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We've all felt it, that irresistible urge to point the finger. But new technologies are complicating age-old moral conundrums about accountability. This hour, we ask what blame does for us -- why do we need it, when isn't it enough, and what happens when we try to push past it with forgiveness and mercy?

Fault Line

Kevin* is a likable guy who lives with his wife in New Jersey. And he's on probation after serving time in a federal prison for committing a disturbing crime. Producer Pat Walters helps untangle a difficult story about accountability, and a troubling set of questions about identity and self-control. Kevin's ...

Comments [17]

Forget about Blame?

Nita Farahany, who's been following the growing field of Neurolaw for years now, helps uncover what seems to be a growing trend -- defendants using brain science to argue that they aren't entirely at fault. Neuroscientist David Eagleman thinks this is completely wrongheaded, and argues for ...

Comments [28]

Dear Hector

Reporter Bianca Giaever brings us a story of forgiveness that's nearly impossible to comprehend -- even for the man at the center of it, an octogenarian named Hector Black.

Hector and Bianca

Comments [47]

Comments [113]

mollie montgomery

My 10 year old son loves Radio Lab. I noticed this does not have a content warning under the description, and I didn't hear a content warning at the beginning of the episode. He depends on these to keep him able to safely listen. Could you consider adding one on this episode?

Apr. 08 2017 11:08 AM
Alberto Ugalde Buenfil from Mexico City

Heart wrenching, meaningful and human. Transcends any "hard science" and/or social/civic responsibilities thesis, and develops itself into a huge stand about one of the core ideas that could help us share this world of illusions with other sentient beings: compassion.

Thank you from Mexico City.

Sep. 28 2016 12:31 AM
Sam from SLC

I believe "Kevin" should accept responsibility for what he did. When people are under the influence of drugs (as Ivan was when he committed murder),they lose their inhibitions in a similar way that "Kevin" lost his inhibitions from surgery. But for some reason, we hold Ivan responsible, but not "Kevin".
There are people who are not accountable for their actions--but only because they are incapable of making conscious decisions. I once watched over an old man with dementia. If you asked him why he'd done something, then he would be unable to you. He had completely lost his ability for metacognition, so he became like a small child in this respect.
However, if you're incapable of making conscious decisions, then you also should lose the freedom of making other decisions, such as voting, driving a car, buying a house etc. How can you claim responsibility for your decision in one area of life while insisting inculpablity in another?
"Responsible people do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a result of their conscious choice."- Covey

Aug. 02 2016 03:12 PM
RM from NYC

This episode raises many issues, but one thing to keep in mind when a defendant, clearly guilty of a crime, says, "I have this condition that caused me or made it more likely that I would commit this crime, so take this condition as a factor in mitigation of my sentence." So, they present testimony from experts who all opine, yes this condition had a role in the commission of this crime and had the defendant not had the condition, they would have been less likely to commit the crime. This claim is often made about mental health conditions, such as Bi-Polar, Asperger's, Schizophrenia or ADHD, but it could also be a tumor. But the testimony from the expert that the condition could have influenced the commission of the crime is not the relevant point; it is of all the people who suffer from that condition, how many of them also commit this or any other crime? The expert provides testimony comparing the defendant to people who don't have the condition, that isn't the right question. The key comparison is to people who also have that condition. And I know of no mental condition (other than sexual paraphilias) or tumor that causes significant numbers of those suffering from from them to commit crimes, right? So, if the vast majority of those suffering from the same condition do not commit crimes, then what relevance is the condition to the question of mitigation? I would suggest it has very little relevance, and if anything, it weighs against mitigation when you realize all these other people suffering this same condition never committed a crime.

May. 09 2016 08:57 PM
David Baldwin from Pawtucket RI

The only reason you find it "weird" to think about someone not being punished by virtue of their not being in charge of their actions is because you start from the faulty premise that the current system of laws and punishments is "normal". People who break laws (which, by the way, have this nasty habit of changing over the years, often very unfairly moving the goal posts) need help, not punishment. The fact that our only resort/response as a society is punishment is a reflection of our not having fully emerged from the dark ages. An enlightened society understands that blame is non-productive and punishment an impoverished response. Someone once said that in order for this to be your fault, I have to be blameless. Society participates in every transgression, and therefore can never be blameless. Admitting this will lead society in the right direction.

May. 08 2016 07:56 PM
Ryan Reddy from Amsterdam

Loved it! great work guys!!!

May. 08 2016 06:38 PM
Joseph Schuman from Chicago

Blame is a blind alley. Likelihood of future offense is only one factor. The ultimate issue is: what action is best calculated to make things better? The encompasses rehabilitation, deterrence, reconciliation, and the impact on cultural norms.

Of course making the determination is easier said than done. But by focusing on this as the goal, we can avoid many wrong choices.

May. 08 2016 03:28 PM
Judith Govatos from Delaware

In a world awash in anger, fear, violence and despair, I am grateful that I live in a world where there is also Hector. He is a man who has borne unbearable sorrow and still has the capacity for mercy and forgiveness. Thank you for telling his story. When I am worn down by the world, I will think of Hector and remember that there are "Angels of our better nature."

With gratitude,


May. 08 2016 03:10 PM
E. Meisse from Santa Rosa, Ca.

I listen to your show irregularly on KQED in San Francisco, Ca. I am particularly interested in this subject matter. I'm not an expert. But I'm well read. What you left out is the core teaching of Buddhism, which is that our identity (self) is an ever changing illusion. It is the result of our genetic inheritance and our life experience. We can change ourselves for the better by taking steps to change our life experience for the better. The 8 fold path (right view, right thought, right word, right deed, right effort, right livelihood, right concentration and right meditation) is the method. The Buddha is partly famous for having befriended, "Criminals," and changing their lives. Modern brain science is confirming this basic hypothesis. It is showing that our brains are very much like our muscles, parts that are used grow bigger and stronger while those unused atrophy and shrink. Cognitive behavioral therapy is something that I have not read much about yet. But it looks to me so far like a modern version of the 8 fold path. My idea is that there should be no prisons and no blame. Every perpetrator should be treated with an 8 fold path/CBT plan. If necessary, they should be locked in a high security hospital type setting until it is determined that they are no longer a threat. Question? How to make that determination.

May. 07 2016 07:19 PM
Bsandy_com from Las Vegas, NV

In a way I covered this subject, regarding OJ Simpson.
It is not necessary to publish my blog on your page, you are welcome to read my report. Best wishes.

May. 07 2016 02:38 PM
Bill Powers

Free will is irrelevant to blame. Blame entails the person being a necessary cause of the crime. Without the person, the crime would not have occurred. They are an immediate cause of the crime. We choose not to blame parents or acquaintances, even though have some responsibility. We can and do blame non-human participants of an event. And we don't have to make a judgment on future behavior. We can choose to punish on the basis of accepted norms without relying on free will. It is simply a judgment on behavior independent of the cause. Blame is everywhere and shared by many. The real problem is how to respond to that blame. How far should it extend. The notion of free will tends to argue for a limited blame, but we could design a system with a broader blame.

May. 07 2016 01:55 PM
Sandy Thatcher

I dealt with some of these questions in relation to psychopathy in a seminar paper titled "Responsibility, Control, and the Psychopathic Personality" back in 1965. It is accessible here:

May. 06 2016 10:44 PM
Jen from Ithaca, NY

This is an example of a great radiolab episode. My favorites are ones about science and psychology with hints of other stuff but primarily science. I love this a lot more than some of the recent stuff.

Mar. 18 2016 07:06 PM

the Hector piece...hearth wrenching. I wasn't expecting the feels. Thanks radiolab.

Jan. 15 2016 02:39 PM
adam from Minneapolis

If you commit a crime, you commit a crime. If a disorder or disability caused you to commit the crime... Well, you still committed the crime, and have proven that you cannot function in society with its rules and laws. If someone with mental retardation kills someone, they should go to jail like everyone else who kills people. Our laws are for all humans. Not just normally functioning people. Now whether or not our jail system does what we want it to do is another topic.

Dec. 10 2015 09:30 AM

This is great. I love the twist in morality that Radio Lab often takes the listener on. This is what I believe about the offense/ crime verses neurological disorders. Lots of times in our existence, bad physical things happen to "good" people that cause consequences they don't want. It is an unfortunate tragedy, but the consequences are all the same. Be it cancer or a loss of a limb or sense. When it comes to a mental dysfunction that causes a crime, that is unfortunate, BUT, if it causes an ill upon society, it must be punished accordingly. We know that child molestation cause mental and emotional discourse for the life. Policy should be crafted without "feelings", without exceptions. When feelings are involves we lose that precious trait of equality we pursue. Policies are designed to regulate the behaviors of a connected group of humans. It sucks when you get a diagnosis of cancer, just as it sucks when you get a diagnosis of being an addict. The consequences of your actions should be as absolute as the consequences of your cells multiplying irrationally. I follow the belief that, and so far science hasn't proven otherwise, every child is born a blank slate. Environment and experiences drive our behaviors. When a person ends up a criminal, not only did they fail, but their parents failed, and the system failed. More effort needs put into why it fails so often in out society. Why some sectors and demographics produce far less criminals. (The Amish for instance have far less drug use, instances of Autism, and crime.)

