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

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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

260 pages, Hardcover

First published November 15, 2011

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About the author

Michael S. Gazzaniga

59 books371 followers
Michael S. Gazzaniga, one of the premiere doctors of neuroscience, was born on December 12, 1939 in Los Angeles. Educated at Dartmouth College and California Institute of Technology, he is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he heads the new SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind.

His early research examined the subject of epileptics who had undergone surgery to control seizures. He has also studied Alzheimer's and Parkinson's patients and reveals important findings in books such as Cognitive Neuroscience: The Biology of the Mind.

While many of his writings are technical, he also educates and stimulates readers with discussions about the fascinating and mysterious workings of the brain. Books such as The Social Brain and The Mind's Past bring forth new information and theories regarding how the brain functions, interacts, and responds with the body and the environment.

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Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,290 reviews120k followers
September 17, 2020
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 S. Gazzaniga - image from 89.3 KPCC - NPR

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.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

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
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,283 reviews21.5k followers
December 19, 2012
The start of this book is pretty much the same as Sam Harris’s Free Will. But this guy comes to the opposite conclusion. A tad frustrating, I guess, but no less interesting for that.

Let’s have a look at the problem. In the middle of this book he has a really lovely analogy explaining the barriers that reductionism places in front of our understanding of free will.

Let’s say you wanted to understand the problem of traffic congestion. To what extent would understanding the workings of a car’s spark plugs help you to understand traffic flows or traffic jams? Or perhaps a better question to ask is if we were to invent a better spark plug would that help in any way to fix traffic congestion?

I assume the answer is that it would not and that to understand traffic congestion by gaining a better understanding the components making up individual cars is really turning to a microscope when we should be getting a telescope. These are matters of scale and often the problem with our analysis is not that we are looking at the wrong things so much, as looking at them from the wrong scale.

So, what of free will?

Well, the problem is that how we think we live in the world and how we actually live in the world are constantly being shown as quite different things. We prefer to think of ourselves as agents – that the flow of our actions goes something like this: we are engaged in the world, something happens, we consider the various inputs presented by this happening, we propose various alternative actions in response to those inputs, we consider the implications of these alternatives, and then – finally – we choose to act. The uncomfortable fact is that in most studies the exact opposite is shown to happen. Our brains can’t wait around for our conscious awareness before we respond – we have to respond prior to conscious mediation.

If there is a snake we need to jump away from it before going through the ‘oh look, what’s that thing over there, gosh, I do believe it might just be a snake. Now, snakes oftentimes tend to be rather dangerous. I guess I really ought to find some way of avoiding it, perhaps I should…” You know, by this stage we would be dead. We respond on autopilot, but our conscious minds don’t like the idea that they are cut out of the loop and so they make up stories that say we decided to act, we chose to act, that our action was willed, but actually our conscious minds decided all this after the event – and we fall for these stories every time. We have a very strong preference for imagining ourselves in control.

There is a lovely example related to this idea given in the book (although, it might seem a little off-to-the-side until you think about it). Raise your finger and touch the end of your nose. It seems like you ‘feel’ the sensation on both your fingertip and the tip of your nose at exactly the same time. But for these sensations to be ‘felt’ they really need to be registered in your brain. To ‘feel’ both (that is, to become consciously aware of both sensations) nerve impulses need to travel from either your nose or from your finger to your brain. That is, there needs to be an impulse that travels virtually no distance in the case of your nose or maybe half a metre in case of your finger. The nerve impulse from your finger needs to go up your arm, over to your spine, up your spine and so on. He says the difference in time between your brain receiving the signal from your nose and in receiving the signal from your finger could be as much as a half second’s lag, that is, long enough that it ought to be ‘noticeable’. Yet no one does notice this difference – everyone experiences both sensations occurring at exactly the same time. And why? Well, because out brain makes sense of the big picture and so forces the two things appear to have happened instantaneously. This is an example of what computer programmers refer to as ‘a feature, rather than a fault’.

It is this post-hoc explanation of our actions that makes the whole issue of free will problematic. It is as if we are so obsessed with narrative (in creating a story that has the right ‘flow’, that makes sense) that we tend to think that the stories we come up with are the explanations for our actions and that these stories ‘cause’ our actions. Unfortunately, it can be shown experimentally that our actions come first and our explanations (or even our conscious awareness) comes very much later.

Now, before we go too much further I think it is important to say that the author of this one is someone who had been involved in neurology for ages and was involved in some of the early work on split-brained patients. A lot of the early parts of this book looks at this work in some detail. I think it is important to know this guy is ‘in the field’, you know, not just an interested journalist or something.

We like to think of ourselves as having free will and this means of our having agency. This is our most common opinion of ourselves and as such it defines our relationship with the world. Minute by minute we have the feeling that we could just as easily leave off doing what it is that we are doing and go do something else, something completely different. So, the fact that we succeed or fail is, ultimately, related to the fact we do or do not keep going at a particular task that ought to lead to success. And in those ‘second by seconds’ we constantly need to ‘will’ ourselves to keep going – and so it comes down to our moral fortitude (or lack of such fortitude) that decides whether we succeed in life or not. And this is what makes us feel we are free agents with a free will.

But is this feeling justified? To the author the problem is – as I mentioned at the start of this review – a problem of scale. If we try to answer this problem on the basis of an individual making a decision in isolation, then the ‘free will’ answer doesn’t make a lot of sense. But the author believes that free will, in the sense of completely abstract freedom to choose our actions without reference to the real world in which we live makes no sense either. He says the solution is in looking at how the individual relates to other individuals and how the individual has been shaped by evolutionary forces to be a social animal.

The author is really seeking to give a place for individual agency – even after it seemed he had taken away much of the ground for this agency in the early discussion in the book. Given there is a real sense in which to be responsible for our actions we need to have willed those actions – and, as the author has already shown, there is reason to doubt we really do will our actions – to what extent should we be held responsible for our actions? To what extent does it make sense to punish people for their actions?

