Whose In Charge? | Notes & Reflections

Michael S. Gazzaniga. Who’s In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. HarperCollins, 2011. (260 pages)


We all feel the tug of an insatiable desire to carry on the quest to know more about the situation in which we humans find ourselves. (2)

We are personally responsible agents and are to be held accountable for our actions, even though we live in a determined universe. (2)

We want to live life, not think about it. (3)

Determinism reigns… (4)

We humans seem to prefer black and white answers to questions, binary choices, all or nothing, all nature or all nurture, all determined or all random. I will argue that it is not that simple and that modern neuroscience is not, in fact, establishing what amounts to a wholesale fundamentalism with respect to determinism. I will maintain that the mind, which is somehow generated by the physical processes of the brain, constrains the brain. Just as political norms of governance emerge from the individuals who give rise to them and ultimately control them, the emergent mind constrains our brains. In a time when we all think we can agree that causal forces are the only way to understand our physical world, are we not in need of a new frame of thinking to describe the interactions and mutual depen-(4)dence of the physical with the mental? (5)

Just as traffic emerges from cars, traffic does ultimately constrain cars, so doesn’t the mind constrain the brain that generated it? (5)

[via: This reminded me of McLuhan’s quip, “We make our machines, then our machines make us.”]

Like trying to sink a cork in water, the issue won’t go away. It keeps popping back. How the mind relates to brain, with its implications for personal responsibility, no matter who addresses it, keeps grabbing our attention. The importance of the answer to this question, which is central for understanding what we humans are experiencing as sentient, forward-looking, and meaning-seeking animals cannot be overstated. I wish to continue in the tradition that examines this fundamental issue and to outline the progress, as I see it, on how that interface of mind and brain might best be understood. Does the mind constrain the brain, or does the brain do everything from the bottom up? It’s tricky, because in nothing that follows here am I suggesting the mind is completely independent from the brain. It is not. (5)

Even with all the knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and all the rest, when the moving parts are viewed as a dynamic system, there is an undeniable reality. We are responsible agents. As my kids say, “Get over it.” Human life is a really good deal. (6)


Our brains are a vastly parallel and distributed system…

Men ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations. And by this…we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear, and know what are foul and what are fair, what are bad and what are good, what are sweet and what unsavory…And by the same organ we become mad and delirious, fears and terrors assail us… – Hippocrates (400 B.C.)

…there is no way to understand how a wing of a bird works by studying its feathers. As the facts accumulate, we need to give them functional context and then examine how that context may, in fact, constrain the underlying elements that generate the function. Let’s begin. (cf. David Marr) (10)



[Karl Lashley] proposed the principles of mass action (the action of the brain as a whole determines its performance) and equipotentiality (any part of the brain can carry out a given task, thus no specialization). (12)

John Watson. Paul Weiss coined the famous phrase, “function precedes form,…” (12)

Roger Speery.


When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite a cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased.Donald HebbThe Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory

He [Hebb] proposed that groups of neurons that fire together make up what he called a cell assembly. (13)

Frank R. Ford and Barnes Woodall. Leah Krubitzer.


Peter Marler. Niels Jerne.


The very important idea is that there is selection from preexisting capacity. But it also implies constraints. If the capacity is not built-in, it does not exist. (19)


Wun Sin. Kurt Kass.

Rather than growth solely affected by a type of genetically driven chemotaxis (where cells direct their movement toward certain chemicals) that Sperry proposed, the actual activity of the neuron, its experience, also drives its growth and the neuronal connections it subsequently forms. This is known as an activity-dependent process. (20)

Thus, while the overall connectivity pattern is under genetic control, outside stimuli from the environment and training also affect neuronal growth and connectivity. The current view of the brain is that its large-scale plan is genetic, but specific connections at the local level are activity-dependent and a function of epigenetic factors and experience: Both nature and nurture are important, as any observant parent or pet owner can report. (21)

Preexisting Complexity

Dale Purves. Beau Lotto.