I am a collectivist and a strict empiricist. I don't view the individualist philosophy (of most western societies) as valid. That we are not a hodge podge of individuals acting separately, but each of us make up a "cell" of this organism called humanity. If one of us goes haywire, then whatever consequences that are required to correct that dysfunction must happen. It must because the health of the greater organism is more important then the "Feelings" of the individual. This is the only approach that stops the spreading of pain and suffering onto another person or generation. So is we, as a society deem a behavior to be bad, to cause physical or emotional damage, to be unsustainable, then whatever punishment designated must be applied. Whether it is cause by malice or by mental/ neurological dysfunction. In a perfect society, studies would have yielded evidence that the first guy might have taken the path he took after his tragedy. The doctors could have said, either you are monitored for and appropriate period or you can risk it won't happen to you, BUT if it does, you will be held accountable for your crimes. But we would have to change the way we view "crime" and its causes in this country.

Nov. 18 2015 10:11 PM
Antonia Neruda from Florida

I agree with the explanation of why we point fingers. We put fingers to take the stress and pressure off of us. We point fingers so we make others feel like it's their fault and not our own. Blame. Blame isn't a good thing. Blame is a very dissatisfying characteristic. Blame is not being able to take responsibility for what is your fault. David, a neuro-scientist, talks about how we can control blame. Blame isn't biological. Blame is developed on your own. You learn it from other people. I enjoyed this NPR. Blame is a very debatable topic as to why we do it.

Jan. 18 2015 10:52 PM
Sir Lancelot from Orlando

Moral contradictions in court was always cut and dry to me. But now putting science behind their claims makes cases seem irrefutable. A brain deficiency, is not the individual, rather it is an issue with his biology, so how can one convict someone's biology? Well, then comes the question of if it was his brain deficiency, or his own choices. That brings me to Patricia's case where it was the murderer's choices later on in life; however it was also the combination of his child hood and drugs messing with his brain and judgement. Can one not see that the murderer was obviously not him self that night? This is why I agree that the point system of strictly data operated convictions should be set up. It has been proven by the %70 of cases being successful, and it does not pass judgement on our own morals.

Nov. 02 2014 10:50 AM
Aaron from Buffalo

So I guess its official, radiolab no longer has anything to do with science. They should just rename it This American Life by Jerks. I used to enjoy this show, but now... It's garbage.

Aug. 07 2014 12:18 AM
Alexsys from Salt Lake City, Utah

It's amazing how easily ill construed things are. It's easy to take a "factual story" and make judgments on the intent of the wrong-doer. For me, the question is not so much "who is to blame?" but it is more of "how should the person be punished?" And maybe that's the wrong question, too. Perhaps the question we should be asking is "how should this person be helped?" Prison doesn't make society better, and I think that victims and families of victims would agree that prison punishment is hardly satisfactory. Could they be happier and feel more satisfied if the person was helped? Murder is perhaps the most extreme of cases and perhaps the most difficult, but I feel this story demonstrated the answer to this question.

Jul. 24 2014 06:53 PM

This is my second go-around with Radiolab after a disappointing initial experience in "What's Left When You're Right" - where I found the coverage of sinistrality subpar and lacking a solid research base. Upon the recommendation of friend/cute date, I decided to give it another go in this episode as I have a interest on the impact of poverty in early childhood on neurodevelopment. I enjoyed this episode more and it did redeem Radiolab a bit in my eyes, i thought it was a nice blend of easy-on-the-ears touching storytelling and cerebral stimluation.
However, I would say that their coverage on neuroscience did lack depth/was a bit superficial; we were not provided enough information/context about the child pornography case pre/post the surgery and I think they could've gone further into this and done it true justice coverage-wise, rather than segueing into the second portion on mercy.

Stating this, the second portion "Dear Hector", melted my heart - plain & simple. It was heartwarming and reminded me of the amazing capacity we have for love and forgiveness, IF we choose. I am a social worker and reflect a lot on these issues - how cumulative hurt & trauma is systematically destroying the human spirit and producing desensitized, numb, hard-hearted generations which continue the cycle. Hector beautfully embodies the choice we have towards this versus embracing another path - his is an honest pain coupled with a dignified compassion and love for his fellow human. I think he does so much more justice to his daughters memory in his chosen path.

Jul. 01 2014 12:36 AM

Very interesting show. I was a little disheartened that Robert's idea of mercy is keeping many more people in prison and or causing many more victims of repeat offenders.

Jun. 10 2014 08:19 AM

David Eagleman is awesome. So happy when he made an appearance. :)

Jun. 04 2014 05:46 AM

From the mechanistic model of the human brain the idea of people having "rights" is fundamentally silly concept. We are machines, if we are broken we should be fixed or at least contained. It doesn't matter if, in the process of fixing the person is screaming protest or vehemently rejects your treatment. He doesn't know what's good for himself. So if we follow this guy's logic we would find a world where people lose what we would now call their humanity. The maskirovka of consciousness, if it is one, must be maintained.

May. 19 2014 02:44 PM
Steve from Orlando

Unfortunately I had to stop listening when the first story starting talking about child porn. Especially the young stuff. I turned off American Life when they broadcast a show along the same lines the week before. Having brain surgery and epilepsy do not justify surfing child porn 8 hours a day. It's a part of being human to know right from wrong. To bad I didn't get to listen to the rest of the story!

Also I must say this show has so many interesting things. Despite today show I love listening to it.

May. 04 2014 10:19 PM
Joey from PA

After listening to today's show and reading some of the comments one thought came to mind, none of us really have the answers. We were given possible answers to some questions which only left us with more questions yet to be explored. I found each segment to be perfect as they were complete with all the imperfections that make us human. In essence, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute. My personal thoughts are that some time in the future we find a way to deal with crime that truly makes a difference. Right now our criminal justice system needs a lot of work. Somewhere outside the box we may find that it’s not about blame and punishment but in understanding the brain and human behavior that gives us the tools to create a safer and more humane society.

May. 04 2014 02:58 PM

This show reminded me very much of the premise of the film "Minority Report," based on Philip Dick's novel. Pre-Crime Unit and all that. By the way, Abumrad, there's nothing wrong with being on the Ten Commandments "team."

May. 03 2014 06:14 PM
Forrest Seymour from Keene, NH

STATISTICS DON'T APPLY TO INDIVIDUALS. My apologies for shouting, and, because I missed some of this episode, it is possible my concern was covered at length already, though it usually is not. HERE'S THE THING: We all understand that you have to have a relatively large data sample to result in statistically significant results. I'm sure the folks who have done the work on sex offender's recidivism rates have been scrupulous in this, so I trust the tool that was developed, which was accurate 70% of the time in predicting that sex offenders would or would not re-offend. But what is important is that other 30%. THE PROBLEM IS that when one person's case is examined, and the numbers crunched, and a results determined, there is a 70% chance the prediction is accurate and 30% chance it is wrong. AND WE DON'T KNOW WHICH IT IS. We don't know if the results for this person are accurate or a false-positive or a false-negative. If we survey a large population we can say that 70% of the time the prediction will be accurate. BUT WITH THE INDIVIDUAL WE DON'T KNOW. Could be right, could be wrong. It is essentially a 50-50 proposition, same as the probation officer's prediction. THIS IS A SUBTLE BUT CRUCIAL POINT. Statistics only apply to large groups, not individuals. If 100 sex offenders pass through the evaluator's office, 70 of then will receive accurate predictions. But if we pluck one of those 100 ouT and sit them down in front of us we don't know if they are one of the 70 or one of the 30. Could be either. Might be or might not be. SO WE HAVE TO GUESS like the probation officers. THIS IS A FUNDAMENTAL MISUNDERSTANDING OF APPLIED STATISTICS: We think we can predict individual behavior but we cannot; we can only predict the behavior of large groups, and then only partially (like 70% of the time, for example). Often this does not matter; if my marketing research says most customers prefer the blue shirt over the red shirt, so I put the blue shirt on the front of the rack, and I am correct only 70% of the time, that is good enough and the individual customers who prefer the red shirt can simply dig a little deeper in the rack. But when we are talking about crime and punishment suddenly the stakes are much, much higher. If my recidivism prediction is accurate 70% of the time that means it is wrong 30% so 30 our of 100 of those sex offenders (or whoever) that I keep locked up were not going to reoffend. And again let me emphasize, WE DON'T KNOW WHICH IS WHICH. Statistics like these are useful in various ways, but not for predicting individual behavior. Science is cool but has yet to create a crystal ball. Uncertainty is uncomfortable but unavoidable. Shaping future human behavior is an art, not a science.

May. 03 2014 03:20 PM
Johanna DeStefano from Columbus, OH

Today's program on WOSU was one of the most powerful pieces I've heard on the radio. I was a professor so tend to be highly data based -- consequently the details about adding up numbers as a better predictor of further criminal activity appealed to me. Then I listened to the Hector of Ivan piece, and realized that forgiveness and mercy can be powerful, extremely so. I have a quote on my computer monitor -- to remind me! -- to "Be kind for everyone you know carries a great burden." That is just true, if anything is true. Doesn't excuse behavior but perhaps will help us devise better treatment rather than incarceration.

Thank you so very much for this amazingly insightful, compelling and well done program.

