Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain

Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain

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by Michael S. Gazzaniga
     
 

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The father of cognitive neuroscience and author of Human offers a provocative argument against the common belief that our lives are wholly determined by physical processes and we are therefore not responsible for our actions

A powerful orthodoxy in the study of the brain has taken hold in recent years: Since physical laws govern the physical world and

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Overview

The father of cognitive neuroscience and author of Human offers a provocative argument against the common belief that our lives are wholly determined by physical processes and we are therefore not responsible for our actions

A powerful orthodoxy in the study of the brain has taken hold in recent years: Since physical laws govern the physical world and our own brains are part of that world, physical laws therefore govern our behavior and even our conscious selves. Free will is meaningless, goes the mantra; we live in a “determined” world.

Not so, argues the renowned neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga in this thoughtful, provocative book based on his Gifford Lectures——one of the foremost lecture series in the world dealing with religion, science, and philosophy. Who’s in Charge? proposes that the mind, which is somehow generated by the physical processes of the brain, “constrains” the brain just as cars are constrained by the traffic they create. Writing with what Steven Pinker has called “his trademark wit and lack of pretension,” Gazzaniga shows how determinism immeasurably weakens our views of human responsibility; it allows a murderer to argue, in effect, “It wasn’t me who did it——it was my brain.” Gazzaniga convincingly argues that even given the latest insights into the physical mechanisms of the mind, there is an undeniable human reality: We are responsible agents who should be held accountable for our actions, because responsibility is found in how people interact, not in brains.

An extraordinary book that ranges across neuroscience, psychology, ethics, and the law with a light touch but profound implications, Who’s in Charge? is a lasting contribution from one of the leading thinkers of our time.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.)
Best Books for the Holidays - CNBC.com
"From one of the world’s leading thinkers comes a thought-provoking book on how we think and how we act. . . . An exciting, stimulating, and at times even funny read that helps us further understand ourselves, our actions, and our world."
Library Journal
Gazzaniga (psychology, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique) takes us inside the workings of the human brain, exploring its known neurological functions and their contributions to the human sense of the conscious self and consequent behaviors. To what degree are we hardwired for behavior? What of genetics? How does human brain function differ from that of other members of the animal world? He highlights amazing research into split-brain cerebral functions and reveals a brain that can be localized and simultaneously diffuse in function. So do biological processes determine our behavior, trumping free will and letting us off the hook for our actions? Gazzaniga argues convincingly that they do not—that the influence of human social interaction on behavior disproves this deterministic theory. We are free agents, capable of overriding impulses, making conscious decisions, and regulating our behavior accordingly within social and ethical constructs. VERDICT A fascinating, accessible, and often humorous read for anyone with a brain! And a must-read for neuroscientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and criminal attorneys.—Judith A. Matthews, Michigan State Univ. Lib., East Lansing
Kirkus Reviews

The more we learn about the human brain, the more puzzling the question of free will becomes.

Forty years ago, cognitive neuroscientist Gazzaniga (Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique, 2008, etc.)—the director of the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara—pioneered the study of the different functions of the right and left hemispheres of the human brain. Since then, it has become clear that what characterizes the human brain is not simply its size—after all, Neanderthal brains were larger—or even the greater connectivity of our neurons than occurs in the brains of our chimpanzee cousins. Neuropsychologists have established that the human brain is composed of specialized modules, local circuits that each operate automatically. "The end result is thousands of modules, each doing their own thing," writes the author, so that "our conscious awareness is the mere tip of the iceberg of non-conscious processing." This capability allowed us to create culture and technology, our hallmark as a species, but we are left with a disturbing question: "[W]hy do we feel so unified and in control" if our conscious experience is the result of "positive feedback" from modules that are each acting independently in response to environmental challenges? Gazzaniga goes on to pose the deeper question of whether can exist if "the thoughts that arise from our minds are also determined," as can be shown experimentally by brain scans. If the brain is made up of subsystems without any one locus of control, can the concept of free will have any meaning? The author examines this knotty question from many different angles and offers a simple analogy to explain how, in his view, consciousness and moral responsibility emerge from social interaction. In other words, the rules of traffic are collective and cannot be reduced to the behavior of individual cars.

A fascinating affirmation of our essential humanity.

Alan Alda
“This exciting, stimulating, and sometimes even funny book challenges us to think in new ways about that most mysterious part of us—the part that makes us think we’re us.”
From the Publisher
"A fascinating affirmation of our essential humanity." —Kirkus
Wall Street Journal
“Gazzaniga is a towering figure in contemporary neurobiology. . . . Who’s in Charge? is a joy to read.”
Salon.com
“Fascinating. . . . Gazzaniga uses a lifetime of experience in neuroscientific research to argue that free will is alive and well.”
Daily Texan
“An utterly captivating and fascinating read that addresses issues of consciousness and free will and, in the end, offers suggestions as to how these ideas may or may not inform legal matters.”
Portland Mercury
“[The] scope of Michael S. Gazzaniga’s Who’s in Charge? is huge—it tackles the age-old debate of free will [and] offers a lot to consider about what Gazzaniga deems the ‘scientific problem of the century.’”
Reason.com
“Fascinating. . . . [An] intriguing and persuasive treatment of the moral implications of modern neuroscience.”
Best Books for the Holidays CNBC.com
“From one of the world’s leading thinkers comes a thought-provoking book on how we think and how we act. . . . An exciting, stimulating, and at times even funny read that helps us further understand ourselves, our actions, and our world.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780061906107
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
11/15/2011
Pages:
272
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

What People are saying about this

Alan Alda
“This exciting, stimulating, and sometimes even funny book challenges us to think in new ways about that most mysterious part of us—the part that makes us think we’re us.”
From the Publisher
"A fascinating affirmation of our essential humanity." —-Kirkus

Meet the Author

Michael S. Gazzaniga is the director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California–Santa Barbara and its Summer Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, and he lives in California.

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