Our First Bipedal Ancestor

Donald Johanson. Mary Leakey. Tim White. Leon Festinger. Owen Lovejoy.

Invention and imitation are ubiquitous in the human world, but are shockingly rare among our animal friends. (26)

Many ideas have been batted around over the years trying to figure out what forces were driving the relentlessly enlarging hominid brain. It now seems to be boiling down to two factors that were driving the processes of natural and sexual selection: a diet that provided the added calories needed to feed the metabolically expensive bigger brain, and the social challenges originating from living in those larger groups needed for protection. (27)

Holloway Takes On the Big Brain Idea

Charles Darwin. T. H. Huxley. Ralph Holloway. Todd Preuss. Willem de Winter. Charles Oxnard. Pasko Rakic

We are all seduced by the remarkable similarities in cortical organization within and between species, such that we forget that the differences are where we should look for the evolutionary progress that has led to the ascent of our cognitive abilities. – Pasko Rakic

David Premack.


Bigger Isn’t the Answer to Better

Frederico Azevedo.

The human brain has on average 86 billion neurons. (32)

What is larger in the frontal lobes than the rest of the brain, however, is the arborization of the neurons that branching of the dendritic tips of the neurons with the resulting possibility of increased connections. (32)

Connectivity Changes

The finding that the human cerebral cortex volume is 2.75 times larger than in chimpanzees, but has only 1.25 times more neurons intimates that a good deal of the increased mass is due to the space between bodies and what that space is filled with. The space, known as neuropil, is filled with the stuff that connections are made of: axons, dendrites, and synapses. (32)

At some point, as absolute brain size and total neuron number increases, the proportional connectivity decreases and the internal structure changes as the connectivity pattern changes. In order to add new function, the decrease in proportional connectivity forces the brain to specialize. Small local circuits, made of an interconnected groups of neurons, are created to perform specific processing jobs and become automatic. The result of their processing is passed on to another part of the brain, but all the computations that were used to arrive at the result are not. (33)

Mark Raichle. Steve Petersen. Mike Posner. James Ringo. Jeff Hutsler.

…we have learned of neuroanatomical asymmetries in many animal species, but humans appear to have lateralized circuits present to a far greater degree. (35)

Charles Hamilton. Betty Vermeire.

Different Types of Neurons

All neurons are not alike, and some types of neurons may be found only in specific species. (37)

Todd Preuss. Guy Elston. Santiago Ramón y Cajal. David Premack.

Still Other Types of Neurons

Esther Nimchinsky. Constantin von Economo. John Allman. Irina Bystron.


With this mounting evidence of physical anatomical differences, differences in connectivity, and differences in cell type, I think that we can say that the brains of humans and the brains of other animals appear to differ in how they are organized, which, when we truly come to understand it, will help us understand what makes us so different. (40)

We also have systems running simultaneously, in parallel, distributed throughout the brain. This means that our brains have multiple control systems, not just one. (41)

Yet many mysteries lie ahead. We are going to try to understand why we humans, who have no problem accepting that our body’s house-keeping mechanisms, such as breathing, are a result of our brain’s activity, are so resistant to the idea that the mind is embodied in the brain. (41)

But what does this mean to any of us? As Bob Dylan might ask, how does it feel to understand how we got here? How does it feel to wonder if we are freely choosing moral agents or to wonder how it all works? Does a person who believes that the human mind, its thoughts, and resulting actions are determined, actually feel any different than anyone else? And, after a couple more chapters, how will it feel to grasp why we feel psychologically unified and in control even though we may not be? Ahhh … not much different. I’m not really having an existential crisis, if that’s what you’re worried about. No doubt you will still feel pretty much in control of your brain, in charge, and calling all the shots. You will still feel that someone, you, is in there making the decisions and pulling the levers. This is the homunucular problem we can’t seem to shake. The idea that a person, a little man, a spirit, someone is in charge. Even those of us who know all the data, who know that it has got to work some other way, we still have this overwhelming sense of being at the controls. (41)


Again, no central command center keeps all other brain systems hopping to the instructions of a five-star general. The brain has millions of local processors making important decisions. (44)


Thomas Willis. Franz Joseph Gall [phrenology]. Marie-Jean-Pierre Flourens. Karl Lashley. Marc Dax. Paul Broca. Hughlings Jackson. Hermann von Helmholtz.


