Jun 27, 2017

Revising the Fault Line

A new tussle over an old story, and some long-held beliefs, with neurologist and author Robert Sapolsky.

Four years ago, we did a story about a man with a starling obsession that made us question our ideas of responsibility and justice. We thought we’d found some solid ground, but today Dr. Sapolsky shows up and takes us down a rather disturbing rabbit hole. 

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PAT WALTERS: Maybe all of us can sit on the couch.


KEVIN: I can pull that chair over.


JAD ABUMRAD: So we're gonna to start off with a story from our producer Pat Walters about a couple.


JANET: Oh my word!


JAD: Okay, so I mentioned a couple episodes ago -- by the way, this is Jad. Radiolab. That we'll be bringing back some episodes back into the flow from time to time, episodes that we haven't stopped thinking about, that feel truer to us now than before, maybe the opposite. You know, episodes that we still end up getting into fights with people about. And a couple years ago, we ran a story about a guy named Kevin, and a little bit more recently ...


ROBERT KRULWICH: Hello, Robert. Are you there?




ROBERT: Great. Jad'll be here in just a sec.


JAD: Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist at Stanford who Robert Krulwich and I have had on the show many times, he recently wrote a book in which he makes an argument that really tries to kind of just explode that story in a way that we found sort of interesting.


ROBERT: It was just my hunch that it plays near a lot of your buttons.




JAD: So what we did was we sent him that piece, had him listen to it. And actually, what we'll do now is replay that piece and then at the end we'll come back and we'll have a little bit of a fight about it. So we're gonna start with a story from our producer Pat Walters about a couple.


JANET: Oh my word!


JAD: That's the lady.


JANET: I'm Janet.


JAD: This is the guy.


PAT: So I don't need you to introduce yourself. That's usually the thing we do, but we're not telling people who you are.


JAD: We're gonna call him Kevin.


KEVIN: Kevin. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That's -- yeah, that's my name. Not suspicious at all.


JAD: It's not his real name. It'll make sense why we're not using his real name in a second.


KEVIN: Okay, you know ...


PAT: So this one starts a few summers ago. It was July, 2006. Jan and Kevin were at home.


PAT: And some people you don't know show up, and maybe I'll start with you.


JANET: When they show up at the door? So we were -- it was -- we were getting ready to go down the shore. It was a Friday. So we -- so we're in the kitchen, and they come to the back door.


KEVIN: I thought that -- I thought that they were fundraising. I thought they might have been fireman just by, you know, the blue -- the blue shirt, and then realized that they were -- they were law enforcement.


JANET: Two women and I think two men.


KEVIN: More came up from around the -- you know, the side of the house.


JANET: And they show us their badges.


PAT: Were they cops? Or ...


JANET: They were Homeland Security.


KEVIN: They took me outside.


JANET: And they kept me and they asked me to stay in the kitchen. And they had a woman with me. I didn't know what was going on. Nobody said anything to me.


PAT: What are they saying to you on the porch meanwhile?


KEVIN: When they -- when they showed up, I got to the door. They said, "You know why we're here." I said, "Yeah, I do. I was expecting you." And I showed them where everything was.


ROBERT: This story about Kevin and his wife Janet inspired us to do the entire hour.


JAD: Mm-hmm. Because one of the most basic things that we do as people is we judge. We judge one another.


ROBERT: We judge what's right.


JAD: We judge what's wrong.


ROBERT: But this story and the two that follow ...


JAD: They will make you judge how you judge. Or at least they had that effect on us.


ROBERT: And we're calling our show Blame.


JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich. And we'll go back to Pat.


JAD: Before we do, you should know that this show contains some graphic, difficult descriptions in a few spots. If you're not in the mood or if you have kids around, you might want to sit this one out.


PAT: Okay. So what happened in that first scene and what happens next only makes sense if we go back a little first. About 15 years. It's just an ordinary day. Kevin's going home from work.


KEVIN: And I was driving home, going about 65-70 in the fast lane when suddenly there was a thump in my chest. Then heat. Just a heat burning.


PAT: After that, he said suddenly he had this thickness ...


KEVIN: In my tongue, in my throat.


PAT: Then a foul taste in his mouth.


KEVIN: Then my hearing faded out.


PAT: And he thought [bleep], it's back.


KEVIN: When I finally did come to ...


PAT: He sees his car has smashed into the side of an apartment building.


KEVIN: I do recall the officers telling me, "You've been in an accident. You've been in ..."


PAT: And he remembers one of them ...


KEVIN: Insisted that he smelled alcohol, and I was talking through clenched teeth because I had bit my tongue and my cheeks. I was saying over and over again, "I had a seizure. I had a seizure."


PAT: Kevin's got epilepsy. He's had it since he was a teenager. But two years before this all happened, he'd had surgery to remove the part of his brain that was causing the seizures, and it seemed to have worked. He was doing great. Essentially wasn't having seizures anymore. Until suddenly ...


PAT: You ...


PAT: He was.


PAT: Lost your license?


KEVIN: I lost my license for a year.


PAT: Things had kind of taken a nosedive. Like, here he is, he's 35 years old.


