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The cover says to me the doors to the mind. The cover has as its main image three doors side-by-side.

This is a book about neuroethics, a subfield of bioethics. It looks at how the brain figures into ethical decisions in four ways. The first part of the book looks at given what we know of the brain, what ethical decisions should we make in regards to the beginning and ending of life, such as when should we give moral status to a fetus and how does the aging brain figure into how we treat people with various forms of dementia. The second part looks at whether we should seek to improve the brain through genes, training, or drugs. In the third part we are given a picture of how the brain, free will, and the law should relate. Finally, in part four it explores the brain in relation to beliefs and how ethics is produced.

Here are my comments on parts of the text. Kindle locations are shown in brackets [].

[303] “We can show in clever studies that the brain of a six-week-old baby is conscious of complex concepts.” This indicates that language may not be needed to think, which gives weight to the idea that we do not think in language that I currently favor. It would also seem to show that maybe animals are capable of some concept formation; although, I admit this is more speculative.

[310] “The moment life began for any individual is a simple issue—conception. But this is looking at the issue in hindsight, and unfair, in that we are looking at a person and assessing when his or her life began.” I consider my life began at my birth—end of story, or is that beginning.

[515] “The specter of designer babies is unsettling on one level, but old hat on another. Evolutionary biologists and psychologists have been studying mate selection for years. People seek the smartest, most beautiful mate possible. We like blonds, or we don’t; we like tall and lanky or heavyset, or smart, or cheerful, or dark and mysterious, or anything else. By realizing what our preferences are, and sorting through everyone we meet with these criteria before deciding with whom we will conceive a child with, we already engage in serious genetic screening.” I do not think everyone is that picky. And, plenty of children are conceived in a fit of passion. Most people marry and thus have children because they fall in love in various situations. They do not go through a checklist of criteria. Some selection may take place in the sense of what we are attracted to, but it is most often a crap shoot. If these studies are based on animal mating studies where close observation is going on, how much validity does this give to mate selection in humans. Also, if psychologist are relying on questionnaires, how accurate are these self reports, and do they really transfer to actual mate selection in reality. While Gazzaniga often gives references in his endnotes, there are none for these studies. Maybe, there are none

[732] Wrapping up his chapter on genetic engineering of the brain, he writes: “I am confident that we will always understand what is ultimately good for the species and what is not.” Is this not just hubris or delusion? People are killing each other all over the planet. We cannot even take care of the poor and unfortunate. And, the latest news has me question if we are so wise; how come we cannot even come up with sane gun control laws in the United States?

[@732] This whole chapter leads me to ask, what about those that cannot afford these genetic brain enhancements, will they not be allowed to have children? I mean is he aware that a significant portion of the people on this planet live in poverty, including one sixth of the children in the United States.

[1097] Speaking of cognitive enhancement drugs he includes the comment, “just as most people don’t alter their mood with Prozac . . .” This sounds condescending toward people that must take anti-depressant to live a more mentally healthy life, unless he is referring to those that would take it to boost an already good mood, which I do not even know if this is possible.

[1120] “We now understand that changes in our brain are both necessary and sufficient for changes in our mind.” All I can say is absolutely. There is no separate mind stuff. Thus, the mind is the brain. This last statement my not be the view of Gazzaniga.

[1133] “When we become consciously aware of making a decision, the brain has already made it happen.” Again, yes. This is similar to my notion that are thoughts come first, then the language to describe them is produce so that we are aware of some of our thoughts. But, these studies are done in a laboratory under highly restricted conditions. This does not necessarily mean that all are decision might be made before we are aware of them. But, this cannot be ruled out.

[1139] After stating that brains are deterministic, he writes: “Personal responsibility is a public concept. It exists in groups, not in an individual. If you were the only person on earth, there would be no concept of personal responsibility. Responsibility is a concept you have about other people’s actions and they about yours. Brains are determined; people (more than one human being) follow rules when they live together, and out of that interaction arises the concept of freedom of action.” I do not buy this explanation. First, the major reason that there would be no responsibility is that there would be no one to be responsible to, so in a way it is so, but only because it is a social concept. But, even if it is so, the social sphere is just as deterministic as the individual one. If it were not, there would be social chaos (not the theoretical type, which is still deterministic and may actually apply), just like in what is thought of as the physical world (everything is physical).

