What does Informed Choice Mean in the Age of Neuroscience?

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education,  we are on the threshold of a culture war beyond anything the Tea Party has yet dreamed.  Free will has long perplexed philosophers and theologians, and now neuroscience is entering the fray.

“For centuries, the idea that we are the authors of our own actions, beliefs, and desires has remained central to our sense of self. We choose whom to love, what thoughts to think, which impulses to resist. Or do we?

Neuroscience suggests something else. We are biochemical puppets, swayed by forces beyond our conscious control. So says Sam Harris, author of the new book, Free Will (Simon & Schuster), a broadside against the notion that we are in control of our own thoughts and actions. Harris’s polemic arrives on the heels of Michael S. Gazzaniga’s Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain (HarperCollins), and David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Pantheon), both provocative forays into a debate that has in recent months spilled out onto op-ed and magazine pages, and countless blogs.

What’s at stake? Just about everything: morality, law, religion, our understanding of accountability and personal accomplishment, even what it means to be human. Harris predicts that a declaration by the scientific community that free will is an illusion would set off ‘a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution.'”

For lawyers involved in client-centered conflict resolution work, the requirement that our clients engage in fully informed choice/informed consent is a core value as well as an ethical mandate.  But our traditional explication of what informed consent actually means arises from an 18th century rationalist vision of how the human brain makes decisions and choices.  Discoveries during the past decade depict a brain driven by emotion, not reason, and the implications of this growing body of research challenge us to re-examine old ideas about informed choice.   If we are serious about deep and durable resolution of personal disputes, we will require new techniques to ensure that solutions reflect fully considered client needs and priorities, not immediate emotional reactions.  These techniques will pass muster only if we begin with premises that honor biological realities and recruit the full potential of our triune primate brains.

The programs of the Integrative Law Institute explore these and other ethical challenges for lawyers in the era of “neuro-resolution.”


Hardwired for Altruism?

Social Darwinism seems to be dying the “death of a thousand cuts,” as more and more research confirms our primate nature includes a strong dose of hardwired altruism and other “pro-social” emotions.

For instance:  in a 2011 study, female chimpanzees were offered a choice between two tokens of different colors.  The “selfish”  token gave the chimp a reward.   The “generous” token gave the same reward but also bestowed it on an observing, unrelated female chimp who might not even have been looking as the choice was made.  The female chimps more often chose the pro-social token, whether or not the observer showed any interest.  In fact, efforts by the observer to pressure the “decider” discouraged generosity.

Interesting for us conflict resolution professionals to ponder this experiment as we devise techniques for encouraging reciprocal generosity at the negotiating table.

The article is:

Spontaneous Pro-Social Choice by Chimpanzees”

Horner, V.J., Cartera, D., Suchack, M., de Waal, F.B.M., PNAS, Vol. 108 (33), August 2011, 13847–13851.

Our Brains Want to Control Anger and Aggression

In a new study researchers found that when insulted to the point of anger, we humans experience activation in the areas of the brain associated with negative emotions and arousal (the limbic brain) but that at the same time, healthy brains experience similar arousal in the parts of the frontal lobes that regulate emotion and provide cognitive control over reactions.  Thus there is  tension and interplay between our urge to let the anger rip, and our thinking brain’s wish to remain in control.

This provides cues  for conflict resolution professionals about how to help our clients recognize and manage anger and other negative emotions during negotiations.  In later posts we’ll direct you to research and writing about techniques for quieting the aroused limbic brain and for helping the cognitive brain in its efforts to calm the storm.

The study is:

“Self Control and Aggression”

Denson, T. F., Dewall, C., Finkle, E. Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 21 (1), February 2012, 20-25

A Conversation About ILI with carlMichael Rossi

Listen to a conversation between me and carlMichael Rossi in which I describe the lawyer’s role in conflict resolution from a human systems perspective, and  introduce the new Integrative Law Institute at Commonweal.  carlMichael is the creator of the online magazine, The World of Collaborative Practice.