KEVIN: I'm living with my brother. I'm divorced. And I have to call my daddy and ask him now to drive me to and from work.


PAT: And you think, "I need to do something. This is not sustainable."


KEVIN: No. No, don't -- don't need that. So I walked into the office.


PAT: Asked the HR person where he works for a list of all the employees.


KEVIN: "Give me a list of everybody and where they're from." So she pulled it up. I go down the list and I get to Janet Woodruff Bloomfield. Only one that's really close to me. Five minutes away. So I walk to her cube, knocked on the -- on the wall and introduced myself.


PAT: Like, "Hey, my name is Kevin. I also work here. I've got this thing, though. It's kind of awkward. I can't drive, and I was wondering if you'd give me a ride."


KEVIN: And she said yes.


JANET: I really pass by his street I mean, on the way to work. So it was ...


PAT: Like, right on his street.


JANET: Pretty much. But I made it clear, you know, I'll do it when I can.


PAT: And as they drove together, they ...


JANET: Started talking. Finding out little bit more about each other.


PAT: Noticed pretty quickly.


KEVIN: We liked the same music.


JANET: And that was unique, because I sort of liked music that was probably more in his era.


PAT: Kevin was seven years older than Jan.


PAT: What kind of music were you listening to?


JANET: Jackson Browne, mostly. A lot of Jackson Browne. James Taylor. Bonnie Raitt. You know, Elton John.


PAT: They found themselves singing along to the lyrics.


KEVIN: You cannot sing with somebody day in and day out and not have something happen.


JANET: We wound up as the spring came, you know, it's getting nice out. So now it's like well, let's not go home. Let's go out for a beer after work.


KEVIN: We're becoming good friends.


JANET: We liked each other.


PAT: But for Kevin, it was a little more serious than that.


KEVIN: I'm thinking about her, and I'm starting to wake up at night.


PAT: And one day in May as Janet is dropping him off, Kevin turned to her and he says ...


KEVIN: Hey, I really appreciate what you've done for me. Let me take you to dinner, just as friends. Just as friends.


PAT: Janet says sure.


KEVIN: So ...


PAT: May 30th, 1992.


KEVIN: Highlawn Pavilion.


PAT: Nicest restaurant in town.


JANET: So your friend takes you to a four-star restaurant, you're thinking right away ...


PAT: He thinks this is a date.


KEVIN: We're going on a date. Come on!


JANET: So now I'm panic-stricken.


KEVIN: We have our dinner, we leave.


JANET: We had a wonderful time.


KEVIN: She drops me off and I handed her the poem.


PAT: What did the poem say? You still have it?


KEVIN: Yeah, I do. Okay. This is "A Little Slower." Each time we sing on the way home, I pray that traffic backs up so we can sing together just a little longer and the harmony can go on forever. And each time we reach my door I feel robbed, because we're always in mid-song or mid-thought. If only I ...


PAT: He gets out and goes inside and probably thinks, "Awesome. I gave her that poem, she's gonna be so smitten with me." And you go home and what?


JANET: Want to throw up. I just thought, "Oh, God. I -- you know ..."


PAT: Next day.


JANET: I just looked at him and said listen, "We got to clarify. This is clearly just gonna be a friendship." He was seven years older than me. He had these brain -- you know, surgery, he has epilepsy. He's divorced, he has two children.


KEVIN: Are you catching the compassion here? Are you catching the compassion here?


PAT: I'm trying.


JANET: And he's just like, "I'm not asking you to marry me. I'm asking you to go out on a few dates."


KEVIN: Exactly. If you go out with me, like, four times in the next six months, I'm ahead of the game.


JANET: He just handled it. And I don't think it was long at all. I can't even remember, but it wasn't long at all before we were, like, a couple.


PAT: And Kevin?


KEVIN: I'm dopey. Dopey in love.


JANET: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.


PAT: He's doing romantic things for her all the time.


JANET: Flowers, poems and ...


PAT: Paintings.


KEVIN: An illustration of the Jackson Browne cover.


PAT: And within a year ...


JANET: We were engaged.


PAT: But all the while, Kevin is having seizures.


KEVIN: Yeah.


PAT: Since the car accident more and more.


KEVIN: There was a point where we were obviously dating.


PAT: She's helping him make his bed.


KEVIN: And ...


PAT: He says she pulled off the pillowcase ...


KEVIN: It's covered with bloodstains. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. You can count the number of seizures that I had and bit through my tongue and bled.


JANET: I knew nothing about epilepsy. I had never seen anybody have a seizure. In my past, those would have been big red flags that I would have just walked away. But I just went with it.


PAT: And they both went with it for a few years, until finally Kevin and Janet decide this is enough.


KEVIN: I wanted to be done with it. I just needed to be done with it.


PAT: So they schedule a brain surgery. Which sounds like a big deal, and obviously it is, but they had every reason to think that this wouldn't change him.


JANET: I honestly thought that he was gonna come out of it fine, better.


PAT: Because that's what happened the first time. Kevin had actually gone through a brain surgery much like this one once before, and he'd come out pretty much the same guy.


JANET: He was still himself.