Sigmund Freud. Arthur Schopenhaur. Francis Galton.


…a lesion in one specific area of the parietal lobe can produce the odd syndrome of reduplicative paramnesia, a delusional belief that a place has been duplicated or exists in more than one spot at the same time, or has been moved to a different location. (49)

And in the left temporal lobe, a lesion in Wernicke’s area produces Wernicke’s aphasia where the affected person may have no comprehension of either written or spoken language, and although he or she may speak fluently with a natural language rhythm, it’s gibberish. (50)


Harvard researchers Alfonso Caramazza and Jennifer Shelton claim that the brain has specific knowledge systems (modules) for animate and inanimate categories that have distinct neural mechanisms. These domain-specific knowledge systems aren’t actually the knowledge itself, but systems that make you pay attention to particular aspects of situations, and by doing so, increase your survival chances. (50)

Richard Cross.

Thus, highly specific modules exist, in this case for identification, that do not require prior experience or social context to work. These mechanisms are innate and hard-wired; some of these we share with other animals; some animals have mechanisms that we don’t have; and some are uniquely human. (51)


Roger Speery. Andrew Akelaitis. Karl Lashley. Dr. Joseph Bogen. Philip Vogel. William Van Wagenen.

The procedure for fully dividing the hemispheres includes cutting the two fiber pathways that connect the hemispheres: the anterior commissure and the corpus callosum. (54)

If the hands are kept out of sight, then the left brain has no idea what the left hand is up to, and vice versa. (56)

[via: which is eerily resonant of “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”]

With the observation that each hemisphere could possess information outside the realm of awareness of the other half-brain, it suggested that the surgery had induced a state of double consciousness. (59)


This posed the problem of whether each consciousness had its own protagonist: were there then two selves? Were there also two free wills? Why aren’t the two halves of the brain conflicting over which half is in charge? Is one half in charge? Were the two selves of the brain trapped in a body that could only be at one place at one time? Which half decided where the body would be? WHY WHY WHY was there this apparent feeling of unity? Was consciousness and the sense of self actually located in one half of the brain? (60)


CONSCIOUSNESS: The heaving of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings: awareness. The term is impossible to define except in terms that are unintelligible without a grasp of what consciousness means. Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon, it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written about it. – 1989 International Dictionary of Psychology

Sir John Eccles. Donald MacKay.

…we have moved toward the idea of a plethora of systems, some within a hemisphere and some distributed across hemispheres. We no longer think of the brain as being organized into two conscious systems at all but into multiple dynamic mental systems. (61)


…we came to understand that consciousness is distributed everywhere across the brain. (64)

The logical conclusion to these observations is that phenomenal consciousness, that feeling you have about being conscious of some perception, is generate by local processes that are uniquely involved with a specific activity.

| I am suggesting that the brain has all kinds of local consciousness systems, a constellation of them, which are enabling consciousness. Although the feelings of consciousness appear to be unified to you, they are given form by these vastly separate systems. (66)


With larger brains, more neurons, and increasing network size, proportional connectivity decreases. The number of neurons that each neuron is connected to remains about the same… (67)

Neurobiologist Georg Striedter, taking into account what is currently known about comparative neuroanatomy and connectivity in mammals, suggests that certain neuronal wiring “laws” apply to the evolutionary development of the large human brain.