This guy wants to say that the limits placed on our free will by the fact that our conscious awareness and justification for our actions so often come after we have already acted, doesn’t take away our fundamental responsibility for those actions. His argument is that we are looking at the problem in the wrong scale – responsibility isn’t so much about individuals acting without context, but individuals acting very much within a social context. He claims that we have evolved to want to punish those who transgress rules, and that punishing such transgressions makes sense and that we want those punishments to be proportionate to the crime. To support this view he attacks determinism – the view that we are not agents, but rather that our actions are determined by outside forces. He does this in a couple of odd ways. One is to show that determinism is no longer acceptable in physics (think Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). This seems to suffer the same problem that his traffic and car part problem illuminated earlier. Just because there is no determinism in the position or velocity of an electron seems hardly relevant to explaining human legal processes. Yet again, a problem of scale.

He ends by effectively saying; look, if you are driving a car on a free way and you see a police car, you will check your speed and, if necessary, slow down. That is, you will do the right thing. You will do what you know to be right. So, therefore, free will exists – you can choose to do the right thing and there are circumstances where you will virtually always do the right thing – so you should be held accountable for your actions at all times, whether there is a police car around or not. Free will exists.

Hmm. This is a strange argument given the stuff he explained at the start of the book to prove that our actions come before our conscious justifications for them. However, he claims this is all resolved by focusing on our evolved responses and the fact we are social animals.

But this is my main problem with the book. I think he has been tricked by the scale problem he mentioned himself. He makes endless reference to brain structures and to physics and to the impossibility of knowing the impact of a brain legion on mind – all good stuff. However, he makes no mention at all of any social science. This is understandable, in some ways, as social science is very much seen as ‘science-lite��� by those in the hard sciences. But the problem is that if you want to talk about the impact of society on individual free will, then you really are talking about social science. And pretending you are the first person to have thought about these issues may or may not be disingenuous, but if it is not then it does display a breathtaking ignorance.

We tend to think that we like particular types of music because we like how it sounds and that it is an expression of our individual taste – but Bourdieu was able to show in his book Distinctions that our tastes, far from being purely subjective (as we like to assume they are) are very much linked to how we belong to various social groups. We wear as a badge of honour our liking of Rap or Mahler or the Classic Hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s (kill me now). But these preferences – which we believe so tellingly reveal our innate personalities – in fact, are mostly predictable from our social location. Does that mean that if you are a university professor you will not like AC/DC? No. But on average it is much more likely that a university professor will know who Bruckner is and that a panel beater will know who Run DMC are.

To me, the problem is that our brains are tuned to make us feel as though we are agents, that we have a free will, even when that free will can be shown to be restricted to the point that we can say, with near certainty, that what most people mean by free will simply does not exist. Most people think they are responsible for their actions – but there are so many influences on us, so many forces pushing and pulling on us, forces that we are often almost completely unaware of, that we are anything but reliable witnesses even to our own actions.

And because we are so certain we have free will – and because so much evidence points in the opposite direction – if we were sensible, I think we would start from the assumption that we don’t have any free will at all. People get worked up about this because it so clearly goes against ’natural feeling’. But also because they can see that if we are not responsible for our actions then we don’t get to punish people who do wrong – and god knows we do love to punish people who do wrong. But if there is one lesson from religion it does seem to be to forgive your enemies and to leave vengeance to god. I think this isn’t such a bad idea (and I’m an atheist). The fact we keep this idea in our religions (where we can safely ignore it) says something rather sad about us, I think.

But imagine for a second if it was true that people tend to act in accordance to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Then surely, rather than punishing people for the ‘bad’ things they do, we should spend more time thinking about how to create social situations where such bad actions would be impossible. You see, our obsession with individuals and free will means we have entire legal structures set up to find the best ways to punish individuals who choose to act in ways that are anti-social. But we don’t ever seem to think about how we could change society to make such behaviour impossible, you know, rather than inevitable. The recent gun massacre in the United States is a case in point (in the sense there will always have been a recent gun massacre in the US this review can be timeless). And that is the problem with this book – it is so terrified of determinism stealing our free will that it spends half of the book trying to find ways to make sure the individual is left to be blamed for their actions.

But this is the wrong end of the telescope – even if this is the end of the telescope we rush to every time. This is the end that gives us our most pleasing view of ourselves – even when it makes us look like monsters. The other end of the telescope shows all of the societal influences that act upon us. The societal influences that mean some of us will inevitably act appallingly. It is this end of the telescope that makes us all responsible for the vile acts that occur in our society – not the side that makes us feel comfortably content with having some individual to blame. Even if that individual is us.

Maybe we should spend some time thinking about those societal influences and how we could change them. Just for once, just for a change.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
801 reviews2,521 followers
March 1, 2013
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.
January 19, 2015
4.5 Stars

This is a very good read. Gazzaniga explains the workings of the brain in terms that rarely get technical. He puts modern understanding of the neurology of our minds into context with history, free will, evolution. Though neurology is a complex subject, Gazzaniga does a very good job of keeping it understandable. It is non-fiction and it is not a story like an autobiography. Gazzaniga does as good a job as he can at telling the story of our brain in a way that is entertaining and easy to read or listen too.

Gazzaniga is not "ha-ha funny" but he manages to be amusing, has a good, comfortable writing style and even managed to make me laugh a couple of times. He is very interesting and knows how to work a scientific mystery to good effect.

I take a half star away because I think he skirted some of the ethical issues with the initial experiments and should have talked openly about them.

This is a scientific explanation, not a religious, faith based or even remotely spiritual explanation, though Gazzaniga surely rubs against those things as he unfolds the big picture and the detailed picture of how things work and who's in charge.

Good read.
Profile Image for Kaethe.
6,362 reviews457 followers
Want to read
December 13, 2011
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.
543 reviews16 followers
January 3, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Bob Nichols.
878 reviews287 followers
August 26, 2012
The author's argument is that reductionist theories about the brain are wrong. Gazzaniga is not a determinist. The mind emerges from the physical brain; that mind is a whole that is greater than its parts. The end result is a feeling that "someone is in charge." We have free will and we are responsibile for our actions.

Gazzaniga starts out in a way that suggests his alignment with the reductionist and deterministic viewpoints. He divides our mind into its unconscious and conscious roles and states that "whatever has made it to consciousness has already happened" so that we build theories of ourselves after the fact. Interestingly, in illustrating these two roles of the brain, Gazzangia in this otherwise heavily cited book does not mention Joseph LeDoux's The Emotional Brain (1996) that uses this very same example to illustrate the role of the amygdala and fear in the specific situation involving whether a shadow on the ground is a snake or a stick.