PAT: In fact, he made sure of it.


KEVIN: I had a -- I was awake for the surgery. And ...


PAT: That's crazy.


KEVIN: Yeah, it was. I had to be awake.


PAT: It had to do with music. Kevin is a musician, and the doctors told him ...


KEVIN: They said that if I lost anything I was gonna lose my appreciation for music. That it would be like music would be white noise. I said, you know, "No, for me music was -- no, is part of my personality." It was how I coped with my darkest moments in dealing with epilepsy and seizures. At 18 years old, I'd have a seizure. I'd take my harmonica and I'd find a place with decent reverb somewhere and be right where I needed to be. I didn't want to lose that part of me.


PAT: So as the doctors were doing the brain surgery, they had his head open. They asked him to sing.


PAT: Do you remember what you sang?


KEVIN: End of the Innocence, some James Taylor.


PAT: And while he's sang, they would tickle different parts of his brain. And if they ever touched a part that made him stop singing they'd say, "Okay. That's a part we cannot take out."




PAT: Yeah. And in the end ...


KEVIN: I think they ended up taking out, like, four and a half centimeters. Like a -- you know, a little bigger -- bigger than a golf ball.


JAD: Whoa.


PAT: But afterwards as he was recovering ...


KEVIN: I had my keyboard in the room and I tried playing right away. Da da da da da da da da. And it worked.


PAT: The part of him that he really cared about was still there.


KEVIN: Exactly.


JANET: Yeah. He was the man I fell in love with after the first surgery. So I thought well, you know ...


PAT: Now that they've got to do a second surgery ...


JANET: He's already been down this road. We're fine.


PAT: And after that second surgery, he did seem fine.


KEVIN: Janet didn't have her brother sneak my keyboard up to the room again.


JANET: He was very, very adamant that he wanted that keyboard.


KEVIN: I played a little. Just noodled a couple of notes, played a couple of things and it was like, "Okay. I'm there."


PAT: Still me.


KEVIN: I was ready to go.


PAT: So you go home and, like, it seems to have worked?


JANET: Yeah. As far as seizures go we thought, "Okay, this is it. We're home free." And I was just happy to have some normalcy.


PAT: But then in the winter ...


KEVIN: By beginning, the middle of January ...


PAT: Kevin noticed he wanted to eat ...


KEVIN: My physical appetite ...


PAT: ... a lot more than usual.


KEVIN: ... got, like, insane.


JANET: This is a guy who didn't eat breakfast, he had minimal lunch, and he'd have a sensible dinner, maybe a snack. That was it.


PAT: But now?


KEVIN: I could eat the couch.


JANET: It just was odd. It was not him normally but, you know, you're like, "Okay."


PAT: She thought maybe it's just a side effect from the medications. But then ...


JANET: The piano. He'd play the piano for hours.


PAT: The same songs they used to sing in the car together.


JANET: If he was stuck on a piece, he would play it for hours.


PAT: Like, how many hours?


JANET: Eight. Eight, nine.


PAT: And then there was sex.


JANET: You know, we were a happy, healthy couple.


PAT: Kevin's nodding.


JANET: Yeah. Yeah, it was fine. But what was abnormal was it was -- it was anywhere. Clearly it wasn't like, "Oh, we're in the supermarket. Let's have sex here." I mean, it wasn't like that. But I mean it was like I could just walk in the kitchen from being out of work and he'd be like, "Oh, you -- let's go here."


PAT: Which struck her as weird. But then again ...


JANET: We were thinking, you know, let's try to have a family.


PAT: So the timing made things confusing. And more than that, it wasn't like any of this stuff was out of character, exactly. In fact, it was all stuff that she liked about him.


JANET: Yeah.


PAT: Except now it was all turned up to 11.


JANET: All the things that were wonderful became chores.


PAT: And that's pretty much where things were at when those federal agents showed up in July of 2006.


JANET: I was just completely blindsided.


KEVIN: They said, "You know why we're here." I said, "Yeah, I do. I was expecting you."


PAT: Kevin took the agents upstairs.


KEVIN: I took them right into here where my computer was.


PAT: And they arrested him for what was on that computer.


KEVIN: I gave it up to them right away.


JAD: Warning: this next passage contains some graphic imagery.


PAT: I mean, I hadn't -- I don't know if I had fully, like -- I think I had just, like, let child porn be this kind of vague thing that meant someone younger than 18. But then I read some of the court documents and they were, like, toddlers. There were pic -- videos of two, three and four year olds.


KEVIN: There -- there -- these sites had the most despicable, disgusting things you can -- you can imagine. Infants on through. You know, preteen and, you know, pre-adolescent and adolescents.


PAT: And you bought these things and put them on your computer.


KEVIN: I -- yeah. Yeah, it bothers me. It bothers me. Like I said, initially it was -- you know, it was just your base -- your basic, you know, hetero -- heterosexual Playboy-like, Penthouse-like sites. And then windows would just start to open up.


PAT: And pretty soon he says, he was going everywhere.


KEVIN: There was gay sex. They were -- I mean, there was -- there was bondage, there was defecation sex. There was animal sex, xeno sex. I went everywhere that a button came up to push. I -- I still don't understand it. I still -- I still don't understand it.


