THE FAULT LINE: What can the neuroscience of volition tell us about the boundaries between mind and body?

THE FAULT LINE: What can the neuroscience of volition tell us about the boundaries between mind and body?

Presenter: Alice Flaherty, M.D., Ph.D.
Discussant: Andrew J. Gerber, M.D., Ph.D.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023 at 8 PM

Location: Register via the button below to receive the Zoom link

When illness makes sick people feel powerless, clinicians of every persuasion may try to restore their sense of control with maxims like “You can’t choose your symptoms, but you can choose how you react to them.” In this way, modern medicine and psychiatry attempt to draw a fault line around ill bodies that leaves only the brain’s voluntary action system still subject to praise and blame. Conditions that neurologically affect choice-making, such as Parkinson’s, depression, trauma, and addiction, strand patients in a fraught medical and moral no-mans-land. Yet any patient can find themselves in that DMZ, as bystanders debate whether their cough is an involuntary muscle spasm or an attempt to avoid work.

It is not the problem of free will, but the problem of the perception of free will, that influences care and healing. This talk will consider cases in which both the patient’s agency and the clinician’s assessment of that agency stem from brain systems that are very vulnerable to disruption. Understanding how we perceive volition in ourselves and others can guide care, not only of complex neuropsychiatric conditions but of all illnesses in which we wonder whether, if we just tried harder, it wouldn’t hurt so much.


Alice Flaherty, M.D., Ph.D. is associate professor of  both neurology and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and directs the Massachusetts General Hospital Movement Fellowship. She treats patients with deep brain stimulators for movement and mood disorders. She was a site principal investigator for a trial of the first successful genetic treatment of Parkinson’s Disease. Her books include one on creativity and the brain (The Midnight Disease), a children’s picture book (The Luck of the Loch Ness Monster), and a handbook of neurology. All her books have multiple translations and national awards. With Marlene Goldman, she is coediting a book based on their multidisciplinary seminar, Medicine as Theatre; Theatre as Medicine. The NY Psychoanalytic Society held a webcast and art show based on her work on hypergraphia. She has spoken at conferences on rumination, alternatives to empathy, and at an International Psychoanalytic Society roundtable on time perception. She has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBC, NBC, German PBS, Japanese PBS, and TEDx. The NY Times, London TimesDie Welt, WSJ, and The New Yorker, have interviewed her or reviewed her. She was a protagonist of the award-winning podcast The Great God of Depression, and the film Bedside Manner, which received a festival nomination for the 2017 short documentary Oscar.


Andrew J. Gerber, M.D., Ph.D. is President and Medical Director of Silver Hill Hospital, a private non-profit psychiatric hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut. Prior to joining Silver Hill, Dr. Gerber was Medical Director and CEO of the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Dr. Gerber serves as associate clinical professor in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and as associate clinical professor at the Child Study Center, Yale University. He is the former co-director of the Sackler Parent-Infant Program at Columbia University, former director of the MRI Research Program at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and former director of research at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.

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