Best, Johanna DeS

May. 03 2014 01:04 PM
hank schachte from gulf islands bc

Sunday, 27 October 2013

there are important distinctions that people need to make during life if common pitfalls are to be avoided. one is the distinction between getting along with others, which is laudable, and going along with others, which is problematic.
another distinction, difficult for many people, is between blame and responsibility, both our judgement of others and subsequent reaction to them, and our understanding and judgement of ourselves. you are not to blame for being you. believe me, you did not design yourself, not even in some pretty trivial ways. but ultimately, you are responsible for your actions. that is the job of being human in a social world. however difficult it may be for you, ultimately you must take ownership of what you do and do your best to curb the worst excesses of brain chemistry, architecture and function you have inherited without choice. similarly, in reacting to others' actions, it is good to remember that they are just the first victims of their crimes, when crimes are committed. it is possible to condemn egregious behavior without committing unuseful behavior of your own by condemning the person being held responsible. a more useful and helpful reaction is to see if through a patient and rational response, you and society in general can in fact improve future outcomes for all.

May. 02 2014 10:45 PM

This was the first podcast I ever listened to and it raises questions on who exactly is to blame for crimes and felonies (in a good way). Some people claim that a voice inside of their head or it felt like they were outside of their body and couldn't do anything as their body did acts that weren't normal to their behavior. I never really put account for the accuracy of this claim until I stumbled on this podcast. It opened my eyes that some human abnormal behavior were resulted by their brain being hardwired and scripted differently from what our society calls "normal". The brain controls everything in our bodies, controlling major organs, emotions, ect. the list goes on and on.

May. 02 2014 06:33 PM

This podcast discussed one of those ideas that really humble your perception of things. Does "free will" exist? It certainly seems like it, but our genes have been so intrusively affected by our circumstances that free will probably does not exist in any sort of major way. It certainly does make you think about the way that you influence people because ultimately your actions could change them in a way that influences them to make either great or horrible decisions.

Apr. 11 2014 07:49 AM
Tim from Regina

Wow, this is the first RadioLab episode I've listened to, and it left me wanting more! At least, wanting some closure to that story. Thought provoking and well edited. It's interesting to see comments from people who ignore or miss the angle the show's producers took, i.e., that the system of blame and forgiveness poses some disturbing problems when pushed to its logical conclusion and especially when applied in a judicial system. I don't feel that they failed in being scientific, as some have commented (thought I have no precedent for comparison). The story brings up all kinds of questions on behavioural science, at least. If Eagleman is right, human behaviour derives in the brain and is part of our essential biological make-up. No separation between experiences, decisions and biology in other words. It's all in our heads. I don't really want to believe that, but it's a compelling story.

Apr. 03 2014 03:34 AM
Robert from Washington, DC

My brain tells me this is the best episode I've heard from Radiolab. I couldn't get the final story out of my head. Thank you.

Mar. 05 2014 09:23 PM
Ben from Savannah, GA

Thank you for this exciting presentation of ideas!

I have some comments and questions for the speaker at this point in the recording: 34:36 He states, "You are your brain."

What would it mean for your brain to make a choice completely independent of you?

Does something need to have a physical property to exist? And, how do we know gravitational force or electromagnetic force exist?

If it were possible to replace your brain with a computer, would you still exist?

If brain scientists can come to understand more about your brain and understand it better than you, do they know more about you than you do?

Can you locate a memory in the brain?

Is it possible to locate the experiential feeling "what it is like to taste ice cream" in the brain?

If you are your brain, how does the brain organize thoughts into a coherent "sting of thought" over time? What part of the brain has an comprehensive perspective of other parts of the brain--thereby--enabling it to organize diverse isolated thoughts into a coherent chronological whole? Are you that part?

Can you locate love? What does it look like? If we observe physical properties of love in the brain can we model our life after it and become more loving?

Jan. 05 2014 11:06 PM

I listen to a lot of RadioLab while traveling. I listen to this episode while doing 6 1/2 hour drive to come home. The segment about Hector and his daughter made me realize that I want to be capable of that level of mercy and forgiveness. I would like to be capable of that level of love. Hector is the kind of person I want to be.
I'm surprised so many people don't see that in the story.

Dec. 26 2013 07:41 PM

By the time I got to the part about Hector and the murderer who found god, I was already thinking that this is the lamest, mushiest episode after "23 Weeks."

Really, "god" is the simplest "explanation" for everything and most dimwits eventually find their way to it. But why chose Hector, when the young woman about to marry Charles Manson would have made a more exciting subject...?

Ultimately, I wish RadioLab sticks to more science and less brainless mush. Lately, the mush seems to be winning.

Dec. 19 2013 04:01 AM

I think that the stuff in the comment section is rude to be honest. I'm 15 and I got more out of this then you adults did. The whole theme of Kevin's story is redemption and the point of Hector's is mercy. It's not about the show, or the hosts or the website. Some of you are over thinking it. The point of this is to teach a lesson. You guys are focusing on the wrong thing.

Dec. 09 2013 07:21 PM

And I also wanted to say that I felt embarrassed for you guys when Pat Walters was fumbling through questioning so painfully bad (@ 14:50) that 'Kevin' graciously gave him the chance to try it again. And it only got more inane.

So this morning, when this popped up on Facebook:
...sadly, I immediately thought of this episode of Radiolab.

Guys, please don't let it get this bad.

Dec. 05 2013 12:22 AM

I'm relieved to see that I'm not the only loyal listener who felt that this episode was made worse by the banter of the hosts trying to support their personal biases. This show is best at revealing things we never knew, introducing twists of knowledge newly discovered, and making *US* think. It always loses it's appeal when we have to wade through what Jad and Robert think.
This episode and this recurring issue bothered me so much this morning that I deleted Radiolab's feed from my podcast app.

Maybe I'll come back when I get wind that Jad and Robert have chosen to serve their fans tasty morsels of new science, without telling us how they want us to chew it.

Dec. 04 2013 11:12 PM
bubble buster

hey Sigma, settle down there. Everything is entirely obvious to you, but then again, maybe not--if you settle the Minority Report issue by using only 'what is pertinent to the case', well then you HAVE to use the 'future' data because the entire philosophy of this (conceived) legal system is that you DON'T assign blame but rather use the likelihood of re-offending as the basis for imprisonment. This is the point in which you have to decide how certain you are about the accuracy and precision of your science and the purity of your judicial system. Ultimately I think this is a terrible system: one in which you are presumed to be guilty in the future sense based on a statistical probability that you would be inclined to choose 'bad' over 'good' when presented with the opportunity, rather than allowing people to make their own choices and then judge them for their actions.

Nov. 24 2013 11:20 PM

It's unfortunate that Robert dragged down the second segment due the the fact that he apparently can't wrap his brain around the fact that he is his brain. And then some how found a way to bible thumb the 10 commandments into the discussion.

This segment could have been good but instead we get a brilliant neuroscientist having to dumb things down for a backwater hick who advocates mercy only for the good looking and is more interested in metaphysical mumbo-jumbo than science and philosophy. I really hope Robert was just trolling...

Oh and the "Minority Report" argument was lame too. Seriously, just make a law that all data found by the neuro-scan device can't be revealed unless it is pertinent to the criminal case at hand. There, problem solved.

I love Radio Lab but geez, this episode was such a wasted opportunity. Thanks a lot Robert, we really wanted to hear about the 10 commandments instead of science and philosophy. /sarcasm.

Nov. 24 2013 12:23 AM

j276, I absolutely agree with you, that of course mind is a manifestation of brain. It does not directly follow that brain is determinate to mind. Meaning, there may be some kind of downward causation at the mental level. The macro level causing changes on the micro.

Look up David Chalmers on "the hard problem" if you're interested in this sort of thing. Hell, really anything on mental causation.

Nov. 15 2013 06:18 PM
Dan from Queens, NY

It is chilling to contemplate the "all manner of evil" that resides within us. But it is comforting to know the height of goodness that we're also capable of. These stories dramatized both extremes.

Nov. 10 2013 10:07 AM

Also re: eiaboca's post on micro vs macro level processes...

There is one think to state there are macro or high level phenomema that are difficult at present to correlate with the firings of individual neurons in the brain, and that there is no short term hope of mapping and making a straightforward case in a court of law. Most would agree in 2013 that is true, and there are compelling arguments to say that it may not be possible due to the complexity of the system.

It does not follow that my mind/consciousness is not a manifestation of my brain, and must be magic because it makes me feel funny to think otherwise- this appears to be Robert's argument in the segment.

Nov. 07 2013 12:13 AM

Have to agree with the prior comments about the hosts in the second segment. This subject was an great opportunity for Radiolab to absolutely shine - neuroscience and the continued pursuit to better define how biology translates to thought and action.

Instead the hosts cannot seem to understand the presenter's argument, and repeatedly cut him off with inane questions. I can't figure out if Robert really believes what is says, or is playing the role of a layperson dolt that cannot accept that the thoughts bouncing around in his head originate from his brain. Irrational arguments do not deserve equal airtime. If you really do believe that there is some magical ether that transcends space and time involved in augmenting your day to day thought, why ruin a show that is supposed to be about science? I'm sure there is a new age podcast on energy healing and ghost-hunting that would be more appropriate.

Nov. 06 2013 11:57 PM

ahh what the hell! "graphic" did not prepare me for the topic of child porn. Seriously radiolab, wtf.

Nov. 01 2013 04:08 AM
Dawn from Chicago

This should have been called the "Minority Report" episode....

Oct. 29 2013 04:26 PM
B from PA

I'm not 100% on this but I think "Kevin" gets outed by "Janet" accidentally. While discussing the medication "Janet" says something that sounded to be like "it was like getting Adam back."

It might have just sounded like that.

