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Publisher's Summary

The father of cognitive neuroscience and author of Human offers a provocative argument against the common belief that our lives are wholly determined by physical processes and we are therefore not responsible for our actions.

A powerful orthodoxy in the study of the brain has taken hold in recent years: Since physical laws govern the physical world and our own brains are part of that world, physical laws therefore govern our behavior and even our conscious selves. Free will is meaningless, goes the mantra; we live in a “determined” world.

Not so, argues the renowned neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga in this thoughtful, provocative book based on his Gifford Lectures - one of the foremost lecture series in the world dealing with religion, science, and philosophy. Who's in Charge? proposes that the mind, which is somehow generated by the physical processes of the brain, “constrains” the brain just as cars are constrained by the traffic they create. Writing with what Steven Pinker has called “his trademark wit and lack of pretension”, Gazzaniga shows how determinism immeasurably weakens our views of human responsibility; it allows a murderer to argue, in effect, “It wasn’t me who did it - it was my brain.” Gazzaniga convincingly argues that even given the latest insights into the physical mechanisms of the mind, there is an undeniable human reality: We are responsible agents who should be held accountable for our actions, because responsibility is found in how people interact, not in brains.

An extraordinary book that ranges across neuroscience, psychology, ethics, and the law with a light touch but profound implications, Who’s in Charge? is a lasting contribution from one of the leading thinkers of our time.

©2011 Michael S. Gazzaniga (P)2011 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"A fascinating affirmation of our essential humanity." ( Kirkus)

What members say

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  • Dan
  • London, ON, Canada
  • 04-03-12

Use Your Credit On "Who's In Charge"

For those who want to make a quick decision, just read the above headline. For those who would like to thoroughly research this book before committing, go to the FREE "Brain Science Podcast" and listen to episode # 82. (In fact, if you are at all interested in the Mind/Brain, I strongly suggest you subscribe to this Audible sponsored podcast. It led me to this wonderful world of audiobooks.)
For those in between, here is my take on it. Dr. Gazzaniga is the father of research into split brain patients (this procedure for epilepsy has been replaced by less damaging ones, so there will be little research in the future). His work seems to have heavily influenced our present understanding of the brain, and a lot of that understanding is presented in this work. While I thought I knew quite a bit for a layman, there was not one part of this book that I could skip through, all of it was engaging, even the familiar parts. While there are other books I could recommend that specialize in certain areas, "Who's In Charge" covers most of the current popular topics, such as Self, Consciousness, Free Will, and Morality and touches on Chaos Theory and Emergence. To me, there were no low points here. nor is anything too complicated for the unitiated. I cannot see anybody being disappointed in purchasing this book, and believe you could have saved time and effort, by just following the advice in the headline.

85 of 90 people found this review helpful

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  • Sean
  • BELVEDERE TIBURON, CA, United States
  • 01-29-12

Good brain book, not really about free will

Although the author purports to address the issue of free will from a neuroscience point of view he goes off on many, many tangents and is oddly reticent to make any firm assertions.

He gives a good tour of the current state of what we understand about how the brain works. This is meant to set the stage for addressing the question of whether brain chemistry and wiring pre-determines out decisions or if free will really exists. However, although he asserts that he thinks free will exists he does not create any structured arguments to support his belief. Either he feels the evidence speaks for itself (in which case he has over-estimated his audience) or his hypothesis never crystallized in his mind.

As an experienced neuroscientist he has a masterful grasp of the subject (although I found his frequent, parenthetical comments of "so-and-so, who worked in a lab across campus from me" did not add anything to the story.) Not only does he understand what he is writing about, but he has thought deeply about the implications and he presents the material accurately.

I found the performance to be rather snarky and it distracted from the text.

The survey of current neuroscience makes the book worth reading, but I think he does a disservice to claim the book is about free will.

62 of 70 people found this review helpful

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  • Timothy
  • College Station, TX, United States
  • 10-25-12

Good, not great. Read Eagleman's Incognito instead

This was a good book. There were two or three really mind-blowing concepts that I hadn't heard before. But I give it fewer stars because (1) it doesn't really spend very much time on the titular question -- specifically "free will". It's really a book about how the brain works, which is really interesting to me, but this book's not as good as David Eagleman's "Incognito", in my opinion. (2) It spends quite a bit of time on how current neuroscience impacts law and courtroom proceedings. Those parts seemed repetitive and dull to me.

