While we humans point to our big brains and jabber endlessly about how different they make us, other animals seem to remain unimpressed. "Yeah, well, what are they good for?" they'd ask if they could. After all, evolution has been no kinder to us than to them--all of us have had the same amount of time to get where we are, and all of us do just fine eating and reproducing. Are our brains really more valuable to us than teeth to a shark or wings to a bird? This evolutionary view of consciousness could be the key to a better understanding of how we think, and neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga has been helping develop this outlook while working on the frontlines of research. From studies with split-brain patients in the 1960s to the latest tricks of molecular biology today, Gazzaniga shares with us the results of this research and how they are changing the way we think about thinking.
The title of The Mind's Past refers both to the brain's evolution and its construction of personal identity and memory, which offer clues to the puzzle of consciousness. Gazzaniga's refreshingly straightforward, informal prose asks what our brains are good for and shows that some of our most powerful achievements (like language and statistics) might best be thought of as byproducts of systems designed to help us survive and reproduce. The surprising assertion that most of what we believe to be conscious and willful happens before we are aware of it is made plausible and perhaps comforting in this short, very humanistic book. By careful study and reflection on the mind's past, we might be able to learn something of its future. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
Gazzaniga, director of the program in cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth and author of Mind Matters, The Social Brain and Nature's Mind, adds an engaging account of how and why the human brain creates a narrative to explain its experiences. Writing for a popular audience, Gazzaniga relates that a portion of the left brain, which he calls the "interpreter," constantly drives the mind to seek reasons for its convictions no matter how unfounded they may be. An example is given of a woman who suffered from a syndrome that led her to believe she was home while visiting her doctor. When asked how she could explain the elevators in the corridor, she immediately produced a reason: "Doctor, do you know how much it cost me to have those put in?" While Gazzaniga's anecdotes are fascinating, the conclusion he draws from them seems rather unconvincing. Arguing from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, he asserts that the left brain's incessant ratiocinations function to enhance human beings' reproductive success through sensible reasoning. Gazzaniga's conclusion about the "interpreter" seems analytic, at least in relation to evolutionary theory, which already presupposes that all facets of a species function to promote its reproduction and survival. In fact, Gazzaniga's conclusion stands in contradiction to a basic tenet of his own theoretical framework: namely, that adaptation is not determined by reason but rather by chance. Nonetheless, Gazzaniga's work remains intriguing precisely in its attempt to understand the brain's will toward order and reason, "even when they don't exist."
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