Oct. 29 2013 11:13 AM

I'm in agreement with others here who feel that this segment has gotten away from the reason that I tune in to this show. This, as well as a lot of the segment on Doubt, have gone on non scientific tangents to the point where I wished I had skipped them all together. It doesn't help that they were extremely negative and that I probably should've heeded the warnings stated at the beginning, but it also doesn't help that I crave this show.

Oct. 26 2013 12:23 PM
Seattle from Seattle

"Kevin" should be held responsible for his actions. Like the judge said, he had a duty to ask for help if he really felt he could not control his impulses. Like the prosecutor said, he clearly had some ability to control his impulses, or he would have done the same thing at work.

His epilepsy made him an unsafe driver, so he had a responsibility to refrain from driving. He DID refrain from driving. He had more self-control than many alcoholics who repeatedly drive under the influence.

"Kevin" could have refrained from having a home computer. He could have installed parental-control software. He could have asked his wife for help. He should have. He didn't want to.

"Kevin" accepted his responsibility to avoid causing a deadly car crash. He ran from his responsibility to avoid supporting a terrible industry that damages children. We should not be so quick to let him off the hook.

The purpose of the legal system is NOT just "rehabilitation." The purpose is to protect society as much as we can. Rehabilitation serves the purpose of protecting society and is something to strive for, but deterrence also serves the purpose of protecting society.

Both rehabilitation and deterrence are needed, and both begin with correctly assigning (and accepting)responsibility.

"Kevin" had enough impulse control and common sense to avoid driving when he was highly at risk for seizures. He had enough impulse control and common sense to avoid downloading that material onto his work computer. He could have used his impulse control and common sense to get help controlling his behavior at home. He chose not to.

"Kevin" gets no sympathy from me until he accepts his responsibility to manage his behavior and avoid damaging children.

Oct. 23 2013 05:24 PM

I agree with Jacob R to the extent that it would have been good to shorten your time when the three of you were debating and drop in the interesting argument by Gazzaniga. But overall, you could include all of philosophy and instead, for the most part you kept to the simple direct point.

Mostly, the last section does not quite follow it out to blaming the murderers mother who could then also probably blame her mother or father and all the way back to a famine and the brutality of a King or something. Where does it end? That could have been the direction if that story but it kind of sidestepped into forgiveness, and forgiveness is not about blame. Forgiveness is about choosing compassion and empathy over hate. Blame is separate. Of course he is to blame. He did it. Guilty by reason of insanity, but guilty nonetheless. I agree, we should not meet our justice by our subjective blame. We need a more scientific way of going about it. Social contract says this crime is worth 100 points, this one 50. Add your possibility of relapse means that your number is 50 x 3 and so now yr number is 150 and that translates into 8 years, Now, are you a child? Subtract predetermined number of years or make it a teaching sentence like community could be done.

Oct. 16 2013 11:42 PM

The storytelling and sound design skated along brilliantly. The anecdotes the show open and closed with were perfect examples illustrating the complexity of the issue. However, the complexity of the debate among you guys was really weak, as many comments have pointed out.
While you mention brain science is crude, Jad’s language—“But one day we may be able to say. Like, see that little bit of mangled wiring right over there. That’s because his mom didn’t love him enough or maybe he got bullied”—does not reflect a real understanding of the science. Even though, he’s joking/exaggerating, it reinforces common misconceptions about the nearness or even the reality of these possibilities. In this year’s World Science Festival in New York, there was a 3d animation of a speck of a rat’s brain many times thinner than a hair. It had more elements than a bustling city, check it out.
The scientists you spoke to were both old sources, I think. Maybe you would have done well to seek out some other experts. The comparison between the deaf guy and the brain damaged guy was so simplistic! What’s the point of quoting an expert, if you’re only going to give us his dumb downed explanation? I can think of one neuroscientist who may have been appropriate to include: Michael Gazzaniga, the nytimes did a story on him, he’s apparently a great storyteller, so maybe he’d be good for a show. He says, as quoted from the nytimes, “‘My contention is that, ultimately, responsibility is a contract between two people rather than a property of the brain, and determinism has no meaning in this context,’ he writes in ‘Who’s in Charge?’ Like generosity and pettiness, like love and suspiciousness, responsibility is what he calls a ‘strongly emergent’ property — a property that, though derived from biological mechanisms, is fundamentally distinct and obeys different laws, as do ice and water.” He is the appropriate person to square off with Eagleman. You can still have Robert in there. But without someone representing the prevalent view held by Gazzaniga, the conversation becomes a “dorm room bong party,” (especially with Robert, whose tangents I happen to like) to quote Lewis from NY’s comment (that was hilarious). I was disappointed, as I felt my intelligence was underestimated and I hope your audience did too. Your conversation was not newsworthy, nor was it really scientifically up to date, as many others have pointed out.
Also, when you say 1,600 cases have involved neuroscience out of the 1% sample, you need to tell us how many cases are in the 1% sample. Otherwise, the statistic is meaningless! What percentage of the 1% do the 1,600 cases represent?
My most important query: why are none of these comments, by fans who care enough to take the time to write them in the hopes the show will be improved, responded to?
Anyway, I love radiolab!

Oct. 14 2013 12:19 AM
Kirk from Washington D.C.


First off I do enjoy radio lab, but this had to be one of the worst episodes, This just felt like a rehash of the oldest most fundamental question humans have all had, are we merely animals, beast trapped within or are we more, are we Human, free to choose.

There is nothing unique now about the human condition that hasn't been known by countless philosophers, Religious minds in the West and in Asia for thousands of years. We all know that we are beholden to desires as Buddha, or the Greeks said are what cause suffering, or as the West later would call sins, such as lust, gluttony, greed etc... Yes it is human nature to feel such impulses, we can act on such impulses, but unlike animals, you have choice.

The Whole point of building a functioning society is we have choice, we choose not to defecate in public, we choose not to steal, we choose so many things so we can live and benefit in a society. I felt sad for the old man, to be so old and not understand the basics about how society functions and for radiolab endorsing such horrible behavior. You might say criminals would commit crimes regardless, but we all have a darkness inside ourselves we could all be criminals, animals, one of the reasons why we are not is because there are consequences or boundaries, as children learn, but as a society if we don't enforce these and do nothing then there can only be chaos and destruction.

Once again I can say I felt so horrible for the old man, so clueless, so old he raised a daughter who was as clueless as well, that encouraged a murderer that raped and killed her and her father likewise is also encouraging the same monster.

Its like watching a Sci Fi horror show were the scientist stuck on his Ideals is so disconnected with the reality of the situation, he lets the monster alien kill him and everyone else.

Oct. 13 2013 10:06 PM
eiaboca from NYC

One more thing. (Sorry, I'm fired up!)

Saying that the way we structure our legal system shouldn't change over the eras is absolutely ridiculous! OF COURSE it should! That's kind of one of the whole reasons to learn things! To make it (our human institutions) better, and fit knowledge/the world as it is (hopefully) better! How silly to say things should remain the same, in the spirit of, what, fairness? It's not clear how it would be fair or just to anyone.

In that vein of thought, we should hang people for stealing, perhaps put their heads on pikes for insubordination to the king!

Oct. 12 2013 05:18 PM
eiaboca from NYC

I believe in data analysis, I think science is the best way to apportion blame in a lot of cases. But when you talk about nothing being "above and beyond," or "additional" to the brain and it's biology, well, that's just bullsh*t. At least in the way your guest speaker framed it. There is a microphysical level, and there is the macro, phenomenological level. We experience life in the macro level. Whether or not it is an illusion that we have a choice, it feels as if we have a choice. The situations that we put ourselves in, the skills we decide to learn, the people we choose to spend our time with. Even if there are environmental factors that shape these choices, it is a decidedly open question as to whether there is no choice at the macro level AT ALL, and your scientist speaks as if there is no doubt whatsoever.

Beyond even THAT, even if IN PRINCIPLE we could get every last byte of information that has ever gone into someone's brain, plus every last neuron connection mapped out, and that gave us the exact path of each person, the likelihood of that being a practical technology for human use is so far away we can't even see its zygote. 70% isn't good enough for me, to convict and sentence someone.

Oct. 12 2013 05:14 PM

Thank you RadioLab for the great episode! This is a true masterpiece! It moved me to tears, and made me think at the same time. It is so humbling! Both stories are tremendous in understanding very important concepts, such as: how rationalizing the justice system can lead to absurdity and how an irrational and benevolent behavior of humans makes room for hope and salvation in what seems to be hopeless and pure evil. It made me even think of some notorious works of classics (definitely Dostoyevsky!) that may have been eclipsed by the story of Patricia and Hector.

Oct. 06 2013 12:21 AM
Steve from San Francisco

Regarding the man who got hooked on porn, including child porn, there is "blame," there is "punishment," and there are "consequences," including unintended consequences. The classic case is a law requiring doctors to report pregnant women to the police if it looks like they are using drugs, or laws requiring psychologists to report patients to the police if they admit to looking at child porn. For that matter there was Prohibition or making abortion illegal. These kinds of laws are intended to protect people, but we overlook the negative unintended consequences which are often worse than the original problems.

The judge decided to put this man in jail because he had a degree of control over his psychological addictions. She says that during those periods that he had control he "could have" turned himself in. But consider the consequences if he had turned himself in: Generally, a man who looks at child porn is seen as worse than an "ordinary" killer. Alcoholics have a much easier time admitting they are alcoholics and getting the help they need. Indeed, such people are admired. But if alcoholism was treated similarly to child porn, alcoholics would not admit a problem and not seek help.

