Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain
by Michael S. Gazzaniga. Ecco (HarperCollins Publishers), 2011 ($27.99)
Most people are convinced that they possess a central “me,” a purposeful self who calls all the shots. In the past few decades, however, this view has come under attack, as scientists and philosophers increasingly adopt a mechanistic view of the universe, in which physical laws govern our every move and choice. Know enough about how the brain operates, and you will be able to understand—and predict—the mind.
Into the fray enters neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga, who dodges those well-worn reductionist arguments to offer a fresh perspective in his new book. Determinism has no meaning in the context of free will, he argues, because personal responsibility is a contract between two people, not a property of the brain.
Gazzaniga begins his exploration of free will by describing how no single entity or process generates our conscious experience; rather it is assembled on the fly. Yet we still feel like we live a narrative of our own choosing, a result of what he dubs the “interpreter” module of the brain. This specialized neural system integrates our actions, memories and perceptions, stitching together a unified story.
Flaws in this well-orchestrated system can be observed in people with brain damage. Gazzaniga introduces a patient who cannot see objects from the right side of his brain but can draw them. Another individual reports that her hand belongs to her son. These and other cases expose consciousness for what it really is: a vast assembly of disparate systems that interact to form our experiences.
Still, simply tallying up all our neurons' behavior will not help us make sense of our lives. Just as knowing every detail about all cars on the highway will never predict traffic, tracking every neural twitch will never reveal a specific mental state. Furthermore, the brain makes decisions within a social context, not in isolation. Here Gazzaniga gets to the real question about free will: personal responsibility. He points out that notions of accountability arise only when brains interact, which neuroscience is barely beginning to understand.
Gazzaniga concludes by urging us to consider this bigger social picture when debating what it means to be a responsible agent. An accessible read, Who's in Charge? will make you think twice about your actions and interactions.
The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger
Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband
by David Finch. Scribner, 2012 ($25)
Asperger syndrome is not funny—or at least it is not supposed to be. People with the disorder, which falls on the autism spectrum, lack social intuition and may fixate on obscure topics. For many, the condition can be isolating. Yet in The Journal of Best Practices, David Finch finds hilarity in the disorder, all the better for his fellow Aspies, the self-anointed nickname for members of the Asperger community, and the rest of us, who gain an entertaining lesson on what their lives can be like.
Finch is 30 years old when he is diagnosed with the syndrome. Although his wife, Kristen, accepts Finch as is, for him the diagnosis is both a revelation and a road map to mending their marriage, a union he believes had unraveled because of his Aspie quirks.
Finch tries to overcome those tendencies—his self-involvement, obsessions, inflexibility and lack of empathy—by developing a guide to help him become if not “neurotypical,” at least easier to live with. A behavioral instruction manual appeals to Finch, who thrives on order. One of his many epiphanies comes after a workplace performance review, when he goes home and declares to Kristen that he wants one from her, too.