Do people really have free will? There are those who contend that since the brain is a physical object, subject to physical laws, human behavior is pre-determined, and thus the antithesis of free. Does a lesion in one’s frontal lobe give credence to a defense of “The Devil Made Me Do it?” Where lies personal responsibility?
Michael Gazzaniga contends that we are more than the sum, or volume, of our parts and, in the system of human interactions, we are personally responsible for our actions. Duh-uh. I heard that from Sister Raymond in first grade. Of course Gazzaniga offers a bit more persuasion than a stinging yardstick, an alarmingly florid complexion and a peculiar wardrobe. He does this by walking us through the history of how our understanding of the human brain has advanced over time. And in this lies the core value of the book.
Did you know that there was a time when it was thought that the brain was a single undifferentiated mass? “Equipotentiality” was the term for this. I like to think of this as the jello model, the same stuff throughout, but with ridges. (and if you are interested in serving your guests a yummy gelatinous dessert in a mindful shape, you might try this link
). With more time and research it became clear that, different parts of the brain specialize in different things. This is called “neural specificity.” And here is where brain size falls down as a predictor of intelligence. There are creatures that have larger brains than us naked apes, but ours is arranged differently, with more specialization in its parts.
I was particularly smitten with Gazzaniga’s description of how certain reactions have become ingrained, instinctual, while others are not, for example, snakes. I imagine there are some rare individuals, herpetologists I expect, who are not put off by the presence of our slithery fellow-Earthlings, but for most of us, discomfort is the norm. So, there must have been issues with snakes in human history. Early humans who were not put off by such critters were selected out of the gene pool in the usual way, while those who harbored an aversion lived to flee, and breed, another day. And the reverse applies. Say, for example, that after millennia of being preyed upon by clowns, a fear of clowns had become pervasive. Then, over a few thousand years on a remote island where clowns had all died out, that fear would fade from the instinctual default of island residents, as there would be no natural selection advantage to being afraid of clowns. Eventually, people who still carried the instinct to fear clowns might be thought a bit odd. The genes of those whose brains were able to distinguish sweet fruit from poison berries are likely to have made it down the years. The genes of those lacking the ability would not have fared so well. And so on.
Another amazing advance was to understand that people in times of ecological disruption are selected for their adaptability, while during periods of stability it is the hard-wired sorts whose genes hold sway. It made me wonder about the genetic inheritance of political orientations. I would expect that there is some part or arrangement of our cranial makeup that orients toward keeping things the same, and another arrangement or part that is oriented more toward adaptability, making those with that trait more comfortable with change. Given the volatile state of the planet these days, I hope the adaptables are having lots of kids.
A discussion of a brain function known as “the interpreter” had me riveted. There is so much in this book, and a lot more than I have mentioned here, that is absolutely fascinating that I had to hold myself back from just making a list of them all. It might be lightly informative, but perhaps I do not want my accountant genes to overwhelm the right side of my brain. There is enough food for thought here for a Mensa feast. For large swaths this book had me figuratively resting my cheekbones on my fists and saying “wow, cool.“
And lest one fear that this is a med-school text in brain history for budding neuroscientists, I would suggest trying to calm your inherent fears. Gazzzaniga writes in a very easy-to-read manner, quite accessible to the average reader.
If it is not already clear, I very much enjoyed this book. That said, I have a few gripes. Gazzaniga presents considerable science in this book, and posits a differentiation between the brain and the mind. Yet, he never gets around to defining what the mind is. Yes, we all know what the mind is, sort of. In a book that is about science, shouldn’t the author offer a definition? Did my sleepy eyes just miss it? He argues against a notion that people are not responsible for their actions because they are part of the physical world. But he offers only one name, Richard Dawkins, as a supporter of such notions. It seemed to me a bit of straw man argument. If you are going to argue against someone else’s theory, one should document where and by whom the challenged position is held. Dawkins alone hardly constitutes a school of thought.
If you find learning fun, you will love this book. It qualifies as brain candy. And between you and me, I take full responsibility for recommending Who’s in Charge