I recently read an article about Nazi Germany, discussing how so many good German people could go along with everything that was so obviously wrong. The author pointed out that we can't expect people to be heroes. That gave me a lot to think about.

By the way, child porn would still exist even if there was no money or profit involved. Pedophiles would simply exchange materials with each other. People who watch child porn do not necessarily pay for it, so the financial support argument doesn't quite fly.

Oct. 04 2013 05:11 PM
Nick from Denver

Thanks for the great podcast!

I tend to side with the gentleman promoting the view that we--our behavior, personality, etc., is just the "acting out" of certain neural pathways in our brain, and that ultimately we have no free will, but rather the illusion thereof.

What I think is interesting, and I was surprised that no one mentioned it in the cast, is that IF fatalism is true, then it is true in all respects. If it is true that the man after surgery could not resist the temptation of watching child pornography, then it is also true that when a judge or jury sentences the man, that they themselves could not have done otherwise, for they were destined to do so.

So. . .in other words, IF you are a fatalist (or, insert any belief/religion/creed/whatever in there), you could not have been otherwise. Deep down, all fatalists know (or should have been determined to know. . .) that they themselves did not voluntarily choose their fatalistic belief; rather, it choose them and is merely part of them.


And man I wish I could have chimed in on this cast, you guys do a phenomenal job. : )


Oct. 02 2013 08:31 PM
Debra Weite from Las Vegas, NV

I'm a longtime listener of the show and enjoy all the topics very much..this one did make me read through the comments and some very astute people had some interesting things to add. One thing of note that could possibly be a topic for another show: the cases of homicide that occurred while the murderer was sleepwalking. It's fascinating how the legal system handled these not uncommon set of circumstances.

I'd love to hear you guys talk about it.

Sep. 30 2013 04:01 PM

Fantastic show. Thank you, thank you RadioLab for the amazing work you do. Always very stimulating that spurs one to read up on the subject matter you all present.

Sep. 29 2013 06:09 PM
Ellen Dannin

I'm surprised you did not discuss Pre-Crime, as in the Minority Report.

and in reality.

Sep. 29 2013 10:47 AM
Jordan from San Francisco, CA

I apologize if this was already addressed in the comments, but I have a couple of questions for David Eagleman that came to mind while I was listening to the second segment.

1) In sentencing, do you think consideration should be given for treatable brain disorders? For example, the fellow in the first story would have most likely maintained his illegal habits without the medication that he was later put on-- should the prescription of medication to control this behavior be taken into account when deciding on a sentence?

2) Does witnessing "human mercy" affect a criminal's likelihood of repeating? If a criminal is openly given a second chance in court, does that affect future behavior?

I wrote both of these questions during a 6am commute this morning, so sorry if they're not entirely well formed. I'd love to hear any response to this, even if it's not David Eagleman!

Sep. 27 2013 04:33 PM

A l o h a ! To you creative folks behind this show ~

As one who was totally ignorant of the workings of criminal justice system in Hawaii until being arrested, "Taking the Deal" (the plea bargaining process), serving my time and being released, I saw that aside from being broken and corrupt, bigotry is alive and well here in the Islands. An outsider cannot fathom the idiocy with which these institutions are cooperatively run.
Jail was somewhere that seemed unappealing throughout my life and although I was ignorant to the ways of that peculiar world I never considered the consequences of minor recreational drug use to a citizen who worked actively to improve the situations that I came across where unnecessary suffering caused pain in people's lives. Nobody ever told me that by being a self-employed car mechanic also contained the trappings of a psychiatrist and social worker! So as a good Samaritan sort of fellow living in a beautiful place it was frustrating to encounter pessimism and mean-spiritedness in the Banana Republic's indolent representation of prison.
Rather than undergo further deflation as a participant of the probation system, different incarnation of same work ethic, I did every single day of my sentence. Persecutory, stupid, ignorant people are rewarded in the employ of the Department of Public Safety. They are unionized and, as such, are disallowed from striking. So the average guard will accumulate over $100,000 per annum for their miserable performance.
Anyway, I've been out for three years, going to UH, keeping out of the way of those nasty boys in blue. Come on vacation, end up on probation.

Page S. Ronning, Makawao, Upcountry Maui.

Sep. 24 2013 07:14 PM
Ryan from Redding, CA

I listened to this episode last night. This article was in my local newspaper today:

I thought it was interestingly coincidental.

Sep. 24 2013 02:45 PM
Denis Lynch from San Jose, CA

I was disappointed with the "philosophical" part of the show. It got all wrapped around an axle because of an unspoken premise: that the sole purpose of a criminal sentence is proportional retribution.

As Lara Triona said, it would have been interesting to consider Restorative Justice. Rather than the rigid retributive approach of "you did a thing that is X bad so Society will do an X bad thing to you", Restorative Justice looks at how to best repair the damage done. It tries to balance therapy with retribution, and rehabilitation with protection. The logic discussed on the show only considers punishment, without any attention to reparation for victims, rehabilitation, and considers protection of the public only crudely.

Did 2 years in prison do anything to address the harm that Kevin did by buying child pornography? I don't see how. It cost the taxpayers, and Kevin and Janet, a whole lot of money, with basically no return. What a waste!

Sep. 24 2013 01:38 PM
Barbara Y. Nelson

I did not know you can be arrested for looking a porn. He did not act on it. I would think that haveing seizure would affect the brain. I do not think he should have serve any time in jail.
The father was able to do something that was very difficult he forgave his daughters killer. I do not know if I am at that point spiritully.

Sep. 24 2013 12:52 PM
Barbara Y. Nelson

I did not know you can be arrested for looking a porn. He did not act on it. I would think that haveing seizure would affect the brain. I do not think he should have serve any time in jail.
The father was able to do something that was very difficult he forgave his daughters killer. I do not know if I am at that point spiritully.

Sep. 24 2013 12:51 PM
Lewis from NY

Although I'm generally not in favor of piling on, I think that the comments above regarding the second segment of this episode bear repetition. Using a crime algorithm of some sort is virtually guaranteed to worsen criminal justice outcomes.

The recidivism data that exists will be based entirely on our current legal system, i.e. it will be biased strongly against poor and minorities. Disentangling the injustice present in our current system from "personal" factors that correlate with high recidivism is a fools errand. The neighborhood you live in and the number of police that are regularly in that area matter, but would be incredibly difficult to account for (how are you going to match recidivism data to data with levels of policing?) What if a policy such as NY's stop and frisk is created or ended? The explicit purpose of such a policy is to catch and incarcerate non-violent offenders before they engage in violent crimes. Those arrests and rearrests are all already polluting our data on recidivism. Lightly policed areas (read white suburbs) are full of repeat criminals who simply never interact with the criminal justice system.

Although I understand David Eagleman's desire for a more "unbiased" way to sentence criminals, his faith in computers, and his lack of faith in the humans who actually run the criminal justice system betrays his utter lack of understanding of how the criminal justice system operates. Granted innate biases do affect sentencing (nearly everyone has encountered the research on Israeli judges showing that they give light sentences in the morning and throw the book at people in the afternoon when they are tired.) However his proposed solution will only operate to turn the current justice system into an echo-chamber of injustice, absent meaningful reforms (such as less broad and draconian laws, more accountability for prosecuting authorities and more money spent on both public defenders and drug rehab.)

One very salient example: Eagleman relies on data from trials to demonstrate that the criminal justice system is irrational. He neglects to mention that fewer than 10% of all cases ever reach a trial, and that the vast majorities of trials occur for people who are either innocent or massively overcharged by the prosecuting authority. More broadly, how can a story on the criminal justices system and the concept of blame ignore the elephant in the room. Most people in prison are non-violent drug offenders--many of whom are only guiltily of being addicted to a substance.

I'm really surprised and disappointed that none of this was mentioned. Although I'm not entirely sure if my perception of Eagleman's actual ideas is correct (because of the crap interview) but the ideas as they were presented were certainly worth more examination than they received. Instead the conversation devolved to the pseudo-philosophy a dorm room bong party. No one could lift the veil on scientism long enough to actually think about reality.

Sep. 24 2013 09:54 AM
Eric from Pittsburgh, PA

A good, and short story about how the court system in our county deals with this problem in the wake of a since closed treatment facility.

Sep. 24 2013 08:54 AM
Kristen from Victoria, BC

I enjoyed this show, but was very disappointed with the section on recidivism. There are two things I would like to challenge about that:

1. The concept of mercy. If we do not focus on recidivism and instead hand out shorter sentences based on beauty and charisma, who are we really being merciful to? Yes, the person being sentenced gets a shorter sentence, but, if that person is someone who is likely to recommit, is it really merciful to their future (and innocent) victims to release a violent person because the jury felt "merciful"? Does a violent person likely to recommit their crimes deserve our mercy more than their future victims?

2. The idea that someone is less guilty because of neurobiology. I challenge you to consider how dangerous this concept is, and will use an example to illustrate. In the case of psychopathy, the argument that a person is not at fault for their crimes because their genetics and neurobiology drive them to be violent and merciless applies. Violent psychopaths are guarenteed to recommit BECAUSE of their neurobiology and genetic makeup, and yet, several psychopaths who have tortured and murdered numerous people have been handed shorter sentences because of expert testimony that they lack free will to prevent their crimes because of their neurobiology. Whether or not you believe that people are separate from their brains does not change the fact that it is unfair to a violent criminals' past and future victims to allow someone who will recommit walk free because "their brain made them do it." It's not about who's fault it is, it's about keeping the innocent safe from those who are likely to harm them.

