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God Soul Mind Brain: A Neuroscientist's Reflections on the Spirit World

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"Essential reading for the devout, the agnostic, and the atheist. In tackling the question of the religious brain, Graziano is respectful, sincere, and scientifically plausible. This might even be an Important Book."—Sam Wang, author of Welcome to Your Brain

"A beautifully crafted, tightly scripted account of how the far-flung legions of the brain's neurons give rise to social awareness and our notions of soul, religion and God."—Christof Koch, author of The Quest for Consciousness

"Lucid and engaging. . . . Moves with pace and humor."—Philip Johnson-Laird, author of Mental Models

"Do we know the origins of Gods and ghosts? This well-written book makes the bold case that new discoveries in social neuroscience can illuminate human spiritual experience."—Terry Sejnowski, PhD, Salk Institute/UC San Diego

Writing for the general public, Michael S. A. Graziano explores the controversial relationship between science and religion, first dismissing the "science versus religion" debate as outdated. The cutting-edge field of social neuroscience explains how our perceptions of our own consciousness, of other minds, and of spirits and gods depend on machinery in the brain that evolved to make us socially intelligent animals. In clear prose without technical jargon, Graziano discusses his and others' findings in this twenty-year-old science and the implications for human spirituality and religion.

Michael S. A. Graziano, professor of neuroscience, Princeton University, is the author of numerous articles on the functioning of the brain. He is internationally known for fundamental discoveries about sensory-motor coordination. His previous book on the brain, The Intelligent Movement Machine, was published by Oxford University Press in 2008.

170 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2010

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Michael S.A. Graziano

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Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews
Profile Image for Jan Rice.
523 reviews445 followers
October 25, 2013
I ordered this book after reading an interview with the author in a psychology journal last summer. In the article he asserted that consciousness is essentially a bookmarking system for keeping track of what we're paying attention to. Wow! That seemed a further development in areas of current interest--cognitive psychology, free will, religion. I read several of the author's pieces in The Huffington Post (this one from Oct. 5, 2011, which contains a link to another, earlier article, and this one from April 11, 2011), and chose this book.

The author begins by showing that color is not a direct perception but a computation in/by the brain, and from there he moves on by analogy to social perception and perception of awareness. He does look on those phenomena as perceptions, like color. Similarly, we construct, then perceive, the experiences of others. Just as we construct and perceive the "essence"--the souls--of others, we, as children, perceive the souls of dolls and stuffed animals, hence ghosts, gods, and so forth, according to Graziano. We also have to construct and perceive our own consciousness just as we do color and the awareness of others, albeit in much more intimate detail than we do for others.

From there he goes on to areas of the brain in which perception takes place. He discusses mirror neurons. He discusses the emotional centers of the brain. He talks about hypothesizing the experiences of other brains via mirroring the behavior of others in the context of social perception and emotion. With particularly intense emotions we can get one-trial learning.

Michael Graziano refers liberally to the "circuitry" of social perception in the brain or the brain "machinery" by which we perceive consciousness. Noticeable, though, are a lot of "maybes," "perhapses," and "if such a thing exists." So, although there are references to neuroscience, neurons, areas of the brain, and so forth, I was left thinking that his brain parts were actually explanatory devices like Daniel Kahneman's "System 1" and "System 2" but were masquerading as scientifically determined locales in the brain.

Parts of this book, particularly early on, offer useful information, but even so it comes across more as a review of Psych 101 and Biology 101 than as revolutionary. I wanted to be made to think more. Toward the end the author comes across as offering major assumptions as foregone conclusions. I was disappointed in this book. Two and a half stars.

Speaking of "revolutionary," I had found Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow revolutionary from page one. Not so, God Soul Mind Brain. Graziano, I think, has the same aim in mind: to show us that we are not as rational as we think, that we are not experiencing the world directly, that we should perhaps stop and take a little notice of that. But the reader is apt to think that the abnormal cases Graziano sometimes uses as examples, or other less-advanced samples of humanity, are the irrational ones, and surely not ourselves. I don't think even religious readers would find Graziano's references to religion very startling, as he seems so external to the religious experience, talking mostly about "ghosts," "spirits," and "gods." He just seems to be the typical college professor in that regard.

