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

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  2,879 ratings  ·  235 reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 260 pages
Published November 15th 2011 by Ecco
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Will Byrnes
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, w
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
Feb 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
The Pirate Ghost (Formerly known as the Curmudgeon)
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 t
Kaethe Douglas
Dec 13, 2011 marked it as to-read
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. ...more
H Wesselius
Dec 22, 2011 rated it it was ok
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 empl ...more
Sep 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 s
Jan 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, neuroscience
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,
Nov 18, 2011 rated it liked it
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 d
Joseph Monaco
Aug 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 theorizi ...more
Apr 20, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: pure-ideology
How do we reconcile quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics? Through systems theory. Quantum mechanics cannot predict Newtonian physics, because Newtonian physics is an emergent property of objects interfacing at a higher level of reality (the visible world). They are irreconcilable, yet both are applicable and informative.

How do we reconcile neuroscience and consciousness? Through systems theory. Neurons cannot be used to predict consciousness, because consciousness of an emergent property of p
Dec 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 ch ...more
Bob Nichols
Aug 25, 2012 rated it did not like it
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 stat
May 04, 2021 rated it really liked it
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)!
Jan 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
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 (usua ...more
Mar 03, 2013 rated it liked it
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
Apr 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ideas
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 meanin
Jun 01, 2020 rated it liked it
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. ...more
Jan 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
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
Andy Oram
Mar 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
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 forc ...more
Sep 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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 b ...more
Nov 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
A thorough argument, well delivered. Much was added to my knowledge on the subject. I enjoyed all the narrative-based examples. I especially enjoyed learning what possibilities the future holds for neuroscience.
Will Simpson
Nov 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a book heavy on neruoscience but the author does a great job of carrying me forward. I didn't realize Michael Gazzaniga was the researcher involved in the first "split brain" patient studies. His perspective on brain mapping is fascinating. How evolution is tied to brain modules is explained. I was hoping for more on brain modules and how we interact with them but, oh well. His discussion of free will is a bit confused. There is a lot to yet be discovered. And who knows what will become ...more
Peter A.  van Tilburg
Jun 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
Very interesting book on the issue of the deterministic view ( biological, fysical and chemical,processes determine decisions you take). The empirical evidence shows that decision making is done before issues come to a conscient level in the brain. This suggests the deterministic viewpoint. But especially interesting was the reference to the study of Brass and Haggard. " To do or not to do" Their data suggests that a specific area in the dorsal fronto-medial cortex is related to a kind of self c ...more
Dec 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Gazzaniga discusses a lot of interesting psychology and neuropsychology research that is more-or-less relevant to the question whether our apparently voluntary behavior is a product of free-will versus being the inevitable result of a chain of causes over which we have no control. Sometimes the thread of his argument gets lost in the details. He suggests that emergent mental process (the result of complex brain processes) can exert downward control on brain processes to change their automatic co ...more
Nov 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Unlike the fantastic philosopher Daniel C. Dennett who carved out a bit of elbow room for free will in a deterministic world, Gazzaniga blows past the idea as miscast and arcane. So while the title does say "Free Will" it's a bit misleading. This is a good neuroscience book that plays upon the notion of emergence to talk about personal responsibility and crime and punishment. In other words, minds interacting with minds through the social contract > the false notion of dualism or free will. Very ...more
May 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
Recommended to uosɯɐS by: Jorge Gomez
Shelves: neuro, emergence
Good book! I was expecting an overview/summary/introduction to the current state of neuroscience in regards to consciousness and free will. I did get that, but also some focus on what this means for the legal system, which was interesting but not exactly what I was looking for. Next I will have to look into Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. ...more
Nov 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Michael Gazzaniga can talk about the brain from the position of authority as he was there when most of the recent breakthroughs in neuroscience were made.
"Who's in charge" gives a brief overview of recent research explaining some of the common questions about brain functioning. In particular, I liked the part where he was talking about the functions of the interpreter module.
I found this book stimulating, captivating and in places liberating. It is a must-read.
Jan 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A great book. Just the introduction to neuroscience was amazing. If you want an accessible overview of our modern understanding of the brain, this is the place to start. The author's discussion of how we consider guilt and innocence in the context of our evolving understanding of the brain is also fascinating. Highly recommended. A fun and enlightening read. ...more
Feb 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
Plenty to be found here that is interesting. However, it did more to convince me of a lack of free will than prove we our autonomous agents who are free to choose.

The chapter dealing with neuroscience in the courtrooms was especially interesting.
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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 surg

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