Sep. 23 2013 05:34 PM
Nate from Milwaukee, WI

I hope it is time and resource constraints that so frequently stop the show short just as it is about to dive into a truly interesting topic, and not a lack of intellectual bravery.

The quickly painted "Minority Report" picture is too quickly dismissed with the unspoken "well OBVIOUSLY we don't want that." But the whole idea that we will be able to identify people whose brain make-up signals a high likelihood of criminal behavior offers an opportunity to completely revamp our justice system.

By taking Blame and Revenge out of the justice process, and replacing it with a more concentrated effort to prevent crimes from happening in the first place, we can potentially have our cake and eat it too by lowering the number of people incarcerated and also lowering crime rates.

If we reach the point where we can look at someone's brain and say, "Woah, you have a high tendency toward pedophilia," the reaction should not be to imprison someone who has not yet committed a crime. Nor should the reaction be to let them go back to their lives to wait and see if they actually commit the crime. The response should be to preemptively put in safe guards (like keeping the person away from schools) to prevent a crime from ever happening. Is that still taking away some freedom from someone who has not broken a law? Yes, but what makes us so instinctively cringe at that idea?

There was a lot of focus on the potential to better IDENTIFY abnormalities in the brain, but no mention that with that improving technology we will likely also have increasing potential to better CHANGE abnormalities in the brain in order to reduce the likelihood of criminal behavior, either indirectly (through whichever consequence is deemed the most effective) or possibly directly by going straight into the brain and re-wiring the messed up wiring.

Is anyone really going to say "I have a right to keep my brain exactly how it is, even though it presents a great danger to other people around me?"

Well, yes, lots of people will. But how is that any different than arguing "I have a right to drive drunk," or "I have a right to keep explosives in my basement"?

The whole point of a society is that people give up little bits of personal freedom in order to be part of a society that is as safe as possible. What makes preemptive reconditioning anything other than the next step in that same direction?

Next steps are always a bit unsettling when we are first confronted with their potential, because it is an unfamiliar and unknown social environment. But let's not outright decide that anything new is bad.

Sep. 23 2013 05:08 PM
Paula from Los Angeles

First let me say that I generally really enjoy the show but the "Blame" episode really bothered me. I found the treatment of free will vs biological determinism strangely one-sided. At once the show points out how little we know about the brain and its workings, while simultaneously relying on an extremely cocky neuroscientist to argue for the idea that all our actions are 100% predetermined by our material brain. Yet to say that we know for a fact that there is no meta-brain or higher consciousness apart from the physical brain itself is, at this point, only an opinion. I say this as a person with OCD. If I accepted the world the way my brain sees it I would be in a sorry state indeed. Instead I work very hard, using mindfulness techniques, to monitor and correct the many false messages my brain sends me and to take wholesome actions instead of diseased ones. This is not proof that "mind" exists separate from the physical brain but hints at the complexity of the questions involved. For several compelling examples of people who have risen above the brains they were born with I recommend the "Lives Restored" series in the New York Times.

Sep. 23 2013 12:10 AM
Chris sowick

You really should have interviewed Sam Harris for a show on free will.
Krulwich pretending to be encountering for the first time in his life the scientific fact that free will is an illusion bugs the crap out me, I have to say.

"Wait wait wait, one more time... So your telling me that..."

I mean seriously? Did you not take philosophy 101 in college Robert and have been a science correspondent in the intervenin decades and never come across this concept? Your mind is really that blown by monism vs dualism???

Sep. 22 2013 03:56 PM
Alan Babcock

"Biology is not destiny." Robert Sapolsky I think - If we are going to move past blame treatment has to be available to everybody.

Sep. 22 2013 03:30 PM
David from San Francisco

Brain, mind -- it would be excellent to hear from Dan Siegel, MD (Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, UCLA School of Medicine; Executive Director, Center for Human Development, Los Angeles; Editor-in-Chief, Norton Professional Series in Interpersonal Neurobiology; Co-Investigator, UCLA Center for Culture, Brain & Development) on the subject.

Sep. 22 2013 03:14 PM

To answer Travis's question, the background music is the song "Night White", by Erik Friedlander.

Sep. 22 2013 11:16 AM
John2two from Oregon, USA

During the conversation about whether we would want statistical tables about recidivism governing incarceration, you missed mentioning the biggest weakness of such a theoretical system: subject judgment in the ratings.

Where we currently see this played out most directly is in systems like, where someone tries to use a long survey to define a numeric placement for a complex human in a space that has dozens to hundreds of dimensions. Today (for example) I rate myself as having an 8 out of 10 attraction for, say, orderliness and a 2 out of 10 attraction for fashion-consciousness. Yes, those become hard numbers inside the statistical database, but it was me, a squishy human who assigned those values. On another day I might assign different values. Someone who knows me well would assign other values. Any hard statistic judgment derived from those numbers REALLY is based on my subjective, at that one time, rating.

In the incarceration/recidivism debate, WHO measures the convict? WHO provides the input to compare against the tables? The prosecutor? The convict's loving mama? An "independent" expert who just got cut off in traffic on the way to the office and is feeling grumpy that day?

The standard way to adjust for these kinds of input bias are to have many people, at many times, in as carefully controlled ways as possible, make the same ratings, and then to statistically groom the input before it is compared to the tables derived make a specific decision. As difficult as it is to imagine a comprehensive database that predicts recidivism (for many, many different kinds of offenses) based on mountains of historic data, it is more difficult to imagine that we, as a society, would be willing to invest the effort to have enough different people rate each particular offender that we can correct for bias in the input on which each incarcerate/parole/forgive decision would be based.

Now, RadioLab friend Malcolm Gladwell would come along and tell us that we could reduce those dozens or hundreds of measured dimensions into a small number of most informative measurements. Maybe so. But to get there, we have to sift through the mountain enough times that we can have confidence in the reduction. It still sounds like more work than we will ever be willing to invest.

Sep. 20 2013 10:36 AM
Tony Sinclair

Krulwich might not be willing to say it out loud, but his objection to Eagleman is predicated on a belief in a "soul" or "spirit" that somehow exists separately from the brain.

If you take science seriously, it's pretty clear that Eagleman is right. You are your brain, for better or for worse. If you start letting people off the hook for crimes because "their brain made them do it", pretty soon you'll have no basis for holding anyone responsible for anything (good or bad).

And while I can see how a statistics-based justice system could devolve into a Minority-Report-style dystopia that punishes people for crimes they haven't committed (if it's taken too far), it's a mistake to conclude that using data and statistics somehow excludes people (and mercy) from the decision making process.

Data and statistics are just tools- ultimately it's still people who are in control, whether they choose to use those tools or not.

Sep. 19 2013 10:48 PM
Rebekah from Boston, MA

Wait a minute, how does using data to determine if someone will repeat their same crime suddenly translate into will they commit another, unrelated crime? You lost me with that jump. They use data to determine if a sex offender will repeat another sex offense, not if they will suddenly become a murderer. This is not Minority Report here. I wish Jad or Ropert would have challenged the validity of that statement.

Loved the judge's comments on the first story. They mesh nicely with David's challenge that we are the decisions me make, regardless of the biology we have that contributes to the making of them.

Sep. 19 2013 10:46 AM
Lisa from Columbus Ohio

I found this episode to contain the most interesting and thought provoking stories. I find myself thinking about it long after listening to it. The third story truly illustrated what I always try to remember -- I learned from my grandmother that "Hate does more damage to the vessel in which is stored than the object on which it is poured" He was a person who we all could try to imitate.
Thanks for all of your great episodes!

Sep. 18 2013 04:55 PM
Lara Triona from Santa Cruz area, CA

Thanks for the interesting episode. I was was hoping you would make connections to a new approach to justice called Restorative Practices?

The focus of Restorative Practices is on restoring the harm that is inflicted by bringing together all parties that were affected including the "perpetrator" not to "punish" but to repair the harm that was done. This can lead to forgiveness and drastically reduces recidivism. Here's a related TEDx talk about it:

Sep. 18 2013 09:27 AM
Joanna from Montreal

The problem is blame itself. It is a childish demand that has to be removed from human society if we ever hope to solve big problems, like the unrest in the Middle East. Rather than laying the past to rest and getting on with the future (this is not to say that the past is to be forgotten, nor ignored or diminished), terrible incidents have to be accepted and learned from, so as to find a way to prevent its reoccurrence in the future. Blame is the easy way out; put the villain in a box and through away the key, as if his actions were somehow produced in a vacuum, outside of the influence of the society around him. It is like wearing blinders. It can't absolve us of our responsibility as members of the human race, to improve the lot of others. While prison, and even the death penalty, is necessary for the safety of others, blame should not be the motive. Not only does blame prevent us from seeking a better outcome, it prevents us from healing, and in turn, making the world a better place for everyone.

BTW, awesome show!

