Book Review — Who’s In Charge

Framing:

Who’s in Charge by Dr. Michael Gazzaniga is an analysis of how free will and the biology of our brains intersect. The book doesn’t necessarily have an identified audience, however by nature of how it is constructed, it is geared towards intellectuals. In it, he seeks to “explain the route and some of the detours that we have taken to reach our current knowledge of the brain and review what we currently know about how it works… these wanderings are going to show us that the physical world has a different set of laws depending on what organizational layer one is looking at, and we will discover what that has to do with human behavior. We are going to end up, of all places, in the courtroom,” (Gazzaniga 5). The angle from which Gazzaniga tackles the topic is much like a study. He analyzes the brain and its impact on freewill from multiple angles, drawing conclusions from his findings.

Summary:

Gazzaniga’s argument is to convince us that we are responsible agents and “the mind, which is somehow generated by the physical processes of the brain, constrains the brain,” (Gazzaniga 4). The book is divided up into 7 chapters. The first three chapters lay a foundation of psychology studies and theories related to the brain and mind. In this beginning segment, he takes the reader through past ideologies that show the evolution of brain science and the brain/mind.

In the second segment of the book, chapters four through the end, he launches into the idea of free will and morals. He looks at how free will doesn’t come from the brain, but that even though on an anatomical level people may be able to “predict” what someone will do, there is much more that goes into decision-making. He talks about the “social mind” and how our communities will influence the decisions that we make because “with all our automatic processes, there is a whole living environment changing and impacting our behavior, thinking, and perhaps our genome,” (Gazzaniga 152). Even though we are individuals, “the social group constrains the individual behavior…[and] individual’s behavior is not solely the product of an isolated, deterministic brain but [is] affected by the social group,” (Gazzaniga 157).

Gazzaniga is also continually fighting against the “deterministic brain” which is a widely-held viewpoint in the scientific community. He wraps up the book looking at how neuroscience is seeping into the courtrooms and why the determinist view (which shaped many aspects of our court system) is harmful because it assumes that since our neurons are the same, we can all be treated identically — regardless of how our brains have become differentiated from the “norm” or what social atmosphere we have been immersed in.

Analysis:

I found this book to be very fascinating. Gazzaniga did an excellent job using scientific studies as a platform for his arguments. He was able to present them in a way that was simple enough to understand for those who have no experience in neuroscience but also that was interesting enough that readers wanted to keep reading. The topic is difficult to tackle, especially because in the scientific world he is carrying a very unpopular belief by arguing against determinism. There are entire societal systems that are constructed around the idea that people are basically the same, that we are “vehicles for the physically determined forces of the universe” (Gazzaniga 218). Yet Gazzaniga was able to argue that though we are, on a neurological level, the same, that is not where it ends. From that basic level, we all grow and are shaped by our society. We are responsible for our actions because we have made choices. “Human nature remains constant, but out in the social world behavior can change…[we] have made choices based on [our] experience. This is what makes us responsible agents, or not” (Gazzaniga 215). He tactfully refutes the popular belief, offering an alternative way of thinking about how our minds interact with our brains.

Conclusion:

Overall, I enjoyed this book thoroughly. It is a relevant topic that offers an explanation for how the mind and body intersect in the decision-making process. Gazzaniga laid out thorough, thoughtful arguments that challenged the scientific status quo while allowing room for future growth because “the facts don’t change. What changes…are the ideas on how to understand the ever-accumulating facts of Mother Nature” (Gazzaniga 219). Who’s in Charge is a written by a true scientist, who humbly offers his truth while maintaining respect for the ever-changing life of science.

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