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

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am

Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain
by Michael S. Gazzaniga
HarperCollins

Most of us believe that our brains and our minds are separate.

We believe that our minds are 'us' and that the brain is a machine that carries out the instructions that the mind gives it.

The idea of the separation of mind and body dates to 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes, and is called Cartesian dualism.

But neuroscience has long proved that idea to be false. Although it goes against the grain of our experience, there actually is no mind. Everything about us - our feelings, emotions, wants and needs - is a product of our brain processes.

This might seem shocking to those unaware of advances in neuroscience. But it is now an accepted fact in the scientific world.

Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist, does not dispute this view. He explains in clear, everyday language how the brain works.

The first two-thirds of the book are taken up with an informative account of the recent achievements of neuroscience.

The last third will be more controversial in neuroscience circles, as it deals with how various social interactions affect the way the brain organises the many modular processes that occur within it. But for the general reader, the earlier arguments will be the most interesting - and provocative.

Much of the book is devoted to explaining what neuroscientists know about the workings of the brain. We are, it seems, dispersed beings.

Consciousness - the quality that is most associated with the mind - 'does not constitute a single, generalised process ... consciousness involves a multitude of widely distributed specialised systems and disunited processes.'

These processes and systems range from emotions like fear and love to automatic brain functions like hunger and thirst, and even include such areas as moral knowledge.

But our conscious experience is very singular; we generally focus on one thing. That's because the brain's processes are integrated into a single narrative by another brain process, which neuroscientists call the Interpreter Module.

There's a competition going on inside the brain: 'From moment to moment, different modules or systems compete for attention, and the winner emerges as the neural system underlying that moment's conscious experience,' says Gazzaniga.

The ramifications for our social existence are fascinating. If we are complex machines controlled by genetic and evolutionary processes, how can we be held responsible for our actions? Free will is an illusion, Gazzaniga says, and if a man were taken to court for a crime, he could conceivably claim that it was his brain that made him do it, not 'he'.

The final chapters of Who's in Charge? see Gazzaniga try to slightly moderate this point of view.

It all makes for a thought-provoking read.

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