Sep. 18 2013 08:42 AM

Well, I think Dr. Eagleman is wrong. His arguments smell of dogma. Let me explain. As kdalaryd from UK pointed out polemically but correctly the ontology of (neuro)science presents us is one among many – I am not talking epistemology here – and deciding upon which is the best ontology is a value judgement and needs discussing. Just to say it is scientific is not enough, an ought does not follow from an is. That is basic philosophy of science stuff, for me Dr. Eagleman's argument represents what Karl Popper warned about:

"It is all guesswork, doxa rather than epistēmē… Science has no authority… It represents…our hope of emancipating ourselves from ignorance and narrow-mindedness, from fear and superstition. And this includes… the superstitious belief in the authority of science itself. (Popper in Logic of Scientific Discovery: 1983, 259–260)"

Sep. 18 2013 04:24 AM
Isaac from PA

I'm not sure how I feel about this episode. The first segment was interesting enough, and the third was chilling, but neither is anything that I haven't heard before, and the stories were basically left to stand on their own, with no scientists or commentary (which is what has typically put Radiolab a step above, say, This American Life).
It's the second segment that had me riveted, but I was disappointed by the course it eventually took. It seemed that Eagleman was dismissed without much objective consideration, simply because what he is saying is uncomfortable and threatening. That doesn't make it wrong.
I can find no actual evidence that he is, in fact, wrong. Certainly, our complex personalities and behaviors and thoughts are emergent properties and can exert apparent top-down control, but it's still defined from the ground up, in that every electrical signal comes from a definite locus and goes to another definite locus. I'm really surprised that Krulwich was so resistant to the idea that "I" and "my brain" are somehow different. That is, as far as I can tell, wholly supported by science.
"Mercy" is a horrible red herring in this discussion. It's shockingly arbitrary, rather than being placed on those who are most likely to make the best of it, and as such it shouldn't be a target at all. If we used science to figure out who might commit crimes, we can show the ultimate "mercy" and work with that person to PREVENT that crime in the first place.
Finally, I think the analogy between a deaf person and an emotionless person is weak. It is a brain's handling of information and its decision-making process that allows culpability in crimes. The deaf person never receives the information, and therefore doesn't make a bad decision. The emotionless person does both. That is a huge difference. The latter should absolutely be held accountable for his action or lack of action.

Sep. 18 2013 01:44 AM

I thought it was a good episode but agree I could have listened to David Eagleman a lot longer - he had the most interesting stuff to say. And I have read studies that seem to deny the existence of free will by showing brain activity that 'prepares' the body for action before a person has consciously decided to take it...I wish I could remember who did those experiments but I'm sure Eagleman would know! So the idea of there being conscious control becomes meaningless.

It would have been interesting to look into psychological compulsion as well - how is justice apportioned in cases where a person is not 'insane' but suffers from psychological compulsions? So let's just say you have a bulimic with no cash to keep up the 'habit' if you like, who steals food? Unlike drug addicts who derive pleasure from taking drugs (at least at first...), you'd be hard pressed to find a bulimic who has ever found pleasure in a binge (most of the normal 'reward' feelings you get from eating are presumably negated by the way bulimics eat by pushing food down their throats as fast as possible, which means they rarely have time to taste...) So in this case they are compelled to perform an act they find repulsive, but may be pushed by their compulsion to cross moral boundaries. Where does blame lie in such a situation and is it even relevant anymore? I'm sure this particular case has not come up before so is not exactly appropriate, but it's the best one I could think of at this time of night - I guess I mean for all people with psychological compulsions who remain 'sane' in the legal sense.

Sep. 17 2013 07:20 PM
kdalaryd from UK

I can't help it: people who talk that fast, who always have a seemingly well established counter-argument at hand (yes, I am referring to the guy in favor of abolishing the idea of blame in legal contexts) come over as arrogant and not very intelligent after all. Sit back, man, relax and let's talk about it. For example about the ideology of science and its ontological prejudices. Put him in jail, this man is dangerous (well, probably)...

Sep. 17 2013 07:09 PM
Roger from Queensland, Australia

Eagleman is annoying because he is so cocky and self-assured, and yet so clearly wrong. He displays the folly of simplistic and impoverished neuro-reductionism. Yes, clearly, we are products of brain processes and depend on the brain for almost everything we do and say. But we are NOT our brain - that is simply a category error. One doesn't have to be a substance dualist to argue that there is a "self" that emerges from the workings of the brain and that it is that emergent self that we identify as persons.

I would ask Eagleman, "Are you married? If so, did you marry a brain?". The University metaphor is very apt here - the story where a prospective student is shown around a university campus, "Here is the Main Hall, here is the Refec, here is the library, here is the science building, etc". At the completion of the tour, the student says,"Thanks for showing me all these buildings but - WHERE IS THE UNIVERSITY?!!". This is a good metaphor for Eagleman's category error.

These are not brains on trial. These are persons on trial - emergent selves located on a level above simple brains. Eagleman's reductionism is fallacious. Neuroscience has already shown that complex systems - such as emergent minds/selves - can exert "top down" influence on the brain's biology. So Eagleman's "the only way is up" argument is clearly inadequate.

And if Eagleman tried to argue that the self is illusory, that would be a great time to turn your back and ignore everything else said by this "non-self" talking at you.

Sep. 17 2013 07:00 PM
Roger from Queensland, Australia

Eagleman is annoying because he is so cocky and self-assured, and yet so clearly wrong. He displays the folly of simplistic and impoverished neuro-reductionism. Yes, clearly, we are products of brain processes and depend on the brain for almost everything we do and say. But we are NOT our brain - that is simply a category error. One doesn't have to be a substance dualist to argue that there is a "self" that emerges from the workings of the brain and that it is that emergent self that we identify as persons.

I would ask Eagleman, "Are you married? If so, did you marry a brain?". The University metaphor is very apt here - the story where a prospective student is shown around a university campus, "Here is the Main Hall, here is the Refec, here is the library, here is the science building, etc". At the completion of the tour, the student says,"Thanks for showing me all these buildings but - WHERE IS THE UNIVERSITY?!!". This is a good metaphor for Eagleman's category error.

These are not brains on trial. These are persons on trial - emergent selves located on a level above simple brains. Eagleman's reductionism is fallacious. Neuroscience has already shown that complex systems - such as emergent minds/selves - can exert "top down" influence on the brain's biology. So Eagleman's "the only way is up" argument is clearly inadequate.

And if Eagleman tried to argue that the self is illusory, that would be a great time to turn your back and ignore everything else said by this "non-self" talking at you.

Sep. 17 2013 06:59 PM
Roger from Queensland, Australia

Eagleman is annoying because he is so cocky and self-assured, and yet so clearly wrong. He displays the folly of simplistic and impoverished neuro-reductionism. Yes, clearly, we are products of brain processes and depend on the brain for almost everything we do and say. But we are NOT our brain - that is simply a category error. One doesn't have to be a substance dualist to argue that there is a "self" that emerges from the workings of the brain and that it is that emergent self that we identify as persons.

I would ask Eagleman, "Are you married? If so, did you marry a brain?". The University metaphor is very apt here - the story where a prospective student is shown around a university campus, "Here is the Main Hall, here is the Refec, here is the library, here is the science building, etc". At the completion of the tour, the student says,"Thanks for showing me all these buildings but - WHERE IS THE UNIVERSITY?!!". This is a good metaphor for Eagleman's category error.

These are not brains on trial. These are persons on trial - emergent selves located on a level above simple brains. Eagleman's reductionism is fallacious. Neuroscience has already shown that complex systems - such as emergent minds/selves - can exert "top down" influence on the brain's biology. So Eagleman's "the only way is up" argument is clearly inadequate.

And if Eagleman tried to argue that the self is illusory, that would be a great time to turn your back and ignore everything else said by this "non-self" talking at you.

Sep. 17 2013 06:59 PM
Roger from Queensland, Australia

Some relevant books:

"Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will" [Paperback]
Nancey Murphy (Author), Warren S. Brown (Author)

"Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience" [Hardcover]
Sally Satel (Author), Scott O. Lilienfeld (Author)

Sep. 17 2013 05:31 PM
Stephanie from Albuquerque, NM

Even if you understand all our actions to rise from our biology, you can't discount punishment—or any other action you might take to correct a behavior. Being a brain materialist doesn't mean throwing your hands up in defeat and saying, "well, it's nobody's fault, nothing can be done!" The brain is shaped by everything that happens to it: including punishments and rewards. I don't think punishment is always the correct solution to bad behavior — in fact, it's probably one of the weaker behavior modifications. But like any other thing you do to a brain, it IS going to have *some* result. And results are what we're looking for, right? For any person who is behaving asocially, there may be a solution to that behavior that allows that person to rejoin society as a functional, productive citizen. We need to be clear-headed about what will achieve that result best for each criminal. For some it may be punishment, for some it may be "being forgiven," and for some it may be surgery.

Of course, if we just want revenge, and not rehabilitation, then we don't need to be result-oriented. One hammer fits all needs.

Sep. 17 2013 03:09 PM
Ray Thomas

The hosts imply that we are supposed to find Hector's decisions shocking or disturbing, and perhaps they are from a certain perspective, but Hector's compassion toward his daughter's killer in spite of his crimes is exactly what makes it beautiful. It's easy to feel compassion toward those who seem to deserve it. Showing compassion, love, and kindness for those who are the most lowly or most despicable to you is a rarity in this world, and something of which there ought to be a lot more. Hector sounded like a religious person, and I think he did a good job living up to Jesus's command: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you".

Sep. 17 2013 11:15 AM
Jonathan Cano from Santa Cruz, CA

I feel like David Eagleman has been spying on my philosophical musings!

The universe simply *is*. Blame, good, evil, et cetera are human constructions created to try to understand the world and move through it. We moved on from Aristotle's 4 elements when a more useful system came along. We should do the same with blame.

As for "blame and moral fabric" -- there may be some useful truth there but it is important not to fall into "the death penalty is a deterrent" trap.