PAT: You say it disturbed you and you feel terrible, but I just, like, wonder, like, how do you -- do you tell yourself, like, that wasn't me? Like, how do you explain it to yourself to -- so that you can kind of, I don't know, not feel like you're as bad as the person who goes there without a brain injury is, you know? Like ...


KEVIN: I -- say that again? Ask that question.


PAT: I guess I'm just wondering, I don't know, like, knowing that that's a thing that you did and it sounds like obviously you know that that was bad, it was a wrong thing and it was a terrible thing. But it was -- it was you who did it, or was it not? I don't know. You know what I mean?


KEVIN: No. It was -- it was me who did it, but it was me with a complete lack of neurological control. I mean, I know -- I know who I am. I did idiotic things that I couldn't stop myself from doing. I didn't want to do it. There would be nights where it would be four, five, six hours of going to the same site and -- and downloading one or two files and then deleting them. Going back a minute later, downloading the same files, deleting them. I would download those files a dozen times and delete them a dozen times because I didn't want to be there, knew I shouldn't be there, and couldn't help myself from going back. I'm not an idiot. I mean, I'm a smart guy. I'm not an idiot. But I know I had no control.


PAT: And that's what he would argue in court. Kevin would plead guilty, but at the sentencing hearing he asked the judge to be lenient, arguing essentially that the person who did all those things in some sense wasn't him. It was some other part of his brain that he couldn't control. At the hearing he called one witness.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: Orrin Devinsky. I'm a neurologist and epilepsy specialist at NYU Medical Center.


PAT: He's been treating Kevin for decades.


KEVIN: 20 -- 20 some odd years.


PAT: And he says as soon as he found out what Kevin had been doing ...


ORRIN DEVINSKY: Had a terrible sense of responsibility.


PAT: This is because of the brain surgery. The surgery Orrin recommended he have. And he argued in court that this was not Kevin's fault.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: I remember looking at those agents right in their face and saying to them and to the judge, "This could be anybody. This could be those agents, judge. This could be you. This could be me. This could be anybody, and we would have no control over what we did."


PAT: And he explained to the court ...


ORRIN DEVINSKY: What the biology was.


PAT: That the way the brain is organized is that there are parts of our brain that are way deep down that control, like, base desires.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: Like hunger, sex.


PAT: Keeps us alive. But it's teeming with the nastiest thoughts.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: We all have these crazy thoughts in our head.


PAT: Now in most of us, those thoughts are kept in check because there are other parts of our brain that sit on top and act like a lid. But in Kevin's case, the brain surgeon who did that surgery removed part of that filter and suddenly ...


ORRIN DEVINSKY: The cork was off. I mean, there was just no lid on his sexual desires.


PAT: He says scientists have known about this condition for a long time. They first saw it in monkeys.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: In rhesus monkeys.


PAT: When the monkeys would lose roughly the same part of the brain that Kevin lost ...


ORRIN DEVINSKY: They became very hyper-sexual. Males that would only previously be sexually involved with females, now were ten times more sexually active with both males and females.


PAT: But it feels to me -- feels to me like there's a -- there would be a brighter line before kids, you know?


ORRIN DEVINSKY: I think there is a line for quote unquote "normal" individuals, but in a brain disorder case those lines get blurred.


PAT: And he told the court that's what happened here.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: It was black and white.


PAT: Kevin was sick and his behavior was out of his control.


LEE VARTAN: Well, that's not what the facts showed in this case.


PAT: This is Lee Vartan who was the prosecutor.


LEE VARTAN: We saw no evidence of impulsivity.


PAT: He says if you're claiming that he had no control, that his brain made him do it, then how come he had all this child porn on his home computer ...


LEE VARTAN: I believe it was 52 videos and 125 images.


PAT: And yet on his work computer?


LEE VARTAN: There were zero images, zero videos of child pornography on his work computer.


PAT: And he worked a lot.


LEE VARTAN: He held down a job. He was working every day. If he truly lacked impulse control, I would think you would see child pornography on both computers.


PAT: And so what he argued back was what, was the lid on at work and off at home?


LEE VARTAN: Seems to me to be an easy out.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: So the answer is that this is common with neurologic disease. They tend not to be 24/7.


PAT: He says take something like Tourette's. Some people ...


ORRIN DEVINSKY: When they're engaged in playing sports, they tend not to have tics.


PAT: Whereas when they're sitting around bored or stressed, they do tend to have tics.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: So you could say, "Well, Tourette's clearly isn't a neurological disorder," but no, Tourette's is a neurologic disorder. We understand some of the brain things that go on in Tourette's.


PAT: The prosecution didn't buy it.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: They just thought it was hogwash.


LEE VARTAN: What was hogwash was his level of certainty.


PAT: The prosecution asked that Kevin be sent to prison for five years, because in paying for child porn he was supporting an industry that does terrible things to kids. Kevin hoped he'd avoid jail time altogether and instead be placed on house arrest. Now as for Janet, right after the arrest ...


PAT: I have to imagine that you were in shock a little. Like ...


