An excerpt from

The Ethical Brain

by Michael Gazzaniga

The Believing Brain

The President’s Council on Bioethics was formed to look at the ethical implications of modern biomedical discoveries, and we were fast out of the blocks in considering the hot button issue of our time: cloning and stem cell research. This meant that, in no uncertain terms, we would be confronting the embryo question, a question that elicits secular, religious, and utilitarian discussion of beliefs—strong beliefs—from almost anyone you talk to. The council was not, as one might imagine, a group of scientists. While a number of members had biomedical training, many did not. And many of those with biomedical training held personal beliefs that trumped a straight utilitarian or secular view of the matters at hand. In short, the council reflected a real cross section of society: a group of people that ranged from those possessing complex secular beliefs about the value of the natural world, to those who held utilitarian beliefs, to those with deep religious beliefs

Nowhere does the human capacity to form and hold beliefs become more stark than when clear scientific data challenge the assumptions of someone’s personal beliefs. It would be easy to spin a story line about how a particular person with a set of religious values resisted the biological analysis of this or that finding in an effort to reaffirm his or her belief. There are many such stories, but they miss the point. Scientists themselves are just as resistant to change a view when confronted with new data that suggest their view is incorrect. All of us hold on to our beliefs, and it now appears that men are even more tenacious about not letting go than are women

Let me be as clear as I can about what I mean by “holding beliefs” or having belief systems. Many roads lead to holding beliefs. For many religiously oriented people, rules and codes to live by are spelled out and delivered by the religion in question, when one signs on to it. For the scientist, scientific rules and codes become part of the beliefs one must uphold upon joining the ranks of the particular science. For utilitarians, the decisions society makes about life’s challenges become their own beliefs. Overall, and this is my view about the nature of beliefs, our species instinctively reacts to events, and in a specialized system of the human brain that reaction is interpreted. Out of that interpretation, beliefs emerge about rules to live by. Sometimes they have a moral character; sometimes they are of an utterly practical nature. We can form beliefs slowly or quickly. Studies have shown startling aspects of how we can generate and hold onto a belief. People who buy a computer-generated lotto ticket for a dollar are reluctant to part with it if offered more money for it seconds after its purchase. Offering two bucks—a 100 percent increase in their investment—doesn’t do it. In many instances the offer has to be extended to twenty bucks. Why? Why do we hold onto our beliefs—new or old? Interestingly, it turns out that scientists are slower to change their views in the face of new data than are preachers.

Our species can develop beliefs at lightning speed. We create them almost as a reflex. We now know that the left hemisphere of the brain—the one that attaches a story to input from the world—creates these beliefs. We also know the many ways the strength of a belief can be manipulated: it can be placed in conflict, followed by resolution; it can be subjected to reinforcement and repetition; and emotional tags can be attached to it, or it can be diluted with competing ideas. And given that we know these things about beliefs—that most are interpretations based on the knowledge available at the time they were formed, and that they nonetheless seem to stick in the mind—how can we manage to take seriously so many current religious and political beliefs? The ethical and moral systems that emerge out of traditional religions and political systems frequently have common views on right and wrong. But perhaps the reason they do is that, in our species, the mind has a core set of reactions tolife’s challenges, and that we attribute a morality to these reactions after the fact. Is a moral “deep structure,” to use the ethicist Ronald M. Green’s phrase, driving not only certain common values but also the need to create the cultural edifices of religion? In the next chapter I will get into what the common moral spark might be and how it might work. But for now, it is importantto understand how beliefs are formed—at least as I see it.

How Our Brain Creates Belief:
The Brain’s Left-Hemisphere Interpreter

Our brain is not a unified structure; instead it is composed of several modules that work out their computations separately, in what are called neural networks. These networks can carry out activities largely on their own. The visual network, for example, responds to visual stimulation and is also active during visualimagery—that is, seeing something with your mind’s eye; the motor network can produce movement and is active during imagined movements. Yet even though our brain carries out all these functions in a modular system, we do not feel like a million little robots carrying out their disjointed activities. We feel like one, coherent self with intentions and reasons for what we feel are our unified actions. How can this be?

Over the past thirty years I have been studying a phenomenon that was first revealed during work with split-brain patients,who’d had the connections between the two brain hemispheres severed to relieve severe epilepsy. My colleagues and Iweren’t looking for the answer to the question of what makes us seem unified, but we think we found it. It follows from the idea that if the brain is modular, a part of the brain must be monitoring all the networks’ behaviors and trying to interpret their individual actions in order to create a unified idea of the self. Our best candidate for this brain area is the “left-hemisphere interpreter.”Beyond the finding, described in the last chapter, that the left hemisphere makes strange input logical, it includes a special region that interprets the inputs we receive every moment and weaves them into stories to form the ongoing narrative of our self-image and our beliefs. I have called this area of the left hemisphere the interpreter because it seeks explanations for internal and external events and expands on the actual facts we experience to make sense of, or interpret, the events of our life.