  • Decreased connectivity with increasing network size: By maintaining absolute connectivity, not proportional connec-(67)tivity, large brains actually became more sparsely interconnected, but they had two tricks up their sleeve:
  • Minimizing connection lengths: They maintained local connectivity using the shortest of connections. Thus, less room was taken up with axons traveling back and forth, less energy was required to maintain the lines, and signaling was faster because it traveled over short distances. This set the stage for local networks to divide up and specialize, forming multiple clusters of processing modules. With all this separate processing, however, different parts of the brain must still exchange information and therefore,…
  • Not all connections are minimized, but some very long connections between distant sites are retained. Primate brains have devloped a “small-world architecture”: many short, fast, local connections (a high degree of local connectivity), with a few long-distance ones to communicate their processing (a small number of steps to connect any two). This design allows both a high degree of efficient local processing (modularity), and at the same time, quick communication to the global network. It is common to many complex systems, including human social relations. (68)

To begin with there are all the automatic visual and other sensory processing we have talked about. In addition, our minds are always being unconsciously biased by positive and negative priming processes, and influenced by category identification processes. In our social world, coalitionary bonding processes, cheater detection processes, and even moral judgment processes (to name only a few) are cranking away below our conscious mechanisms. With increasingly sophisticated testing methods, the number and diversity of identified processes is only going to multiply. (69)


What we always must keep in mind is that our brains, hence all these processes, have been sculpted by evolution to enable us to make better decisions that increase our reproductive success. … Years of split-brain research has made clear to us that the brain is not an all-purpose computing device, but a device made up of an enormous number of serially wired specialty circuits, all running in parallel and distributed across the brain to make those better decisions. (69)

…while hierarchical processing takes place within the modules, it is looking like there is (69) no hierarchy among the modules. All these modules are not reporting to a department head, it is a free-for-all, self-organizing system. (70)


How can a system work without a head honcho (70) and why does it feel like there is one? The answer to the first question may be that our brain functions as a complex system. (71)


A complex system is composed of may different systems that interact and produce emergent properties that are greater than the sum of their parts and cannot be reduced to the properties of the constituent parts. (71)

…for psychology in its quest to fully understand behavior, the signature phenomenon of a complex system “is the multiplicity of possible outcomes, endowing it with the capacity to choose, to explore and to adapt.” (71)

The common characteristic of all complex systems is that they display organization without any external organizing principle being applied. – Luis Amaral, Julio Ottino



We are going to learn something strange about ourselves in this chapter. When we set out to explain our actions, they are all post hoc explanations using post hoc observations with no access to nonconscious processing. Not only that, our left brain fudges things a bit to fit into a makes-sense story. It is only when the stories stray too far from the facts that the right brain pulls the reins in. These explanations are (77) all based on what makes it into our consciousness, but the reality is the actions and the feelings happen before we are consciously aware of them–and most of them are the results of nonconscious processes, which will never make it into the explanations. The reality is, listening to people’s explanations of their actions is interesting–and in the case of politicians, entertaining–but often a waste of time. (78)


Natural selection pushes for nonconscious processes. Fast and automatic is the ticket for success. Conscious processes are expensive: They require not only a lot of time, but also a lot of memory. Unconscious processes, on the other hand, are fast and rule-driven. (79)

These tables look different, but actually they are the same exact size and shape. If you measure both, you will find them identical.



Müller-Lyer Illusion

[For more illusions: http://www.michaelbach.de/ot/index-de.html]


What was interesting was that (82) the left hemisphere did not say, “I don’t know,” which truly was the correct answer. It made up a post hoc answer that fit the situation. It confabulated, taking cues from what it knew and putting them together in an answer that made sense. We called this left-hemisphere process the interpreter. (83)


…the right hemisphere is a maximizer, just like the rats and pigeons and the four-year-0ld humans; it is the left hemisphere that is a frequency matcher. It tries to figure out a system; it is driven to infer a cause for the frequency of the flashes and creates a theory to explain them. (84)


This is what our brain does all day long. It takes input from other areas of our brain and from the environment and synthesizes it into a story. (88)

Stanley Schachter. Jerry Singer.