JANET: Yeah.


PAT: She'd gone to see a lawyer.


JANET: And one of the questions he asked was, is this marriage gonna survive this? And I said, "I don't know." And at that point, understand I didn't even know the level of pictures.


PAT: But she says the moment she heard Orrin say that this was a brain disorder with a name, it's called Klüver–Bucy syndrome.


JANET: Once I was able to get that, for me it clicked. Like ...


PAT: She couldn't blame him.


JANET: We have these experts saying that it was a disease, and I kept thinking they'll understand.


PAT: Not to mention that after Kevin was arrested and got out on bail, Orrin gave him some medication. And Janet says it was like flipping a switch.


JANET: That's exactly what it was. It was like I got him back.


KEVIN: I was able to sit and watch a movie with her.


JANET: You know, normal.


PAT: Janet actually says in a lot of ways those few months between the arrest and the sentencing hearing, they'd been the best months in their marriage.


JANET: He now was just so much easier, calmer. You could just talk.


PAT: The hearing took about three hours, and when it was over the judge took a recess, went into her chambers. When she came back, she delivered her decision.


JAD: And we'll hear that decision when we come back after a quick break.


[AMANDA: This is Amanda Darby calling from Rockville, Maryland. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]




JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. We're revisiting Pat Walter's story about Kevin, and when we left the judge was just about to render her decision.


PAT: She actually wouldn't talk to me for this story, but I have the transcript from the hearing. And if you remember the prosecutor Lee Vartan was asking for five years.


LEE VARTAN: 63 months.


PAT: Orrin, Kevin, Janet were hoping for ...


JANET: House arrest.


PAT: Meaning no jail time.


JANET: There's no way they're gonna put him in jail. This is clear-cut.


PAT: And here's what the judge does. She says, "I do agree with Orrin."


ORRIN DEVINSKY: It is a neurological disorder.


PAT: No question. So he can't be held fully responsible for his behavior.


KEVIN: She was getting it.


PAT: On the other hand she said, the prosecution did have a point.


LEE VARTAN: That he was very much in control of his impulses.


PAT: At least some of the time. And so the question for the judge was: how does the legal system assign blame when a person is sometimes themselves and in control and sometimes not. Well, this was a crime, she said. A crime which ultimately leads to children being harmed. And considering that you did have moments where you were in control, then in those moments you had a responsibility. You could have done something. You could have asked for help. You could have told the people around you what you were doing. So even if you couldn't have stopped yourself, they could have stopped you.


KEVIN: She made it very clear that we had to do something here.


PAT: His sentence?


KEVIN: 26 months at a federal prison and ...


PAT: 25 months ...


KEVIN: ... of house arrest. And I believe -- I believe that she was fair, and I believe she was compassionate.


PAT: And about a week before Christmas in 2008, Janet drove him to prison.


ROBERT: How long was he in jail for?


PAT: About two years.


ROBERT: And she was -- even though the judge said, you know, he is responsible, did that change her attitude toward him at all?


PAT: No, they totally stuck together. She visited him pretty much every weekend the whole time.


JANET: I knew the route, and I had my own little routine down.


PAT: In between visits she'd send him notes.


JANET: And I'll never forget, he could send me mail. And they had a store where he could get some cards.


PAT: Super Hallmark-y.


JANET: And he would, like, alter them. And I remember the very first card I got, it was this very, you know, beautiful -- supposedly supposed to be beautiful, but it was like, you know, "If you need anything, you know, anything at all. Just let me know." And then he writes, "Of course, if it's pressing you might want to ask someone else because -- unless you can wait 24 months." And I remember getting that and just laughing. And then that became our thing. Like, listen this is a horrible situation, but we're gonna make the best of it.


PAT: Tell me a little bit about, like, where things are at now.


JANET: I think things are -- are almost normal.


KEVIN: You know, I am still on probation.


JANET: But he's home. He's working. Life is going on. We have our normal routines.


PAT: Kevin still takes those medicines that keep the other part of him in check.


KEVIN: I -- I have no libido at all. But I know who I am. I know what I am. I'm disturbed by that portion of my life, but I'm -- I'm trying -- I'm trying to move on.


JAD: Producer Pat Walters. So ...


ROBERT: I know nothing about what your reaction to that will be. It was just my hunch ...


JAD: Back to neuroscientist/author Robert Sapolsky.


ROBERT: That it sort of -- it plays near a lot of your buttons.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Sure does, yeah.


JAD: And while we had always felt like at the end of the story the sentence that Kevin gets from the judge, it was this kind of interesting and nuanced balance between, you know, the idea that he had -- he just had a brain disease and the idea that there was some -- still some sort of personal responsibility involved. Well, right out of the gate Sapolsky had a different reaction.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: I'm appalled by that judicial decision and the underlying worldview.


ROBERT: Really?


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah, completely.


JAD: And for him, it all centered around that sort of key argument that swayed the judge.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: That some of the time he can control these urges and some of the time he can't. The example in there was that never once at work did he do anything like that, and yet he obsessively spent hours each night at home. And the fact that he could control it in other circumstances, does that mean there is a separate me inside there that's able to get to the control panel some of the time but not others, and thus that's punishable?


