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Dr. Eric Kandel is University Professor and Fred Kavli Professor and Director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. His most[…]

Nobel-Prize winning neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel describes new research which hints at the possibility of a biological basis to the unconscious mind.

Eric Kandel: Reductionism acknowledges from the outset that I’m not looking at the whole picture; I’m only looking at part of the picture. But the reason I’m doing that is because I really want to understand that. Looking at the whole picture is too complicated. So, when Harvey was trying to understand how the body works, he focused in on the heart and he realized that the function of the heart is not to serve as the soul, but to serve as a muscular pump that pushes blood around the circulation.  So I know that your heart and my heart is not the seat of my soul or your soul; it’s a pump.  Does that make it any less magical?  Do I have less respect for your heart or my heart because I realize how it functions?  No.  Number one.  

Number two, once you understand how components function, you’ll want to put it into the context of the body as a whole--what are the major arteries that come out of the heart, how do they feed oxygen to the muscles in the body, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera?  So we want to do a reductionism in order to understand particular components, but then as Paul Allen is showing, we need to put the components together.  We need a new synthesis.  And so we need to put it in a larger context.  

So that leaves the residual issue as to what degree does the acknowledgment that all mental function, including my religious beliefs, emanate from the brain.  People have difficulty with it.  They want to think there’s a mind out there some place that carries on after I’m dead and that mediates a lot of these spiritual values, and I don’t find good evidence to support that as far as I can tell.  All mental functions, from the most trivial reflex to the most sublime creative experience, come from the brain.  

We have reason to believe that some aspects of free will you are not consciously aware of.  I don’t think that necessarily means that you’re not free, but you’re not consciously aware of it.  And the background from that comes from a famous experiment that Benjamin Libet did, and I forget when it was, 1971, thereabouts, in which he did a fascinating experiment.  He asked subjects to make a decision to move their hand and to indicate by pressing a button when they’re making that decision.  And he had electrodes on their head, and it turned out that before I made a decision to move my hand, an electrical potential appeared in my brain that preceded my conscious decision to move the hand.  So you can be aware of my wanting to move the hand consciously without my being aware of it.  That means the decision was made unconsciously.

Now, when Ben Libet came out with that, it shook up the scientific community.  Do you think Freud would have been surprised about that?  He said from the very beginning, much of our mental life is unconscious.  We now know we make a lot of decisions, we choose our partner in part by unconscious evaluations.  There are lots of decisions that are made unconsciously then consciously. Conscious decision-making is very good when there are two alternatives because you can focus consciously very effectively on one thing at a time.  If you’ve got a lot of options . . . now this was not my case, but you who have lots of women who are interested in you, probably can choose from many of them.  That decision that you have to make is likely to be more effective if you make it unconsciously.  

So there is now a whole psychology on unconscious decision-making that is emerging, in part stimulated by Libet’s interest but also a continuation from Freud’s interest.  

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd