Patrick House and Itzhak Fried on the Brain's Mysteries
May 1 2023

laughing-brain-300x263.jpg While operating on a 16-year-old girl who suffered from severe seizures, neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried stumbled on the region of the brain that makes us laugh. To neuroscientist Patrick House, Fried's ability to produce laughter surgically raises deep and disconcerting questions about how the brain works. Join Fried, House, and EconTalk's Russ Roberts for a live broadcast from Jerusalem's Shalem College that is a sequel of sorts to House's earlier appearance on EconTalk. House and Fried discuss the mystery of consciousness and try to square the biological bases for emotions with the circle of our humanity.

Patrick House on Consciousness
How does the mind work? What makes us sad? What makes us laugh? Despite advances in neuroscience, the answers to these questions remain elusive. Neuroscientist Patrick House talks about these mysteries and about his book Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness...
John Horgan on Mind-Body Problems
Science journalist and author John Horgan talks about his book, Mind-Body Problems, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Horgan interviewed an array of scientists, philosophers, and others who have worked on consciousness, free-will, and what it means to be human. Horgan...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Shalom Freedman
May 2 2023 at 8:22am

There is much I did not understand in this conversation. Is it definitely established that if a certain area of the brain is electrically stimulated laughter ensues? Have there been follow-up studies which show the case of Anna is the case for everyone?

I wonder about Patrick House’s lamenting the loss of ‘data-sets’ with the death of each individual, and think perhaps the mourning should be for persons. I suspect there are enough human beings still alive to be able to make significant neurological findings should they be makeable.

It seems to me the demand that a neurologist should be able to fix a brain shows a lack of appreciation of the complexities and difficulties of individual lives. Human beings are capable of so many different nuances and combinations of feeling, perception and thought that it too seems to me simplistic to look for one ‘cause’ or ‘factor’ behind our ‘sadnesses’.

The comment on understanding ourselves by understanding electrical activity alone seems to me mistakenly reductionist. It too seemed to come with the assumption that there will be a distant future for humanity in which a total understanding of our behavior will be possible. If one wants to grant ‘a distant future to humanity, however one defines that, this seems to me to ignore the cosmological discoveries that indicate that ever-greater parts of the cosmos will be in the future outside our perception and possible understanding.



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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: March 13, 2023.]

Russ Roberts: We are recording this live, so there may be some audience noise. People can applaud if you'd like.

We are here at Shalem College where students study the great ideas and books of Western and Jewish thought in small seminars led by master teachers. Our students learn to read deeply, ask good questions, and appreciate complexity. They also learn to speak and most of all listen respectfully, a skill this country desperately needs right now. Our students aim to become the best versions of themselves and to become shalem, which is Hebrew for whole or complete. Which is a task for a lifetime, but we like to think we hope our students get started. So, we want to welcome everyone.

Today is March 13th, 2023 and I have two guests. The first is author and neuroscientist, Patrick House. He was here on the program in December of 2022 talking about his book, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness. That book is framed around a one-page paper in Nature from 1998, a paper that describes surgery on a patient named Anna who was having seizures; and the surgery was an attempt to stop those seizures.

Patrick, welcome back to EconTalk.

Patrick House: Thank you.

Russ Roberts: My second guest is Itzhak Fried, Professor of neurosurgery and psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], and Professor of neurosurgery at Tel Aviv Medical Center in Tel Aviv University, Sackler Faculty of Medicine.


Russ Roberts: Itzhak is one of the authors of the paper in Nature that I mentioned. And, you were in the operating room, is that correct? You were one of the surgeons?

Itzhak Fried: Yeah, I was the surgeon. In fact, the scene itself is not in the operating room. It's actually following an operation, because these patients, in order to find out where the seizures are coming from, we have to implant electrodes. And, these electrodes are present there for a period of seven days because we are [inaudible 00:02:48] we are waiting for the patient to have spontaneous seizures to find out where the seizures are coming from. At the same time, we can apply electrical stimulation to try and get a map of the brain, meaning we want to identify areas which are important for language and important for other cognitive function so that we can avoid those in the final surgery. So, the scenery is the patient is in the room, the electrodes are in the brain, of course everything is closed. There's a big dressing, and we apply electrical current to certain areas to see where various functions are.

So, in that particular case, we're actually interested in language. So, we were showing Anna--she's a lovely 16-year-old, but she had very bad seizures--we showed her pictures of a horse and basically asked her to name those, and applying electrical stimulation to find out if when we interrupt this function, that means that that area is very critical for that function.

So, she was looking at a picture--I think it was a fork--and we pushed the button introducing electrical stimulation, and then she burst into an amazing laughter. And we said, 'Just a minute. Why are you laughing?' And she said, 'Don't you guys see? This fork is very funny.' What's going on here really?

So, next we had her read a whole paragraph--I remember very well--about a rainbow, and she's reading this paragraph, push the button, electricity goes in, and she burst out laughing. We said, 'Oh, why are you laughing?' And she says, 'Well, don't you guys see this is stupid paragraph about the rainbow? Isn't it funny?'

And, this was real laughter. It wasn't a mechanical laughter. She was in fact laughing so hard that at some point I was concerned that she's not going to stop laughing. So, finally we're just standing around pushing the button and she started laughing hysterically. We say, 'Why are you laughing?' She says, 'You guys are so funny.'

So, that triggered something. It was like a unique observation. And, the question was what is the meaning of that?

Russ Roberts: We've just heard about this strange surgery. Patrick shared with me a clip of Anna who, you could see the dressing. If you remember from the first episode with Patrick as a non--you usually say 'It's not brain surgery.' This is brain surgery. This is crazy stuff. Patrick pointed out to me, there are no pain sensors in the brain, so that the opening of the brain, there's some anesthesia applied, I assume.

Itzhak Fried: Yeah. In this particular case. There are, of course, cases where we can do mapping in the operating room. I can do mapping in the operating room because the brain is a painless tissue. The master of pain is painless.

Patrick House: Because it has no thing to send the signal to. It's the brain.

Itzhak Fried: The brain is painless. So, you can touch it. In fact, the only painful stuff is really the skin and the covering of the brain. The brain itself, you can manipulate and the patient can be awake. But, in this particular case, the electrodes were implanted because we needed to do very long monitoring outside of the operating room.

Russ Roberts: So, Patrick sent me a film clip of Anna, and when Itzhak says that she was really laughing, she is breaking a gut. She can't get over how funny this is. But, what is this? That's part of what we're here to talk about.

I also want to add, there's a forthcoming episode of EconTalk that is coming out soon on lobotomy and Walter Freeman, who is a pioneer of lobotomy and defended it until his dying day. But you're doing something like lobotomy, a little better than Walter Freeman--

Itzhak Fried: Oh, no, no, I want to make it very clear. I guess this was a challenge. It is completely, absolutely different. Right?

Russ Roberts: Explain.

Itzhak Fried: Meaning that here we're trying to identify an area which is causing a very severe illness, which is in fact life-threatening; and experience over many years has shown that some of these seizures are coming from a very clear point, sometimes, in the brain. It can be a little tumor, it can be a vascular malformation, it can be some kind of a scar, but sometimes you cannot really see it even on an MRI [magnetic resonance imaging]. And, you need to find the electricity where it's actual source and then removing these tissues. So, it's completely different, totally different. And, I think it took some time really to get away from this dark period, I think, in the history of medicine.

Russ Roberts: People just poked around and hoped for good things. Patrick?

Patrick House: What Itzhak does is more high performance like F1 [Formula 1] racing, and lobotomy is a demolition derby.

Russ Roberts: These are very different things.

Itzhak Fried: There. You got it.

Russ Roberts: Fair enough.

Itzhak Fried: Fair enough. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: I apologize.


Russ Roberts: Patrick, why did this paper captivate you, and why did you use it to frame your book the way you did?

Patrick House: You know, I don't even think I've told you this, Itzhak: I used to have the paper framed. I had printed it out and framed it at some point in my career. So, when I was in grad school, I was getting my Ph.D. and I was studying a mind-control parasite--this little parasite that gets into a mouse brain and makes it lose its fear and gain an attraction to a cat. And, its natural phenomenon is that it has to get from one cat to another cat. And so, to me there is something beautiful about the fact that a tiny single-cell protozoan can nestle itself into this painless brain and alter things and change things and change preferences. Specifically, that's the thing I was most interested in, changing preferences. It changes the mouse's preference for the smell and odors of a cat.

And, what I found so beautiful about this paper when I came across it, was it seemed as if--in the same way that this parasite kind of took over free will or took over the will of the organism to kind of shape or change or alter its preferences--it seemed like what Itzhak was able to do by pushing the button was in a very local way change Anna's preferences, change this girl's preferences towards what she finds funny and what she doesn't find funny.

And, what I found terrifying--if I may, also about this study--was that it made me question every time I've ever laughed.

So, people here in this room were laughing in response to, earlier, even in the audience, people have laughed in response to the retelling of the story of that surgery, of her laughing, which means in 1997, Itzhak pushed a button, Anna laughs, people in the hospital laugh, there's a digital recording of that which gets played to you, Russ, which you then describe in words, which makes people here laugh. Right? If you trace the causal chain back, what really is the difference between the electrode causing Anna to laugh and all of this causal chain that leads now to us 25 years later also laughing?

These are the kinds of questions I really like to ask. Why is it different when a protozoan parasite that nestles itself into a neuron can change or shape will versus when an electrode can change or shape will? I see no real difference.

Russ Roberts: But, it's somewhat disturbing--

Patrick House: Yes, [inaudible 00:11:12]--

Russ Roberts: to imagine that that's the case. And, it raised the question of: what does it mean to laugh, to be sad? And you open--early in the book, Patrick tells the story being visited by a vacuum repair person, comes to his house to fix his vacuum. I remember the story because I've read it very recently. Do you remember it?

Patrick House: I do. I do.

Russ Roberts: Please tell it.

Patrick House: I went to the vacuum repair place. So, I was in Palo Alto. I did grad school at Stanford and I lived in a house with a lot of people. This vacuum cleaner repairman--someone had dropped off this vacuum. I had to go pick it up. And, as I do, and I walk in, the guy is on the phone and he just kind of has the phone up by his ear and he lowers it and says, 'Who are you? What do you want?' And I'm like, 'Oh, I'm picking up a vacuum.' He's like, 'What do you do?' Just in this kind of friendly, confrontational way. You can be both. And I say, 'I'm a neuroscientist.' And, he goes back on the phone, he's like, 'Oh great, this guy is a neuroscientist. He asks me, 'Can you help my brother? He's an addict. He's in and out of rehab. What can you do?'

And, I said, 'I'm not really sure. Addiction is complicated. It could be a social thing. There's probably some mechanisms down in the weeds, but context matters. I can't help.' And, his response was,'I work with vacuums because I can fix them. Why do you work with brains if you can't fix them?'

And, that was a profound moment for me as a laboratory scientist. Itzhak does actually fix them. I just kind of theorize about them.

But, it is a cute little kind of anecdote, which to me has relevance to where we are in the history of our understanding of the brain. Like, where we would put ourselves if we had a timeline of other scientific disciplines of physics and mathematics. And, we have neuroscience, also. We have our own little band. And, the question is, where are we on the kind of path to discovery? What do we know?

And, I kind of believe that we're still in the Babylonian era, kind of looking up at the stars, knowing where they'll be, but not why. And, I think there's something really profound about the fact that other than finding a source in the brain that is causing someone pathologic harm, there aren't that many pure clean cures for a lot of diseases of the brain.

And, when you ask a neuroscientist, for example: Give us an explanation, give us a full theory of a basic emotion like the joy that Anna felt alongside the laughter. Ask any neuroscientist what is joy, they'll change the subject or ramble in some autopilot way about some beautiful--and all I am is a series of anecdotes. Right? That's because I don't have an actual equals MC2 [mass times the square of the speed of light] answer to anything. But, what I find so beautiful is that that is data.

The way that I kind of think about--so, physics has, let's say like the large Hadron Collider. They can study--they can dig a tunnel and spend billions of dollars and spend hundreds of Ph.D.s and years and study a fundamental feature of the way that the universe is constructed. And, if they had built that tunnel a couple decades ago, or if they had built it a couple centuries ago, or if they built it a couple centuries from now, that same Higgs boson, that same particle they're interested in, it would still be there. They would still be able to capture it. Right? Physics has this almost--'atemporality' is the wrong word, but it's almost a timelessness: that, gravity was the same now as it was 5,000 years ago. And, if people had been around then and solved it, then they would've come to the same conclusion.

What I find interesting and almost kind of tragic about the study of consciousness and in neuroscience is that we're losing what might be unique data sets, which are what's happening on the inside of everybody's heads. Right?

We're losing these every generation. Every person that disappears, that's a irreproducible data set that we will never have again. And so, when neuroscience is progressing, and when I talk about, kind of, not the failure, but where we are in our study of the brain, I feel this kind of internal urgency that we should be going faster because unlike physics, which you can discover things at any time you want and it's going to be the same, there could be a mind, a conscious person whose brain will never be replicated again. And they might live now in some obscure poverty and something is happening on the inside of their mind that is the secret or key to it all. And, we don't find them. We don't even know how to keep track or catalog what's happening on the inside of their head.


Russ Roberts: Itzhak? Comment on that?

Itzhak Fried: Well, I think that we live in the real world. And in the real world, to some extent, brain stimulation is here. It's here.

First of all, it's in medicine and it's present already in medicine in many areas. For instance, you can stimulate a certain center in Parkinson patient. You actually achieve changes--like, profound motor changes--which are actually easy to measure, and actually see.

Now where it gets maybe a bit more tricky is really the cognitive functions that are not so easy to actually measure. And, what you are talking really about is what we accumulate through life in becoming a memory, like some big memory pool that maybe one day we can download it into a computer and it will live after us. Right?

Russ Roberts: It's a question I have right here.

Itzhak Fried: Okay, so the answer is: Not yet, not yet.

However, for instance, if you're talking about memory, first we come back to the 1940s to a neurosurgeon named Wilder Penfield--and I have seen it also--stimulates an area and suddenly a memory comes and a patient just expresses a memory. And, this is sort of an anecdotal thing, but they're very real. I have had patient that are stimulated and suddenly they say, 'Oh, I have a memory of Led Zeppelin,' or 'I have a memory of "Bohemian Rhapsody",' or 'I can hear music.' Okay? And we haven't even touched upon will yet, because we're keeping it for the main course. This is just the apéritif, at this point. But, definitely being able to trigger memories, but not in a consistent way. We understand how memories are incorporated and how they're actually consolidated and stored and we can affect it with electrical stimulation.

So, in the real world, we are dealing with millions and millions of people which are slowly disappearing in degenerative diseases like Alzheimer. And, the mind just dissipates--memory for recent event goes out first, right? And then the entire human mind eventually dissolves. Can we affect it? Do we understand it? Obviously, in addition to the philosophical understanding of where we are with respect to physics--and my own view is that we are where classical physics was in the end of the 19th century. We haven't yet gotten to relativity; we haven't yet gotten to quantum. We are not there yet. But, we got pressing needs. We got people with neurological disorders, especially with aging. That's where we are.

Russ Roberts: But, you said, 'Not yet.' So, you think that we will make inexorable progress toward understanding?

Itzhak Fried: Yeah, no, I think we will, but I just wonder if it's going to be a linear process--you know, just accumulating of more and more and more data. I don't really--actually, when I look at the last 20 years, I don't see a major breakthrough. I see a lot of techniques. I see a lot of data, I see a lot of papers. There is no breakthrough in the level of the breakthrough that have been present in physics.

Russ Roberts: A lot of promotions, though.

Itzhak Fried: Oh, yeah.

Russ Roberts: A lot of good published papers. A lot of journals. More journals.

Itzhak Fried: Talking about the journal--at that time I was still young and senseless and I said I have to really send it to Nature. Okay? And, everybody said, 'This is crazy. This is an n=1. What can you learn for an n=1?'--

Russ Roberts: One data point.

Itzhak Fried: One data point. So--and, this was, I think, the only paper which was accepted on first round, really. You know, reviewers today are terrible. They give you a hell of a time, and you have to go through tortuous ways. This was accepted almost as is, because people understood that there was something very special. And, I talked to Patrick about it: I equated this type of observation--which are completely haphazard--to looking at a bubble chamber. And, once in a while a particle goes through; and if you are zoning in on it, you may have an insight that happened that was completely chance.

Patrick House: And don't let the brevity of the paper mislead anyone. I think "The Structure of DNA [Deoxyribonucleic Acid]," the double helix paper, is only two pages also in Nature. So, there's a kind of inverse correlation between the length of the paper and the interestingness--

Russ Roberts: Oh, that's for sure.

Patrick House: of the [inaudible 00:22:02].


Russ Roberts: One more thing about Anna, because I want to try to bring out a little bit in a richer way the puzzle and the 'aha'-moment that each of you had.

So, when I watch a Marx Brothers' movie, if it's one of the better ones, I will laugh. So, the question is: try to use that--the way I understand what you're saying is that, so the Marx Brothers' movie, is it creating the exact same kind of electrical stimulation that Itzhak did, mechanically? And, if so, how? Or, are those two totally different things that are not related? And, this is sort of outside-the-box, external things. So, just talk about that for a minute. Patrick, and then Itzhak.

Patrick House: Yeah. I mean, so to me, my immediate wonder--and I still have not been able to resolve this question--is, every single time that I laugh and then I ask myself why, I don't need a surgical team asking me why. I ask why. And, I don't know if this is a peculiar quirk to my brain, but I always have some sort of reason. I can never think of a time when my brain is comfortable admitting that it doesn't know why. It always comes up with something--something plausible.

And, to me, the study really made me question: How do I know that anytime I've ever laughed, whether or not for the genuine reason that I thought that I laughed?

Russ Roberts: And, then anytime you did anything other than laugh--

Patrick House: And, then you can--

Russ Roberts: would fall in the same category.

Patrick House: This is why it's so beautiful. So, the best kind of scientific results are about one very tiny thing, which is actually about everything. Right? This is actually about everything, which is: How do we ever know that when we give these kind of after-the-fact reasons, they're for the right reason?

And, I'm kind of on nominal book tour, right? And I gave this talk, a lecture about this book, and there was an actress in the audience. And the actress came up afterwards and told me--the question of at the time was: Will robots laugh? Or, could there be a robotic comedian or an AI comedian? And, if they did, would we believe it was similar to the way that we laughed, or is it more similar to maybe a robot ballerina standing en pointe, which we don't find interesting because they were designed to stand en pointe?

So, there's something different about the pain and suffering when you applaud a Bolshoi ballerina. That's different than if a--standing en pointe--because you know that the human joint was not meant to be at that angle. And, when we laugh--when we hear someone tell a joke, Marx Brothers--you might be laughing at the physical comedy.

Let's say it was a physical-comedy aspect. Someone gets slapped or trips, something simple. We're laughing in part because we know that they feel pain. There's an implicit understanding that they're human; they have the same constraints that we do.

And so, this actress came up to me and said: You know, what I find really interesting about Anna's story is that she often has to fake-laugh--this actress has to, for her job, pretend to laugh.

Russ Roberts: Another level.

Patrick House: I know. It gets more complicated. It does. Because, she said, 'So I have to train myself to laugh.' Which is kind of, you might imagine: Do we want to say that the script is the same as Itzhak with the electrode? Is it--it is causing her to laugh? No, of course not.

But, what I found really fascinating is she said that when she remembers having laughed--so this is after the fact--she calls up her memory and her memory is a combination of real laughs from real life and fake ones from her job as an actress. She feels equal joy in the memory of that.

And so, what I find really compelling and fascinating about the study, as well, is that Anna felt--it's this tiny phrase at the end of one of the sentences in there--is that she felt alongside--alongside the mechanical act of laughter--she felt joy and mirth. And, what I find really profound is that, though the answers that she gave were actually quite plausible answers, the answers that she gave--if you think about it, they were not random. They were not, like, something about, 'Oh, the moon landing is funny.' They were about things that she could perceive. They were about the people in the room, the objects in the room, the content of the stories that she was reading. Which means that the answers were slightly more plausible than random. Right? They were about related objects.

And, there's something really interesting about the fact that--I, in the book even, I call it a lie. I call what she's saying a confabulation in some sense. I say it's incorrect.

But there's actually a 20th way, perhaps, of looking at it where you could actually say that maybe--and this goes back I think to the Penfield studies, right? Which is: if you stimulated the part of the brain that was responsible for feeling rage, for example, and then you showed someone a picture of a fork, they might be angry at the fork. I don't know if that's true. You'll know better than me.

But, or: if you stimulate a part of the brain and there's a person in front of them, they might lash out to that person. Right? They're going to apply their artificial emotion to anything that's in front of them.

And so, maybe it's actually not incorrect, what she's feeling. Maybe that's just the basis of how emotions get applied to things in front of us. Which makes it even more terrifying to me, because it means that not only is it the reasons we give for why we do things, it might even be the reasons we give for why we like things, why we do anything.

Russ Roberts: It's tough being a human.

Itzhak Fried: Initially when I wrote the paper I said, 'Well, we managed to introduce the motor program of laughter. We introduced the emotional part.' And she filled in every time with a cognitive explanation.

But, later when I was thinking about it, it really brings back the theory of emotion by James [William James]: actually look at an emotion as a reaction, essentially, to a physical bodily sensation. And I think that's quite an interesting angle to look at it.

And in fact, this movie, which you guys watched, was essentially part of a BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] program that they did on humor. And then, we actually brought her afterwards, after the operation that she was cured and all that. And, she was actually saying something that I didn't even notice at the time, but just looking at this over and over again; and she said something--she said it was funny because I laughed. She said it at one point. I missed that for several times I watched it.

So, there was something there along what you are essentially saying when your actress is laughing, actually the funny sensation is generated maybe on top of that, which can bring us to question whether this is really an afterthought or where free will is an afterthought. But, we'll talk about it later.


Russ Roberts: Yeah, I think we should get to the to the main course, because I want to talk about free will. There's a line in your book, Patrick, that I've actually been thinking about, but I didn't realize it. Just to give you an example of these kind of strange ways we fool ourselves. And, I had a thought recently. It happens every once in a while. I interviewed Sam Harris recently on EconTalk, and we talked about free will. And Sam doesn't believe in free will.

And, I thought of this thought experiment. If you go back to the Big Bang when all of matter in the universe is compressed into a point--a tiny, tiny point--and it expands outward; and the net result is us. We're just--in the view that there's no free will, it's all built into that little dot. What's built into it is that you're going to come to Shalem College on a evening to hear a talk. It includes Anna laughing at the fork and describing it as that's what made her laugh. And, it's an interesting thought experiment, that we have no volition whatsoever. In fact, all we have is the story we tell ourselves. Right? Now, do either of you think that's true? And, does it matter? I mean, I like thinking about it, but does it matter at all? Itzhak?

Itzhak Fried: Well, the question is, let's bring it down to electricity and take the position that we are essentially an electrochemical machine. Okay? Nice thought, right?

Russ Roberts: Yeah, beautiful. Inspiring.

Itzhak Fried: So, the question is really, there's a lot of stuff about correlation, but between will and other things, other parameters that we can measure. But, the question is do we have any causal thing? And, this brings me back to another bubble chamber--and this was when I was a resident--and we're doing the same thing with a different patient. And, when we stimulated in a certain area, she was very verbal, which was really wonderful. She said, 'I feel like I have an urge to move my hand,' she said.

So, just by applying electrical stimulation to this area--this is a very particular area. There's a first name and a family name. It's called the Supplementary Motor Area [SMA}. And that area, when it is removed on both sides, people don't have any initiative for anything. In fact, when you remove it on one side, they temporarily have this type of thing. And in fact, John Eccles, in his book with Karl Popper about the dual model, he put the SMA right there at the top. Because, he said SMA--Supplementary Motor Area--every volitional act really starts in this area. That's what he said.

But, we find it by stimulation in this area. We actually create a sensation of will.

Russ Roberts: Right. So, are we just puppets?

Itzhak Fried: And, we haven't touched upon [inaudible 00:33:35] yet, but--

Russ Roberts: Oh yeah, I want to talk about [inaudible 00:33:38] actually.

Patrick House: And, what about the guilt as well?

Itzhak Fried: The guilt, of course. We have a different story, the counterpart to laughter, which is guilt. Well, what do you want to talk about first? Guilt or will?

Patrick House: I think it's a beautiful [?].

Itzhak Fried: Well, we're in Jerusalem.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about guilt.

Patrick House: Yeah.

Itzhak Fried: Guilt, of course. We are in the place where guilt was born. So, anyway. So, 20 years later, after this first story, another young woman appears in my office and tells me the following story. She says, 'A year ago I came back from school and suddenly I had this bad feeling, like malaise. I felt guilty and I didn't know why I was feeling guilty and I thought maybe I offended somebody at school.'

And in short, this thing kept repeating over and over. And, there was some thought about maybe this being a psychological problem. But after a year she had a major seizure, and that triggered an MRI [Magnetic Resonance Imaging]. And in the MRI, there was a little tumor--a benign tumor, but it was sitting right in a certain position--I won't bore you with the details, but it's sitting just against an area which is associated in brain models with depression. Okay? Just next to it.

So, anyhow, this was actually epileptic attacks-- bouts of electrical activity. And, it's only later, when actually I went in with a laser fiber and actually eliminated this area--especially the interface of this tumor with that area, called Area 25--doesn't matter--that this episode went away, essentially. So, here again, electrical activity is associated and causally related to a feeling of guilt for which an explanation [inaudible 00:35:49] thought: In the same way that the laughing girl looked for explanation for laughter, she looks for explanation for this primary sensation of guilt.

Patrick House: Which to me is--you said earlier: Do you want to talk about will or guilt? To me, it's the same. Right? I mean, I'm curious even why you disentangled those. Like, to me, this is still the same question. When we're--

Itzhak Fried: Yeah, true--

Patrick House: all the things we're feeling--right?--I find it actually quite comforting that, when I have a thought that I don't want to have that I can think to myself sometimes, I actually have a small kind of BCI [brain-computer interface] brain stimulator that I look at sometimes as my totemic object to remind myself that it's just electricity at the end of the day. And, whatever it is that I'm feeling, that I could if I needed to, I'd call up Itzhak and be like, 'Can you please thread it through and stimulate that part of the brain? I don't wish to feel guilt anymore.' For example.

Russ Roberts: Or grief or all the human emotions that make life meaningful, rich.

You know, the Buddhists would tell you that--they didn't call it electric--but they just say: It's just noise passing, just passing through randomly. You should not--let it go. It's just a thought. I have trouble with that idea, but it's very similar to what you just said.

Patrick House: Yeah, I find it comforting, but I could easily see the other side where it's terrifying instead.

Russ Roberts: And of course, a lot of times I'll feel sad; and I'll comfort myself saying, 'Oh, that's because of that thing I read a few minutes ago. I'm not really sad. I just read that sad thing and it's still echoing. And, I'm not sad. I'm happy. That was just a thing I read. I can put it down now and I don't have to be sad anymore.' But of course, that you write in your book, we don't know why people are sad, really, right?

Patrick House: I have yet to hear a compelling explanation--like, a full scientific explanation for that simple emotion--no.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about artificial intelligence. And, I should just add that--laughter is a really--we've been talking about laughter: we are the only creature that laughs. A hyena's laughter--it's a sound that reminds us of human laughter. And, Roger Scruton's book, On Human Nature, reflects on this at some length. It's a very interesting and provocative--at least first take; I don't think it's decisive or complete--but it's a very difficult thing to understand why we laugh. It has nothing to do with evolution. You have to tell some story. I think most people who are materialists would just say: It's an add-in to the evolution. It just came along for the ride. It's gravy. It's not inherently related to survival, that you could maybe tell some silly stories about it.

I just feel like I have to get it in that I think Harpo says to Chico, 'Can you sail tomorrow?' And Chico says--greatest line of economics in any movie--'If you pay us enough, we can sail yesterday.'

So, that gets at some of the great questions of time that we were kind of getting at earlier.

But, human beings--we're the only creatures that can laugh. We are the, I think, the only creatures that have, as Harry Frankfurt said, desires about our desires. We don't just want stuff. We can--as one of you said earlier, I don't like having that feeling. I wish I didn't have that thought; but we can have those emotional thoughts. I can't imagine-- which is not definitive, obviously, at all--but I can't imagine that artificial intelligence--ChatGPT, Sydney, Bing, whatever is the next version--could have laughter, could have sentience, or could have consciousness. Do you agree or disagree? Itzhak?

Itzhak Fried: Well, I think I may not be in a position to agree or disagree at this point, because I don't think we really under understand what consciousness is. Phenomenologically, the question is: How would you test something like this? I mean, obviously, the Turing test is not good enough at this point. What kind of test are we going to use, really to make this kind of decision that an entity in front of us is conscious or not conscious? That, I see, is one of the main challenges.

Russ Roberts: Patrick?

Patrick House: Well, I mean, we have to have a serious conversation if it does end up true that these AIs [Artificial Intelligences] are conscious. Because that means also the Japanese bidets are conscious. And, everything we interact with is conscious. And, there's going to be a reckoning; and we deserve our kind of terminator-fate.

But, I actually agree as a, on an epistemological scientific level: we don't have the tools to investigate whether or not something is conscious in a way that we might not understand.

My intuition is that they're not even close. I think these things are basically video games. They're trained like video games and there's no different--they're kind of large 'if'-statements.

But, it is quite true that we don't really know, and we don't have a good formal definition of what a different kind of awareness, what a different kind of consciousness would look like.

