Book Review – Who’s in Charge by Michael Gazzaniga

Brandon Johnson

HON 210

Who’s in Charge – Book Review



Michael Gazzaniga wrote the book Who’s in Charge? Free will and the Science of the Brain. Gazzaniga is a distinguished neuroscientist. He has a long list of distinctions that define his neuroscience career. He is the director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California in Santa Barbra. He is the president of the Cognitive Neuroscience institute. He is the founding director of the MacArthur Foundation’s Law and Neuroscience Project. This long list of credentials and leadership roles within the neuroscience community give Michael Gazzaniga’s words some weight. Gazzaniga is writing to a college level audience. He uses graduate level terms but defines them for the reader. These terms are then used throughout the book. His book goes against the grain of accepted hypothesis in neuroscience. He ultimately defends a position on free will and the legal system. He is a strong force within the neuroscience world and the position he takes in this book defies the accepted hypothesis.


Content and Methodology

Michael Gazzaniga begins his book by describing how everyone’s brain is different. He describes how the brain is built on activity dependent processes. He argues that the more an activity is done the more neural networks will be set up around this function. Not every person makes choices and participates in the same activities throughout their life. This means that every person’s brain is different. He still holds to the fact that there are areas of the brain that generally do the same functions but their specific wiring is different. He uses the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together” to describe how each person’s brain is set up differently. The next major concept Gazzaniga describes is the emergence problem within the brain. He describes emergence as different levels where each level is almost worlds apart. The basic neural connections within the brain give rise to consciousness and self-awareness. There is no way to trace the path of individual neurons and end up with consciousness. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Gazzaniga then moves into his main argument after he has set up the basis for his claim. He tries to get at where social responsibility lies and its implications for the legal system. He makes the claim that social responsibility is formed by the interactions between people. That the responsibility that people feel is formed because of the social context they are in. He says that the generally accepted concept of determinism is wrong. Opponent neuroscientists use the subconscious decision-making abilities of the brain as proof that people cannot be held responsible for their actions because they do not have control over them. Gazzaniga argues that people are responsible because of our social interactions.



Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain challenges some popular views in neuroscience and in popular culture. Many people believe that if they can trace the neural pathways through the brain they will gain a better understanding of consciousness. Gazzaniga refutes this with his discussion of emergence. Emergence is a multileveled nut. Each one is different from another. The analogy of cars and traffic illustrates this point. Some people are very knowledgeable about the workings of a car. They know and understand how an internal combustion engine draws air and fuel into a chamber, compresses it, and ignites it to produce a force which ultimately propels the car. Cars can be looked at as a complex series of simple machines. All the knowledge about cars will not help someone understand how traffic works. Once a large group of cars and drivers get into a single roadway the mechanics of the car no longer apply. Traffic is something that moves independent of the individual. Traffic happens somewhere in between the individual cars. This is a lot like social responsibility. The social interactions that drive people’s sense of responsibility. Gazzaniga says “Responsibility reflects a rule that emerges out of one or more people interacting in a social context” (pg 193). He rejects the concept of moral absolutes. He says that all responsibility is relative to the cultural context of the people. Responsibility is a kind of contract between two or more people. He argues that determinism does not exist because of emergence between the neural levels and the emergence between the levels of social interaction. As long as there is a society there will be responsibility.

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