Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brainby Published 15 Nov 2011
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“Big questions are Gazzaniga’s stock in trade.”
—New York Times
“Gazzaniga is one of the most brilliant experimental neuroscientists in the world.”
“Gazzaniga stands as a giant among neuroscientists, for both the quality of his research and his ability to communicate it to a general public with infectious enthusiasm.”
—Robert Bazell, Chief Science Correspondent, NBC News
The author of Human, Michael S. Gazzaniga has been called the “father of cognitive neuroscience.” In his remarkable book, Who’s in Charge?, he makes a powerful and provocative argument that counters the common wisdom that our lives are wholly determined by physical processes we cannot control. His well-reasoned case against the idea that we live in a “determined” world is fascinating and liberating, solidifying his place among the likes of Oliver Sacks, Antonio Damasio, V.S. Ramachandran, and other bestselling science authors exploring the mysteries of the human brain.
"Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain" Reviews
Do people really have free will? There are those who contend that since the brain is a physical object, subject to physical laws, human behavior is pre-determined, and thus the antithesis of free. Does a lesion in one’s frontal lobe give credence to a defense of “The Devil Made Me Do it?” Where lies personal responsibility?
Michael Gazzaniga contends that we are more than the sum, or volume, of our parts and, in the system of human interactions, we are personally responsible for our actions. Duh-uh. I heard that from Sister Raymond in first grade. Of course Gazzaniga offers a bit more persuasion than a stinging yardstick, an alarmingly florid complexion and a peculiar wardrobe. He does this by walking us through the history of how our understanding of the human brain has advanced over time. And in this lies the core value of the book.
Did you know that there was a time when it was thought that the brain was a single undifferentiated mass? “Equipotentiality” was the term for this. I like to think of this as the jello model, the same stuff throughout, but with ridges. (and if you are interested in serving your guests a yummy gelatinous dessert in a mindful shape, you might try this link). With more time and research it became clear that, different parts of the brain specialize in different things. This is called “neural specificity.” And here is where brain size falls down as a predictor of intelligence. There are creatures that have larger brains than us naked apes, but ours is arranged differently, with more specialization in its parts.
I was particularly smitten with Gazzaniga’s description of how certain reactions have become ingrained, instinctual, while others are not, for example, snakes. I imagine there are some rare individuals, herpetologists I expect, who are not put off by the presence of our slithery fellow-Earthlings, but for most of us, discomfort is the norm. So, there must have been issues with snakes in human history. Early humans who were not put off by such critters were selected out of the gene pool in the usual way, while those who harbored an aversion lived to flee, and breed, another day. And the reverse applies. Say, for example, that after millennia of being preyed upon by clowns, a fear of clowns had become pervasive. Then, over a few thousand years on a remote island where clowns had all died out, that fear would fade from the instinctual default of island residents, as there would be no natural selection advantage to being afraid of clowns. Eventually, people who still carried the instinct to fear clowns might be thought a bit odd. The genes of those whose brains were able to distinguish sweet fruit from poison berries are likely to have made it down the years. The genes of those lacking the ability would not have fared so well. And so on.
Another amazing advance was to understand that people in times of ecological disruption are selected for their adaptability, while during periods of stability it is the hard-wired sorts whose genes hold sway. It made me wonder about the genetic inheritance of political orientations. I would expect that there is some part or arrangement of our cranial makeup that orients toward keeping things the same, and another arrangement or part that is oriented more toward adaptability, making those with that trait more comfortable with change. Given the volatile state of the planet these days, I hope the adaptables are having lots of kids.
A discussion of a brain function known as “the interpreter” had me riveted. There is so much in this book, and a lot more than I have mentioned here, that is absolutely fascinating that I had to hold myself back from just making a list of them all. It might be lightly informative, but perhaps I do not want my accountant genes to overwhelm the right side of my brain. There is enough food for thought here for a Mensa feast. For large swaths this book had me figuratively resting my cheekbones on my fists and saying “wow, cool.“
And lest one fear that this is a med-school text in brain history for budding neuroscientists, I would suggest trying to calm your inherent fears. Gazzzaniga writes in a very easy-to-read manner, quite accessible to the average reader.
If it is not already clear, I very much enjoyed this book. That said, I have a few gripes. Gazzaniga presents considerable science in this book, and posits a differentiation between the brain and the mind. Yet, he never gets around to defining what the mind is. Yes, we all know what the mind is, sort of. In a book that is about science, shouldn’t the author offer a definition? Did my sleepy eyes just miss it? He argues against a notion that people are not responsible for their actions because they are part of the physical world. But he offers only one name, Richard Dawkins, as a supporter of such notions. It seemed to me a bit of straw man argument. If you are going to argue against someone else’s theory, one should document where and by whom the challenged position is held. Dawkins alone hardly constitutes a school of thought.
If you find learning fun, you will love this book. It qualifies as brain candy. And between you and me, I take full responsibility for recommending Who’s in Charge.
A February, 2014 National Geographic item offers a look at the brain as you have never seen it before. Interesting stuff, not least for offering information about just how much computer memory it takes to map our gray matter.
January 2018 - National Geographic Magazine - an article that is definitely worth checking out - The Science of Good and Evil, on finding what is innate, and what is learned. The on-line article was re-titled The Science Behind Psychopaths and Extreme Altruists, which is probably more accurate - by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
Michael Gazzaniga is a leading neuroscientist, and he has written a fascinating book on the subject of free will. Interestingly, we want to have free will ourselves, but we don't want others to have it. We want other people to act efficiently, and basically to think the same way that we do.
The book examines consciousness and free will from many different perspectives; emergence, evolution, epigenetics, neurons, quantum mechanics, morality, the justice system, split-brain patients, sociology and culture.
With all these viewpoints thrown together, the story sometimes gets lost. It's clear that Gazzaniga is not a determinist, but his answer to the question of free will is not a simple one. This is a short book, but definitely not easy to read, despite each chapter being split up into a number of short sections. I think that to really understand the book, it requires multiple readings.
Gazzaniga provides a succinct enough summary of current research into the brain. However, its when he addresses the notion of free will that the book falls flat. In attempt to find room for free will, he takes a detour into quantum physics and probability theory. Even if one accepts his argument, this only grants free will within a limited range offer by a list of probabilities. To contend that free will on this basis is rather difficulty so he also provides the common sense idea that we do employ choice when we make simple decisions. Secondly cultural context is asserted to be as influential as biology. In the end he follows the evidence and accepts some form of determinism. He then asserts free will and determinism are not odds and can coexist. This is probably true but its not what the evidence states in his book.
Added to my list with some trepidation. For one thing, Tom Wolfe blurbed it, and Wolfe is a reactionary assberet, so that's hardly a glowing recommendation. And then the snippet says "counters the common wisdom that our lives are wholly determined by physical processes we cannot control. " And I think, "Oh, really?" That "wholly determined" looks like a strawman to me, thrown up to give the author a very low standard of proof. Not to mention that "free will" is so rich in religious connotation.
Despite the author's initial claim that some vestige of free will could be salvaged from the jaws of determinism, he does a pretty good job demolishing that claim. All the while, he mucks around in the many very interesting weeds. In fact, the interesting weeds were what propped up this rating to three stars.
The author's premise seems to be a form similar to "god of the gaps," wherein the uncertainty of not knowing something or not being able to measure something leaves room for other sorts of dubious concepts. Call me skeptical.
However, he does make one case that is important enough to consider. He elaborates on the idea of emergence, the fact that simply looking at, in what is is most used example, parts of a car will not allow one to predict rush hour traffic congestion. That is, a complex system like the brain or like traffic is more than the sum of its constituent parts. He uses this to suggest that free will can't be predicted from studying the brain's components, instead moving it into the realm of social interaction. Once he does this, he continues to undermine the case for free will by presenting all of the constraints that act upon human social relations, until we're left with the idea that there is, after all, no such thing as free will. I'll admit I might have missed something, but I don't really think so.
In the end, I think the conclusion we can draw is that while our actions might not be able to be reliably predicted (doing so might actually require a higher level of emergence), neither are they completely unconstrained. Insofar as free will exists, it appears to be a useful illusion that we can treat as real for a good number of purposes.