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Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are Paperback – September 23, 2003
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“An evocative solution to a classic problem: which is more important in shaping the human brain, nature or nurture? ” -- Sandra Blakeslee, The New York Times
“wide-ranging...linking cutting-edge neuroscience with social history and popular culture...postmodern culture and globalization....” -- Publishers Weekly
“Smart authors with a lot of hot stuff to report on.” -- Kirkus Reviews
“An entertaining and startling survey of what it means to be human.” -- Discover magazine
About the Author
Terrence J. Sejnowski, Ph.D., is regarded as the world's foremost theoretical brain scientist. His demonstration of NETtalk, a neural network that learned to read English words, helped spark the 1980s neural network revolution for which he received the IEEE Neural Network Pioneer Award in 2002. He received his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University before studying neurobiology at Harvard University School of Medicine. He is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and directs the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute. At the University of California at San Diego he is a professor of biology, physics, and neurosciences and directs the Institute for Neural Computation. He has published more than two hundred scientific articles and has been featured in the national media. He lives in Solana Beach, California.
- Publisher : William Morrow Paperbacks; Reprint edition (September 23, 2003)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 352 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0060001496
- ISBN-13 : 978-0060001490
- Item Weight : 9 ounces
- Dimensions : 8.04 x 5.4 x 0.88 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #2,374,848 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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The coverage gives a good insight into the nature-nurture question, the impact of evolution on basic human nature, the environmental impact, the role of parents, culture and peers in shaping the developing child, and the overriding importance of our brains in determining what we are like and the type of adult we grow to be.
I liked the fact that the author resisted the temptation to give any easy answers like we are a blank slate, or fixed by our human nature, or completely pliable to human conditioning or behavioral training. Most popular books on these topics like to jazz up their appeal by such wild assertions. These two authors present the intertwined nature of all the forces that shape us and avoid simplistic answers about what determines the adult we become. There are still many unanswered questions and the reader should understand that this book may not solve the riddle, but it will give you the foundation to savor the mystery of how our children grow. And it does even more: there are many helpful insights to be gained that give guidance to how we should raise our kids, and warnings of some things we should not be doing.
The authors give a good general survey of the subject and it is clear the experts are very divided. But, many of the disputes are, to the general reader, of little importance, and often the differences appear insignificant. The biggest controversy, as shown by those reviewers who support evolutionary psychology, concerns how much we are determined by evolutionary forces from the dim past. These are basically the genetic determinists who argue that human nature was shaped in the primordial past and we are chained more or less to the innate traits acquired by the survivors from those ancient times. Now, we are subject to our "human nature," at least the basic instincts to want food, the will to survive, the selfishness to want to own things all to ourselves, to reproduce, have sex, bond into groups, etc. But that's a far cry from defining what a modern human adult is like, what his capabilities and desires are, whether he is responsible, caring, persistent, smart, wise, socially mature, engaging, etc. Human nature is just a starting point. It's like saying a car has four tires and a steering wheel and that is all you need to know about it! As Katherine Hepburn told Bogart, "Human nature is what we are supposed to rise above."
What the authors do best is describe how the most recent discoveries in neurobiology have found that our entire beings are primarily shaped by our brains and that shaping occurs over the first 25 years of our lives, mostly in the first 15 years, and persists to some extent till death. This fact underscores the importance of training, environment, and free will and is the best counter argument to the environmental psychologists. A developing child's brain is so plastic, and undergoes such vast development over an extended period, that the latent human nature, the hunter-gatherer instincts, are largely submerged under the weight of the civilizing adaptation made throughout our lives. There are several ramifications to these findings: Our "intelligence" is a many spendored thing, a mix of memory, reasoning, impulse control, self-restraint, imagination, persistence, resiliency, and all such characteristics that make successful well adjusted and competent adults. Our brains do not just determine our IQ type of intelligence but regulate all the other competencies that frequently trump the ability to get good school grades.
The gradual development of our brains makes humans uniquely different from the animal and plant kingdoms, most of which come into their living forms prewired and without any capacity to alter their ability to deal with a changing environment. The authors attempt to explain this uniqueness as a result of evolutionary forces but they do not succeed. Modern humans appeared rather suddenly on earth about 60 to 100 thousand years ago and the source of their extraordinary capability has not ever been explained. But Quartz ans Sejnowski do make a good case that it is our ability to grow our brains after birth that makes us superior to all other life forms. They use such helpful terms as we have "an internal guidance system" that lets us develop "a user's guide to life" by assimilating lifetime experiences that give us wisdom and allows our brains to eventually operate at maximum efficiency and clarity. The need for positive environmental stimulus and training to achieve such growth gives us reason to think twice about the importance of our schooling and parenting methods. And it is inspiring to see just how far it is possible to reach for our full potential, that we have the power to be better than our genes might indicate, and that positive development can definitely trump genes.
