Ever since Robert Burton began studying neurology in the 1960s, he has been puzzled by a basic cognitive problem: What does it mean to be convinced? What’s happening in our brain to make another person or, well, car, just feel right to us? In his 2009 book, On Being Certain, Burton exposed the biology of the a-ha! moment. He explained how subconscious gears power our decisions. Purely rational thought, he argued, is impossible. In a new essay, “The Brain on Trial,” in this month’s Nautilus, Burton shows how subconscious machinations guide our most profound decisions; in particular, how, as jurors, we decide whether a convicted murderer deserves the death penalty.
In his recently released book, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind, Burton criticizes reductive explanations of human behavior, derived, he maintains, from lamentable trends in neurobiology. Nautilus journeyed to Sausalito, Calif., where Burton has lived since 1975, to discuss his views of neurology, based on his long career in the field (he was formerly the chief of the Division of Neurology at Mt. Zion-UCSF Hospital). Burton grew up in San Francisco, where his father, a pharmacist, owned a neighborhood drug store. Burton, who has written three novels steeped in medicine and science, is a natural, personable storyteller—a trait evident in our video interview above.
What led you to explore “certainty” in the brain? 0:05
What exactly are you a skeptic of? 2:40
What are the consequences of “overreaching?” 5:28
What can neuroscience not tell us about ourselves? 9:35
Are you saying the brain is inherently mysterious? 11:14
What can neuroscience teach us about ourselves? 12:38
What has neuroscience taught you about yourself? 13:54
You say scientists should reveal their motivations. Why? 17:29
What drove you into the field of neurology? 20:07
If you weren’t a neurologist, what would you do? 22:09