How does Gazzaniga get beyond this "post hoc process" to free will? Emergence is the central concept. He starts out easy enough, stating that we are the products of genetic and epigenitic backgrounds. The former provides the "large-scale" plan but the specific actions are "activity-dependent" so that external factors, not hard-wired genes, influence and modify our behavior, i.e., we have free will. From here he traces our socialization from our ape past with the end result being that we increasingly formulate and follow rules outside the brain. Social rules, laws and norms now govern us, not genes. Then he goes on to say that we are now co-evolving in the sense that the social environment forces us to be even more social and that this in turn affects our survival and reproduction. From that sweeping statement he deduces that we are becoming more social and less determined by genes, that we have choice, and that we are personally accountable to follow social expectations.

This is one way to weave together scientific evidence. But there are questions. Gazzaniga gives an account of a brutal murder by a person with an IQ of 59 and argues that "an abnormal brain does not mean that the person cannot follow rules." This of course presumes that the low IQ person not only is aware of the consequences of his actions but also presumes that the person cares enough to follow the rules. Again, he says that if a criminal is smart enough to not commit a crime in front of a policeman, "that person can follow social rules and not commit a crime." Yes, people can follow the rules but the salient question is why they won't and why they don't. Something is going on that is deeper, much deeper, than the perspective that Gazzaniga puts forward.

Finally, Gazzaniga's central point on emergence involves co-evolution. I believe he is correct about the impact of the outside environment on behavior, but I don't think he's accurate in how he accounts for that impact. His argument about our free will hinges on the impact the social environment has on transforming our behavior. Why is that environment different than the physical environment? The social environment is part of the external physical environment. It is something "mind" has had to deal with throughout our evolution. The environment, physical as well as social, has forced us to make changes in the way we engage it and has transformed us as a result. We change our behavior (what we do, how we do it) to fit what the external physical as well as social world requires. Isn't this transformation "emergence?" We have a dialectical interaction with the whole world, physical as well as social. We go into the world; the world reacts to our action and we then modify our behavior. The resultant synthesis was present in what went before yet is different from each. The emergence of mind, in other words, is not the product of just our interaction with the social sphere. Apart from the evoluton of our mind, that same dialectical interaction transforms species over time, changing them so that they can survive (and reproduce), which is the fixed "End" of all life. These transformations, while fixed in genes, might also be seen as expressions of emergence.

Our destinctive human quality is this free choice about how we maintain our lives and well-being, but the underlying question is why we choose one way as opposed to another. Gazzaniga has us destined to be good social beings, choosing to accommodate others. That picture flies in the face of history. Our choices serve an underlying core that might be socially good (other-oriented, respectful) or might be the opposite (overly self-oriented). Emergent mind, per se, says nothing about which way we will choose. The criminal uses information to make choices that allow him to do the crimnal act. That's why the criminal does not commit his crime in front of a policeman. That's why a criminal is a good criminal. Core, in the sense of fixed character traits, human nature varies across a continuum. Again, the question is not that the criminal can't follow social rules, but why he does not. Rather than progression to social goodness as Gazzaniga argues, we may have a fixed (biochemically) human nature for a good part of human kind who are fundamentally self-oriented and who do not change over time. This may explain why history tends to repeat itself, even now.
Profile Image for Aaron.
25 reviews3 followers
December 19, 2011
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.
Profile Image for Atila Iamarino.
411 reviews4,364 followers
January 12, 2017
Gazzaniga Michael é um médico que trabalhou com pacientes com o cérebro dividido em dois e descobriu em primeira mão como dois cérebros geram uma mente coerente e única. É um trabalho muito interessante e as histórias dos pacientes que ele conta são fantásticas. O livro realmente vale pela primeira metade, onde ele fala da nossa falta de livre-arbítrio, apesar da ilusão na direção contrária.

Na segunda metade, o livro dá uma guinada para propriedades emergentes, interação social e outros sistemas, em uma tentativa de resgatar o que pode trazer espontaneidade e livre-arbítrio. Mas fica um tanto forçado, por não ser a área de especialidade dele. E um tanto desconexo com o resto do livro. Ainda vale pela primeira parte, de qualquer forma.
Profile Image for عبدالرحمن عقاب.
672 reviews754 followers
February 17, 2014
كتاب جازينجا هذا جميل ويطرح مسألة انقسام الدماغ وعمله على هيئة أجزاء متنافرة ومتضاربة . ويكاد يأتي على حقيقة (اختيار الإنسان) وينفيها . غير أنه يبذل قصارى جهده في فصول الكتاب الأخيرة ليعيد الاعتبار لهذه الفضيلة وذاك في معرض حديثه عن مسئولية الإنسان عن أفعاله. ويطرح المسئولية من حيث كونها شأنا إجتماعيا أكثر من كونها حقيقة خلقية نفسية أو تكوين عصبي فسيولوجي . غير أني أرى أن لب الكتاب ينتهي عند الفصل الثالث وصرف الكاتب باقي الفصول في استطرادات فيزيائية واجتماعية وفلسفية لدعم فكرته.
سبق أن كتب الله لي أن أقرأ كتاب incognito لكاتبه
وقد كتبه صاحبه اتباعا لgazzinga وقد حمل الموضوع إلى آفاق أبعد وأعمق وأكثر "جبرية" . وأسأل الله أن يعينني علة كتابة تصوري ورأيي فيه هنا قريبا. فلا بد له من إطلالة أخرى الآن بعد who's in charge هذا إن شاء الله.
Profile Image for Alejandro (IG: todoporleer) .
57 reviews1 follower
June 11, 2021
Al igual que el autor entró al edificio del conocimiento del cerebro con la puerta ya abierta, la deja de igual manera al terminar el libro. Si ya de por sí es compleja la estructura que albergamos en la cabeza, lo es más aún delimitar cuestiones como determinismo o libre albedrío, dado que la mente limita al cerebro y viceversa.

