(Telegraph) The human brain: turning our minds to the law
Our understanding of the way the brain works could help us create a better legal system, says neuroscientist David Eagleman.
A human brain is three pounds of the most complex material in the universe. It is the mission control centre that drives the operation of your life, gathering dispatches through small portals in the armoured bunker of the skull. This pink, alien computational material, which has the consistency of jelly and is composed of miniaturised, self-configuring parts, vastly outstrips anything we’ve dreamt of building.
Using those brains, humans have done something unique. As far as we know, we’re the only system on the planet so complex that we’ve thrown ourselves headlong into the game of deciphering our own programming language. Imagine that your desktop computer began to control its own peripheral devices, removed its own cover and pointed its webcam at its own circuitry. That’s us.
What we’ve discovered by peering into the skull ranks among the most significant intellectual developments of our species: the recognition that the innumerable facets of our behaviour, thoughts and experience are inseparably yoked to a vast chemical-electrical network called the nervous system. The machinery is utterly alien to us, and yet, somehow, it is us.
The first lesson we learn from studying our own circuitry is shocking: most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control. The vast jungles of neurons operate their own programs. The conscious you – the I that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning – is the smallest bit of what’s transpiring in your brain. Although we are dependent on the functioning of the brain for our inner lives, it runs its own show. Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.