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Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain | [Patricia S. Churchland]

Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain

What happens when we accept that everything we feel and think stems not from an immaterial spirit but from electrical and chemical activity in our brains? In this thought-provoking narrative - drawn from professional expertise as well as personal life experiences - trailblazing neurophilosopher Patricia S. Churchland grounds the philosophy of mind in the essential ingredients of biology. She reflects with humor on how she came to harmonize science and philosophy, the mind and the brain, abstract ideals and daily life.
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Publisher's Summary

A trailblazing philosopher's exploration of the latest brain science - and its ethical and practical implications.

What happens when we accept that everything we feel and think stems not from an immaterial spirit but from electrical and chemical activity in our brains? In this thought-provoking narrative - drawn from professional expertise as well as personal life experiences - trailblazing neurophilosopher Patricia S. Churchland grounds the philosophy of mind in the essential ingredients of biology. She reflects with humor on how she came to harmonize science and philosophy, the mind and the brain, abstract ideals and daily life.

Offering lucid explanations of the neural workings that underlie identity, she reveals how the latest research into consciousness, memory, and free will can help us reexamine enduring philosophical, ethical, and spiritual questions: What shapes our personalities? How do we account for near-death experiences? How do we make decisions? And why do we feel empathy for others? Recent scientific discoveries also provide insights into a fascinating range of real-world dilemmas - for example, whether an adolescent can be held responsible for his actions and whether a patient in a coma can be considered a self.

Churchland appreciates that the brain-based understanding of the mind can unnerve even our greatest thinkers. At a conference she attended, a prominent philosopher cried out, "I hate the brain; I hate the brain!" But as Churchland shows, he need not feel this way. Accepting that our brains are the basis of who we are liberates us from the shackles of superstition. It allows us to take ourselves seriously as a product of evolved mechanisms, past experiences, and social influences. And it gives us hope that we can fix some grievous conditions, and when we cannot, we can at least understand them with compassion.

Download the accompanying reference guide.

©2013 Patricia S. Churchland (P)2013 Gildan Media LLC

What the Critics Say

"Patricia Churchland may be the world’s leading neuro-philosopher today, but she also hails from humble beginnings in rural Canada. And that plainspoken farm girl, that second self, is on full display in this beautiful, unpretentious, enchanting exploration of mind, morals, and the meaning of life." (Owen Flanagan, author of The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World)

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  •  
    Douglas Auburn, WA, United States 01-25-14
    Douglas Auburn, WA, United States 01-25-14 Member Since 2008

    College English professor who loves classic literature, psychology, neurology and hates pop trash like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.

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    "Joining The Ranks..."

    of other neo-Darwinean evolutionary theorists, such as Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Robert Wright, Churchland argues here, with good cause and good evidence, that the self indeed arises, solely and without aid, from the brain. How exactly that happens, of course, remains a mystery, though there is good scientific evidence for believing that it is so. If this book has a flaw, it is not in its science, but rather in its approach--and one can read it in the title "Touching A Nerve." Churchland, like Dawkins and Dennett, often waves the flag a bit too high and too wildly, being a bit too aggressive against unseen (and probably nonexistent) enemies of her theories. All right, Jerry Fallwell might not take to the idea, but he probably isn't going to be reading this book anyway. If I could say anything to Dennett, Dawkins, and in this case, Churchland, it would be "how about you just calm down about the religious right and do science, believing it will speak for itself to the logical--whereas all the blustering in the world won't do a thing in regard to the illogical." Notwithstanding, the book is still well-done and is a fine addition to the growing neo-Darwinean canon.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Lake San Francisco, CA, United States 11-25-13
    Lake San Francisco, CA, United States 11-25-13 Member Since 2010
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    "common sense gone systematic"

