Who’s in Charge?: Book Review
Michael S. Gazzaniga is both a professor of psychology at the University of California, a leading researcher in cognitive neuroscience, as well as the head of the SAGE Center in studying the mind. His most well-noted book, Who’s In Charge?, deals with the popular question of what exactly “free will” really is, and how that relates to the science and anatomy of the brain on a neurological level. The book discusses and explores what makes up the brain, how the brain is wired– specifically in the areas of learning and decision-making, and then applies that knowledge to commonly asked questions. In addressing a wide audience of thinkers, he redefines the concepts of “free will” and “responsibility”.
Gazzaniga starts his book off by establishing what we know to be true about the human brain. Referring back to basic anatomy and psychology, he puts his own perspective on facts that scientists would all agree on. He dives into neural-specificity and connections, using the phrase “Neurons that fire together wire together” to better understand the concept of activity-dependent processes developing the brain. He then goes on even deeper to discuss the complexity of our brains, the biggest concept being parallel processing. The brain is a hugely complex network of connections that are capable of firing and sending signals as needed– in some cases we are consciously aware of this and can voluntarily control it, and in other instances we cannot. Our brain is capable of firing both of these types simultaneously, so that we may, for instance, be able to focus on tasks in our daily lives and not worry about our heart pumping blood or our lungs taking in air. We technically don’t have freedom to make a lot of choices in our brains. From this comes the topic of emergence, which is one of Gazzaniga’s main points. The neurons that make up our brain are categorized into various “levels” of processing, which in turn have different rules that apply to them, which Gazzaniga calls “organized chaos”, “Chaos doesn’t mean that the system is behaving randomly, it means that it is unpredictable because it has many variables, it is too complex to measure, and even if it could be measured, theoretically the measurement cannot be done accurately and the tiniest inaccuracy would change the end result an enormous amount”. Because of this “organized chaos”, everyone is wired completely different from one another. Despite this, though, we are built to mirror one another and create morals within social constructs. Responsibility and the law are built within these social constructs: “…The way to think about responsibility is that it is an interaction between people, a social contract. Responsibility reflects a rule that emerges out of one or more agents interacting in a social context, and the hope that we share is that each person will follow certain rules.” (193). Gazzaniga argues that we have freedom, but only in a social context.
This book made me do a lot of thinking regarding what “free will” really means, and how much of my brain I actually consciously control. Although a lot of our processes happens automatically, I believe that there is a still a part of our brains (or minds) that I can control. I believe that we have a responsibility to God and to each other to use our past experiences in order to make wise decisions. Gazzaniga doesn’t mention how this correlates with spirituality, but I would say that the complexity of the brain and mind points to God’s creation because only He is capable of creating such intricate systems., which further points to the idea of us being built to be in communities and not be isolated. I overall enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a deeper perspective on free will and something to chew on.