JAD: Yeah. It's like he's in a kind of pitched battle with some inner urge that he has, maybe it's a biological urge. But sometimes he wins, maybe in the morning when he's had some cups of coffee and he's, like, nicely sugared up. But then at night, we all know this when we get to night, we're tired, our brains are tired, and we -- the id comes out a tiny little bit.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Well, let's -- let's translate what you just said into sort of nuts and bolts biology. Your frontal cortex, which is making you do the harder things when it's the right thing to do is one of the most expensive parts of the brain to operate. And when you're starting to get hungry or you're starting to get tired, your frontal cortex doesn't work as well. And that's simply why we have less regulation of our behavior at night than in the morning. And the perfect neurological example where nobody would invoke free will in this one is you look at somebody with Alzheimer's disease. If they have early-stage Alzheimer's disease, they show a -- a sundowner syndrome. Which is in the morning, they can tell you what their name is, and by night they can't tell you. And the next morning they can tell you again. Whoa. Are we seeing here sort of a choice? Okay, so they know their name and if they're not telling you at night -- they know their name, they can tell you their name in the morning, and if they're not telling it to you at night, they're choosing not to. No. What happens at night is blood sugar levels drop and the brain is tired, and the frontal cortex which has to do the like, "What was my name again?" with three and a half remaining neurons can't do it as well. Nobody looks at that and says, "There's volition. Ooh, they can do it part of the day, they should be expected to be able to do it ..."


JAD: But that's -- that's because it's a different issue. I mean, this isn't -- you're talking about memory.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Okay. So let me -- let me go through a sequence here, that I -- I obviously prepared for the occasion. In the -- in the Kevin segment, they made mention of a syndrome that he has which is called the Klüver–Bucy syndrome.


JAD: Right.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And this was first shown in the 1940s. You'd go into monkeys and you'd take out the same part of the frontal cortex as they did with Kevin, and you get monkeys that eat themselves into obesity now. They can't stop eating. They're hyper-sexual males trying to mount everyone and everything on Earth. Okay, right off the bat, we see some broad similarities. "Ah-ha," you will say though, but Kevin has a moral system. Kevin has meta-control. Kevin as we saw could control it in some circumstances, but not in others. We've left the world of blameless monkeys far behind.


JAD: Yes, yes, yes and yes.


ROBERT: Goodbye!




ROBERT: Hello blame!


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: We have not. You've got a monkey there who's got frontal damage and now is hyper sexual. He's attempting to mount infants. He's attempting to mount water bottles in his cage. Completely out of control. But nonetheless, he doesn't try to mount the alpha male.


ROBERT: Huh. Interesting.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Obviously, what we have here is a monkey who has free will, because in some circumstances he could not do this bad, inappropriate thing because he's got free will or some other -- no, that's ridiculous. Okay, let's ...


JAD: Sapolsky explained to us that it's not that he could control his behavior some of the time. It's that in this instance, he was under the influence of something else that he couldn't control.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Fear. Fear of the alpha male. Activation of fear circuits override the feeble attempts of those four and a half remaining frontal neurons.


JAD: Interesting.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Regulation in one circumstance but not in others, not because there's free will or rotten choices or bad values. This biologically broken system manifests its brokenness under some circumstances but not others. And there's a logical biological explanation for why you get those exceptions.


JAD: Okay, but you're talking about monkeys in one situation.




JAD: We're not yet talking about ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: So let's take it closer to home now. Okay, so you sit down somebody with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and you put the frontally-damaged patient now in a circumstance where they're in a situation where there's a smarter, more disciplined, better payoff thing to do. And they can do it just fine. But then you get them emotionally aroused over something, or you get them tired. They're horrible, terrible compared to regular folks. In other words, we've just progressed from okay, the monkey if it's scared of the alpha male, okay, fear can override the neurons that it has remaining in there and they're swamped. Now we've seen in a human more in general strong emotions can override.


JAD: But so far what you've told me though, is sometimes I have the resources to choose and sometimes I don't. But it's about the resources. But the choice doesn't not exist, it's just sometimes I have ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: No, there's no "choose" in there. Next step. Next step closer in. So for my money ...


ROBERT: You really came prepared for this. [laughs] How many rounds are we gonna do here?


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: I even have a clipboard here. I've got a clipboard sitting in front of me. That's how much I prepared for this.




ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Okay, here's an example. You take a judge and, like, this classic, important study and you look at the single biggest predictor of whether or not this parole board judge -- and this was of the whole panel of judges -- whether they will vote for somebody being paroled or not. The single best predictor was how many hours it had been since the judge has eaten.


JAD: What?


ROBERT: You mean that a hungry judge will not give parole to someone, but a full and happy-tummied in the judge will make the judge more gentle?


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: You look at this study and right after a meal, convicts had about a 90 percent chance of being paroled, and right before a meal they were down to about a 10 percent chance. And it was a virtually straight line going down.


JAD: That's messed up.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And you know the single biggest predictor...


