In many ways this long and meandering four-part blog post is entirely Michael S. Gazzaniga’s and Benjamin Libet’s fault. We have already met Gazzaniga and his left-brain interpreter theory that resulted from studying split-brain patients who underwent surgery to treat epilepsy. Gazzaniga has explored what these studies mean in several books, all of which are written in a way that the layperson can understand. David Wolman has recently published in Nature a nice overview article that would be a good place to start for someone just starting to grapple with their brain’s inherent need to explain things, even when the brain does not have a clue as to what is really going on (http://www.nature.com/news/the-split-brain-a-tale-of-two-halves-1.10213)
As shocking as my brain’s need to confabulate to make sense of a world that increasingly makes no sense is the work of Benjamin Libet of UCSF who stimulated the brain of an awake patient undergoing surgery; he discovered a time lapse between stimulating the cortex that represents the hand and when the patient signaled they were conscious of sensation in the hand. In more recent studies, John-Dylan Haynes showed that the outcomes of an inclination can be encoded in brain activity up to 10 seconds before the patient is conscious of it. Chung Siong Soon also expanded Libet’s work when he showed that regions in the cortex associated with voluntary movement lit up on fMRI scans five seconds before the subject was aware of making a choice. Song concluded that a network of control areas in the brain “begins to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.” This phenomenon has been labeled Bereitschaftspotential, which I cannot pronounce, or readiness potential, which is easier for me to say. Gazzaniga summarizes the staggering implications of these experiments:
In every child’s life there is a story that is going to stay etched in his memory for the rest of his life. Mine was a biblical story that left me puzzled to this day.
There was a traveller of the tribe of Levi and his concubine who came to Gibea, a town southwest of Jerusalem, in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin. As they sat down to dine they were attacked by the townspeople and he offered his concubine to the mob in order to prevent being assaulted himself. The concubine was raped all night by the mob. The next morning the man carried his murdered concubine to their home town, cut her body into twelve pieces and sent them to the twelve tribes of Israel. The people, especially those of the tribe of Ephraim, upon hearing about the dastardly deed were outraged and proceeded to raze several Benjaminite towns, killing every man woman and child in them.
I was shaken by this story. The image of the man carrying his woman’s body, all alone, silent, grieving, probably crying quietly, tugged at this little boy’s heartstrings. Why did the townspeople do it? I asked the teacher. They were bad people, but they believed they were carrying out God’s will, was the answer. And why did the people of Ephraim kill every man, woman and child? Because they believed they were meting out God’s punishment. Of course, a young child cannot quite put his finger on the philosophical inconsistencies of the answer. But six decades later I am still asking the same questions about Muslims raping, maiming and killing their own because it’s God’s will.