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Determinism And Media Coverage Of Neuroscience Research

Can free will still exist?

By Arti Virkud

Published January 15, 2013

As scientists vie to explain the mystery of the human brain, the rest of us are left to make sense out of their findings. With each discovery, we’re left to grapple with the implications of potentially challenging results.

While many studies in neuroscience suggest that our decisions — large and small — are simply a result of the neural networking our brains, these conclusions may suggest a systematic bias in both the way that neuroscientists ask their research questions and the way the media reports on them.

For example, why do people do things that hurt others?

That was the question Dr. Anthony Jack, an assistant professor of cognitive science at Case Western Reserve and his colleagues considered in a recent study.

Using fMRIs, tools that allow researchers to visualize the brain in real time, and various problem-solving tasks, Dr. Jack and his team identified how social tasks deactivated regions associated with mechanical reasoning and vice versa. The study suggests that there are two separate and mutually exclusive neural networks that are engaged for analytic and empathetic thought, where each network represses the other when activated.

Neuroscience research like this can pose a difficult problem: it chips away at our own understanding of our free will. This inherent determinism challenges many of our deepest-held conceptions regarding choice and human behavior.

Some neuroscientists, like Patrick Haggard and Sam Harris ,have gone as far as to say that our current understanding of the human mind establishes that we lack free will as individuals. Research like that of Dr. Jack seems to support their assertions.

But there are a couple of problems here.

First, most researchers overreach their conclusions. The scientific aim of most neuroscience research is to characterize pathologic processes in the brain that might underlie neurological diseases. For example, the research conducted by Dr. Jack may have important implications for therapy for individuals with autism and Williams’ syndrome.

That’s a far different aim than attempting to explain human behavior more generally—a task requiring substantially more diligence. In this regard, neuroscientists would do well to better clarify the strengths and weaknesses of their research in supporting a deterministic perspective on the world.

Second, despite reems of studies showing null findings, the media coverage focuses only on those studies with positive findings—suggesting a lopsided picture of what we know about the brain. While it may be harder for media sources to create a compelling story from studies that fail to identify any exciting neural networks, in not covering negative results, they leave the public with a biased perspective on the state of neuroscience.

Given these important biases, free will might still have a chance. It’s time researchers and reporters exercise theirs to make sure neuroscience coverage is less sensational and more accurate.

Edited by Abdul El-Sayed.

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The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Epidemiology, the Mailman School of Public Health, or Columbia University.