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How Brains Make Up Their Minds Hardcover – February 15, 2001

3.7 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


This book takes a significant position that sets the stage for unifying research results in neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy into a cohesive interpretation of the psychological and philosophical aspects of brain activities. Delightful to read, cohesive, and thought-provoking.


A must read for anyone who seriously wants to understand how brains make up their minds.

(Stan Franklin Minds & Machines)

About the Author

Walter J. Freeman is a professor in the graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught brain science for forty years. He is the author of several hundred articles and three books, Mass Action in the Nervous System, Societies of Brains, and Neuro Dynamics.


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Product Details

  • Series: Maps of the Mind
  • Hardcover: 146 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press; 1 edition (February 15, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231120087
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231120081
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.9 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,152,646 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Todd I. Stark VINE VOICE on May 19, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Walter Freeman packs a lot of his experience and knowledge of how the brain works in this fascinating little book.
Freeman's emphasis is a bit unique in that he focuses on the dynamics of how neurons communicate rather than on either the anatomy of the brain, or on either mental states or behavior.
By adopting this focus on neural dynamics, the author accomplishes some interesting things that other authors haven't been quite able to accomplish. He comes up with a multi-step mathematical model of how neurons organize themselves in order to function as a mind. His model is far more specific than most (such as the vague model in Susan Greenfield's "Private Life of the Brain" for example) and he links his model clearly and consistently to the pragmatist philosophy of mind.
The key to Freeman's unique approach is that he addresses from the outset the critical observation that makes hte "mind-brain problem" difficult. He recognizes that most models of brain function fail to address how top-down function in the brain could possibly work. How, in the classical model of brain function, can we have an expectancy that reliably alters basic perception, such as in hypnotic anesthesia and hallucinations ?
Materialist and cognitivist models of mind (in terms of simple flows of neural energy or information between neurons) simply have no way to explain why some behaviors should be "voluntary" and others "involuntary," or how meaning is somehow created from symbol processing. Representational models (which consider the brain to store "images" in some sense) still have some serious explanatory gaps.
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Format: Hardcover
This is one of several books in the last couple of years written by leading neuroscientists attempting to explain consciousness. Outstanding examples are Damasio's "The Feeling of What Happens" and Edelman and Tononi's "A Universe of Consciousness," which are both very worthwhile reading. Freeman takes a different tack, based on his years of research into the olfactory system. Though this short book appears to be aimed at the educated layman, many will be stopped short in their tracks by his "ten building blocks" of "how neural populations sustain the chaotic dynamics of intentionality," such as the ever-popular #8, "Attenuation of microscopic sensory-driven activity and enhancement of mesoscopic amplitude modulation patterns by divergent-convergent cortical projections underlying solipsm." These ten statements form the core of the book, and although they are ultimately explained with some degree of clarity, I found myself wishing for more specific examples from the neuroscientific literature beyond the very limited samples provided, which tended to be either very basic circuit diagram type drawings, or taken from his work in the olfactory system. I did find the application of chaos theory to brain dynamics fascinating, though for a critique of Freeman's approach and an alternative view see the article by Laurent et al in the 2001 Annual Review of Neuroscience. Overall, though, I found the book a stimulating and interesting read.
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Format: Hardcover
In this book, Prof. Freeman is trying to resolve a very difficult problem : if my brain operates as mechanically as a car, then how can I be free to make choices and be responsible for my decisions ? He makes a detail ( lengthy ) presentation on his proposed solution. Unfortunately, after reading the whole book, I think he fails to provide a clear answer to the question.
His main idea is that there is an important difference between human brain and other substances in the universe such as a car. The brain is a complicated nonlinear system and capable of self-organization. It does not respond directly to incoming stimuli like a reflex action, but it is continuously changing and constructing its own neural activity patterns in order to adapt to and synchronize with the external stimuli. The active involvement of the brain can be seen from the fact that we won't interpret the world as moving backward when we know we are walking on a street. This self-awareness and the real-time interactions between the brain and the environment form what he called the circular causality. He concludes that a behaviour comes from the final decision of the brain itself who therefore bears the responsibility.
However, I find that what he is talking about is how the brain works ( yes, the title of the book is correct ), but it doesn't follow that the nature+nurture determinism is wrong. Of course our decision depends on our history ( memory and experience ), but we should ask what then the history depends on ? Genetic makeup and continuous stimuli from environment are the only factors or sources that cause people different from each other, while chaos and self-organization are just the mechanism within ( the laws of nonlinear dynamics are universal ).
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Format: Hardcover
Freeman wraps up a long history (30 years, I believe) as a neurophysiologist with a good general overview of some interesting information and philosophy. The book starts with a general overview of the brain, using a salamander's brain structure as the building block from which to start the discussion.
Freeman's main area of study revolves around the olfactory sense which is not a very common area within the "mainstream" of currently in-vogue neural work. This might explain why his views are rather different from many of his colleagues as well as those who stand on the "edge" of the whole mind-brain debate such as the Churchlands and Dennett.
Freeman details how we usually represent problems in a linear fashion and how this type of philosophy is not at all appropriate for the study of the nervous system. Freeman does a great job of delving into circular causality (feedback systems) and why this naturally leads to some interesting conclusions about the interrelationship of the brain and mind.
Freeman refers to himself as a "pragmatist" in the book although I found this to be a bit confusing based on some of his views. He is clear that he is not a materialist (like the Churchlands and Searle) but also not a dualist (such as Penrose and Chalmers) but I think he should have gone a further step and really stepped outside of the constraint of calling himself a "pragmatist".
He has some good and easy-to-digest information about chaotic systems and how they tend to seek islands of stability (that is, there is emergent order in a sea of unpredictability) but he never really gets down to the nitty and gritty of tackling how the physical realm ultimately manages to link causally to the mental.
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