JAD: We actually looked the study up, and it turns out if the judge was making the decision right after lunch when they were full, the parolees had about a 60 percent chance of getting parole. So okay, not as bad as he said, but if the judges were making the decision right before the next meal, like when they were hungry, the parolees had close to a zero percent chance of getting parole.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: What's interesting about that? Number one, the biology makes perfect sense. What are you doing there when you are a judge trying to judge somebody from a completely different world from you to reach a point of deciding. There's mitigating fact. You're trying to take their perspective. You're trying to think about the indirect ways that let -- you're using your frontal cortex. And when you're hungry and your frontal cortex isn't working as well, it's easier to make a snap emotional judgment: this person's rotten. The second amazing thing which exactly addresses this issue is, you get that judge two seconds after they made that decision, you sit him down at that point and say "Hey, so why did you make that decision?" And they're gonna quote, I don't know, Immanuel Kant or Alan Dershowitz at you. They're going to post-hoc come up with an explanation that has all the pseudo-trappings of free will and volition, and in reality it's just rationalization. It's totally biological.


JAD: No, no. That's where you lose me. You lose me on the word "totally." Okay, so it's muchly biological, mostly biological? I might -- I might meet you halfway there, but totally? No. Why does it have to be entirely? Why do we have to go, like, all the way?


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Because if you're not going to go all the way, here's the things that you're asserting ...


JAD: I'm just going to jump in here, because this part of the conversation got a little dense and a little long, but Sapolsky's basic point was that you just have to look at this sort of arc of scientific discoveries.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: 500 years ago, we would have said the epileptic seizure was, like, bad demonic possession. Nah, nah, nah. We learned that's biological. Up to the mid-1950s, if your, like, adolescent child suddenly started having hallucinations and hearing voices and thought disordered, and you would say -- you, the mother of this child would say, "Where did this disease come from?" And the best of science at the time had an answer. They would say, "You. It's your fault." It was called schizophrenogenic mothering. A mothering style that generated schizophrenia. You caused your child schizophrenia. And then in the mid-'50s, the first anti-psychotic drugs were developed and it emptied out the psychiatric wards all over the country. And everybody in the field said, "Oh, my God! It's a biochemical disorder!"


JAD: And he says same thing happened with dyslexia. We used to think it was just kids who were lazy.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Oh, that's biological also.


JAD: And his contention is that this is just gonna keep happening. Like, as science progresses, one by one all of the things that we think are under our control that we should control and that if we don't can be blamed for, one by one all of those things are gonna get chalked up to screw-ups in our biology. Screw-ups that we couldn't have controlled even if we had wanted to.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: So what you're gonna have to do at that point is either say, "Starting tonight at midnight, there will never be a new scientific finding pertinent to this area. We've learned everything there is," or you're going to say free will is just the biology that we haven't learned yet."


JAD: When -- do you in your heart, deep in the -- deep in the center of your, like, in the -- do you really believe this? Do you really think ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Not for a second. Not for a second. And that's the whole thing. This is like my, like, huge conundrum. I have, like, zero belief in free will at this point, yet at the same time I cannot for a second imagine what the world is supposed to look like with people believing there is no free will. I don't know how to imagine it. And I'm constantly this hypocrite, I'm this terrible hypocrite because, like, I'll put on, like, my blue t-shirt instead of my gray t-shirt one morning, and later in the day someone will say, "Oh, whoa. Nice t-shirt." And I'll say, "Thanks." Oh my God, the hypocrisy of it! Here I am taking credit for it. In that circumstance I'm not able to stop and say, "Well actually, I have photoreceptors that, you know, because of this gene variant and that gene variant and my rhodopsin genes, so that I'm particularly good at noticing color sort of combinations, and thus I can get them matching." And "Oh, I picked the fresh fruit here because my olfactory receptors allow me to, like, be able to smell the pineapples that are fresh, and the luck of my socio-economic status has me in, like, some, like, organic market and gives me that, like, ability to do that while listening to, like, fake Peruvian muzak playing in the background, and --" No. You say -- when they say, "Oh, wow! You really know how to pick good pineapples," and I say, "Thanks!" Or when ...


JAD: [laughs]


ROBERT: [laughs] Doesn't this throw a little bit of shade on your intellectual side? I mean, if you believe that every behavior -- not just of Kevin's, because what you're really saying is that the deep lesson of the Kevin story is that everyone is a Kevin. All of us are Kevins all the time. And that anything we ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: For our worst and our best behaviors.


ROBERT: Yes. That everything we choose to do is in some sense chosen for us. That if you knew enough stuff about anyone, you know what they're about to do next.




JAD: No. No.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: But I readily admit ...


JAD: I'll just plant my flag and say no. I do not get on board with this -- this ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: At least we've done it in a few realms. So we are able to do it.


JAD: When you look -- I don't want you to be a futurist here, but when you look 500 years ahead, let's say that things keep progressing in the way that you imagine, where we just keep etching, like sort of chipping away at this idea of volition and will, free will. What do we do in that point? Do we not hold anyone accountable for anything, but we simply prescribe treatments? And I mean, what does that world look like to you?