The authors do not hesitate to embed their discussion of cultural biology in the historical backdrop in which it arose. As the authors report, some of the early research in the subject was met with harsh criticism, as for example the reaction against the book on sociobiology by E.O. Wilson. The vituperation leveled against Wilson by prominent intellectuals has no place in scientific debate and should not be engaged in under any circumstances.
The ability to image the brain and to model it with sophisticated computational tools has led to more knowledge about it in the last ten years than all of previous history, the authors argue. Brain imaging techniques such as MRI, PET, and optical topography have given experimental support for theories of the brain, giving much more valuable information that is needed to understand various diseases and abnormalities of the brain. Philosophical speculation and rhetoric have been eliminated in favor of careful scientific analysis and measurements, fortunately.
The book is packed full of interesting examples and surprises, and space does not permit a detailed review of these, but a few of them include: 1. The fact that the brain can detect and respond correctly to regular patterns in the environment without a person's conscious awareness of them. Experiments illustrating this are discussed in the book. 2. Neural network models of the basal ganglia indicate that it learns in essentially the same way as the brain of a bee. 3. The fact that the brain functions at different time scales, depending on the problem that it is presented with, from milliseconds all the way to minutes. This wide gap in processing time no doubt reflects evolutionary pressures that optimized the brain to prioritize some problems relative to others. 4. The suggestion that the anterior cingulate in humans may be the site of free will. 5. The suggestion that the "area 10" region in the front of the prefrontal cortex is the origin of our sense of self and our self-awareness. 6. The fact that half of the cortex is devoted to visualization. 7. The experimental evidence that indicates that environmental stimulation induces the maturing of brain cells in the hippocampus. 8. The fact that the brain is 90% of its final size at age five, and keeps growing until adolescence. 9. The rise of the "neural constructivist" view that the brain uses information from the world to build itself. Called "self-organization" by those who work in the field of dynamical systems, the constructivist point of view holds that the interaction with the world is a special type of learning that changes the brain and assists in building it. The authors refer to the brain/environment interaction as "constructive learning", and believe that the slow time scales needed for cortical development optimizes the influence of the world on the human brain, and thus make being human possible. The more time the brain has to develop, the likelihood of helpful inputs from the world to guide the construction of highly complex neural circuits increases. The result of this is a mind that can deal efficiently and accurately with the complexities of human existence. 10. The evidence that the development of the brain is non-uniform, but rather occurs hierarchically. The portions of the brain dealing with sensory information develop earlier than those that are responsible for the encoding of more abstract information. 11. The reason for suicidal behavior lies in the prefrontal cortex, which is also involved in mental disorders such as schizophrenia and depression. 12. The origin of drug addiction being in the ventral tegmental area of the basal ganglia. 13. The effects of serotonin and its manufacture in the brain by a group of neurons called the dorsal Raphe nucleus. Interestingly, despite being a small cluster of neurons, it is able to influence billions of neurons in the cerebral cortex. 14. The TD-Gammon learning machine and its ability to teach itself backgammon. The authors believe that the TD-Gammon machine exhibits real machine intelligence, and it is the opinion of this reviewer that they are quite correct in asserting this. 15. The origin of human personality as being from the anterior cingulate cortex, which uses previous experiences in order to construct the appropriate cognitive and emotional responses to novel situations. Attention to difficult problems is correlated with high activity in the anterior cingulate. 16. The fact that the male and female brains are the result of hormones, such as testosterone. The male brain becomes "masculinized" under the influence of testosterone, but only indirectly: the brain converts testosterone into estrogen, interestingly. The authors are careful to point out that testosterone and estrogen do not act at all places in the brain, and that sexual identity has its origin mostly in the hypothalamus. 17. The suggestion that it is the concurrent release of opiates and the oxytocin that produce the sensation of orgasm. 18. The origin of romantic love as being in the various chemical processes of the brain, and the experiments involving transgenic mice that supported this viewpoint. 19. The evidence from neuroscience that supports the "Aristotelian" conception of human nature, i.e. that family ties, friendship, and trust are more characteristic of humans than antisocial or individualistic behavior. Humans need to identify with something larger than their private existence, the authors argue. 20. The neuroscientific explanations for involvement in cults and for conformity to groups. 21. The authors' view of "constructive intelligence", and how it is at odds with the modern "IQ" version of intelligence.