Después de leer el relato queda patente que un ser humano no puede ser capaz de llegar de manera exacta a sobre qué o cómo es nuestra conducta, quedando una puerta abierta a las interpretaciones realizadas por el hemisferio izquierdo que es quien hace un razonamiento de todo lo percibido para hacer del mundo algo coherente. El cerebro es determinista en muchas acciones? Sí.Pero al ser un sistema complejo que se piensa asimismo donde el proceso de la emergencia tiene lugar, al igual que las sociedades o el tráfico, hay cabida para que los hechos sean conformados como un acto voluntario una vez la consciencia toma partido de ello, asumiendo así la responsabilidad de las acciones que a la postre es lo que de manera innata viene "preprogramado" por la evolución con conceptos como justicia y la moral (alude a experimentos con neonatos).

Un libro de neurociencia, psicología y filosofía de la mente con el que se aprende mucho y te hace entender de mejor manera las comunidades que construimos.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
2,002 reviews52 followers
September 3, 2019
Here is a book to give your brain a workout! Wow! I listened to it being read by Pete Larkin. He was an outstanding narrator. I only understood a fraction of the content and I would need to read it several times to catch on, I think.
The big explode your head premise is that the concepts of free will and responsibility may be fallacies. And our civilization is based on these ideas.
Other “subplots” in no certain order were:
Your primitive brain is still there;
Tension between developing societal standards and understanding individual brains;
How much of our life is emotional and how much of our brain is emotional? (and everyone is different!);
Complexity of the brain and how an injury can have consequences for everything and everyone; and
The left and right hemispheres of the brain.
I wonder how much knowledge of the brain has changed since this book was written in 2011? As we know, learning is happening very rapidly.
And this is the quote I loved from the book:
“I once asked Leon Festinger, one of the smartest men in the world, whether or not he ever felt inept. He replied, “Of course! That is what keeps you ept.”

Profile Image for Helen. A.H.
55 reviews8 followers
May 5, 2021
Contains completely new ideas, actually Gazzaniga is trying to revolutionise the concept of free-will. He is trying to exclude misunderstandings and misusing of this concept especially in neuroscience! but he can’t success to do so in a clear manner.
This book is a holistic approach to the problem of free will and personal responsibility by interconnecting (neuroscience, a bit of physics, quantum mechanics, Socialism, emergence theory of philosophy, evolution ...etc)!
Profile Image for Book Shark.
737 reviews135 followers
January 1, 2012
Who's in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga

"Who's in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain" is the thought-provoking book about the fascinating topic of free will and neuroscience. Neuroscientist and gifted author Michael S. Gazzaniga provides the latest insights into the science of the brain and offers unique perspectives. This 272-page book is composed of seven chapters: 1. The Way We Are, 2. The Parallel and Distributing Brain, 3. The Interpreter, 4. Abandoning the Concept of Free Will, 5. The Social Mind, 6. We are the Law, and 7. An Afterword.

1. A well-researched and well-written book.
2. The ability to convey difficult topics in an accessible, engaging manner.
3. Fascinating topics and the author does a wonderful job of breaking them into subtopics.
4. Educational, backed by current studies and unique perspectives. It's imperative to use the latest advances in science; especially in the fast-paced world of neuroscience and this book delivers...evidenced by interesting new perspectives that are making new waves.
5. Provides compelling arguments that the mind which is generated by the physical processes of the brain, constrains the brain. Interesting stuff!
6. Lays the scientific groundwork of what the brain is and how it evolved to be what it currently is.
7. Fascinating facts and tidbits throughout.
8. Does a wonderful job of explaining how the brain works. How it makes decisions.
9. Debunks even preconceived scientific views like the notion that all neurons are alike.
10. Honestly, where would we be without the understanding of evolution? Brain evolution for your understanding.
11. The differences between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Many great examples based on split-brain patients.
12. Phenomenal consciousness, what is the view in neuroscience today.
13. A thorough look at what the brain's job description is.
14. Complex systems in an accessible manner and the implication to the brain.
15. The interpreter module...
16. Non-conscious processes versus conscious processes.
17. Free will in proper perspective, thought-provoking points. Fascinating!
18. A very interesting look at determinism. Personally, it has made me reconsider some of my views.
19. A look at chaos theory.
20. The concept of emergence in a whole new light.
21. Quantum mechanics for the layperson.
22. Some of the most thought-provoking ideas and concepts pertaining to the mind, enlightening!
23. Dualism, determinism, reductionism...a transformation of a worldview right before our very eyes.
24. Great examples of upward and downward causation.
25. The neuroscience of the influences of social interactions. A lot of interesting new views of social groups here that I really enjoyed.
26. Wisdom throughout, "A genetically fixed trait is always superior to one that must be learned because learning may or may not happen."
27. The Baldwin effect, knowledge is a beautiful thing.
28. Monkey cops...I kid you not, and you wonder why I read?
29. Theory of mind, mirror neurons and mimicry.
30. A great discussion on moral systems and moral intuitions. Including whether moral intuitions are universal or not.
31. The impact of cultures on psychological outcomes.
32. Interesting takes on what we know about neuroscience and how it's used in the courtrooms. Concepts like responsibility as an example are discussed.
33. Various forms of justice.
34. The ultimate question of whether we are free to choose is answered to satisfaction.
35. Links worked.
36. Good notes section.

1. Lack of charts and diagrams to enhance the learning experience.
2. There are a number of books that go into more depth on some of the topics presented in this book, check some of my recommendations of books that I reviewed for Amazon.

In summary, a fantastic, worldview modifying book that I will cherish until new discoveries are made. Books like this one are why I enjoy reading as much as I do. It provided not only current views of neuroscience but even more importantly, it gave the knowledge to update my worldview. An intellectual treat of a book, I can't recommend it enough! Enjoy!

Further suggestions: "Human" by the same author, "The Believing Brain..." by Michael Shermer is superb, "The Brain and the Meaning of Life" by Paul Thagard, "The Moral Landscape..." by Sam Harris, "Hardwired Behavior" by Laurence Tancredi, and "Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality" by Patricia S. Churchland,
Profile Image for Jozef.
175 reviews24 followers
December 23, 2020
Ik was al fan van Gazzaniga omwille van zijn split brain onderzoek. Maar hij deed zoveel meer dan wat ik vermoedde met deze patiënten.
Hij vond ook interessante inzichten over het bewustzijn en hoe de verschillende delen van de hersenen hierop inwerken.

Verder in het boek filosofeert hij, vertrekkende van de inzichten uit de neurologie, over determinisme en verantwoordelijkheid om ten slotte te eindigen met bedenkingen rond hoe een rechtssysteem zou moeten werken.
Rond determinisme komt hij tot het besluit dat het al dan niet bestaan van determinisme een foute vraag is. Iets dat ik zelf ook altijd heb gedacht. Wat betekent determinisme, of het ontbreken ervan? En vooral wat heeft dat te maken met verantwoordelijkheid. (volgens mij en volgens Gazzaniga: niets). De titel van het boek "who's in charge" wordt hier ook uitgespit. Eigenlijk voldoen hersenen aan de wetten van de fysica, maar door complexe interactie met lichaam en met de sociale omgeving is de voorspelbaarheid van de actie niet direct wat je van een deterministisch systeem verwacht.
Aan het einde van het boek gaat hij in op de verschillende vormen van straffen die in het recht toegepast worden en wat de voor- en nadelen zijn en zet dat in het perspectief van onze kennis van de werking van de hersenen.
Heel interessant. In het dele waar hij spreekt over emergente systemen vond ik dat hij een beetje de mist in gaat, daarom geen 5 sterren. Maar waarschijnlijk het meest interessante boek dat ik dit jaar las.
Profile Image for Joseph Monaco.
14 reviews
November 4, 2013
While searching for an appropriate stage setter for the next block of instruction at the School of Advanced Military Studies--Morality and War--I stumbled upon this fine book. I was pleased to discover that Gazzaniga’s metacognitive approach in describing the role of the brain as a complex “systems of systems” overlaps quite well with the evolution of art and science inherent in SAMS. In fact, Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain overlaps quite well with the creative theorizing necessary to understand, adapt, and solve any complex problem within any body of knowledge.

The best way I can describe the book is a cross between key concepts of Retired Colonel John Boyd, Peter L. Berger (The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge), undergraduate Physics (Newtonian Mechanics and Quantum Theory), and neuroscience. My bias is undergraduate Physics and military (operational level) problem solving so I appreciated his sub-atomic, yet simple approach to outlining the human brain and decision-making.

Is there innate moral behavior, and how does reason influence Moral Sentiments? What is the role of the brain as a decision-making device?

The brain is clearly not homologous, and is not complex simply because of a lack of knowledge. The brain is complex because it is a complex adaptive system with emergent (“weak” and “strong”) and “conscious” properties. Hello John Boyd (Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd)! The brain’s systems are “distributed,” “layered,” function in parallel, and specialize in tasks. Functioning as a “dynamic chaotic system,” linear models fall short in understanding a “dissipative system” such as the human brain.

Conscious thought is by itself an emergent property. However, conscious thought is slow and expensive. Cues and perceptions drive our explanations even when faced with a lack of information, or even worse, faulty information. Insert that long list of logical fallacies studied at institutions of higher learning here too.

The non-conscious is where one “makes their money” because these actions are fast and rely on heuristics. These habit patterns drive decision-making. In essence, “control” is an emergent property. However, how does control relate to moral imperatives? Do deterministic laws apply in complex systems? If so, why are there groupings and why is there seemingly a unity in human thought?

The interpreter module brings unity and it is only as good as the information it gets. The brain creates a temporal map and is subject to dualism. It is also possible to hijack the interpreter for good and bad, desired and undesired effects. Insert virtual reality and visual illusions here. In any case, through the interpreter, a human brain’s output is a unified and coherent personal narrative. Thus, free will and determinism, outside the context of religion and spirituality, of course, are not found in the brain, but in the social construction of reality.

Virtues are not universal. This drives differences in morality between cultures. Studies show that culture and genes affect cognition.

Unless you are an aspiring neuroscientist, I recommend a read for gist. Perhaps an audiobook version played at 1.5x while driving across Kansas (hint, hint). This book would be much more painful as a hard copy for the average reader. However, it is loaded with cognitive wealth. I found the following to be the most valuable takeaways: the brain as a complex system of systems, the relationship between the brain’s decision-making and free will (determinism), and how the human brain shapes moral sentiments. I also recommend this book for the “Boyd and Beyond” reading list if it is not already on there.
Profile Image for Ed.
69 reviews14 followers
December 21, 2011
My advice for anyone who reads this book is to be sure and read the entire book carefully. In the first few chapters, Gazzaniga presents neurological determinism so convincingly that a careless reader might mistake it for the author's final position. Gazzaniga may also invite misunderstanding by titling Ch. 4 "Abandoning the Concept of Free Will," when a careful reading of the chapter shows that he really wants to "reframe the question about what it means to have free will." By the end of the chapter, he has recast freedom and responsibility as emergent properties of a complex, multi-layered system.

Gazzaniga agrees with other neuroscientists in rejecting a pre-scientific notion of free will, the idea that "YOU, a self with a central command center, are in charge, are free from causation, and are doing things....The modern perspective is that brains enable minds, and that YOU is your vastly parallel and distributed brain without a central command center." Most of what goes on in the brain is unconscious, and our brains are already initiating actions before we are aware of what we are doing. But unlike many of his colleagues, Gazzaniga does not jump to the conclusion that causality is solely from the bottom up, from brain to mind, so that conscious thought is inconsequential. That would seem to eliminate moral responsibility, an awkward conclusion considering the research suggesting that people actually act better when they believe they are free and responsible! Gazzaniga does not believe that science has to undermine our humanity or moral worth.

