Contemporary science is for the most part attached to determinism, or the belief that physical laws govern the physical world, of which we humans are a part. This potentially eliminates the concepts of free will and personal responsibility. After all, it wasn’t me that ate that tray of brownies. That was just a biological response to stimulus! Right?
Not so fast, says Michael Gazzaniga. In Who’s in Charge?, the neuroscientist argues that the brain is governed by the mind, which he defines as a sort of self-created system of brain government. Sound nutty? Yes, a little. But the ramifications extend through science into psychology, ethics and law, and repeatedly argue for responsible behavior. In the author’s view, “We are people, not brains,” effectively revoking our free pass to pig out.
Gazzaniga’s extensive work with “split-brain” patients (whose right and left brain hemispheres have been medically separated) gave him insight into the ways we make sense of seemingly senseless information. When Gazzaniga showed a picture of a wagon only to a patient’s left eye (which is connected to the brain’s right hemisphere), the word “toy” came to the patient’s mind. The left hemisphere could not explain why the patient thought of that word, but nevertheless tried, describing “an inner sense” that called the word to mind. This act of interior storytelling in order to make sense of things, referred to here as “the interpreter,” makes a strong case for the existence of a mind that is part of the brain yet separate from it.
Who’s in Charge? is based on talks presented at the Gifford Lecture series, known for its focus on religion, science and philosophy. This ramble through fields that would seem to be at odds with one another is one of the book’s main pleasures. Another is Gazzaniga’s commitment to humanizing science at every turn. He writes, “It is the magnificence of being ‘human’ that we all cherish and love and that we don’t want science to take away.” As long as there are scientists who endorse that view, humanity should be safe for years to come.