A Crucial Fact about the Brain Is Missing When We Address the Problem of Violence
Many people are quite sure of what's needed after a tragedy, yet there is a lot of disagreement. How can this be? It's all about how the brain can form widely different opinions inside different people.
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and a New York Times bestselling author. He directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine, where he also directs the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. He is best known for his work on time perception, brain plasticity, synesthesia, and neurolaw.
Beyond his 100+ academic publications, he has published many popular books. His bestselling book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, explores the neuroscience "under the hood" of the conscious mind: all the aspects of neural function to which we have no awareness or access. His work of fiction, SUM, is an international bestseller published in 28 languages and turned into two operas. Why the Net Matters examines what the advent of the internet means on the timescale of civilizations. The award-winning Wednesday is Indigo Blue explores the neurological condition of synesthesia, in which the senses are blended.
Eagleman is a TED speaker, a Guggenheim Fellow, a winner of the McGovern Award for Excellence in Biomedical Communication, a Next Generation Texas Fellow, Vice-Chair on the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Neuroscience & Behaviour, a research fellow in the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Chief Scientific Advisor for the Mind Science Foundation, and a board member of The Long Now Foundation. He has served as an academic editor for several scientific journals. He was named Science Educator of the Year by the Society for Neuroscience, and was featured as one of the Brightest Idea Guys by Italy's Style magazine. He is founder of the company BrainCheck and the cofounder of the company NeoSensory. He was the scientific advisor for the television drama Perception, and has been profiled on the Colbert Report, NOVA Science Now, the New Yorker, CNN's Next List, and many other venues. He appears regularly on radio and television to discuss literature and science.
David Eagleman: When it comes to what to do about mass shooting there’s a variety of opinions and I think what this represents is the variety that people have on the inside. What I mean is people are very different. I’m talking about the decision-makers now, not the mass shooters. People are very different on the inside and who you are and what you believe about the world comes about as a confluence of your genetics and your environment. So the predispositions you come to the table with mixed with every experience you have from your family of origin to your culture, your neighborhood, your generation that you drop into. As a result, brains are all very different. They’re as unique as fingerprints. So when it comes to what to do about a mass shooting, there’s no surprise that you have completely different opinions.
On the one hand, you have people who say, "Look, let’s just get rid of all weapons," and on the other hand, on the other hand of the spectrum you have people who say, "Look, let’s make sure that everybody’s armed because it’s impossible to get rid of all of the weapons. So let’s do a mutually assured destruction approach." And these are all, you know, valid in some way. I mean it’s understandable why different people have different opinions about what to do. One of the things that I follow as a neuroscientist whenever there’s a mass shooting is the discussion that happens. People will often throw around words like, "Well the guy’s a psycho." Now you may know there’s no such thing as a psycho. That’s a meaningless term. What the commentator presumably means is either this person has a psychosis, something like schizophrenia where they have a disorder of cognition, or they mean this person is a psychopath which is not a disorder of cognition. Instead psychopathy is about having no empathy towards other people, not caring at all about other people, seeing other people as objects to get around. They’re also known as sociopaths. So somebody can have a psychosis or somebody can have a psychopathy or sociopathy and these are completely different things. An understanding of these things in the public dialogue I think would be very important; every time there’s a mass shooting there are all sorts of commentators that come out and say things like well I heard he had Asperger’s or I heard he had ADHD or I heard that he wrote dark poetry, which is, of course, true of most young teenagers. So a better understanding of the vocabulary and what are the issues that come along with these different things is something that I try to disseminate through my work in neuroscience and law.
Think of all the labels that get tossed around whenever there's a mass shooting or terrorist attack. "Psycho" and "sociopath," "ADHD" and "Aspergers": Often conditions people don't fully understand, yet are still quick to toss around like a smoking gun. David Eagleman, neuroscientist and host/author of PBS' The Brain, sheds light on how the brain forms different opinions inside of each of us and how we might use that information to have more informed discussions with each other.