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Treatments and or constraints. You fix the things you fix, and the ones that can't be fixed you constrain things so the damage can't be done, but it's done in a -- in a way a car with broken brakes is incredibly dangerous and it can't be on the streets. And if you can't fix the brakes, you put the car in a garage and, you know, you've intervened. But you don't invoke a concept of punishment of the car in there. And if at that point you say, "Oh my God, that's so dehumanizing to be that mechanistic," that's a hell of a lot better than sermonizing people into having free will over stuff that they have no control over. And we've done it. People with treatment-resistant epilepsy, they're not allowed to drive. But you don't sit there and say they deserve not to be able to drive. You don't get, like, mobs of goitrous yahoo peasants cheering as the drivers' licenses are burned. No. It's not their fault that they have this thing called a seizure. Nonetheless, if it's uncontrollable they shouldn't be driving cars, and we have a therapeutic intervention here that's completely outside the realm of blame, justice, deserved, anything like that.


ROBERT: Well, let's go back to Kevin. At the end of the story, Pat asks Kevin what -- what sense he makes of his punishment. I assume A) that you wouldn't have punished him. Is that right?




ROBERT: Okay. But you notice what Kevin says. Kevin says, "Well, I thought the judge was -- was a good judge, and was ..."




ROBERT: Fair. He called her fair. So isn't it troubling to you that this person somehow was able to somehow feel blameworthy, I guess. But what this justice system is doing is it's sort of saying, "You were bad." "Maybe I was. I feel sorry. I've got remorse." "That's okay. And now we give you your freedom back." Like, there's been a -- there's been a conversation here about your morality, your inner morality, which you do not apparently want to have. I'm wondering whether that's a healthy thing.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Healthy? Mental healthy-healthy? Or societally-healthy?


ROBERT: Well, you feel bad by saying thank you to your -- to your shirt choice. So there is some human need here. I don't know whether you might call it biological or not, but there is something that the justice system is addressing that you seem to be -- you seem to be taking out of the system. I ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah. Punishment is pleasurable. It feels good to do the righteous thing. And it feels good to do that in a punishing, blaming way if you're brought up culturally as most of us are to have this notion of, like, agency.


JAD: But I think what Robert might -- this Robert, Krulwich Robert, might be -- I think Robert, let me know if you're -- correct me if I'm wrong, is that it doesn't just feel good personally, it's good for society on some level. Like, do we want to live in a society where the concept of justice has been tossed out and we're in a mechanistic place?


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Well, how about taking it further? Don't we need to have belief in a moralizing and punishing God? Because why else would people be nice to each other?


JAD: I don't need to take it all the way there, but ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: I could go there.


JAD: But we have laws. Laws are sort of in their way God-like in that they rule over us. So why not just say laws instead of God?


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: You're right. They work better. As soon as you introduce the possibility of punishment into economic games you evolve cooperation. You do cross-cultural studies, and the more there's a belief in a punishing hell in a culture the more generous people are in economic games. Yes, that stuff works. Yet over and over we've learned at least one domain where we've stepped outside of all of that: the epilepsy example, where nobody thinks of it in terms of it being like justice is being meted out when the driver's license is being taken away. Yet 500 years ago, somebody who would have been just as smart and just as introspective and just as reflective and maybe even had, like, a nice bleeding-heart liberal NPR tote bag would have said, "I'm sad about this." But ...


ROBERT: Have you forgotten what program you're on? Never mind.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Oh my God, I thought we were on Fox!




ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And that person nonetheless would have said, "This is tragic, and I feel so sorry for their family and all of that, but who told them to go sleep with Satan?"


ROBERT: Well, wait. Let me try it this way. Is there anything in the Kevin-Pat Walters story, is there any -- anyone in there who is being harmed or hurt by what you heard now?


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Well, he's paying a price. His wife paid a price. Shame, imprisonment, you know?


ROBERT: Mm-hmm.


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: A terrible price here for what was simply a biological problem.


JAD: And so ...


ROBERT SAPOLSKY: It's still very hard to imagine a world in which you don't get pissed off at people who do, like, crummy things, and where you don't feel vaguely pleased when somebody says, "Whoa, nice t-shirt?"


ROBERT: So what you said is that the -- the feelings that you have about the story, the loss to her of her husband's time, the shame of being put away for a while, you think that later on when the deeply biological explanation for this gets fully revealed in a hundred years say, people will be -- listen to the story we just heard and think, "If they only knew."




JAD: Big thanks to Robert Sapolsky for chatting with us. His latest book is called Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, which has an extended argument about how there is no such thing as free will. Definitely worth reading. It's called Behave. Thanks also to Pat Walters for reporting that story, and for Kevin for allowing us to air it again. And thanks to you guys for listening. I'm Jad Abumrad. For Robert Krulwich and I, we will see you next time.


[WILL: Hi, this is Will Zogban. I'm calling from sunny Seattle, Washington. Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Soren Wheeler is Senior Editor. Our staff includes Simon Adler, David Gebel, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Malissa O'Donnell, Arianne Wack, and Molly Webster. With help from Sohum Pawar, Rebecca Chaisson, Nigar Fatali, Phoebe Wang and Katie Ferguson. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]

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