Experiments on split-brain patients reveal how readily the left brain interpreter can make up stories and beliefs. In one experiment, for example, when the word walk was presented only to the right side of a patient’s brain, he got up and started walking. When he was asked why he did this, the left brain (where language is stored and where the word walk was not presented) quickly created a reason for the action: “I wanted to go get a Coke.”

Even more fantastic examples of the left hemisphere at work come from the study of neurological disorders. In a complication of stroke called anosognosia with hemiplegia, patients cannot recognize that their left arm is theirs because the stroke damaged the right parietal cortex, which manages our body’s integrity, position, and movement. The left-hemisphere interpreter has to reconcile the information it receives from the visual cortex—that the limb is attached to its body but is not moving—with the fact that it is not receiving any input about the damage to that limb. The left-hemisphere interpreter would recognize that damage to nerves of the limb meant trouble for the brain and that the limb was paralyzed; however, in this case the damage occurred directly to the brain area responsible for signaling a problem in the perception of the limb, and it cannot send any information to the left-hemisphere interpreter. The interpreter must, then, create a belief to mediate the two known facts “I can see the limb isn’t moving” and “I can’t tell that it is damaged.” When patients with this disorder are asked about their arm and why they can’t move it, they will say “It’s not mine” or “I just don’t feel like moving it”—reasonable conclusions, given the input that the left-hemisphere interpreter is receiving.

The left-hemisphere interpreter is not only a master of belief creation, but it will stick to its belief system no matter what. Patients with “reduplicative paramnesia,” because of damage to the brain, believe that there are copies of people or places. In short, they will remember another time and mix it with the present. As a result, they will create seemingly ridiculous, but masterful, stories to uphold what they know to be true due to the erroneous messages their damaged brain is sending their intact interpreter. One such patient believed the New York hospital where she was being treated was actually her home in Maine. When her doctor asked how this could be her home if there were elevators in the hallway, she said, “Doctor, do you know how much it cost me to have those put in?” The interpreter will go to great lengths to make sure the inputs it receives are woven together to make sense—even when it must make great leaps to do so. Of course, these do not appear as“great leaps” to the patient, but rather as clear evidence from the world around him or her.

On the President’s Council on Bioethics is a wonderful man, Dr. Paul McHugh. As I have written elsewhere, when they cart me off to an asylum, I will want Paul as my physician. He is terribly smart, very funny and a wonderfully caring human being. He treats all kinds of difficult patients, patients who might possibly benefit from stem cell research involving embryos from biomedical cloning procedures. Paul is also Catholic. If he simply accepted the church’s public teachings, he could not support biomedical cloning and stem cell research.

As with most physicians who actually treat patients, however, Paul has a hard time blocking the way to possible cures. He therefore has a dilemma, and I maintain that his interpreter has gone to work on it. On the one hand, he supports research on biomedical cloning; on the other, he holds a personal belief that embryo research is not morally acceptable. What does he do? Ina recent New England Journal of Medicine essay, he posited that the entities made by biomedical cloning are not “embryos;” they are “clonotes,” because the entities are not made by the union of egg and sperm. As you may recall, a cloned embryo is made by taking an enucleated oocyte (an egg with its nucleus removed),inserting the nucleus of a somatic cell from another or the same organism, and letting the oocyte nurse the inserted nucleus into a full-grown creature. That is how Dolly the sheep was made, and theoretically that is how the procedure would work in humans if someone inserted such an entity into a woman’s womb.

Of course, traditional moralists see no difference between this type of creature and one born by natural means. That is the whole idea behind cloning, and the reason it creates a moral dilemma for many people. But Paul McHugh argues that since the creature was not formed by the union of egg and sperm but was jump-started with a full complement of DNA from a mature somatic cell, it is something else—indeed, a “clonote.” This fact liberates him from his moral concerns about tampering with a naturally produced embryo, and for him it allows medical research to move ahead. It is a wonderful solution to his dilemma, and shows how our interpreter can get us out of jams. It generates a new idea we come to believe in. Each of us has our clonote stories—in fact, we all have hundreds of them.

Any time our left brain is confronted with information that does not jibe with our self-image, knowledge, or conceptual framework, our left-hemisphere interpreter creates a belief to enable all incoming information to make sense and mesh with our ongoing idea of our self. The interpreter seeks patterns, order, and causal relationships. Nowhere does this operate more than on the cultural phenomenon of religious belief. As I have written in my earlier book The Social Brain, the interpreter goes to work on the data it gets. If one compares the complexities of the religions that arose from the stormy and unpredictable Mesopotamian regions with the more linear and straightforward beliefs that arose among the Egyptians living in the simpler Nile regions, one can see in the striking contrasts the importance of the environment—not to mention input for a theory about the nature of the world. One has to begin to think, it seems to me, that religions, while possibly originating from a common moral core we all possess, are interpretations built on surrounding cultural realities.

