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The Mind's Past [Hardcover]

Michæl S. Gazzaniga
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 7, 1998 0520213203 978-0520213203 1
Why does the human brain insist on interpreting the world and constructing a narrative? In this ground-breaking work, Michael S. Gazzaniga, one of the world's foremost cognitive neuroscientists, shows how our mind and brain accomplish the amazing feat of constructing our past--a process clearly fraught with errors of perception, memory, and judgment. By showing that the specific systems built into our brain do their work automatically and largely outside of our conscious awareness, Gazzaniga calls into question our everyday notions of self and reality. The implications of his ideas reach deeply into the nature of perception and memory, the profundity of human instinct, and the ways we construct who we are and how we fit into the world around us.
Over the past thirty years, the mind sciences have developed a picture not only of how our brains are built but also of what they were built to do. The emerging picture is wonderfully clear and pointed, underlining William James's notion that humans have far more instincts than other animals. Every baby is born with circuits that compute information enabling it to function in the physical world. Even what helps us to establish our understanding of social relations may have grown out of perceptual laws delivered to an infant's brain. Indeed, the ability to transmit culture--an act that is only part of the human repertoire--may stem from our many automatic and unique perceptual-motor processes that give rise to mental capacities such as belief and culture.
Gazzaniga explains how the mind interprets data the brain has already processed, making "us" the last to know. He shows how what "we" see is frequently an illusion and not at all what our brain is perceiving. False memories become a part of our experience; autobiography is fiction. In exploring how the brain enables the mind, Gazzaniga points us toward one of the greatest mysteries of human evolution: how we become who we are.

