulously planned out the assassination attempt once he understood the proximity of President Reagan’s speech to the AFL-CIO membership at the Hilton. However, the defense made the arguments that Hinckley’s behavior of killing the President were an ultimate “love offering” to gain the attention of the actress.

Could Hinckley’s behavior been predicted? If so, was it the net result of his physiology of his brain or did free will drive this horrible process forward? With the inevitable comprehension between the brain and the mind being only decades away, will our grandchildren or great-grandchildren live in a world not unlike the film Minority Report, where the police can arrest a person for anticipating that they will commit a crime?

There will come a time when the mind, science, and the law will converge together for concrete answers but until that point, we have to depend upon a series of societal proxies to best understand the person’s state of mind when an alleged crime is being prosecuted.

Until then we’ll have no choice but to own our actions and accept their outcomes.

The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.

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