Sep. 16 2013 05:09 PM

What a great show. I'm glad RadioLab had David Eagleman on as I not only agreed with him but also found myself challenging some of his arguments, thus, challenging myself.

The last piece, Dear Hector, was most heart wrenching but also asked many questions and I thought it was an excellent way to end this episode. It answered some questions we may have about blame but opened the door to others. Oh the complexity of life and it's grey areas we love to call Black & White.


Sep. 16 2013 02:41 PM

So I didn't ask to be born, did I? And neither did my parents. So, if we are all alone in the universe as scientism seems to purport; absolutely none of this matters including this post. But we, none of us, behaves as if this is true. We all behave as if something matters.

Sep. 16 2013 12:12 PM
Bob Minder from wbur

Hi, guys! I know yours is a science show, but I’m not sure coming down as solidly on the materialist side of the brain-consciousness debate is as true to us or science as it would seem from listening to you. Sure there are neuro-philosophers who posit that consciousness is no more than an illusion caused by activities in the brain computer, but there are numerous others, Roger Penrose for one, who claim that the brain can facilitate but not cause the experience of subjective reality. More and more neuroscientists are of the same school, Charles Sherrington and Jon Eccles amongst them. Quantum physicists Brian Josephson and Eugene Wigner have gone so far as to extend the findings of the uncertainty principle {which has proven that our observations alter what is being observed} by saying that observation itself literally participates in the creation of reality and has a more fundamental or primary role than matter. Along these lines, theoretical quantum physicist Amit Goswami recently published The Self-Aware Universe: how consciousness creates the material world. And finally, it is striking how surgeons who have had the opportunity to see dozens and dozens of cases of patients rescuscitated, including rescucitation specialist Sam Parnia and cardiosurgeon Pim Van Lommel, have become leaders in presenting near death experiences where consciousness is reported to continue sans body function. Along these lines, Neurosurgeon Alexander Eben’s personal experience became the recent bestseller Proof of Heaven, but one could as easily have cited the writings of the most famous neurosurgeon of the twentieth century, Wilder Penfeld... or the early twentieth century Henri Bergson, who saw the brain as a filter, a reductive valve, that eliminated much of the vast consciousness of Existence so that our human form could handle it and function. There is a lot of science in this camp—you did a show that seemed solidly on one side of the bank, how about this side too?
And as far as the various versions of the Twinkie Defense you cite? Well, we know about the spuriously reported XXY cause of Richard Speck’s murderous impulses or the questionable success of John Hinckley’s insanity plea, but we also we need to work with the complexity for there is much to be said for psychopathology’s medical model as the Ancient Romans recognized in establishing the legal standard of non compos mentis. The Haitians have a saying in their Creole French, Pa Semp, which simply suggests issues are not simple. “Honey, we need be capable of complexity,” is an oft-heard expression in conversation, raised both casually and instructively.

Sep. 15 2013 05:45 PM

Robert: You ARE your brain. There is no "little man" in there controlling the brain.

Sep. 15 2013 02:39 PM
Mitch P from Cary, NC

At 41 minutes, the scenario of predicting crime reminded me of science fiction writers who have already thought of this possibility. There's an animated series on hulu that focused on this kind of a future. It was really great. Here's the description:

Title of the show: "Psycho-Pass"
"Psycho-Pass is set in a future where it is possible to instantaneously measure a person's mental state, personality, and the probability that a person will commit crimes, all through a "cymatic scan" of the brain. The resulting assessment is called a Psycho-Pass. When this probability, measured by the "Crime Coefficient" index, is too high in an individual, they are pursued and apprehended—with lethal force, if necessary. [The main character] hunts criminals alongside a special team of so called latent criminals (people whose Crime Coefficients are deemed too high, and without chance of recovery) called Enforcers. Both Enforcers and Inspectors use magnum-esque "Dominators", special weapons designed to fire only on those with a higher-than-acceptable Crime Coefficient. "

Sep. 14 2013 05:41 PM

As a criminologist who focuses on biology and crime, if we could accurately predict who was going to recidivate, we would've done it years ago, and would use selective incarceration (only locking up those who have the highest risk of recidivating) instead of general incarceration. This is an idea that came up in the 1980s with the boom of incarceration, but we can't accurately identify who is going to recidivate.

Also how do we define recidivism? A person who will engage in the behavior again? Or a person who gets arrested for engaging in that behavior?

Sep. 14 2013 01:03 PM
Bonnie from Bismarck, ND

Jad and Robert: Did you really use argumentum ad antiquitatem in the second segment? Not only that, you misrepresented what Dr. David Eagleman was saying. Come on you two, you can do better than this.

Sep. 14 2013 11:35 AM
Travis from Salt Lake City, UT


Amazing new episode!!! Blew me away. I had a question. There is music playing in the background of the episode during the break between the first two stories during the station ID and ads, etc. It sounds like a classical bass or viola, plucking out a song. My sounds amazing. Can you tell me who the musician is?!

Keep up the great work!!


Sep. 14 2013 02:24 AM
NP from Virginia

Krulwich really hurts the conversation in the second story and doesn't give Eagleman a chance to shine. I don't know if he's playing the part of the naive layperson or if his thought processes are indeed that simple, but his comments hurt a potentially great conversation with Eagleman.

And another general comment. Radiolab has REALLY diverged from the science that it use to report in its podcasts and now has firmly placed itself into the "science-fiction" category. What used to be fascinating science-related stories is now pure conjecture and unsubstantiated claims that merely sound sexy and would make great dinner conversation.

I'm with Jean here, bit disappointed.

Sep. 14 2013 01:17 AM
Jean from Rochester, NY

Yet another in a very long list of disappointing episodes, but such is the thrilling memory of episodes past that I am like those pathetic lab rats who keep pressing lever that no longer dispenses food. So I keep listening, then coming here to piss and moan.

The first segment was interesting but not newsworthy. We have known about the link between brain injury and criminal behavior since the case of Phineas Gage in 1848. He survived an iron spike through his brain, but his law-abiding personality did not. The conversation over criminal culpability has advanced far past the cursory and simplistic treatment presented in the episode. The second segment took it up a notch, but I can't believe Jad yada-yada'ed past the discussion of free will yet let Robert get into his misty-eyed god talk! The notion of free will underlies all three segments and would have made for some fascinating discussions. Cutting-edge neuroscience and emergence have offered some mind-blowing theories pertaining to free will that the old Radiolab would have relished. This would have been far more interesting than the retread of the old saintly-victim-forgives-the-really-really-bad-guy-who-finds-religion story.

David Eagleman was the only innovative thinker in the episode, and was repeatedly cut off for obtuse questions, and quite shockingly misinterpreted as advocating a Minority Report type of justice system. This is evidence of more than a slump I'm afraid - Radiolab has been officially dumbed down.

Sep. 13 2013 11:23 PM

@Sarah, if you subscribe via podcast I don't think you ever get repeats. At least, I don't think I ever have. Easy way to tell.

Sep. 13 2013 04:54 PM

Brilliant episode! I read a nice article on the evolution/biology of morality that also gets into the issue of accountability, which this episode treats so well. If you want more context for this discussion, check out "Moral Matter" on The America Interest's website:

Also, Ben Goldacre's awesome book Bad Science gets into som of the statistical problems with predicting recidivism. He is not a fan.

Sep. 13 2013 12:31 PM
A.J. from St. Louis

Great show. Did "Of Mice and Men" ever come up in conversations.

Sep. 13 2013 12:24 PM

I couldn't agree with Jeff more. I was dumbfounded when you went from the idea that our justice system's main consideration should be the likelihood that someone will recommit a crime, to keeping people indefinitely locked up because they might commit an entirely different crime later. That was very clearly not what Dr Eagleman was proposing. Rehabilitation is the goal of any penal system that actually has any hope of being successful in the long term.

Sep. 13 2013 10:40 AM
Jeff from San Francisco, California, United States

I feel like you guys made a huge leap in the second story (about the brain and legal system) from the "we should focus on recidivism" point to Minority Report. And in doing so, leaped over the possibility of focusing on recidivism with the goal of reducing it. I could imagine a justice system that, rather than using brain scans and algorithms for estimating recidivism to lock people up for future crimes, uses these tools to determine what type (and duration) of assistance is needed to prevent future crimes. And in turn giving us the ability to have a justice system that's smartly focused on rehabilitation, not the dystopia your arguments led to.

Anywho, love the show, thanks!

Sep. 12 2013 10:47 PM

@Sarah This is not a repeat. There are very few rebroadcasts on RL.

Sep. 12 2013 09:55 PM
Kirsten from Southampton, UK

I loved this, as with all your podcasts, however they rarely make me shout at the laptop and completely emphasize. I normally don't listen to them in full, but have stayed up to 2am as I couldn't stop!

Sep. 12 2013 09:04 PM
Sarah Siddell

What I would like to know is whether these podcasts are new or repeats. This American Life, for example, shows clearly when a show is a repeat. Why do you have to listen for a while to Radiolab to tell if you've heard it before.

It may be picky, but I feel cheated when I settle in to listen, only to discover that I've heard this before.

Come on, guys, give us a break!


Sep. 12 2013 08:56 PM
pegeen from San Pedro, CA

This show is so unbelievably wonderful. I'm listening to everything in the archives. These stories are meaningful and compelling in a way that makes me wonder how US Magazine sells when customers could be listening to this instead.
This one on "Blame?" Amazing. I'm speechless. And grateful.

Sep. 12 2013 07:55 PM

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