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Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique

Image of Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique
Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
June 2017
Fred's Rating: 
Michael Gazzaniga
Total Pages: 
Harper Perennial

Michael Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the U. of California-Santa Barbara and its Summer Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. (For his books I’ve read, click on his name.)

The Amazon website for the paperback edition I was given last Christmas is:

The home page has a review that is too brief. Scroll down the home page for two better reviews under ‘Editorial Reviews.’ Then use Amazon’s ‘Look inside’ option to read the 2-pp Contents and the 3-pp Prologue, which are well worth reading. I can’t resist here quoting the Prologue’s last paragraph: “A phase shift occurred, and it occurred as the consequence of many things changing in our brains and minds. This book is the story of our uniqueness and how we got there. Personally, I love our species, and always have. I have never found it necessary to lessen our success and domination of the universe. So let us start the journey of understanding why humans are special, and let’s have some fun doing it.”

In this book he speaks with two voices: as a neuroscientist and as a psychologist. In some chapters the two voices are about equally used, but in other chapters one voice dominates. He discusses, with either voice, how our brain offers us unique capabilities, but perhaps more often he compares our brains with those of other primates, and often other animals – birds and familiar mammals – who have capabilities similar, even if much weaker, to ours. Being much more familiar with psychologists' jargon than with the many parts of a human’s brain, I would have liked him to have included a glossary of the brain jargon. Another thing I very much wished he had included is the amazing plasticity of the human brain – especially a brief discussion of the few humans born without one of the two ‘sides’ (the left side or the right side), for the human brain’s plasticity allows such individuals to develop, albeit slowly, in their sole side, most of the abilities that humans have with both sides intact and connected. But I enjoyed very much what he did include. I especially enjoyed his use of actual footnotes to give details about a topic on that page. (His 31-pp Notes only give references needed to look up a book or journal article, so you can ignore them.)

Each chapter ends with a conclusion. In the following I select a quote from his conclusions. [Any comments I add with be in square brackets.] Chapter 1 – Are Human Brains Unique? – has one of the shortest quotes: “Our brains are different in detail, so why should or minds not also be different?” In Chapter 2 – Would a Chimp make a Good Date? – Gazzaniga refers to the chimp with the greatest knowledge of human words, named Kanzi. “I think a day spent with Kanzi would be very interesting, but for the long term, I prefer more culture. Make my date a Homo Sapiens.” [Kanzi’s culture is absent.]

Chapter 3 – Big Brains and Expanding Social Relationships – is relatively short. “With the importance of social groups now well understood, it is easy to see discussions emerge about whether or not natural selection might also work on groups versus individuals.” …”As we move on, realizing our social nature is deeply rooted in our biology not simply in our cognitive theories about ourselves, we begin to see how the rest of our human equipment helps to guide us through the social maze.”

Chapter 4 – The Moral Compass Within – is long and his conclusion fills a whole page. “One could say most of our life is spent battling the conscious rational mind and the unconscious [more primitive in us and other primates] emotional system of our brain.” ... [Some of our] “uniquely human traits: the emotion of disgust and a sensitivity of contamination, the moral emotions of guilt, shame, and embarrassment, blushing, and crying” …”And we have our analytical brain occasionally chiming in. Not only that, there is even more going on that we aren’t conscious of. Stay tuned. . . .”

Chapter 5 – I Feel Your Pain – is also long, for it deals with our emotions. “People are capable of voluntarily, deliberately switching from one abstract perspective to another with easy flexibility. We can manipulate what emotions we are simulating by imagination alone.” [He sets up human imagination as if it were our ‘sixth sense’ – as I regard it, but he never calls it our unique sixth sense.] …”This ability allows us to learn about the world without having to experience it all firsthand ourselves.” …”These abilities to simulate emotions from language and imagination, to alter our simulations by using perspective, and to project ourselves into the future and past enrich our social world and make our simulations more powerful than those of other species.”

Chapter 6 – What’s Up With the Arts? – is a puzzle. “The creation of art is new to the world of animals. It is now being recognized that this uniquely human contribution is firmly based in our biology.” …”Was it due to a change in the prefrontal cortex as a result of a genetic mutation, or was it a more gradual process? No one knows.” [The prefrontal cortex can be a decision ‘gate’ (it always says yes to the ‘fight or flight’ reaction) but, with no such urgency, it can delay a decision until it gets the reaction of the reasoning part of the brain or mind, and then choose between the emotional and reasoning reactions.]