I mean, people have trouble enough asking about all of the species on the planet that probably have some sort of tiered version of awareness or sentience or consciousness. We have trouble enough with the ones we're given, let alone now we have to go create our own. So, we don't even have consensus on the ones that are right in front of us. And, yeah--I, I--they're not. They're just not, yet.

I once wrote this article where I was investigating-- there's a Robotic Soccer World Cup every year where--they've been doing this for 20 years. Their goal is to eventually--but, people think that it was interesting when they came for chess or they came for Go or various different board games. There is a concerted effort from hundreds of roboticists around the world--they've been doing it for 20 years, they're doing it every year--to eventually make a robot better that can beat the World Cup champion in human--

Russ Roberts: So, 11 robots would play--

Patrick House: Yes. They played by the same rules, they would have the same pain receptors if they tweak an ankle or fake tweaking an ankle, whatever they do, I'm sure they would die[?] as well. But, I mean, you know, it's coming. Everything we think of as kind of immune to the roboticist or the AI folk, they're thinking about how to be better than humans.

And, I was speaking to the head of Carnegie Mellon's team, and she--the robotic soccer team--and she said: It's very difficult--as in, she as a roboticist who has dedicated her career to making them. But, she said, 'It's trivially easy to make a robotic soccer player.'

What I want to do is make a robotic soccer fan. Right? That's--and, she's like, 'But that's impossibly hard.' How do you get a robot, like, a retired robot, that just sits and enjoys watching its team win? Because that would have to have the feeling of what it means to be a fan and watching and through observation alone actually getting enjoyment out of some arbitrary game that means nothing. You know, like--

Russ Roberts: What do you mean, it means nothing? You're talking about [?], right?

Patrick House: That's set up as a set of arbitrary constraints to induce happiness in the humans who watch them. That's what I mean by 'means nothing.'

So, there's this difference between creating the robot and creating the kind of thing with qualities that it seems so much harder. It's just so much harder. This is kind of the thing: like, you can make a standup comedian robot, but can you make a robot audience?

Russ Roberts: Right.

Itzhak Fried: Can you make a robot dream, right?

Patrick House: Yeah. Can you make a robot dream? Absolutely.

Itzhak Fried: Yeah. But, android sheeps.

Russ Roberts: But, what?

Itzhak Fried: Android sheeps.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.


Russ Roberts: I'd like you, Patrick, to talk--this seems like a very silly question, and it's one of the reasons I like this question in Patrick's book. We never got to it in our first conversation, and when I finished that episode, I'm thinking, 'Oh darn, I didn't get--.' So, now I have my chance.

Patrick House: Oh, no.

Russ Roberts: He's thinking, 'Uh-oh, trouble. It's going to be hard.' What's the difference between a bowling ball and a pigeon?

Patrick House: Ah.

Russ Roberts: Now, it seems pretty clear, but it's not so clear. So, talk about it.

Patrick House: Yeah. As I heard it--this was the story told to me--that all of the difference between physics and biology can be entirely and utterly explained by going up to the roof of any building and taking a bowling ball and a pigeon of equal weight and dropping them both.

Russ Roberts: It's a live pigeon, by the way.

Patrick House: It's an alive pigeon.

Russ Roberts: It's a live bowling ball, also.

Patrick House: Yes. Well, some people think so. Depends, I guess.

And so, everything that you need about the division between physics and biology, physics and neuroscience is contained within the fact that you know where the bowling ball is going to fall, and you just have no idea whatsoever what the pigeon's going to do.

And so, as scientists, you want some sort of predictability. You want a model that explains things. And they're both subject to the same forces of gravity and the same physical forces that we all are. But, somehow that pigeon, the configuration of that pigeon's atoms--we could even probably make the thought experiment, like, it's not just the weight that's the same or the mass that's the same. You can apply as many similarities as you want to those two cases; that pigeon is just going to fly away and you have no idea where or why. And, that's what we're trying to solve.

Russ Roberts: You want to comment, Itzhak, or do you want to just--

Itzhak Fried: I'm not sure about the pigeon, though. You don't think that he had all the variables and he had access to every neuron in the pigeon's brain that you could essentially assign--at least to have a statistical model. And, in quantum mechanics, maybe, that gives you a distribution of the possibilities with probabilities.

Patrick House: Right, you can say--

Itzhak Fried: You're not going to be in Las Vegas, but you're going to be a little bit more educated.

Patrick House: It's true. There are some things you could say something about: The pigeon is probably, unless its wings are clipped, not going to hit the ground. So, you can say that the odds of it hitting the ground are extraordinarily low.

This is the question about free will, Russ, which this is back to rest of your point. We started as a tiny little dot somewhere in the universe. It all exploded. And, then we have all of us. If we know enough about the pigeon--if we know enough about every single proton pump and every single mitochondria and every single microtubule along a line and within the pigeon's brain--could we then predict where it's going to go or know what it's going to do next?

But, isn't it also the case that we don't even have models of turbulence in, like, thermodynamic systems where--we're not tracking every single molecule. We're saying something about the larger trend of heat, or the larger trend of a gas. So, if we can't even do that with kind of a closed system of a closed box with some gaseous particles--this is the question. If we had access to the equivalent of every atom in that pigeon's brain and we knew the relevant causality between the interactions of those atoms, could we tell that it makes strange loops in this sky? The real answer is, if this was a homing pigeon, we do know where it would go eventually, right?

Russ Roberts: Yeah.


Russ Roberts: This program is called EconTalk, so it's time to introduce a little bit of economics. Not much. But, F.A. Hayek in his Nobel address made the point that macroeconomics is something like a pigeon: basically, he fundamentally was saying that--his first analogy was actually to a sports team, and I think it was soccer, or football as it's often called. He may have been talking about American football. He said, Can we predict who's going to win a football game?' We're not very good at it. And, one answer would be: we just don't have enough data. If we knew how much sleep each player got and whether they'd had a fight with their spouse beforehand, and what they ate for breakfast, and what was on their mind, and whether they had a tumor that had gotten a little bit bigger and therefore, etc., but they had tweaked their ankle on the stairs, then we could do it.

