Read: 'Sum' by David Eagleman


Based on an interview with Eagleman that I heard on To the Best of Our Knowledge, I thought I would give his book, Sum a read. The book offers in its first four chapters a layperson’s guide for understanding consciousness and provides an introduction to the neuroanatomical features of the brain. The book then portrays how the brain operates as, to borrow from Doris Kearns Goodwin, a “team of rivals” of which consciousness quite often has no control. Thereafter Eagleman makes a thoughtful presentation on how society ought punish and judge in a world where the assumption of free will, a concept at the heart of jurisprudence since antiquity, appears shaky by virtue of the previous discussion.

While the opening chapters offered little innovation compared to other pop neuroscience texts, their rudiments allowed the exciting explorations around law and culpability to be presented in the latter chapters.

Educating the Naive View

Eagleman realizes he’s going against a milennia-old model of consciousness: something like the charioteer pulled by two horses and governed by the rational pilot of the ego. I call this perspective the naive view. Eagleman wants to disabuse the reader of this model.

He does so by enumerating several cognitive functions are not under conscious control. While we know that a reflex action happens so fast that the cephalization in the cranium could not have been involved we are less willing to accept that other “essentially me” decisions are made by other automatic systems within the brain. So, not every thought goes through the central processing zone inbetween our ears.

Not only this, but some of the automatic systems communicate with each other without involving our conscious mind. Certain individuals with pre-frontal damage cannot consciously see something but if you ask them to point to the thing they cannot see they can. So, clearly, what the thing between our ears reports as being the case is sometimes contrary to what other parts of the brain know to not be the case.

Eagleman provides many anecdotes that serve sufficiently to illustrate that the ego of consciousness is not the place where the buck stops, and quite regularly not the place where the buck starts either.

Through these examples Eagleman reaches his summit contention that the brain operates like a “team of rivals” where each operates for the benefit of the organism within that rival’s perspective of what is best for the organism. While the Freudian id voice asks for cake or sex (calories and reproduction being goods in that organelle’s opinion), an angel on the shoulder – a different organelle in the brain – chimes in with chastizing tips about caloric density of cake or reminders that said sex partner is not your beautiful wife.*

It is this sum of voices, this cacophanic democracy of voices, which provides the phenomenon of “arguing with oneself.” It is this sum which produces the intellectual products for which consciousness likes to take the credit (“my idea,” “I decided”). It is this sum which is essentially the I we each think of as me. It’s an interesting wordplay insofar as sum, the title of the book, both means the total (like the cognitive team of rivals) as well as the Latin word for I am.

Consciousness fits in as a CEO amidst this hoi polloi of voices. It chooses which voice will get resources like energy and focus. It is also there in case one of the subsystems has an error and reports back to the CEO that the task which had been apportioned to it is “doin’ something weird boss.”

Ultimately consciousness is a helpful strategy our neurosystems have created. As it turns out those with this delucsion that makes one feel like one in control have been more successful in reproducing neurosystems with this trait and thus so many of us sit here (naively) beliving that our will is something which “the person in our head” controls.

But if we grant the Eagleman conclusion, and the book features numerous works cited so that the evidence can be independenly weighted or argued against, what does that mean with respect to agency, responsibility, culpability and the legal system? Seeing no maps for these territories, Eagleman bravely tries to limn the shape of the problem domain. For me this was the true payoff of the book.

Law in a post-Free Will World

Eagleman opens with an example that hits close to home, the day Charles Whitman opened fire on the city of Austin from atop the tower at the heart of my alma mater. Eagleman provides Whitman’s suicide note:

I do not really understand mysef these days.  I am supposed to be an
average reasonable and intelligent young man,  However lately (I cannot
recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and
irrational thoughts.

later a scrawled addendum:

It was after much thoguht that i decided to kill my wife, Kathy,
tonight....I love her dearly and she has been a fine wife to me as any
man could ever hope to have.  I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific
reason for doing this....

He even requested that an autopsy be performed on his body after his suicide. He was convinced the “me” of himself had been overtaken or lost.

Whitman on paper:

  • Eagle scout
  • Bank teller
  • Volunteer Scoutmaster
  • 138 IQ on Stanford Binet as a child (top 0.1 percentile)

A few months before in his diary:

I talked to a doctor once ... and tried to convey to him my fears
that I Felt overcome by overwhelming violent impulses....since then I
have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.

And after his rampage and after the autopsy was done: a tumor about the diameter of a nickel pushing against his amygdala - the violence regulation center.

Kaboom. There you have it, your “you” is as protean and as stable as a cloud. With the right tools and chemicals, mother Teresa would become a thief; a beloved elder becomes a cursing, gambling carouser (associated with Parkinsons); a spouse becomes a child pornography afficionado (also related in this chapter). The myth of being “strong-willed so I don’t need that stuff” or “doing the right thing” is exactly that, a myth.


A Groundwork for Culpability

Having, effectively, shown free will to be chimerical, we ask how should we punish, if at all. Eagleman asserts that punishment and judgment should remain:

Yes.  Exonerating all criminals is neighter the future nor the goal of
an imporved undrstanding.  Explanation does not equal exculpation.
Societies will always need to get bad people off the streets.  We will
not abadndon punihment, but we will refine the way we punish -- as we
turn to now.

Eagleman goes on to propose that redress against a brain should be forward-looking. Is this the sort of brain that has a flaw in its programming and which is likely to err again? Can the brain be rehabilitated? Is the brain’s dementia such that it cannot control itself and needs to be put under medical care (degenerative neuron disorders) or incarcerated? While Eagleman, and the science, cannot yet explain whom to free and whom to keep under custody, these are the initial boundaries for a theory he describes as “sentencing based on modifiability.” He lastly sums his aims: “My dream is to build an evidence-based, neurally compaitble social policy instead of one based on shifting and provably bad intuitions.”

Wonder at Dethronement

In his preamble and again at the close Eagleman draws a parallel between the study of neuroscience and the study of the heavens. Both once held man and his home in a special esteem: the rational animal, God’s caretaker were unique to mankind among the beasts; the Earth was the center of the universe. When Copernicus, Kepler, Bruno, et al. finally said that the Earth was not special, the forces with a vested stake in its specialness (Roman Catholic church) were incensed unto the point of killing those messengers. But when we give up privilege we gain wonder. Are the heavens any less mysterious and magnificient when we know that our Earth is a lucky place amongst such an impossibly huge backdrop? No, we give up ego and yield to wonder.

And similarly, if we give up our egos, can we not learn to wonder at the wonderful machine that is the team of rivals guiding us? Do we need to believe ourselves to be whole, complete, and calmly guided by a conductor in our cranium? Are we willing to give up our egocentrism and old social / legal /normative structures and open up to new facts which offer new, more relevant means for assessing our world and the kosmos of minds which comprise it?

Sum is the story of coming to see our minds for what they are – a sum of voices – and figuring out how they can all live together in a larger sum as well.


*: Perhaps it was not your beautiful house, either
**: Explain to me how sexual identity “is a choice” now when the decision to reach for the salt