Editorial Reviews Review

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."
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 216 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; 1 edition (May 7, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520213203
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520213203
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 5.2 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,289,056 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars MY INTERPRETER WROTE THIS May 8, 1999
This book takes a look at long held assumptions about human consciousness, and examines them in the light of modern empirical neuroscience. It examines the processes of perception and the work of the left brain's "interpreter." It's an uncommon look at "common sense."
The first chapter of the book examines the "Fictional Self," and continues to weave this thread of thought throughout the book. What fascinated me most about this line of thought was that it paralleled ancient Eastern thought about the illusion of individual reality. However, Dr. Gazzaniga's book does not draw on these ancient traditions, and it is up to the reader to figure them out.
Dr. Gazzaniga writes, "... the primate brain prepares cells for decisive action long before we are even thinking about making a decision! These automatic processes sometimes get tricked and create illusions - blatant demonstrations of these automatic devices that operate so efficiently that no one can do anything to stop them. They run their course and we see them in action; as a consequence we have to conclude that they are a big part of us." p. 20
In The Bhagavad-Gita it says, " As the ignorant act with attachment to actions, Arjuna, so wise men should act with detachment to preserve the world." (3rd Teaching, 25, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller) Just like "The Mind's Past," The Bhagavad-Gita points out the illusion of willful action. Dr. Gazzaniga's empirical observations have a poetic parallel in The Bhagavad-Gita.
The book also examines the dual functions of perception, the flow of perceptual information to the parietal and temporal lobes simultaneously, one prepares the body to act within reality, and the other constructs an illusionary perception of reality.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Is there a "self" in there? August 23, 2002
This lightly told, but hardly frivolous, study of the mind/brain refutes many long-held notions of what comprises the conscious mind. Gazzinga's approach is an attempt to inform us all of the real status of "self." He contends the "self" - hence, "free will" is a conceit. We pretend to have consciousness through our desire to establish identity, but the brain has its own, hidden, mechanisms of which we are only now becoming aware. He stresses the evolutionary roots of our minds, roots which may not compel behaviour, but certainly drive it with forces we fail to perceive readily. It's an amazingly complete work in spite of its brevity, rewarding to anyone opening its pages.
Gazzaniga is a clinical researcher, not a field worker. This doesn't impede his stressing an evolutionary development for how our minds work. Gazzaniga posits an "interpreter" as residing within our left brains. The distinctive roles of the left and right halves of the brain have been the subject of intensive research during the past years, but his assessment has some novelty. It is rather more than the classical "Cartesian Theatre" which has held sway in the minds of many psychologists and philosophers over the years. Gazzaniga's "interpreter" outperforms the role of "observer" postulated by Descartes. It has moved from Descartes' pineal gland to the left cortex. In Gazzaniga's view, the "interpreter" has a more active role, even powered to stimulate activity in sensory areas, previously thought to be wholly reactive. This device is rooted in our animal ancestors, living in a dangerous environment, needing to predict events for survival and reproduction.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Moral of this Story? Function Follows Form. April 20, 2002
The first half of this book is a very good story about how mammalian brains function. Mercifully, it's not a drawn out document on neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, but rather a description how the emergent forms of neuroanatomy and neurophysiology function; about how the brain works. In this respect it's a fascinating and informative essay written for the lay reader by a very eminent neurologist. Gazzaniga's ease of translating the dessicated lexicon of neurology into a cozy fireside tale is certainly a testement to his literary skill over and above his medical acumen.
The second half of the book trails off into monotonous case studies and lacks the zing of the opening chapters. I rated this book a five however because it carries such a seminal point that in itself is of astounding significance. The human brain is no where near as plastic as it's given credit for being in the popular literature. We all know what a brain looks like. Just thinking of the word brings to mind a fixed image we've all seen in myriads of represnetations. They all sort of look the same, and guess what, they all sort of function the same way too: function follows form, or, as Sartre said, the essence is revealed in the appearance, not concealed by it. This is not to say that the brain functions how it looks, but an analogy illustrating that a brain's function is based on its form, or, its anatomy and physiology. You'd think this would be obvious but apparently for some reason it isn't. It's is an important point and Gazzaniga breaks it down very plainly and simply. The idea that neural function follows form is not immediately apparent to the lay person because it is a very politically unpopular view. Not a neurologically unpopular view but a politically unpopular view. Think about it.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars transcending ideas
The reason this great little book isn't more popular or influential may be because its clearly expressed ideas, well proven,are so counter-intuitive. If now isn't now, what is it? Read more
Published 13 months ago by exactaman
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and brilliant
After reading the book, it's almost hilarious reading the reviews, which amount to an assorted collection of interpreters gone wild. Read more
Published on November 4, 2011 by R. B. Scott
3.0 out of 5 stars To Scratch or Not to Scratch
From the outset, Gazzaniga claims that the "purpose of life" is reproduction. In congruence with reductionist neurobiologists he,as an "evolutionary biologist," would reduce the... Read more
Published on March 8, 2011 by Richard B. Smith
4.0 out of 5 stars So close and yet so far...
Gazzaniga's concept of the "interpreter" has made a major contribution to my understanding of what goes on in my brain, for which I'm grateful. Read more
Published on October 4, 2010 by Norman Bearrentine
4.0 out of 5 stars Meets the standards for a worthwhile read ...

Of all the readers' reviews I've read on Amazon over the years, this collection of comments is the best ... thoughtful, considered, informed. Read more
Published on November 8, 2008 by Counterpoint
4.0 out of 5 stars Hard read but interesting
Very interesting things in this book. It goes through cycles of incredibly hard to read to very understandable. It isn't a long book but it may take you a while to get through.
Published on October 10, 2007 by Conan F. Wall
4.0 out of 5 stars The Mimd'sPast
If you are searching for a book that introduces the mind body connect this is your book. A well rounded perspective of how the body's reaction to past experiences has a role in... Read more
Published on January 11, 2007 by Gladys A. Smith
2.0 out of 5 stars The Mind's Gone
If this is modern can keepit.The author says he doesn't understand quantum physics... Read more
Published on July 11, 2006 by Morris Kammann
3.0 out of 5 stars Not bad, but...
In the 1960's, Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry (the Nobel laureate) undertook a series of pioneering and innovative studies of human split-brain patients. Read more
Published on July 6, 2006 by Amazon Customer
3.0 out of 5 stars Flawed but useful
This little book (200 pages) attempts to take the reader on a tour through the latest developments in cognitive neuroscience. Read more
Published on February 24, 2006 by Hervé DuThé
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