And he said, but we're not close to that and we never will be. And, therefore we can't predict when the next recession is coming--because it's a similar challenge. Instead of atoms, it's human beings. And, we're all complicated. Although sometimes we know that if you bail out Silicon Valley Bank, the odds of the next one have gotten a little bit higher. I'm pretty confident about that. So, we understand some principles of behavior. The bird will fly; it will not hit the ground almost certainly unless its wings are clipped. But, beyond that, we are pretty much in the dark.

And, I think you could maybe think about the different perspectives you could have on this. One view could say: It's just a matter of time. [?], not yet. Eventually we'll get enough data and we'll be able to make these predictions, we'll understand where the pigeon's going, we'll understand when you're going to laugh next. I'll have enough sensory data to make those predictions.

And the other view says: Never. Never. Too complicated, too much interaction, too many variables. What do you think?

Itzhak Fried: Well, I think, again, it's a practical question in the sense that how much information can you really get from the brain? For instance, if you look at--moving a little bit to a different sphere--if you look at Neuralink, Elon Musk and the enterprise, putting a little hole in the skulls the size of a dime, and having a robot, mind you, implant a thousand hair-like electrodes, you get a huge amount of information. The more information you can actually get, the better an understanding you may have. You may never reach that perfect total absolute pigeon destiny. Right? The pigeon destiny, we'll never know it for absolute sure except for demise. But I think the key thing is really information. How much information can we actually get from?

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I think for me, I'm susceptible to Nassim Taleb's view: bigger data, bigger mistakes--that there's so much interaction that we're going to then be drawn into false correlations and be fooled into thinking we understand things we don't. I think that's fair to him. I'm not sure, but he'll let us know if we got it wrong. Patrick, do you want to comment?

Patrick House: So, I guess one question I ask myself sometimes is why am I a neuroscientist? Why am I studying the brain? I would--

Russ Roberts: Instead of vacuum repair.

Patrick House: Instead of vacuum repair, right. I do kind of expect my next book to be maybe about, like, penguins or something so that I can answer any of the questions people ask me on book tour because so far it's been what is consciousness, what is free will? And, I just desperately wish I just had taxidermied a pigeon or a penguin, and just all about actual facts of the matter.

Russ Roberts: And, they don't fly, it's fantastic. [inaudible 00:52:54] pigeon [inaudible 00:52:54].

Patrick House: It's so easy. Yeah. Bowling ball and a penguin, you drop them. No difference.

So, the way that your question is framed is--okay, I imagine there's two paths and neuroscientists and scientists and mathematicians and everybody will be proceeding forward along this path of scientific discovery for centuries and centuries and centuries. And, then at some point, at the very end will be one of two possibilities. One, we now finally know enough to be able to fully predict a biological organism's behavior and decision-making. The other, we actually have all of the data and it turns out, guess what? We still have free will. There's something in there that it comes from the ether and we can choose.

Russ Roberts: You like that, Itzhak?

Itzhak Fried: I don't know. Maybe it does touch--maybe what we need is the help of philosophers, really, because maybe we are already stuck in a way that we can't[?] even understand--what does causality really means? Maybe we are stuck in a way that we don't understand some fundamental principles of our thinking. Right? That is really a major barrier that we cannot cross unless there is a breakthrough, if there is a breakthrough.

Patrick House: If I was imagining myself--this is back to the question of why am I studying the brain? Why am I a neuroscientist? Why do I care about consciousness? If I thought I was on the road that ended at determinism, if I thought I was on the road where I'm just going to spend my life incrementally increasing the amount of knowledge in the world that we have about the brain, because I know that at the very end it's all going to be explained and it's all just going to be simple determinism, and there isn't free will: I just wouldn't do that. I would find that extremely depressing.

And so, for me, my great hope, and the only way I can keep going down this road is believing that I'm on the other one, the other path, which is that I don't care how many physicists come along and give their explanations for how the microtubules work and all these things. At the very, very end, there's still going to be something that we have, that brains have, that is unexplainable. And, I feel like I have to be on that kind of faith-based path in order for me to justify doing what I'm doing. Otherwise I'm a pinball machine.

Russ Roberts: And, all we're left with in that other view--that dark path--for me is: Yeah, you've got consciousness; all that's good for is telling you a story about why the machinery did what it did. There's no reality there, right?


Russ Roberts: So, I want to come back to this image you had, Patrick, earlier, that every person is a data set, and every person that dies is a data set that's lost. So, to me--I think of two things, and maybe you can separate them and talk about them each separately if you want, or maybe they go together. So, one is that fundamentally underlying that view is a view that what I'm experiencing inside my head is not exactly what you're experiencing.

Patrick House: True.

Russ Roberts: And, that's really beautiful and deeply troubling. I have to start with the assumption you do, as a scientist, that I'm not a data set of one. I have many things that are just like what you're thinking and you can thereby figure out something about me--and Itzhak will have something to say about this because he's going at in a very different way--but, you have something to say about me because of, your armchair that you're sitting in allows you to think not just about you, but about me.

And, yet that might not be true. And, similarly, what I think of--and correct me if I'm wrong--what I think of as the hard problem of consciousness is that we have figured out with our crummy little brains, this meat inside this weird bone called a skull, we have figured out such extraordinary things about where we came from and how the world works. And, we've changed our existence in all kinds of ways. But there's one thing we haven't--we're so close to figuring out everything, but the one thing we haven't figured out is how we're able to figure stuff out and experience it uniquely as an individual human being. Except for that, we kind of understand everything.

And, one view says--this is not my insight, I can't remember where I read it--is that so we basically understood nothing about what it is to be human, which is deeply, deeply beautiful and troubling, disturbing and magnificent. And, at the end of your book, Patrick, you talk about this idea that we're trying to use the thing that we have--it's all we have--to understand itself. Hopeless. Hopeless, right? Can't be done. Help me.