Are Religions Just Another Belief System?

Religious beliefs have been around for a very long time. As long as humans have roamed the earth, they have had beliefs about the world and an afterlife. The Incans, the Egyptians, the Greeks—every major civilization past and present has a strong belief system, often including the worship of one or more gods. Scholars once theorized that “advances in the rational understanding of the world would inevitably diminish the influence of the last, vexing sphere of irrationality in the human culture: religion.” But in an age of science and reason, religion is very much alive—with as many as two to three new religious movements being founded every day, for a current total of about 10,000 religions in the world (according to the World Christian Encyclopedia). And since 1993, the depiction of religious symbols and spirituality on national television has risen by 400 percent.8What could be going on here, at a time when most of the educated world realizes that religious ideas are explanatory systems, stories generated by social groups to help explain the felt state of individual people? All members of the human species tend to feel and to react in predictable ways to situations that create the background for a moral choice. Marc Hauser at Harvard University has done some intriguing studies that support this idea. He created a Web site with a moral reasoning test that he calls the Moral Sense Test. The test includes listening to seven moral dilemmas and then answering whether it would be morally acceptable for a person to carry out a described action. Here is an example of one of the dilemmas:

oscar's ethical dilemma

People of all ages and from many different countries have completed this test, and the amazing result is that they all respond more or less the same way. What is different is how they interpret their response, which is based on how they think and feel about the issue at hand. Only 30 percent of the respondents gave sufficient justification for their decision. For an explanation to be sufficient, it had to include the facts of the actual moral dilemma.

All of this suggests that religious beliefs have a strong social component. While religion may have begun from an instinctual reaction common to all humans, it evolved into a social support system and a system of rationalization that tries to make sense of the individual personal response we all feel. Peoples in different historical contexts, who possess different attitudes about a variety of life issues, will invariably come up with different overarching theories about a moral stance.

Toby Lester, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, has spent a great deal of time trying to understand how religions develop, what attracts people to them, and what allows some of them to thrive. He has written that religious movements follow a sort of “supernatural selection,” operating under Darwinian rules. The religious movements that have survived over the years tend to be the ones that promote health, mate selection, and security. The Christian community “put an emphasis on caring for its members, for example; that emphasis allows it to survive onslaughts of disease better than other communities.” The Mormons“ do an enormous amount of social services for one another, all of which builds community bonds” and gives the church’s members a sense of security. The Mormons “have only been around for a century and a half, but already they’re on the verge of becoming a world religion with millions of adherents and allsorts of cultural and political influence…”

Further supporting the theory of “supernatural selection” is the finding that the new religious movements in Africa that have been successful are those that tend to “help people survive, in all of the ways that people need to survive—social, spiritual, economic, [and] finding a mate.” As Lester concludes, “The sources of religious experience may well be mysterious, irrational, and highly personal, but religion itself is not. It is a social rather than a psychological phenomenon, and, absent conditions of active oppression, it unfurls according to observable rules of group behavior.”

This is also the view of David Sloan Wilson, who wrote in his brilliant book, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society: “Something as elaborate—as time-, energy-, and thought-consuming—as religion would not exist if it didn’t have secular utility. Religions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone. The mechanisms that enable religious groups to function as adaptive units include the very beliefs and practices that make religion appear enigmatic to so many people who stand outside of them.”

Pascal Boyer of the Center for National Scientific Research in Lyon, France, believes that the religious concepts (such as “spirit” and “God”) that have been “culturally successful” flourished because the innate cognitive capacities for social interaction that are connected to “morality, group identity, ritual and emotion” are consistent with such religious concepts. In other words, he believes that the religious concepts that most easily fit into our cognitive social framework are the most likely to survive. For example, the concept of “spirit” activates the primary and fundamental category of “person,” and even though the concept will violate your general expectations of what a person is—made of biological material, for example—you will assume the spirit has qualities of a person. You will envision spirits that can perceive and remember events, that have minds, and you will credit them with other human features. The success of the concept of “spirit” thus depends on how well we can fit it into the ontological category most closely related to it—that is, to the category of “person.” This may be why the concept of the Holy Trinity in the Christian faith (God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) has survived 2,000 years—it allows the concept of God to fit better into the ontological category of “person.”

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 145-55 of The Ethical Brain by Michael Gazzaniga, published by the Dana Press. ©2005 by the Dana Press. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the Dana Press.

Michael Gazzaniga
The Ethical Brain
©2005, 220 pages
Cloth $25.00 ISBN: 1-932594-01-9
Distributed for the Dana Press

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