What Do Our Brains Have to Do With it?

Twenty-three-year-old whiz kid Eliezer J. Sternberg ’09 explores some thorny legal, moral and scientific questions in his second book

Do our decisions arise from purely mechanistic processes? Is self-control merely an illusion created by our brains? Eliezer J. Sternberg ’09 explores these tough questions in “My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility” (Prometheus Books), his just-out second book exploring the impact of neuroscience advances on personal responsibility and morality.

Now a 23-year-old Tufts medical student, Sternberg asks provocative questions about human nature, free will and moral responsibility in an era of stunning scientific advances in understanding the brain. Clearly captivated by the brain-mind-body connection — neither college nor medical school demands seem to have impacted his time to write books — Sternberg published his first volume, “Are You a Machine? The Brain, the Mind, and What It Means to Be Human,” when he was a sophomore.

Sternberg makes ample use of vivid historical and contemporary cases to illuminate the thorny questions at the heart of this second book. It opens with the case of Stephen Mobley, who walked into a Domino’s Pizza in 1991 and shot the manager dead after robbing the store, because, his lawyers claimed, the chemical processing in his brain was out of whack. Did his brain make him do it?

“As Sternberg’s profiles and vignettes make plain, our intentions, our beliefs and our thoughts are all under a bright spotlight,” writes Jerry Samet, professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Brandeis, in the book’s forward. “Their true nature, their role and their power are all being questioned and rethought by the neurosciences. What was once part of the private theater of the mind may soon become a well-understood biological process, and it will be harder to ignore the challenge of our original puzzle: Is our sense of ourselves as free to choose and to act a kind of illusion?”

In a five-star review, the BBC Focus magazine called the work “a masterful study of this interface between science and philosophy.”

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