Patrick House: So, to one point about we seem to have started to almost complete our understanding of other fields or other disciplines. The history of science is littered with scientists throughout the centuries who have said, like, 'Oh, well, there's nothing left to do.' Mid-1800s physicists, they quit. They quit to run a sheep farm because they're, like, 'Well, physics is solved. We did it. We've done everything.' So, I really believe that even humanity is at its infancy still. We're going to keep discovering things. I think what's remarkable, absolutely remarkable about biology: almost every time we've discovered something fundamental about the way that the world works, we find that biology has harnessed it in some capacity.

Russ Roberts: Give some examples. You talk about it in the book.

Patrick House: Electricity. We didn't know about electricity and I don't even know when we even knew, but we've been electric beings the entire time. All life that has neurons has been exploiting batteries? The reason we all need salt in our diet is because it creates a battery within us. So, we've had batteries and electricity, our bodies have kind of understood. In order to catch a ball, you kind of have to have a model of the approximate equation of gravity.

When people discovered quantum physical effects, it was also noticed that the retina can respond to a single photon, a single quanta of light. The receptors between the kind of neurons in our brain, the neurotransmitters, there are receptors that can respond to a single individual quanta of information. Right?

Like, every time we discover something, we find that the brain or a biological entity has taken advantage of it in some way.

And so, I actually have a lot of faith or an optimism that we'll keep discovering things. Chemists will keep discovering things, physicists will keep discovering things, and we will then look in the brain and be, like, 'Oh yeah. Turns out we've been exploiting that as well.'

To the other point, about how every person we lose is a lost data set. It sounds almost like I'm objectifying them, like I'm grinding them up into data. What I kind of mean--and you're right to focus on--there's an underlying premise there, which is that our brains are different, and that's something I fundamentally believe. So, we know that there are kinds of the basic perception of the world in terms of how rich your mental imagery is, if you close your eyes and try to imagine something. There's a wide range of kinds of images and the richness and vividness with which we can imagine on the insides of our heads. Quite literally, some people--there's this beautiful interview I watched with someone who literally, when he's imagining kind of designing something at work, he has to pull over to the side of the road because it interferes with his actual vision.

His mental imagery is so strong; and this guy is a chip design engineer. And that's no coincidence. His father was a bridge engineer. And he hires people-he strips them of their technology, gives them a chalkboard or a whiteboard and says, 'Draw me the last thing that you worked on that failed.' And, the person has to, from scratch, draw an intricate chip design. Right? Very few people can actually do this.

In part, I think he's good at what he does because he can close his eyes and design on the inside of his head. Magnus Carlsen, the highest rated chess player in history, was once asked what kind of chess board he has at home, and he was, like, 'I don't have a chess board at home.' He just plays in his head. He just practices in his head. And, I would guess that just within this room, we have a huge variety of ability.

I don't want to call it ability because I don't want to give it any kind of hierarchy. More is not better, less is not worse.

But, some people have nothing on the insides of their heads when they close their eyes. Some people have no images, some people have no inner monologue, some people cannot rehearse a song. Some people that are composers can compose in their mind.

And, all of these things--to me, when I hear all of these pieces of what I consider to be data, I think of, like, Darwin [Charles Darwin], and I think of what it took to arrive at a theory of evolution by natural selection. It took understanding variation across the world. Right? It took understanding that there's 10,000 ways to make a finch beak. I would guess that there are more kinds of ways that there are to be human and conscious than perhaps there are species on this planet.

There's variation across the insides of our heads. We don't have tools to describe it.

Language is a terrible tool for this. Language did not evolve to accurately describe what's happening on the inside of our minds. It evolved to be good enough. Right? People can be with their partners their entire lives. And, if you then ask, 'Oh, honey, do you dream in color? Just by the way, I just am curious. Do you dream in color?' Finally, for the first time ever, they will realize that one of them has spent their entire life dreaming in color and the other one has no visual images on the inside of their head. I would even ask this audience, does anyone here: Do you dream in color? Does anyone not? All right.

Russ Roberts: I don't even know if I dream in color or not. I had a very vivid dream about my father a couple nights ago, and I couldn't tell you whether it was in color or not.

Patrick House: There's two--there's categorically two answers. One, 'Of course I do. What are you talking about?' The other is, 'I don't know.'

And this--it baffles people when they hear this. And this is just one example. To me, this is finch beak variation, right?

And so, when I say every human that dies, we're losing a dataset, what I kind of mean is that species of finch is going extinct. And if we're going to have a theory of consciousness--one of the hard things about the theory of consciousness when we do ultimately have a unified theory--is that it has to explain everything. It has to explain when you're coming out of anesthesia and you get angry because only some parts of your brain are awake. It has to explain that every moment of everybody's life, whether or not when they're hungry and they get their insulin gets low and they get cranky and then they've changed their--every fight that's ever happened between people--it has to explain that. It has to everything. And, we're losing data every day. Right? And--

Itzhak Fried: About your question about the data, right? So, I'm afraid that data is going to be lost, essentially. There may be some remnants of it.

But second, it's very clear that I will never understand what it is to be Russ. I can only guess, I can only make some assumption.

It's true, we have some mechanisms like theory of mind and mirror neurons, which sort of help me sort of understand a little bit about who you are. That's a question--I don't think minds are going to be downloaded in the way that they will be eternal. Right? We know that.

And, the second issue is really that there probably is an absolute limit to that thing to understand itself, and that limit is absolute. There's something that we don't understand, but I don't believe that we will reach that stage that you are so frightened of--complete mechanic and understanding. You don't want that. You don't want something out there which is fuzzy and then maybe you can feel happy with it. Okay.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I guess that would be the--a belief in God says there is such an imaginable thing, but it's not accessible to any human, so it may as well not be.

Itzhak Fried: Spinoza [Baruch Spinoza], I think probably hinted to that.

Russ Roberts: Do you want to say something else, Patrick?

Patrick House: I just like continually moving in the direction of the unexplained, so whatever becomes explained, I--

Itzhak Fried: And, hopefully it will remain not completely explained.

Patrick House: Yes. Yes.

Russ Roberts: My guests today have been Patrick House and Itzhak Fried. Gentlemen, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Itzhak Fried: Thank you.

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