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.
That may sound like a strategy sure to backfire, but Finch's efforts to understand when to use his “best practices” and when to just be himself is part of how he learns to manage Asperger syndrome. Empathy remains Finch's Holy Grail, and his struggle to master it is an ongoing source of frustration for him.
Despite this lack of social intelligence, Finch understands how funny his earnest attempts at empathy come off to neurotypicals. He puts his Aspie obsessiveness to admirable use, diving into reality television, couples massages and Cosmopolitan magazine to try to “get” his wife. He studies—and parrots—talk-show hosts to learn how to converse, and he adopts a persona to suit every occasion: Business Man for the office and Outgoing Man for social encounters.
That Finch ultimately discards these amazing compensatory skills is a testament to the happy medium he discovers. Forget a scarlet A for Asperger. Finch has earned an A for effort, and he should wear it proudly.
LABOR OF LOVE
Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships
by Kayt Sukel. Free Press, 2012 ($25)
Consider this ubiquitous yet poorly understood affliction: love. It is likely to cause drastic changes in behavior, difficulty concentrating and rapid mood swings. Even after it ends, the sufferer gains no respite. Instead more erratic behavior emerges, and the afflicted often report a loss of appetite, crying and obsessive thoughts. Yet we all want it.
In Dirty Minds, journalist Kayt Sukel takes on this nearly universal brain scrambler. She tackles provocative questions to determine why love can relieve us of our sanity, why we seem to pick the wrong people, and why the turmoil of a relationship can induce feelings resembling both love and hate. She sprinkles in personal anecdotes from her recent divorce, her trials on the dating scene and advice from her friends.
On her investigative journey to uncover the truth about the brain in love, Sukel also interviews scientists and combs through the literature. A highlight of the book comes when Sukel bravely agrees to participate in a study that requires her to bring herself to orgasm in the claustrophobic confines of a functional MRI machine while researchers look on.
Dirty Minds is not short on moments of insight, such as when Sukel discovers that an orgasm involves as many as 30 different areas of the brain. She learns that cheating likely has a genetic link, which lends some credence to her married friend's idea that his biology requires him to take lovers. Moreover, she finds that many of the same parts in the brain become active when people feel both love and hate, a confusing phenomenon she admits she got to know well during the dissolution of her marriage.
Sukel, however, is quick to caution that although today's studies on the subject of love may indeed explain a thing or two about one's patterns in relationships, they cannot serve as an instruction manual any more than DNA discoveries can predict the diseases you will contract. In other words, when it comes to love, much of the mystery remains. That, Sukel says, is just the way she likes it, even if it means her newly single future will involve plenty of awkward dates and false starts.
A fun and insightful read, Dirty Minds manages to evoke the feel of both a wine-laden conversation with an old friend and a great neuroscience lecture from your favorite college professor.
ARE YOU COPYING ME?
Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind
by Mark Pagel. W. W. Nor ton, 2012 ($29.95)
Human populations have faced bottlenecks over time that put them in peril. Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel believes that humans overcame these forces by banding together in larger groups, which may have propelled their brain capacity to greater heights.
In Wired for Culture, Pagel proposes that humans learn best through imitation. Aggregating into larger clusters allowed social learning to truly flourish, ultimately leading to the formation of societies, technology and culture. Humans are unique among other primates, however, in that they did more than simply pick up the latest spear technology by observing and mimicking their peers. As they developed more complex communication skills, they were able to adapt and pass on these tactics to the next generation. Pagel theorizes that the evolution of language ratcheted up the exchange of the ideas and skills that eventually formed the basis of different cultures.
Yet this collaborative spirit did not extend to make humans altruistic, Pagel concludes. As a species, we join forces only with those whom we trust and whose actions we anticipate will be similar to our own. In fact, he proposes that thousands of different languages exist in the world because we are inclined to promote trust within our own social circles but confusion among outsiders. Language allowed us to pass along individual cultures as much as it segregated, and even protected, us from different ones.
The book's narrative is diffuse, veering offtrack as Pagel attempts to explain lofty concepts. Also problematic is that Pagel appears to build his theory on the absence of contradictory evidence—our brain and behavior differ from those of other primates, so the human mind must help explain these distinctions. He cites theories from philosophers and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who argues that people who are genetically related are more likely to behave altruistically toward one another.
Despite these issues, the main themes are worth exploring. If Pagel's theory is correct, the success of the human race largely depended on culture, which spawned not just from neural connections within the brain but also from the social connections people made within their communities.
Roundup: Strengthen Your Resolve
Three books suggest ways to improve your life.
We typically spend four hours every day resisting temptation, says social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister. In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Penguin Press, 2011), Baumeister and New York Times science writer John Tierney reveal that one of our most valued abilities—selfcontrol—actually operates like a muscle: it can be strengthened with practice and exhausted by overuse. The authors share how entrepreneurs, parents and artists have improved their willpower and how we can, too.
Improved self-control can help diminish stress, an important skill for harried parents. In Kids Pick Up on Everything: How Parental Stress Is Toxic to Kids (CreateSpace, 2011), family coach David Code describes how, just as they can catch a cold, children can “catch” their parents’ anxiety, making them more likely to develop learning disabilities, mental illness and obesity. Code, who founded the Center for Staying Married and Raising Great Kids, tells parents to relax and have fun to help their children grow up healthier and happier.
Another key to a good life comes from our ability to explore complex social problems through stories, writes Jonathan Gottschall in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Houghton Mif in Harcourt, 2012). Gottschall, who studies the link between literature and science, argues that our penchant for spinning yarns developed, as with other behaviors, to enhance our survival. This book may offer insight on how our storytelling abilities can help us solve problems. —Victoria Stern