In the last chapters he goes further off the tracks. No proof offered, he grants memes a gene-like quality and assumes beliefs and mores have evolved in a simple biological-like manner. He doesn't recognize any revolutionary ideas (or the people that have them) that seem to advance through cultures like tidal waves sweeping all before them. He doesn't recognize or even notice paradigm shifts. He says religions that proselytize succeed and those that don't, fail. He doesn't notice that power and politics intervene. He says that conservative religions have to be slightly liberal or else they'll drive everyone away. According to him, liberal religions should be swarming with adherents while conservative religions would have driven off most of theirs. (Maybe there are no megachurches in his neck of the woods!) He goes on like that. He says he doesn't agree with some atheist scientists that religions should be banned, because it hasn't been proved they do harm rather than promote morality. Anyway, they are irrational and a part of irrational humanity, so couldn't be eliminated.

For this author, the true religion is the scientific study of the human mind, and that is our only route to any logic and rationality.

He doesn't notice that he is privileging his own path, just as do the adherents of other belief systems.

He is a scientific reductionist par excellence. For him, values are just what various groups have approved of, modeled and instigated at various times. For him, religion is no more irrational than the rest of human culture--politics, entertainment, business. From what he says, it follows that there is no particular moral progress or improvement going on in history, and no absolute or universal value beyond immediate survival value. No particular meaning. The fact that other human beings with other ideas along those lines exist--Platonists, value realists, creatures such as that--is either beneath mention or not dreamt of in his philosophy.

I liked the Huffington Post articles better. Unlike David Deutsch, Graziano allows for the numinous--only limited to this life. He has written children's books and novels. Maybe I didn't pick the best book. Maybe his new Consciousness and the Social Brain is better.

Addendum: In the first paragraph you'll now find the links to The Huffington Post articles that I read before buying God Soul Mind Brain.

In the process of looking them up and rereading them I discovered that the April article about religion is an excerpt from the book. Since I wrote that I liked those articles better than the book, I either misremembered my initial reaction to the excerpt or I see it differently now (maybe in relation to the rest of the book)!

Here is a December, 2005, article by Paul Bloom, writing in The Atlantic, that I think makes a similar point without a lot of random and grandiose-sounding claims. He systematically examines and summarizes the objections to several hypotheses about the existence of religion before describing the hypothesis he finds most credible. Emphasis on systematically!

My review and rating aren't intended to approve or disapprove of Michael Graziano's conclusions as much as to react to this book, that is, to how he makes his argument. (For example, I also had some difficulties with the philosopher Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False). I can think about a writer's proposals better if he or she is systematic. I also can think about them better if the writer answers difficulties and objections to his conclusions instead of simply claiming that they are true and everyone with any sense agrees. In that case I may wonder if the writer is trying to bamboozle me. I sometimes think about what has the ring of truth, what doesn't, and why.
Profile Image for Lee Harmon.
Author 5 books107 followers
August 8, 2011
Can a science book be also a feel-good book? This one is. Thank you, Graziano, for the lift.

Graziano brings to the table a professorship in social neuroscience, and builds atop the work of Dawkins and others in social memes, to explain what makes us human. He explains the workings of the brain to model the world around us, helping us interact socially and “feel” our way through life. Consciousness, the great mystery of our age, is merely “social perception applied inwardly.” It’s a process, not a thing. The book is short and very readable, but if you do find yourself struggling to grasp or appreciate the material, then skip over parts, but don’t put the book down before the final chapter.

Graziano is an atheist who thinks religion is complex and marvelous. That’s a good thing, because he also feels religion cannot be outgrown. He wants nothing to do with the aggressive new atheism which seeks to ridicule the religious into discarding dangerous beliefs for rational thinking. “I simply think that eradicating religion is not possible. It is a fallacy that ignores the specs of the human machine. We are not rational entities. Religion, like all culture, grows on the social machinery in our brains.”