When aroused, we are driven to explain why. If there is an obvious explanation we accept it, as did the group informed about the effects of epinephrine. When there is not an obvious explanation, we generate one.

| So this left-brain interpretive process that we have takes all the input, puts it together in a makes-sense story, and out it comes. As we have seen, however, the left hemisphere’s explanations are only as good as the information it receives. And in many of the above examples we have seen that the information it received was faulty. (89)


If the endogenous events mend through medication or natural events, the interpretations given to the altered mood state remain. They have been stashed in memory. This is how phobias can originate. (90)

Paul Corballis. Hermann von Helmhotz. Adriaan de Groot. Patrick Wolff. Gary Kasparov.

The interpreter is only as good as the information it gets. The interpreter receives the results of the computations of a multitude of modules. It does not receive the information that there are multitudes of modules. It does not receive the information about how the modules work. It does not receive the information that there is a pattern-recognition system in the right hemisphere. The interpreter is a module that explains events from the information it does receive. (4)


Indeed, if you feed the interpreter incorrect data you can hijack it. By doing this, a different story results than it may otherwise have produced. So perhaps, for our interpreter process, reality is virtual. It depends on the sensory cues that are here and now. (94)

Your interpretation of the world is immediately influenced by the visual cues that have overridden what your conscious brain knows. (95)

anosognosia. Vilayanur Ramachandran. Capgras’ syndrome.


Albert Michotte. Michotte’s balls.



Consciousness is an emergent property. (102)

We have learned from our split-brain patients that even when the left brain has lost all consciousness about the mental processes managed by the right brain and vice versa, the patient does not find one side of the brain missing the other. It is as if we don’t have knowledge about what we no longer have access to. The emergent conscious state arises out of separate mental systems, and if they are disconnected or damaged there is no underlying circuitry from which the emergent property arises. (103)

Because consciousness is a slow process, whatever has made it to consciousness has already happened. It is a fait accompli. (103)

When thinking about these big questions, one must always remember, remember, REMEMBER that all these modules are mental systems selected for over the course of evolution. The individuals who possessed them made choices that resulted in survival and reproduction. They became our ancestors. (103)


The human interpreter has set us up for a fall. It has created the illusion of self and, with it, the sense we humans have agency and “freely” make decisions about our actions. In many ways it is a terrific and positive capacity for humans to possess. With increasing intelligence and with a capacity to see relationships beyond what is immediately and perceptually apparent, how long would it be before our species began to wonder what it all meant–what was the meaning of life? The interpreter provides the storyline and narrative, and we all believe we are agents acting of our own free will, making important choices. The illusion is so powerful that there is no amount of analysis that will change our sensation that we are all acting willfully and with purpose. The simple truth is that even the most strident determinists and fatalists at the personal psychological level do not actually believe they are pawns in the brain’s chess game. (105)

We can begin to understand the illusion about free will when (105) we ask the question, What on earth do humans want to be free from? Indeed, what does free will even mean? However actions are caused, we want them to be carried out with accuracy, consistency, and purpose. When we reach for the glass of water, we don’t want our hand suddenly rubbing our eye, or grasping so hard that the glass shatters, or the water to spurt upward from the faucet or turning into mist. We  want all the physical and chemical forces in the world to be on our side, serving our nervous and somatic systems so that whatever the job, it gets done right. So we don’t want to be free from the physical laws of nature. (106)

[via: Even the word “want” is problematic.]

[T]he standard problem is illustrated with hardware and software; software depends on hardware to work, but is also in some sense more ‘fundamental’ in that it is what delivers function. So what causes what? Nothing is mysterious here, but using the language of ’cause’ seems to muddle it. We should probably come up with new and appropriate language rather than try to get into some Aristotelian categories.” – John Doyle

If there were only one person in the world, would the concept of personal responsibility have any meaning?

In traditional philosophy, free will is the belief that human behavior is an expression of personal choice that is not determined by physical forces, Fate, or God. (108)

[via: So, “volition” is in many ways anti-“God/fate/determinism.”]