37 of 42 people found this review helpful

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Not for Everyone, but Definitely for Some of Us

This book is not the kind of thing you want to get distracted from while listening. It's rather technical at certain points. Even if you listen perfectly, you may have the sense from time to time that you must have missed something.

I realized while listening that I've read a lot recently about moral psychology, rationality, evolution/epigenetics and neuroscience, so there was a lot of material I had read or heard before. If you've been keeping up with Jonathan Haidt, Stephen Pinker, etc, you'll already be familiar with a good bit of what's here. However, if you are interested in one of these subjects and haven't read up much on them lately, I think you'd enjoy the book.

The author's tone of voice is ... well, hilarious. It's like a man reading with a perpetual smirk while waiting for his next martini to be stirred, not shaken, because he knows, thankyouverymuch, that you don't shake martinis, for the love of all that's holy. (I've done my best to give you a sense of his voice in the text I've written -- a nearly impossible feat, but if you have a listen, you might see what I mean.) I'd choose to listen to this reader again, but I have a feeling his tone is not for everyone.

There's a lot of technical stuff. You may or may not remember as much as you'd like once it's over, but it's a good overview of where we are with understanding consciousness in the early 21st century. Also, it's not a terribly long book, and the illustrations are often amusing, so it's worth taking a chance on, IMHO.

20 of 23 people found this review helpful

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You Didn't Do It Alone?

Michael Gazzaniga (Psychological Science; Cognitive Neuroscience; The Ethical Brain) now has produced Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. Gazzaniga is a well known expert in cognitive neuroscience, but this book makes the topic easy to follow and readily available to anyone willing to turns its pages. Most important, this book brings neuroscience and philosophy together. The result is a deeper understanding of free will as experienced (or thought experienced) by individuals. Gazzaniga would have been more helpful to me had he defined what he means by free will. I would have greatly benefited from having such a guide post. Such context would have been helpful. Nonetheless, the book is thought provoking and helpful from both the philosophical and the neuroscience perspectives. It will certainly make the reader stop and think. The reading of Pete Larkin is well done.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Not Superficial

Despite being nearly 7 years old, this book has good information on Neuroscience Frontiers. It does not shy away from the scientific explanations of brain activity as determined through experimentation.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Well done

A thorough argument, well delivered. Much was added to my knowledge on the subject. I enjoyed all the narrative-based examples. I especially enjoyed learning what possibilities the future holds for neuroscience.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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A scientific perspective on determinism

I enjoyed this book. I found Gazzaniga's perspective on this issue refreshing. He believes science (specifically, neuroscience and psychology) can inform our understanding of free will versus determinism, but he did not go so far as to say it will solve the issue. I am one of those people he references in the book who was skeptical that science can tell us anything useful about free will - I think that is more the domain of philosophy - but his book has led me to soften my stance.

I would like to state that one should read this book with a critical eye. There is a lot of disagreement over the validity of some of the studies and effects that he cites. And that vigilance should extend to all psychology and neuroscience books. That being said, Gazzaniga acknowledges that some of the stuff should be taken with a grain of salt, although I am also wary of some of the stuff he doesn't question. This is good overview of one scientist's view of free will. I encourage anyone who enjoys this book to read more on the subject, especially from a philosophical perspective.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Ingrid
  • New York, NY, United States
  • 09-09-17

Interesting but not 'easy'.

This is an engaging read even if some parts of a little boring or dry. I think it's an important book especially if you're interested in neuroscience. It was not a book that I can just listen to while I puttered, I had to concentrate and think. I'm sure I still missed things and would've been better if I read this in class and there was seminar is after a couple of chapters to further discuss some concepts. But I'm glad I read it. It was rather academic, a little dry but definitely interesting parts made up for that. For the end there were issues about the law and implications. Since it was written in 2010 I'd be very interested to see what the addendum would look like given any advancements seven years later. I'd recommend it but be warned this is not an easy read. (At least it wasn't for me…)

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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distribution of cognition

a fairly well written and interesting review of the state of neuroscience literature, the most interesting pieces are the case study split brain findings and the interplay between decision making and the interpreter module. the dive into the legal system was more philosophical than evidence driven, I wish he would've used that space to explore more about corollaries in other sciences. overall, worth your time for the many pondering points in understanding what a human is.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful