Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-09-12
- Reviewer: Staff
Are our actions determined solely by physical processes, or is the mind its own master? This age-old philosophical conundrum gets a terrific, if ultimately indecisive, analysis in this engrossing study of the mechanics of thought. Gazzaniga (Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique), a leading cognitive neuroscientist, draws on cutting-edge research, including his fascinating experiments with “split-brain” patients, to diagram the Rube Goldberg apparatus inside our skulls. Beneath our illusion of an in-control self, he contends, thousands of chaotically interacting neural modules governing motion, senses, and language unconsciously make decisions long before we consciously register them; the closest thing to a self is a brain module called “the interpreter,” which spins a retrospective story line to rationalize whatever the nonconscious brain did. (Brain injuries can make the interpreter tragicomically muddled, leading patients to claim that their hand doesn’t belong to them or that their relatives are imposters.) The author’s reconciliation of that deterministic model with the idea of free will is less successful, requiring “a unique language, which has yet to be developed”; until then, we can only invoke muzzy notions from complexity theory. Though he doesn’t quite capture the ghost, Gazzaniga does give a lucid, stimulating primer on the machine that generates it. B&w illus. (Nov.)
New discoveries in free will
Contemporary science is for the most part attached to determinism, or the belief that physical laws govern the physical world, of which we humans are a part. This potentially eliminates the concepts of free will and personal responsibility. After all, it wasn’t me that ate that tray of brownies. That was just a biological response to stimulus! Right?
Not so fast, says Michael Gazzaniga. In Who’s in Charge?, the neuroscientist argues that the brain is governed by the mind, which he defines as a sort of self-created system of brain government. Sound nutty? Yes, a little. But the ramifications extend through science into psychology, ethics and law, and repeatedly argue for responsible behavior. In the author’s view, “We are people, not brains,” effectively revoking our free pass to pig out.
Gazzaniga’s extensive work with “split-brain” patients (whose right and left brain hemispheres have been medically separated) gave him insight into the ways we make sense of seemingly senseless information. When Gazzaniga showed a picture of a wagon only to a patient’s left eye (which is connected to the brain’s right hemisphere), the word “toy” came to the patient’s mind. The left hemisphere could not explain why the patient thought of that word, but nevertheless tried, describing “an inner sense” that called the word to mind. This act of interior storytelling in order to make sense of things, referred to here as “the interpreter,” makes a strong case for the existence of a mind that is part of the brain yet separate from it.
Who’s in Charge? is based on talks presented at the Gifford Lecture series, known for its focus on religion, science and philosophy. This ramble through fields that would seem to be at odds with one another is one of the book’s main pleasures. Another is Gazzaniga’s commitment to humanizing science at every turn. He writes, “It is the magnificence of being ‘human’ that we all cherish and love and that we don’t want science to take away.” As long as there are scientists who endorse that view, humanity should be safe for years to come.