God, it turns out, is the amygdala, though Graziano would never say this outright, and he’ll probably hunt me down for misrepresenting him. His own definition of God is “the perception of intentionality on a global scale. It is the perception of a single, unified mind behind every otherwise inexplicable event.” Don’t worry if this sounds like geek-speak, because the discussion of intentionality will make the definition clear and simple. In fact, everything in the book is clear and simple, enjoyable and unforgettable. Read it!
Profile Image for Andrew.
291 reviews14 followers
December 31, 2013
This is a short and easy to read introduction to Graziano's explanation of the "spirit world" in terms of brain functions. It's too short, really. The central notions - that consciousness is a process not a stuff, and that God(s), souls and minds are perceptions rather than objective realities - need fuller development to be really clear. Graziano's thesis seems to me, at least, to hover somewhere between these two: that, on the one hand, we are locked up in our own brains and perceptions are entirely our own mental constructions that somehow, most of the time, enable us to bumble through the world without getting into too much trouble, and that, on the other hand, our nervous systems construct perceptions that, while never entirely knowable in their congruence with what they represent, nevertheless are emblems of our interaction with the world and the beings that populate it. Is he a Kantian or a Peircean? I will have to read more. I read the book in prep for a course I am developing for undergraduate seniors. I may assign it as required reading. It seems quite good to me, an interested non-expert.
Profile Image for Grady.
Author 52 books1,664 followers
September 10, 2010
Above and Beyond: 'The Great Mediator'

Michael S.A. Graziano continues to amaze. Having been completely entranced by his novels of fiction, THE LOVE SONG OF MONKEY, and THE DIVINE FARCE, this reader was under the impression that his success in the literary realm was solid enough that he could well become one of the next decade's foremost novelists, so strange and compelling were these two brilliant books. But suddenly up pops this new book GOD SOUL MIND BRAIN and Graziano appears healthy on the other end of the spectrum of art to science. As a matter of interest this book erases that arc of what we all thought was a dichotomy, and in addition to encouraging us to think along the lines of growing our appreciation for the organ Brain he escorts us through the No Man's Land of religion versus science.

The pleasure (or one of the many pleasures) of the book subtitled 'A Neuroscientist's Reflection on the Spirit World' is the non-confrontational manner in which Graziano approaches the concept that soul and spirit and God may be better understood by exploring the working of the human brain. He simply does not go where readers who are embedded in religion/spirituality/soul versus the devil of science stand guard of their beliefs. This small, immensely readable book is not a scientific treatise but instead is a book for the masses, a gently kind introduction to the concepts of Neuroscientific explorations that explore the neural mechanisms of the 'social brain' - the concept of perception that allows us to react to the world in an understandable way - that allow us to construct a reasonable explanation for where spiritual thoughts, the concept of soul, and indeed where the major impact that religion began and continues. The slow unraveling of Graziano's information he so comfortably shares provides a means of understanding how reasonable consciousness that can explain both science and soul. This is his neural basis of belief in the unseen. God(s) and spirits are simply additional examples of the process of social perception, a theory he explains in the most useful and unarguable manner using examples of how we all interact with each other based on perceptions our brain forms from the information it incorporates from past or learned experiences. 'The purpose of perception is not to provide you with an accurate picture of the world. The purpose is to be useful to you. Whatever is advantageous - that is what the brain computes.'

Graziano's three points about perception are as follows: 1. It is a process of constructing a model in our brain of an object from the real world. 2. That model is not necessarily true to the actual object, but is simplified and altered, becoming a blend of the real and the invented. 3. The attributes don't feel like inventions, they are perceived as objective reality. He then leads the reader to the idea that 'God is the perception of a single, unified mind behind every otherwise inexplicable event: the spirit world by its dependence on the social perceptual construct is a creation of the brain. It is a perceptual illusion.'

The power of Graziano's writing comes not only from his research - it comes form his overwhelming honesty and acceptance of the world in which we live - all aspects of that world. His kindness and humanity is best quoted from his writing. 'I simply think that eradicating religion is not possible. It is a fallacy that ignores the specs of the human machine. We are not rational entities. Religion, like all culture, grows on social machinery in our brains. To function socially, we must understand each other's minds; therefore beliefs and customs spread by imitation from person to person; therefore a cultural competition among beliefs emerges; therefore belief systems evolve to be especially good at promoting themselves. Therefore religion. For that matter, therefore politics. Therefore entertainment. Therefore business. Therefore all of human culture. If religion is profoundly irrational, so is the rest of human culture. Culture is by nature a complicated, bizarre, irrational, fantastic, addictive pleasure, sometimes brutal, sometimes incredibly generous.....We can study the human mind from a scientific point of view and come to a logical understanding of its intrinsically bizarre illogic. To me, that contradiction is one of the most marvelous properties that we humans possess.'

