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What Elon Musk Can Teach Attorneys about the Human Brain

Posted on Wednesday, October 17th, 2018 at 12:21 am    

Regardless of what you might think of Elon Musk, and there are no shortage of opinions, particularly given his eccentricities, it probably makes sense to pay attention, at least tangentially, to some of the things he is saying and doing. He is trying to colonize Mars after all.

In a recent interview with Joe Rogan, putting aside his unfortunate encounter with the infamous Mary Jane, Musk said something that attorneys should take note of:

The cortex is mostly in service to the limbic system. People may think that the thinking part of themselves is in charge, but it’s mostly their limbic system that’s in charge. And the cortex is trying to make the limbic system happy. That’s what most of that computing power is. It’s launched towards, ‘How can I make the limbic system happy?’ That is what it’s trying to do.

He made this comment in the context of Artificial Intelligence. For him, enhancing our cognitive abilities depends on having enough bandwidth to eliminate any separation between our cortex and the AI extension of ourselves. Once we solve the data rate problem, enabling super human cognition becomes an inevitability. In other words, it will be like connecting our smart phones directly to our brains. We become, in a very literal sense, a kind of cyborg (his words, not mine).

Look, I have no idea how to qualify his remarks regarding the future of cyborgs. However, he is absolutely right: the limbic system is generally in charge.

This is counter to most attorneys’ understanding of what drives human behavior, particularly in the courtroom. Most people believe that we are primarily thinking creatures. We are not. It is our feelings that drive most of what we do, which is why we often do things we know we shouldn’t or don’t do things we know we should. As much as we like to believe otherwise, we are not the rational, reasonable people we tend to think we are. It takes a tremendous amount of training and discipline to subject our feelings to our thoughts. Given the opportunity, therefore, if our thoughts and feelings are in conflict—if we think we should do one thing but feel like doing another—most people will rationalize why they should do what they feel like doing.

Again, as Musk alleged, the natural instinct of our cortex is to make our limbic system happy; which, if true, means that it’s a relatively cheap date—i.e., it is easily manipulated.

For this reason, it is imperative that attorneys learn to tell compelling stories. Stories have the power to activate the limbic system and release dopamine, prompting positive, even persuasive, feelings. The objective, therefore, is not just to elicit an intellectual response, but an emotional one as well. Unfortunately, they don’t teach this in law school.

Evidence is important—critically important. So, too, is testimony, of course. However, to inspire human behavior it can’t just be about the evidence or the testimonies. It must also be about the narrative. We want them to want to render a verdict in our favor. Otherwise, we might be trying to convince them to make a decision that, for whatever reason, they don’t want to make. If you’ve ever been married or have children, you should be acutely aware that appealing only to the intellect is generally a losing strategy. It’s the difference between a bullet list of statistics and a true story written by your favorite author.