Chapter 7 – We All Act Like Dualists: The Converter Function – has jargon to explain. The dualism is the old Mind/Body type. A ‘converter function’ [a new wording for me] is a mental process where one special part of the brain passes a received mental process to another special part of the brain. The key concept is intuition, and he regards this brain process as being of two types – physics intuition and psychology intuition. “We have seen that both we and other animals share some highly domain-specific abilities. We share some of our intuitive physics with other animals, such as object permanence and gravity … and some rudimentary psychology (TOM). [Theory Of Mind] “We alone form concepts about imperceptible things and try to ‘explain’ an effect of these being caused by something. [He doesn’t remind us that we can know little about what animals think about – animal TOM is still in its infancy.] “This questioning and reasoning about imperceptible forces is a hugely significant ability. It certainly sparked curiosity that, when coupled with conscious analytical thinking, has been the cornerstone of science, but that same curiosity has led to other, less rigorous ways of explaining imperceptible forces, such as myths, junk science, and urban legends”

Chapter 8 – Is Anybody There? – is also long. The focus is first on conscious awareness, mainly self-awareness, and some speculation about consciousness itself. A few animals have self-awareness, but consciousness remains “the unsolved mystery.” But most of this chapter describes brains, human and test animals, with brain lesions. From minor to major brain damage and what that tells neuroscientists, who have learned much from studies of brain damages, with split brains (left and right sides not sharing information). But I feel Gazzaniga should have kept to his initial focus on the undamaged human brain. I agree with his conclusion that the undamaged brain and mind: “Consciousness is an emergent property and not a process in and of itself.” [Saying what it isn’t meets little opposition.] He concludes “The thousands or millions of conscious moments that we each have reflect one of our networks being ‘up for duty’.” …”What makes emergent human consciousness so vibrant is that our pipe organ has lots of tunes to play, whereas the rat’s has few. And the more we know, the richer the concert.” [ An ending, however true, that lacks much insight. Or one might say that we don’t yet know what’s there.]

Chapter 9 – Who Needs Flesh? – focuses on what we can expect from AI [Artificial Intelligence]. In the future, can AI improve or replace any aspects of the human brain or mind? Included in the discussion is the idea of replacing a damaged part of the brain with something like a computer chip programed with an algorithm that performs the operation that the damaged part of the brain had been doing. Also considered is modifying or replacing a defective part of one’s DNA, which is current state-of-the-art neuroscience. Since we have already developed technologies to improve vision or hearing as well as developed artificial hands, arms, or legs, in the near future doing replacements of brain parts is being considered. The ethical question still to be faced is whether improving rather than just replacing should or should not be permitted. Now I’ve gone beyond what the author explicitly said, but this is what I think he implied. Here is part of his conclusion: “Some of the research is driven by desires that we share with all animals, to reproduce healthy and fit offspring. It remains to be seen whether our desires will drive us to manipulate our chromosomes to the point where we will no longer be Homo Sapiens, whether we will be trading up to silicon. Maybe we will be referred to in the future as Homo Buttinski.”

Michael Gazzaniga’s 5-pp Afterword tells how he asked many people for their ideas about what makes us humans unique. There were many different answers, some of them amusing. He ends with a comment from his brother. “No other species aspires to be more than it is. Perhaps we can be. Sure, we may be only slightly different, but then, some ice is only one degree colder than liquid water. Ice and water are both constrained by their chemical composition, but they are very different because of a phase shift. My brother closed his list of differences by staying, ‘Humans will sit behind a computer and try to figure out the meaning of life. Animals live life. The question is: Who is better off, the human or the animal?’

“That’s enough! I am going out to tend to my vineyard. My pinot grapes will soon be producing a fine wine. Am I ever glad I am not a chimp!” [As he intended, this closure seems to lighten the weight of this book, especially Ch. 9.]

I enjoyed reading this book, but I rate it at just four stars for overlooking the amazing story of single-side brained humans and for spending too much time on discussing brain damage consequences that digress from the main story line of this book.

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