[1146] “Those aspects [the social] of our personhood are—oddly—not in our brains. They exist <i>only</i> in the relationships that exist when our automatic brains interact with other automatic brains.” (his italics - indicated by html commands) This is different than other explanations of social responsibility that I have come across. As I said above, it is still deterministic. [Deterministic + Deterministic ≠ Nondeterministic]

[1173] In a famous experimental study of the awareness of decision he relates: “The time between the onset of the readiness potential and the moment of conscious decision-making was about 300 milliseconds. If the readiness potential of the brain begins before we are aware of making the decision to move our hand, it would appear that our brains know our decisions before we become consciousness of them.” And, that is if the potential represents the making of the decision. Regardless, decisions are deterministic, and it is likely that decision and consciousness thereof, are separate brain events.

[1266] In keeping with the above: “Our freedom is found in the interaction of the social world.” I do not see how this is necessarily so. As I said previously, the social world is determined too.

[1273] “No pixel in a brain scan will ever be able to show culpability or nonculpability.” What about during the actual commission of the crime? Also, what about scanning memories, which, who knows, may be something that we will be able to do in the future? Not that I especially think it is probable in the least, but you cannot rule it out.

[1553] “. . . it is hard to keep a long, complex logic and a derived set of principles in mind when trying to formulate a new thought.” Maybe it is the difficulty of translation of thought into language.

[1726] Discussing split-brain patient experiments, he writes: “Therefore his left brain (which processes language and deals with constructing verbal information, but never saw the picture of the snowy house) offered an explanation: he must have chosen the shovel because it could be used to clean out the chicken coop [the picture shown to the right part of the brain].” This I think adds support to my thinking that we do not actually think in language. At least it is in the right brain of these split-brain individuals in these experiments.

[1964] “Of course, this hint at a basis for beliefs does not mean that those who possess religious beliefs are undergoing seizure activity.” Maybe, brain freeze.

[1978] “Others whose life’s stories contain evidence of epileptic seizures include Moses . . .” First, Moses almost certainly did not exist. Second, you would need actual physical evidence rather than just literary evidence to make this claim.

[2098] “Moral emotions—those that motivate behavior—are driven mostly by the brain stem and limbic axis . . .” Might not this be where free will arises. I see this as evidence that free will is an emotion.

I was somewhat disappointed with the book. From the title I thought it was going to talk about how the brain produced ethics. It does in part four, but the first three were on how what we may know about the brain affects ethical decisions and what might be ethical avenues of brain enhancements (e.g. genetics and drugs) These parts were good, but I felt overall the book gave no deep understanding of how the brain makes ethical decisions or guides moral behavior.

This book would be good for anyone concerned with neuroethics, which tries to determine what are good moral responses to issues that involve the brain. As I said above, if you want any more but a few clues to how the brain produces ethics, and are not satisfied with the majority of what the book does cover, you may want to think twice about reading it.
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on March 29, 2006
I enjoyed this book. I had expected The Ethical Brain to be a discussion of how the human brain developed a sense of ethics, what evolutionary benefits such concepts provided, and even perhaps a discussion of "where" in the brain the basics of ethical thinking possibly arises. In no way does the author really touch on this. What he does do is discuss what is coming up by way of genetic manipulation of human neurological systems, and how this has given rise to a new field of philosophy: neuroethics.

While it did not have a great deal to offer by way of anatomy-phys beyond the stages of fetal development and a brief discussion of end of life issues (How We Die is probably a better source for information on the latter), The Ethical Brain does cover the emerging ethical issues that are on the horizon as mankind becomes technologically capable of altering the genetics of its own species and of others. The book is very simple and direct, pointing out opposing points of view and why the discussions are so heated, and does so without bogging the general reader down with more philosophy than most of us are prepared to deal. Essentially the author takes a position that viewed from a logical, intellectual perspective many of the issues are easily solved; however, most people-including the author himself-bring cultural viewpoints into decision making without even realizing that we do. He points out that while some of these are relative to the philosophy of a culture or even an individual, some seem to be innate to the human as species, and it is this that makes decision making more of an emotional rather than a rational process. It is just this emotion bound decision making that hampers medical research that might bring relief to some truely devistating neurological disorders, the cases most widely known being stem cell research in the treatment of Parkinsonism and brain and spinal cord injury.

