The Mind's Past / Edition 1

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Why does the human brain insist on interpreting the world and constructing a narrative?
In this ground-breaking work, Michael S. Gazzaniga, one of the world's foremost cognitive neuroscientists, shows how our mind and brain accomplish the amazing feat of constructing our past—a process clearly fraught with errors of perception, memory, and judgment. By showing that the specific systems built into our brain do their work automatically and largely outside of our conscious awareness, Gazzaniga calls into question our everyday notions of self and reality. The implications of his ideas reach deeply into the nature of perception and memory, the profundity of human instinct, and the ways we construct who we are and how we fit into the world around us.

Over the past thirty years, the mind sciences have developed a picture not only of how our brains are built but also of what they were built to do. The emerging picture is wonderfully clear and pointed, underlining William James's notion that humans have far more instincts than other animals. Every baby is born with circuits that compute information enabling it to function in the physical world. Even what helps us to establish our understanding of social relations may have grown out of perceptual laws delivered to an infant's brain.
Indeed, the ability to transmit culture—an act that is only part of the human repertoire—may stem from our many automatic and unique perceptual-motor processes that give rise to mental capacities such as belief and culture.

Gazzaniga explains how the mind interprets data the brain has already processed, making "us" the last to know. He shows how what "we" see is frequently an illusion and not at all what our brain is perceiving. False memories become a part of our experience; autobiography is fiction.
In exploring how the brain enables the mind, Gazzaniga points us toward one of the greatest mysteries of human evolution: how we become who we are.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gazzaniga, director of the program in cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth and author of Mind Matters, The Social Brain and Nature's Mind, adds an engaging account of how and why the human brain creates a narrative to explain its experiences. Writing for a popular audience, Gazzaniga relates that a portion of the left brain, which he calls the "interpreter," constantly drives the mind to seek reasons for its convictions no matter how unfounded they may be. An example is given of a woman who suffered from a syndrome that led her to believe she was home while visiting her doctor. When asked how she could explain the elevators in the corridor, she immediately produced a reason: "Doctor, do you know how much it cost me to have those put in?" While Gazzaniga's anecdotes are fascinating, the conclusion he draws from them seems rather unconvincing. Arguing from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, he asserts that the left brain's incessant ratiocinations function to enhance human beings' reproductive success through sensible reasoning. Gazzaniga's conclusion about the "interpreter" seems analytic, at least in relation to evolutionary theory, which already presupposes that all facets of a species function to promote its reproduction and survival. In fact, Gazzaniga's conclusion stands in contradiction to a basic tenet of his own theoretical framework: namely, that adaptation is not determined by reason but rather by chance. Nonetheless, Gazzaniga's work remains intriguing precisely in its attempt to understand the brain's will toward order and reason, "even when they don't exist." (May)
Library Journal
At the level of the mind, thinking involves the creation of a mental narrative, which analyzes the world around us. At the level of the brain, however, thinking involves complex neurological events that must occur before any conscious thought can pop into our heads. Thus, Gazzaniga contends, consciousness is essentially an after-the-fact phenomenon. What does this suggest about the nature of memory, of perception, or even of our very selfhood? The author, a cognitive scientist at Dartmouth, argues that evolution has endowed us with a brain device called the "interpreter," which creates a "fictional self." The theory has profound consequences, but it is presented here with a light touch that should appeal to all general readers.Gregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib., Coral Gables, FL
Library Journal
The mind is the "fictional self" of the brain. Consciousness results from specific neurological events, and thought is an ad hoc interpretation of them. Cognitive scientist Gazzaniga's assertions suggest that memory, personality, and even selfhood are merely matters of perception. LJ 4/15/98
Kirkus Reviews
Adding to a growing genre that purports to say how mind arises from brain, a study that is short and witty but not entirely convincing. Dartmouth cognitive neuroscientist Gazzaniga (Nature's Mind, 1992) argues that human brains are composed of distinct, automatic devices that evolved through natural selection and are already present in a child at birth. A person's sense that a unified "self" is in charge of these devices is an illusion created by one of them, a left-brain gadget he calls the "interpreter." It manufactures the fictional self by weaving a narrative in which the self gets credit for issuing orders already executed (moving an arm, writing a sentence). The author supports his thesis with accounts of perception and memory experiments, and anecdotes about brain-damaged patients. Much of this information is entertainingly conveyed, such as Gazzaniga's critique of the popular notion that reading to babies helps wire their brains. Some elements of his argument are dry, others overly familiar, but the book's biggest flaws are polemical and logical. Too often Gazzaniga argues by setting up straw men, representing a caricature of theories about centralized brain functions. He tries to banish questions by denying themþ"no doubt about it" he says about a typically dubious assertion. Most frustratingly, he insists that the left-brain interpreter is a "spin doctor" without explaining for whose benefit the spinning takes place. Who is the little voter inside the head? Why should the brain construct an illusory self to persuade the illusory self that it is in control? Maybe Gazzaniga has an answer; if so, he should reveal it. On the other hand, this kind of argument may ultimatelybe a dead endþa figment of the late 20th century scientist's need to explain the mind entirely as a product of the physical brain. An intriguing theory, assertively stated, but often Gazzaniga's arguments seem too reductive or dogmatic to be convincing. (12 b&w illustrations, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520224865
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 10/17/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 263
  • Sales rank: 893,177
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael S. Gazzaniga is David T. McLaughlin Distinguished Professor and Director of the Program in Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College. He is the author of Mind Matters: How Mind and Brain
Interact to Create Our Conscious Lives
(1989) and Nature's Mind: The Biological Roots of Thinking, Emotions, Sexuality, Language and
(1994) among many other works.

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