Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Areby Steven R. Quartz, Terrence J. Sejnowski
This exciting, timely book combines cutting-edge findings in neuroscience with examples from history and recent headlines to offer new insights into who we are. Introducing the new science of cultural biology, born of advances in brain imaging, computer modeling, and genetics, Drs. Quartz and Sejnowski demystify the dynamic engagement between brain and world that… See more details below
This exciting, timely book combines cutting-edge findings in neuroscience with examples from history and recent headlines to offer new insights into who we are. Introducing the new science of cultural biology, born of advances in brain imaging, computer modeling, and genetics, Drs. Quartz and Sejnowski demystify the dynamic engagement between brain and world that makes us something far beyond the sum of our parts.
The authors show how our humanity unfolds in precise stages as brain and world engage on increasingly complex levels. Their discussion embraces shaping forces as ancient as climate change over millennia and events as recent as the terrorism and heroism of September 11 and offers intriguing answers to some of our most enduring questions, including why we live together, love, kill -- and sometimes lay down our lives for others.
The answers, it turns out, are surprising and paradoxical: many of the noblest aspects of human nature -- altruism, love, courage, and creativity -- are rooted in brain systems so ancient that we share them with insects, and these systems form the basis as well of some of our darkest destructive traits. The authors also overturn popular views of how brains develop. We're not the simple product of animal urges, "selfish" genes, or nature versus nurture. We survive by creating an ingenious web of ideas for making sense of our world -- a symbolic reality called culture. This we endow to later generations as our blueprint for survival.
Using compelling examples from history and contemporary life, the authors show how engagement with the world excites brain chemistry, which drives further engagement, which encourages the development of cultural complexity. They also share provocative ideas on how human development may be affected by changes in our culture. Their insights, grounded in science and far-reaching in their implications, are riveting reading for anyone interested in our past, present, and future.
Dubbing their study of these complex interactions "cultural biology," Quartz (director of Caltech’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab) and Sejnowski (director of the Salk Institute’s Computational Neurobiology Lab) condemn evolutionary psychology’s argument that we are cast adrift in modern society with our old hunter-gatherer savannah lifestyle. Neither naturists nor nurturists, the authors defend their not-unreasonable thesis by pointing to a detailed geological record showing rapid climate change. This called for maximum flexibility in adaptation, they contend, and probably helped build bigger brains, tools, and a habit of living in groups. Quartz and Sejnowski describe an infant’s survival mechanisms as an "internal guidance system" that will endure even as that individual’s "user’s guide to life" comes online as a result of the sociocultural shaping of the slow-to-mature prefrontal cortex and its anterior cingulate. These brain parts are key to planning, judging, and decision-making and are also linked to emotion and motivation. A derailment in these areas, specifically a hyperarousal of the orbitofrontal cortex, may be responsible for the mass suicide of cultists, group violence, and killings by high-school misfits, the authors conjecture. While they admit that the brain is more complex than we can fathom, they are ready to discourse on learning, love, intelligence, personality, and happiness, often pointing to anatomical pathways and neurochemicals as clues: low serotonin in depression andsuicide, oxytocin in love, and so on. They are also quite prescriptive in later chapters. What should we to do to achieve "successful aging" and rescue American society from increasing depression and isolation? Leave the TV and Net, go out and work in the community.
Smart authors with a lot of hot stuff to report on, but they should cool it a bit.
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Meet the Author
Steven R. Quartz, Ph.D., is director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and an associate professor in the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Computation and Neural Systems Program. He was a fellow of the Sloan Center for Theoretical Neurobiology at the Salk Institute and a recipient of the National Science Foundation's CAREER award, its most prestigious award for young faculty. He lives in Topanga, California.
Terrence J. Sejnowski, Ph.D., is regarded as the world's foremost theoretical brain scientist. His demonstration of NETtalk, a neural network that learned to read English words, helped spark the 1980s neural network revolution for which he received the IEEE Neural Network Pioneer Award in 2002. He received his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University before studying neurobiology at Harvard University School of Medicine. He is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and directs the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute. At the University of California at San Diego he is a professor of biology, physics, and neurosciences and directs the Institute for Neural Computation. He has published more than two hundred scientific articles and has been featured in the national media. He lives in Solana Beach, California.
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