The author discusses pharmacological changes to brain/nerve chemistry that may enhance functions. The opposition suggests that the use of such drugs will cause massive social issues, and thus resists subsidy of research into what it considers a dangerous area. The author points out that such drugs will be abused one way or another, but that society in general stands to gain more than to lose by introducing them. He feels that left to the individual, an appropriate use for such medications will be found in each case. I'm not sure I totally agree with this position: ie. that some of the technological changes of the future will be handled sensibly if left to the individual. He supports his contention by noting that we have invented nuclear weaponry but we haven't destroyed ourselves. Instead we have chosen to find better diplomatic solutions to conflicts. To this I would have to point out that existence of nuclear weapons are like waiting for the other shoe to drop: we haven't destroyed ourselves-yet.

I think he ignores the fact that there is a Red Queen (see Matt Ridley) effect in human behavior that is almost programmed into the system-it is in fact the very basis of evolutionary change. Ridley uses several examples of the "arms race" that arises from individual decisions of this sort. The most comparable example in this instance is that of the English commons. The common grazing area of a medieval village was sustainable only if not overgrazed; however the immediate benefit to any given individual of grazing another animal almost guaranteed that at least someone would do so. If one was allowed to so, others soon did likewise in order to achieve parity. The result was that although the known long-term outcome was a destruction of common pasturage for everyone, the extra animals were still pastured. If applied to Gazzaniga's example of human enhancement technology, those who use it will thrive and those who don't will fall behind. My concern, and that of others who study these issues, is that such enhancements will be available only to a certain privileged segment of the world's population, creating an even greater divide between the haves and have-nots of the world than already exists.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is that on free will. I have to admit that the issue of determinism vs free will has fascinated me. I think the author makes the issue much clearer. He points out that while much of what we think and do may be determined by biology, chemistry and physics, the real issue of free will vs determinism has to do with an individual's relationship to society. His proposal that "free will" is a moot point in a society of one, is very cogent. He also notes that an individual may have a genetic predisposition to violence, but that such a person has the option of controlling his behavior or not controlling it with respect to others.

An interesting book.
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on September 26, 2009
The Ethical Brain by Michael Gassaniga is a well researched book that looks to explore many social and ethical dilemma's and how they relate to his field of expertise, neuroscience. In this review I will examine his arguments regarding complicated issues and make opinions regarding their validity based on the presented evidence.

Overall Opinion
It is obvious by sixteen pages of endnotes that it was important to the author to offer explanations of controversial moral dilemmas based on extensive research and logical reasoning. In this book Gassaniga addresses issues including abortion and stem cells, neuroscience in the justice system, brain enhancing drugs, and moral ethics. In my opinion, for the most part, this book presents solid facts and compelling evidence for the conclusions he makes. The author does a good job of using compelling examples to hold the reader's attention. This includes the common layperson that may not have an interest in the field of neuroscience. The book offers an enlightening perspective from a neuroscientist regarding issues that billions of people hold very strong opinions. His expertise in the field of neuroscience allows him to present the evidence in a way that a philosopher could not.

Part 1: Lifespan Neuroethics
In chapter one, Gazzaniga tackles one of the most hotly debated social issues in America. He looks to define the moral status of an unborn embryo. He presents evidence that embryo's under the age of fourteen days have no nervous system, can still split into twins, or rejoin into chimeras (two eggs that become one person). He also says that before twenty-three weeks, the embryo does not have the cognitive ability to be considered "alive". He uses the example of the definition of "brain dead" to illustrate this point. Gazzaniga comes to the conclusion that though many consider twenty-three weeks (some up to thirty-two weeks) as the beginning of life, he feels that only embryos under fourteen weeks should be used for stem-cell research. I tend to agree with and respect Gazzaniga's assessment. Though he does not believe in the concept of a "soul" he can still look at a twenty-three week old embryo and see the beginnings of humanity despite the views of others in his field. This is a sensitive subject for many people and despite a statement made about a blastocyte being "just a clump of cells", Gazzaniga delivers his conclusion in a way that even naysayers and religious people are forced to recognize as logical.