Michael S.A. Graziano thus becomes the great mediator in the too often cruel battle between science and 'religion'. He proves himself in this superb book to be not only a brilliant writer but a contemporary philosopher. This book should be read by everyone, form the classrooms of high schools and colleges to the family rooms of every individual in the family of man.

Grady Harp
Profile Image for Lura.
176 reviews51 followers
March 18, 2010
"Brain Asplosion"

Obviously my brain didn't actually explode when I read God Soul Mind Brain by Michael Graziano. XP

Though I do believe it's a bad sign when a book aimed at "the most general, non scientific audience"(p 11) has me searching for a dictionary multiple times throughout the course of the book. The author adores ten-dollar words. I have a fairly large vocabulary myself, or I thought I did before reading this book.

For example, the author really likes the word ubiquitous. I thought I knew what it meant, but I wasn't sure. According to Merriam-Webster Online, the word means "existing or being everywhere at the same time: constantly encountered: widespread [a ubiquitous fashion:]". Why not just say widespread? The meaning isn't identical, but it would get the point across. Without making people look for a dictionary.

There were other words I had to look up but ubiquitous was the most, well, ubiquitous of the lot. ^_^

My only other issue with the book is the length of some of the paragraphs. A single page of uninterrupted text is hard on the eyes. Why do that to your readers? Give the eyes a break!

The book has a lot of science in it, which is to be expected. It is, after all, about neuroscience and the search for the soul. I have a pretty good background in science, having taken the equivalent to two semesters each of biology, chemistry, and physics - all at a college level. (Biology and Chemistry were AP courses taken in high school. I actually did take two semesters of physics in college.) Surprisingly, none of that helped my understanding of the various neuroscience principles outlined in this work as much as my single semester of general psychology. Turns out there is a lot of overlap between the two.

I don't recommend reading this book unless you have a good background in the sciences and a good vocabulary. Or at least a good dictionary.

Also, a good memory. By the time I got to the end of this book, I had forgotten what point the author was trying to make. Obviously, it didn't come across very well.
Profile Image for Book Shark.
743 reviews137 followers
June 25, 2011
God Soul Mind Brain: A Neuroscientist's Reflections on the Spirit World by Michael S. Graziano

"God Soul Mind Brain ..." is the even-handed and interesting book that shows how burgeoning scientific advances in social neuroscience can explain the special-purpose machinery in the brain that results in making us socially intelligent animals. The book is divided into two parts: Part 1. Mind and Part 2. Brain.

1. Short and sweet yet accomplishes so much in 170 pages.
2. Very accessible book, author does a wonderful job of explaining complex topics with ease and does so in a very even-handed manner.
3. Is able to provide a compelling theory that explains how are physical brains help us "perceive" the spiritual world. The concept of perception is best explained in this book.
4. A very good explanation of what we truly experience.
5. Explains how the human brain is equipped with two different built-in methods to explain the world.
6. Interesting conception of God.
7. Consciousness as a process of building a perceptual model.
8. Great explanation on neurons.
9. Personal space concept.
10. Memes...Richard Dawkins would be so proud.

1. There is a suggested further reading section but no links to them. There is no glossary or footnotes either.
2. A better explanation to debunk "no fundamental moral truths" was in order.
3. I "perceived" that the author at times was being too nice.
4. Some explanations were not entirely satisfying. Just saying that souls and spirits are a product of our perception is not satisfying. Additional supporting empirical evidence to debunk was in order.

In summary, a very solid, worthwhile book that accomplishes a lot while not requiring a large investment of time. Some very good explanations on how our brains work and how it helps us perceive the world we live in. Other suggestions include: The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger, Human by Michael Gazzaniga, SuperSense by Bruce M. Hood, The Third Basic Instinct by Alex s. Key and the Blank Slate by Steven Pinker.
Profile Image for Lis Carey.
2,164 reviews94 followers
January 20, 2011
Michael Graziano is a professor of neuroscience at Princeton. He freely identifies himself as an atheist, and suggests that he may somewhere on the autism spectrum and that this may affect his view of the world and of people.