Gazzaniga points out that much of science has moved beyond determinism, embracing ideas such as unpredictability in complex systems, quantum indeterminacy, and emergence of qualitatively new properties at higher levels of analysis. "The ones left sitting at the 'hard' determinist table are the neuroscientists and Richard Dawkins." To illustrate how emergence alters one's perspective, consider a musician playing a note. The musician relies on the deterministic mechanics of the instrument, the brain and the body, and all the necessary causes they entail. But analysis at those levels is insufficient to explain THIS note in this musical context; that requires a more aesthetic and cultural analysis. The lower level enables but doesn't entirely determine the emergent higher level. Similarly, why do I type these words in preference to all the other words I could type without violating any physical laws? A complete answer requires an understanding of the cultural conversation in which I am participating. Gazzaniga rejects neurological determinism because he takes seriously the emergent sociocultural level which constrains individual minds and brains. He rejects bottom-up causality in favor of a complementarity in which the neurological and sociocultural levels influence each other. Within that framework he finds it appropriate and necessary that societies hold individuals responsible for their actions.

The book will be most challenging for two groups: those who have a pre-scientific idea of free will, and those at the other extreme who have bought into neurological determinism. The many philosophers and social scientists who never liked either of those extremes in the first place may feel more vindicated than enlightened. While I'm glad that at least one neuroscientist is trying to move beyond determinism, I actually wish he had gone a little farther. Gazzaniga still seems to me to be too much under the spell of the mechanistic metaphor that has dominated so much of our thinking in the Machine Age. When he talks about complex multi-leveled systems, he uses the language of hardware & software, algorithms and feedback loops. For example: "The social environment is just another factor contributing to the overall environment that is selecting in a downwardly causal way, with a feedback mechanism at work"; and "...the rules and algorithms that govern all of the separate and distributed modules work together to yield the human condition." Often he talks as if freedom and responsibility are nothing more than obedience to social feedback, no different than a furnace's obedience to feedback from a thermostat. In the Afterword he suggests that developing a new vocabulary may be the "scientific problem of this century," but he doesn't express any interest in going beyond mechanisms and algorithms to explore something more creative and aesthetic. One scientist whose reflections on agency and self-organization have taken him much deeper is biologist Stuart Kauffman, who argued in Investigations that we need a new synthesis of science and art in order to understand living things.

I would think that a serious reflection on freedom and responsibility would require some discussion of creativity. Kauffman criticized the standard "random variation and natural selection" model of evolution as not accounting sufficiently for the emergence of novel organization; selection only trims forms, but doesn't create them. Is Gazzaniga's model, which emphasizes neural variation and social selection, creative enough? He acknowledges the emergence of a social level in general, but he may be overlooking the little emergences of novel thoughts that are going on all the time, and which create culture as opposed to just conform to it. I suggest that regarding freedom and responsibility as participation in the creative construction of the world may turn out to be just as compatible with good science as seeing them as responses to societal feedback. I think it may be robbing freedom of too much of its meaning to see it essentially as social constraint on the brain. So while I see the book as a helpful first step beyond neurological determinism, a much deeper understanding is needed.
Profile Image for Sudip Das.
46 reviews1 follower
November 28, 2022
Mr. Gazzaniga, through this book, has done a tremendous job in neurologically exploring the question of whether free will exist or all our thinking are purely deterministic in nature. I am also quite impressed with how he has tried to examine the working of mind-brain duality.

Greatly recommended for inquisitives who wants to understand the abstraction that occurs when mind interacts with the brain and how laws of nature impact them both.
Profile Image for Caren.
493 reviews102 followers
January 20, 2012
This is not light reading (or, not for me anyway), but it is extremely interesting and profitable. Just last year, in "Incognito", David Eagleman indicated that some changes in legal procedures may need to take into account new findings in neuroscience. Toward the end of this book, Mr. Gazzaniga is more specific about the ways in which the unfolding findings of neuroscience are changing proceedings in the courtroom. By studying patients who have had the two hemispheres of the brain severed (usually to prevent seizures), researchers discovered that, while the right brain is quite literal in what it perceives, the left brain has an "interpreter" which will construct a story to make sense of the information it perceives. Just as Mr. Eagleman recounted in "Incognito", the brain does most of its work on autopilot, outside of our conscious control. In fact, a person may feel he has made a conscious decision, but he probably has acted first and later felt that he decided to act. From such discoveries, the idea of determinism has taken hold in our culture (including in the courts). But Mr. Gazzaniga's understanding of the research goes deeper. After spending much of the book showing how the research has led to determinist conclusions, he expands the scope of our view by showing the ways in which the culture in which we find ourselves influences the tendencies of our individual brains. He says that we in the West have evolved from the ancient Greeks to focus on the individual, while those in the East evolved from the culture of China, in which the individual is seen as a part of the whole society and the goal is harmony, not rugged individualism. Hence, the brains of those living in these cultures have evolved in different directions. He also says that the human brain was able to grow larger than those of other primates when agriculture allowed for a more sedentary (rather than nomadic) culture, with greater calorie intake. (The brain, he says, uses 20% of our caloric intake.) There is a limit to the size of the surrounding society that any individual brain can handle. The author says 150 is the top number of people a brain can keep track of in forming relationships. (As an example, he notes that people who have more than 1,000 friends on Facebook only really keep up with 150 or fewer.) Oh my, there are so many interesting avenues Mr. Gazzaniga explores with us. In the end, his real point if that he does not agree with determinism when considering human consciousness and free will. He wants us to see that we are a part of a bigger picture, that we can indeed be held accountable because, in his words, "...we now understand that we have to look at the whole picture, a brain in the midst of and interacting with other brains, not just one brain in isolation." (p.215)
This book was written as a result of a series of lectures, the Gifford lectures (which is a Scottish lecture series that has been sponsoring preeminent thinkers for over 100 years to discuss "natural theology"), which the author gave in Edinburgh in 2009. More on the Gifford lecture series can be found here: http://www.giffordlectures.org/
2 reviews2 followers
March 3, 2013
this book is a wonderful collection of interesting facts and glimpses into probably very complex theories, told by a brilliant neuroscientist in an actually pretty good and easy to read language. and that is very nice.

however, the book also slightly suffers structurally because of its "collection-like" nature. the arguments are stretched out between descriptions (that are necessary - book is written in a relatively popular language, thus, little knowledge can be assumed on the part of the reader) and humor (some of it's not that bad, actually - story about how Gazzaniga decided to build his own house is pretty cool ^^). so sometimes it is kind of hard to see the relevance of all this to the question of free will, and what is the scientific position on that which Gazzaniga could've presented us.