In chapter two Gazzaniga discusses the issue of "mercy killing" or euthanasia of the elderly with dementia and related disorders. He presents evidence against euthanasia by reporting that patients with disorders such Alzheimer's often do not even realize the mental facilities they have lost and therefore can live happy lives. In cases when this is not true he comes to the conclusion that people should be allowed to have a "dignified death" if they are being destroyed by degenerative disease (33). Though I have never considered suicide morally acceptable, the author does a decent job of describing euthanasia as a dignified death. Many people believe that we have a purpose on this earth outside of our own, but no one wants to die slowly by a disease that cannot be cured. Gazzaniga does an excellent job of making this point resonate with the reader.

Part 2: Brain Enhancement
Though many people believe that prenatal gene therapy is unethical, in chapter three, Gazzaniga asks readers to first consider three questions: Is gene replacement possible? Would it be beneficial? Would it be an ethical practice? To answer the third question the author discusses the theory of hyperagency. This is the concept of humans "remaking" nature to help us satisfy our own needs and desires (40). Though some people find this unethical, he describes this as the next step in evolution. He describes a situation in which the use of gene technology (for uses of gender selection) could harm a society if one gender's population gets out of control. His conclusion is that we will not misuse the technology to cause the world problems because we have never used our technology to annihilate ourselves. He goes on to say that we should use any technology we can dream up because we have an innate ability to restrain ourselves (54). Though this conclusion may seem logical, the author fails to point out a major problem with his theory. He uses the example of nuclear weapons and says that though we used them in WWII, an "innate morals-ethics system" prevents us from "going to far" by using them again. I find this logic dangerously optimistic. Currently there is a nuclear arms race in which countries hope to gain nuclear capabilities and it could be argued that it is only a matter a time before such weapons are used again.

In chapters four and five Gazzaniga contrasts the use of drugs to improve motor functions (steroids, etc) and memory assisting drugs (caffeine, Ritalin, etc.). He says that the use of some drugs that could reduce GABA (inhibitor of practice dependent plasticity) could reduce practice time for learning a new activity or retaining a memory. He says that this could also be very dangerous and more study would be needed. He then concludes that drugs such as caffeine are ethical to use because unlike steroids no social contract with one's competition is being broken (70). He then says that we deserve to use any kind of memory enhancing drug because it is Mother Nature that has "wronged" us if we have poor memories (73). He says that the development of memory enhancing drugs is inevitable and should not be regulated by the government but rather by the users. The author's claim that using caffeine and similar drugs to enhance one's memory is perfectly ethical is clear and logical. However, the idea that Mother Nature has somehow wronged someone who is perhaps a slow learner seems like an odd argument. While the majority of the book places emphasis on evidence and reason, this statement seems somewhat nonsensical. The idea that Mother Nature has wronged and we therefore "deserve" to use memory-enhancing drugs seems to lack the logic that the author displays throughout the rest of the book.

Part 3: Free Will, Personal Responsibility, and the Law

In chapter six, the author debates the defense, that many lawyers argue in court, that some criminals cannot control what they do but have a genetic or acquired brain disorder that absolves them from responsibility of their actions. He presents evidence that even though genes build the brain, the brain makes the decisions. He also describes the mechanism of decision making as "veto power" (93). This is to say that some decisions are "automatic", performed by our subconscious and that we essentially veto decisions that go against our "moral code". He describes patients with ADP that have damage to the prefrontal cortex and therefore lose the ability to "veto" these choices. He reaches the conclusion that neuroscience cannot explain "responsibility" for ones actions. Responsibility is a trait of humans, not the brain (101). I agree that responsibility for one's actions cannot be determined by study of the brain. This discussion of the brain is well researched and the author's conclusion is sound.

In chapter seven Gazzaniga discusses the issue of using fMRI technology as a lie a detector, or to "read minds". Some believe that it could be used to tell when a person has racist thoughts to show motive in court. He argues however that this technology has many instances of false positives. He claims "minds can't be read, only brains" (119). The use of this technology to exonerate or condemn seems to be a gross violation of the Fifth Amendment. The author does a good job of illustrating this point and providing evidence that this technology is not reliable enough for courtroom use.