    The feeling for something, and the sense of being something are hallmarks of human experience. The nature of the self that knows these things is perhaps the most ancient discussion in the humanities. What I find remarkable, as someone who finished graduate school in the early 1980's, is the tremendous sense that somehow, finally, we are about to really understand the brain. The last thirty years has seen remarkable expansion of knowledge in the fields we collectively call "neuroscience."
    This concise work by Dr. Churchland, explores neuroscientific contributions to many of the old arguments about the nature of the self with particular attention to moral philosophy, and how we come to be the persons we are. While clearly versed in the scientific material, and able to draw appropriate implications from the research (in stark contrast to some authors who seem simply carried away by the implications of the science) the narrative (performed gracefully by Karen Saltus) is down home and even folksy.
    Interwoven with the science are teaching stories from a rural Canadian background. The stories illustrate the author's invitation to view the world (including the sense of self) as phenomena of mind, emerging from our biological brains. In a worldview grounded in biology and the philosophy of science, she finds the commonsense view that we are unique creatures with brains which are constructed by evolutionary processes that leave us with much in common. She finds herself personally comfortable, and I would say hopeful, that this understanding does not amount to "paradise lost," but rather embraces new possibilities in appreciating complexity and difference.

    2 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    F. Huebener München 01-10-14
    F. Huebener München 01-10-14

    anarchart

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    "Rock on Pat"
    If you could sum up Touching a Nerve in three words, what would they be?

    Neuroscience for everbody


    What was the most compelling aspect of this narrative?

    “Rock on Berti!” (Bertrand Russell). I like being able to cry at the ending of Anna Karenina and Dr. Schiwago, but I also enjoy shedding a tear or two after the final paragraphs of a well-written science book.

    Neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland (according to Wikipedia an eliminative materialist), composes beautifully clear, straightforward sentences, and, in true story telling style, transports us to the cutting edge of neuroscience. I decided to finally read Patricia Churchland to protect myself against the temptations of quantum neuroscience, for which I have a strange liking that may well be more artistic than scientific.

    The book (I actually listened to it as an audiobook while jogging and cleaning) summarizes the current state of neuroscience including the latest research into consciousness, memory, and free will, as Churchland examines their relationship to contemporary philosophical, ethical, and spiritual questions. There is nothing breathtakingly new to somebody who follows the field on a regular basis; for (neuro)scientists quite a bit is old hat, e.g. how neurons work. Yet it is written in such a comprehensible style that it rejuvenates and replenishes the old memory bank – very useful for science journalists.

    There are a couple of topics I slightly disagree with, and I find her somewhat conservative (e.g. difference between man and woman). But I guess if I want a more visionary approach I should read science fiction.

    I liked the way she ties her ideas to her upbringing on a farm, bringing highflying neurophilosophical thoughts down to earth. My attention wandered when it came to paragraphs obviously directed at science-skeptics. I guess this is directed more towards US readers. In short: a great (audio-)book for anybody, especially laypeople interested in a good overview of neuroscience. Rock on Pat.


    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Alexander Reid Washington, DC 08-31-13
    Alexander Reid Washington, DC 08-31-13 Member Since 2013
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    "The plainspoken truth about who we really are"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    This is a heroic attempt to summarize what we know about who we are, why we're here, and why we do the things we do. It is an attempt to "stand in the truth" which is very challenging to our deeply held desire to be metaphysical beings or something other than biological brains in an all too physical body.


    What other book might you compare Touching a Nerve to and why?

    The God Delusion, also written by a biologist (Richard Dawkins), also resisting the pull to superstition and pseudoscience.


    What three words best describe Karen Saltus’s voice?

    Unfortunately preachy, but clear.


    What’s the most interesting tidbit you’ve picked up from this book?

    The orchestra of hormones that regulate human aggression.


    Any additional comments?

    Standing in the truth is hard work, but rewarding.

    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
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  • Mr. Ian P. Sowden
    5/24/14
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    "Narration destroys content"
    What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

    Disappointment


    Any additional comments?

    This book is thoughtful if slightly superficial.It discusses important subjects but the narration is suited to cosmetic sales or historical novels. She tries to add inappropriate excitement and sexiness. Let the words convey the meaning.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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