and he actually does that, it's just that his answer might be a little different from what the reader had in mind, when he asked the question about free will. he dismisses any metaphysical aspects of the question (and that is the way it should be done, imo :> ), and gives us a more realistic way of thinking about what it means to have free will.

if I dared to try and sum it up, I'd try to condensate it into two points:
1) thinking about human action and motives behind it requires several levels of description of the physical system that humans are - thus, human choices and other kinds of behaviour, while essentially being made up by the activity of lower levels - neurons and stuff, can not be properly described by only describing and looking at this lower level.
2) responsibility, a core part of the "free will", and, arguably, the most important due to its importance in law and to the possibility of human society as a whole, should be thought of not as grounded in some metaphysical considerations, but as based on the social reality - Gazzaniga thinks of responsibility as a kind of or a consequence of a social contract humans have.

but since I don't dare pretend I know this book that well, you should take what I have just written here with a pinch of salt.

there are also some problematic suggestions by Gazzaniga - the desire for a different language to describe our decisions etc in brain-terms etc is very ill-founded in this book, it is only backed by references to no less mysterious scientists who expressed the same desire for a different language, but actual arguments remain hidden. but perhaps it is only my objection as a person, who is acquainted with philosophy and who thinks that the existing language can be adjusted and redefined to preserve some of its functional and moral value, but replacing metaphysics, hidden in these words, with science, that would be no less hidden than the old metaphysics, but a lot more accurate, when made explicit.

none the less, it is a good and interesting read, but it is not and it probably can not yet be conclusive on the topic, but what it does say could be said slightly more accurately and in a more focused manner.
3.5/5. rounded down to 3, since I have to rate it like that?
Profile Image for Patrick.
193 reviews18 followers
April 20, 2012
Amazon review:
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.
296 reviews
June 1, 2020
This was kind of a slog of a read. It's technically popular science, but Gazzaniga write more as if he is writing for entertainment to an audience in his field, or at least field-adjacent. I certainly got some perspective on the inner-workings of the mind and a few things to puzzle over regarding consciousness and self.
Profile Image for Makomai.
241 reviews8 followers
March 31, 2015
Uno studio su determinismo, identità, libero arbitrio e responsabilità personale. Discorsivo e ben ragionato, con moltissimi spunti interessanti e contenuti informativi di rilievo. Imho, le conclusioni – per quanto intriganti e ben articolate - restano però elusive, non comprovate e pertanto prive di un vero valore aggiunto.