Chapter eight goes into great detail about how our brains encode and store memory. He concludes that human memories can be contaminated in a variety of ways and eyewitness testimony is often unreliable (140). Though the moral dilemma of this chapter is not as controversial, in my opinion, this was the most interesting chapter in the book. Extensive examples were given as to how the brain makes mistakes when encoding memories that can lead to incredible errors in memory. His conclusion that memories are too faulty to be trusted in a court of law is likely one that will never be addressed by the Justice Department. Though mistakes are made, witness testimonies will likely always be used in the court of law.

Part 4: The Nature of Moral Beliefs and the Concept of Universal Ethics

Gazzaniga makes the case in chapter 9 that human brains are susceptible to creating beliefs to explain our surroundings. These beliefs are often hard to be changed regardless of evidence to the contrary. This fact seems to be prevalent in the case of scientists. The author presents very convincing evidence, through a study of split-brain patients, that the "left-brain interpreter" creates beliefs to explain things in our surroundings that we cannot explain. The person may continue to believe these stories even if evidence suggest that it is not true (148-149). He also suggests that religion is one of the left brain "stories" and that many "religious visions" may be due to brain disorders such as epilepsy (158). This chapter is likely the most controversial in the book. Gazzaniga makes many claims about religion, some well founded, others not. Though the research shows that the left-brain can interpret unexplainable events by creating a fantasy, it seems like a jump to say that all religious beliefs are a construct of the left-brain. Though the author generally seemed understanding to other's views throughout the book, he ceased in this practice when stating that the concept of religion is a simply a "story". He goes on to make claims that religious figures (Saul from the Bible, Muhammad) that "saw visions", were "possibly" suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy. Though religious visions may be symptoms of TLE, it seems unreasonable to claim that leaders of various religions are simply victims of TLE without any substantial evidence.

In chapter ten, Gazzaniga discusses the hope that we could create a "universal ethics". He concludes that and ideal ethics is one not necessarily comprising of facts, but a system that arises from being human, which is contextual, emotion-influenced, and designed to increase our survival (177). He also asserts that though improbable, a universal ethics is possible and we should strive towards it. Gazzaniga's hope that there could be a universal ethics, though possibly ideal, is an unattainable dream. It is a nice idea that everyone could somehow put aside their differences and adopt one moral belief system, but no matter how hard we "strive" for it, there will never be a universal code of ethics.

My Final Thoughts

For the most part this book was a very enjoyable read. A lot of research was compiled and shared in a way that allows the reader a chance to better understand how his or her brain works. The author chose controversial topics to tackle and did a good job of arguing his points as a scientist, but also understanding that some moral dilemmas must be examined simply as a human. I agree with many of his conclusions, but I do not agree with how he discussed the idea of religion. Even if religion is a construct of the left-brain, his statement regarding human's (and especially scientists') resistance to belief change, even in the face of contradictory evidence, should have directed him to stay away from using such a belittling tone when addressing the beliefs of billions of people worldwide.

I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to gain a new perspective regarding the discussed ethical dilemmas or anyone interested in learning more about how the brain works. This book offers scientific data in a way that is easy for a layperson to understand while addressing issues too complicated for most scientists to understand. Though religious people may take exception to certain assertions, many points are well founded and people can make decisions for themselves.
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on April 5, 2013
Gazzaniga, once again, demonstrates his mastery of a complex subject as well as the English language. His conversational, personal style is very effective in constructing the informational substructure necessary to launch into the complexities of neurobehavioral concepts. He is obviously comfortable in this arena which radiates through his presentation of the subject. He gives the reader everything promised in the book's title. Anyone interested in learning (or relearning) about the complex decision making necessary for humans to be the social creatures we are can give themselves no better start than with this book (or any other of his several very readable books) .

John R. Seals, M.D.
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on May 13, 2017
Great book for class. Arrived in perfect condition.
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on July 22, 2014
Not easy reading, unless you already have a firm grasp of the subject matter, personally, I had to reread some paragraphs repeatedly so it could penetrate my concrete head. All in all --- I really enjoyed this book. Against my better judgement I loaned my hardback out and now I'm seriously thinking about buying another copy. Spend the money and get your head informed.
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on September 12, 2015
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on September 23, 2016
This should be required reading for everyone
Excellent writer
Fascinating and thought provoking topics
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on August 29, 2017
good book for college
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on July 3, 2017
A good read
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