Graziano argues that a belief in God is not imaginary, a delusion, or even a "belief" in the usual sense, but rather a perception that grows directly out of the same neural circuitry that allows us to perceive consciousness not only in other people, but in ourselves. We (those of us who are religious) perceive God in the world for the same reasons we perceive consciousness and personality in other people--because evolution has created the machinery in the brain that allows social animals to predict and understand each other's behavior. This is an essential ability for animals in complex social relationships, and like other abilities, likely varies in degree between individuals. Graziano suggests that the ability is somewhat less intense than average in people with some degree of autism, and that it may be stronger than average religious visionaries, those who see ghosts, and others with a higher than average degree of engagement with the "spirit world."

The discussion of the "spirit world," however, is only a part of this book, and although it's the obvious interest, in fact I found the overall discussion of how the mind and consciousness originate in the brain, and key developments in neuroscience related to this, to be every bit as fascinating. This is a short book, and an easy read considering its subject matter. There's an ample bibliography for those interested in further reading, but you won't be tripping over footnotes while zipping through the main text.

Highly recommended if you're at all interested in the subject.

Note:: I received a free electronic galley from the publisher via NetGalley
Profile Image for Birgit.
Author 2 books9 followers
March 15, 2011
Being both a Neuroscientist and a novelist, Michael S.A. Graziano delves into the subject of our perception of the world in his latest book God Soul Mind Brain: A Neuroscientist's Reflections On The Spirit World, explaining how the perceptions of the world depend on machinery in the brain.
In clear language and with helpful examples like the one of the red apple which, in fact, isn't red as color is just an invented attribute computed inside our heads, the author takes the reader on a fascinating journey through perception, illusion and consciousness, as well as explaining the machinery aka the brain that enables us to perceive. Presenting underlying concepts, rather than implementing a vast amount of scientific details, this is a truly fascinating little book which is highly comprehensible written as the technical jargon is really kept to the absolute minimum.
Despite what some might think when reading the title of the book, Graziano doesn't try to explain God away in the sense of dismissal, but instead tries to find a deeper understanding of the world. Closing the book with brief speculations on religion as cultural phenomenon the reader is left with a different approach to the origin of religious beliefs and in the end it is up the each individual how we perceive God. Through the mind, the heart, or both.
In short: A profound little book on how we perceive the material and immaterial world, including God. And apples.
Profile Image for Crystal Porter.
14 reviews3 followers
May 7, 2010
Well it has certainly been thought provoking to say the least and it has been the inspiration behind two different "heavier" posts this week. "God, Soul, Mind, Brain" was a decent book and it was refreshing to find a mild amount of humor interlaced with something that you almost expect to be dry. Graziano introduced some interesting perceptions and followed up with example scenarios. Graziano expressed that Chapters 4 and 7 in the book were the most important conceptually. I found however that the first 3 chapters in the book were equally as important to paint the picture of intent. I did find a couple of sections where it seemed a little repetitive and those sections were almost the death of me... my mind wanders too much. Overall, this book is worth reading.

See original review on my blog
Profile Image for David Melbie.
817 reviews27 followers
December 5, 2010
This is a very significant book on this subject. Neuroscience is the new frontier and Graziano delivers a very reader-friendly treatment here. He is especially clear on the difference between belief in God and the perception of God and he does a great job of explaining his position. God, as a 'perceptual construct' of the brain, is a valid hypothesis and although I am basing my review after reading an advance copy, I highly endorse this book and plan to read it in its officially published form. Anyone who has read, or plans to read, "The Moral Landscape," by Sam Harris, will enjoy this book as well.
Profile Image for Sally.
1,477 reviews51 followers
July 11, 2011
An intriguing concise discussion of the neurological basis for our sense of self, construction of the consciousness of others, and tendency to perceive consciousness and intention in many phenomena in the world around us. "Perceive" is the operative word. His explanation of the models the brain constructs for perceiving the world (using color as the sensory example, agency as the other), which are useful but not exact or necessarily accurate, was very clear. He brought in enough of the neuroscience (which is always fascinating) to make a convincing case. I found the book very worthwhile.
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