Che l’io sia narrativo, e probabilmente anche (in un certa misura di sanità mentale) discorsivo, le neuroscienze l’hanno ormai ampiamente dimostrato: il nostro emisfero cerebrale sinistro interpreta e se necessario affabula per inventarsi un’identità e darle una parvenza di continuità (e per dare coerenza alle nostre esperienze sensoriali e mentali). L’emisfero destro e gli altri (cervelli) costituiscono il limite delle affabulazioni (la “mente sociale” di Gazzanica mi ricorda molto la “mente estesa”, perlomeno nell’accezione che ne dà Neal Levy), richiamando l’affabulatore ad una realtà più o meno oggettiva (o perlomeno condivisa). Fin qui nulla quaestio.
Data la premessa, e il supposto corollario che la coscienza è un fenomeno “post hoc” - conseguenza dell’azione più che sua premessa - i neuroscienziati tendono in generale ad un determinismo che esclude in principio il libero arbitrio (ma con le posizioni intermedie dei “compatibilisti”, che trovo le più convincenti).
In questo contesto, Gazzanica re-introduce il concetto di “mente”, pur cercando di evitare la contestuale resuscitazione del dualismo cartesiano (con poco successo, a mio avviso). Peccato che non spieghi cosa sia, dove si trovi, come funzioni, da quali leggi sia regolata. Se la cava semplicemente dicendo “Credo che il pensiero cosciente sia un proprietà emergente. Questo non lo spiega, certo, ma intanto ne riconosce la realtà e il livello di astrazione (…) la mente è una proprietà del cervello in qualche modo indipendente da esso, e allo stesso tempo ne risulta del tutto dipendente”. Grazie tante…!
(Occam sarebbe inorridito: introdurre un ulteriore livello di complessità è lecito nella misura in cui chiarisce, non certo se lascia tutto come prima). I riferimenti alla “emergenza”, ai sistemi dissipativi, alla teoria del caos e i paralleli con fisica newtoniana e meccanica quantistica suonano molto bene e sono astrattamente corretti e convincenti, ma… non portano a nessuna dimostrazione, a nessun chiarimento, neanche a nessuna ipotesi degna di questo nome. Solo ad un concetto vecchio (la mente) vestito di panni nuovi (la “emergenza”). Grazie tante…!
Suggerirei piuttosto di partire dai fatti:
Fatto 1: l’io è narrativo (e discorsivo)
Fatto 2: la coscienza è post hoc (si possono avere riserve al riguardo, ma diamolo come fatto assodato)
Fatto 3: il cervello è uno strumento per prendere decisioni
Fatto 4: vi sono decisioni “ragionate” (lente) e reazioni “istintive” (veloci)
Fatto 5: l’emisfero sinistro è deputato a individuare schemi (anche dove non ci sono, a volte)
Fatto 6: l’emisfero destro massimizza
Fatto 7: l’emisfero sinistro è deputato a creare l’identità e la continuità dell’io
Fatto 8: l’emisfero destro interpreta letteralmente
Tanto dato, non trovo casuale che l’emisfero sinistro sia deputato sia ad assicurare la continuità dell’io (l’identità) sia a trovare schemi negli eventi: individuare schemi – nella mia visione – è esattamente il ruolo dell’io identitario, di cui è funzione il libero arbitrio (che necessariamente è riferito proprio a tale “io”…). Immaginiamo che le decisioni ragionate funzionino da priming e determinino schemi associati a categorie (buono-cattivo, conveniente-svantaggioso, giusto-ingiusto), lasciando poi allo “istinto” valutare il singolo fenomeno alla luce dei pattern predefiniti e pre-valutati e reagire (velocemente) di conseguenza. Potremmo chiamare libero arbitrio tale funzione di individuazione di schemi e attribuzione di valori e disvalori, operata a priori e rivisitata continuamente in funzione dell’esperienza. La plasticità dell'architettura neurale è compatibile con tale processo, che presenta un evidente valore di fitness: avere schemi in cui far rientrare gli eventi della vita consente di reagire istintivamente (e velocemente) senza dover ogni volta “decidere” cosa sia conveniente. L’ipotesi è compatibile con l’esperienza: di fronte a fatti totalmente nuovi l’istinto reagisce con meno efficienza, non sapendo in quale categoria farli rientrare e quale tattica adottare tra le famose 4 effe fondamentali (fight, feed, flee, engage in sexual intercourse). Contrariamente a Gazzanica, si potrebbe postulare quindi che il libero arbitrio sia un “a priori” dell’azione (rectius, della reazione), non un “post hoc” legato alla coscienza fenomenica. In altre parole, “fissiamo” una serie di schemi (e valori), in base alla quale il cervello può anche reagire “istintivamente”, riferendo l’evento al quale è necessario reagire ad un pattern predeterminato (a sua volta inquadrato in una scala valoriale). Il libero arbitrio non andrebbe pertanto riferito alla singola azione, quanto alla determinazione delle categorie (e della correlata scala di valori) che condizionano la reazione (che può anche essere “istintiva” e pre-cosciente). Diverse aree della corteccia potrebbe esserne la sede di elaborazione, ma seppure il risultato finale non è necessariamente il prodotto di una singola area, non mi sembra vi sia bisogno di postulare “emergenze” particolari e conseguenti formazione di qualcosa di “altro” rispetto al cervello - o di scomodare la fisica quantistica. L’ipotesi è altrettanto opinabile e imprecisa di quella di Gazzanica, ma ha perlomeno il vantaggio dell’economicità.
Quanto sia “libero” un libero arbitrio così inteso è materia di discussione (ed è discusso sotto la rubrica “sistema morale innato/appreso”), ma che esista un margine è dimostrato, a mio avviso, dal fatto che non siamo tutti eroi, né siamo tutti ladri o assassini, ma esistono assassini, ladri ed eroi. Non reagiamo tutti allo stesso modo di fronte a stimoli identici: alcuni fuggono e altri combattono, e non unicamente in funzione della valutazione della situazione (pattern), ma anche in funzione di una diversa scala valoriale, di una diversa concezione del dovere, di una diversa tendenza al sacrificio. Banalmente, riterrei che il sistema valoriale (di cui il sistema morale è un sottoinsieme) possa essere funzione delle tendenze geneticamente determinate e dell’esperienza che le plasma (il sistema valoriale di chi è stato in guerra, di chi ha sofferto la fame, di chi è stato abbandonato o abusato può ben differire da quello dell’agiato borghese). Nel dibattito nature vs nurture mi sembra che l’approccio di Gazzanica (retroazioni reciproche) sia ragionevole. Che in tale contesto la responsabilità per le proprie azioni sia un concetto socialmente rilevante da valutare pragmaticamente in ambito giuridico, più che attinente l’io identitario e il libero arbitrio, mi sembra pacifico. In fondo, che la premeditazione sia un’aggravante e che siano attenuanti l’aver agito in circostanze che non hanno consentito una valutazione approfondita delle conseguenze non è poi così sbagliato…
Profile Image for bup.
629 reviews59 followers
January 16, 2020
I keep hoping to one day really understand that leap from "we're computers made of meat" to consciousness. Gazzaniga got me really close, and went through a lot of the same things other books I've read do: consciousness moves around in the brain constantly, and there is a part of the brain that decides which one or two of the hundreds of processes in the brain goes into the conscious 'slot', and consciousness often is post-facto (we do something, then become conscious of it).

Then, it seems like he concludes we're deterministic beings and post-rationalize everything and spends the rest of the book on the implications of that, particularly in what it means for society and laws and justice.

Which didn't quite get me to the place of understanding I seek. Maybe it's un-answerable, although a lot of authors think they've answered it. Reducing consciousness to a small thing doesn't change my awe and wonder that we are different from computers, that we are aware, that we experience.

Don't get me wrong - I learned a lot, I thought about reductionism and the fact that brains can't be thought of on their own but in context, that it's impossible to predict many systems from their components, and the like. It's a great read overall.
Profile Image for Andy Oram.
473 reviews15 followers
March 29, 2018
This book offers interesting observations on two levels. Scientifically, the author as a leading neuroscientist lays out a sophisticated theory of how we make decisions. Although each individual decision is driven by a complex, interacting set of "modules" in the brain, Gazzaniga does not give in to a reductionist, deterministic philosophy. He calls for "a unique language, which has yet to be developed," to help us understand how our decisions affect future brain interactions and how social forces affect each of our brain's behavior, right down to the level of genes. Ethically, this book wades into current debates over how much responsibility can be assigned to criminals (Harvard, for instance, recently created a Center for Law, Brain and Behavior). Gazzaniga criticizes the current overuse of brain scans in deciding court cases and punishments. He believes that criminals can generally be held responsible for their actions, intriguingly suggesting "accountability" instead of punishment. Note that there is no particular neurological behavior that clinches any argument. It is interesting to see how much the scientists have learned, and how big the gaps in our knowledge are.
Profile Image for Eliza.
94 reviews2 followers
September 30, 2017
I attentively read about 1/3 of this book and skimmed the rest, for the sole reason that i had little time and needed specific information. But overall I can say this is a very interesting work, both dense in academic references from which one can build on later (i'm personally interested in "niche constructions") as well as a clear presentation for people with zero background in neurobiology. So it's a masterful diffusion of science to a larger audience interested in the inner workings of the brain and it's evolution.
Profile Image for Daron Yondem.
Author 6 books74 followers
June 19, 2022
This is a philosophical analysis of our scientific understanding of our brain's internals and how it relates to our interpretation of free will. Worth reading but do not expect conclusive insights. This is more about the scientific literature and a bunch of unanswered questions.
Profile Image for Scott.
260 reviews12 followers
April 28, 2022
Challenging book

This is not an easy book to read nor comprehend. And that is what makes it wonderful and worth reading.
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