We believe incest is wrong and flowers aren’t scary. Our left-brain interpreter’s narrative capability is one of the automatic processes, and it gives rise to the illusion of unity or purpose, which is a post hoc phenomenon. Does this mean we are just along for the ride, cruising on autopilot? Our whole life and everything that we do or think is determined? Oh my. As I already said, with what we now know about how the brain operates, it seems that we need to reframe the question about what it means to have free will. What on earth are we really talking about anyway? (109)


No real measurement is infinitely precise; it always includes a degree of uncertainty in the value–wiggle room. Uncertainty is present because no matter what measuring device is used, it has a finite precision and, therefore, imprecision, which can never be eliminated completely, even as a theoretical idea. (109)


If the topic of determinism were to be brought up at dinner, the finger would most likely be pointed at Newton and his universal laws, although the idea had been floating around since the time of those inquisitive Greeks. (111)

A Post Hoc World?

[Hakwan] Lau found that when TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) is applied over the pre-SMA (supplemental motor area) after the execution of a spontaneous action, the perceived onset of the intention to act, is shifted backward in time on the temporal map, and the perceived time of the actual action, the moment when you are conscious that you are acting, is shifted forward in time. What I think he has done is actually mess with the interpreter module.

| While the idea that there is a temporal map that intentions and actions are mapped onto, but not necessarily as they actually happened, (113) seems crazy, it happens to you all the time. (114)

In short, the interpreter makes the story fit with the pleasing idea one actually willed the action. (114)

Kathleen Vohs. Jonathan Schooler.

…disbelief in free will produces a subtle cue that exerting effort is futile, thus granting permission not to bother. (115)

[via: This reminds me of Christopher Hitchen’s brilliant quip in response to the question, Do you believe in free will. Hitchens replies, “I don’t have a choice.” He goes on to say that we are also not free simply because some deity commands it to be so]

Roy Baumeister. E. J. Masicamp. C. Nathan DeWall.

…a belief in free will may be crucial for motivating people to control their automatic impulses to act selfishly, and a significant amount of self-control and mental energy is required to override selfish impulses and to restrain aggressive impulses. (115)


Chaos Theory

Jules Henri Poincaré.

In these types of systems, now known as chaotic systems, extreme sensitivity to initial conditions is called dynamical instability or chaos, and long-term mathematical predictions are no more accurate than random chance. So the problem with a chaotic system is that using the laws of physics to make precise long-term predictions is impossible, even in theory. (118)

Edward Lorenz.

Weather is now understood to be a chaotic system. Long-term forecasts just are not feasible because there are too many variables that are impossible to measure with any degree of accuracy, and even if you could, the tiniest amount of imprecision in any one of the initial measurements would cause a tremendous variation in the end result. (119)

Ilya Prigogine.

If the presence of chaotic systems in nature, Poincaré’s fly in the ointment, limits our ability to make accurate predictions with any degree of certainty using deterministic physical laws, it presents a quandary for physicists. It seems to imply that either randomness lurks at the core of any deterministic model of the universe or we will never be able to prove that deterministic laws apply in complex systems. (120)

Baruch Spinoza. Albert Einstein.

In human freedom in the philosophical sense I am definitely a disbeliever. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity. (121)

Quantum Mechanics Stirs Up a Hornet’s Nest

How could Newton’s laws be fundamental laws if the stuff of which objects are made, atoms, doesn’t obey the same laws as the objects themselves?

Richard Feynman. Werner Heisenberg. Niels Bohr.

Another lurking problem is the issue of time and causation. (122)

[T]he microscopic equations of physics are time-symmetric and therefore conceptually reversible. Consequently the irreversible concept of causation is not formally supportable by microphysical laws, and if it is used at all it is a purely subjective linguistic interpretation of the laws … Because of this time symmetry, systems described by such reversible dynamics cannot formally (syntactically) generate intrinsically irreversible properties such as measurement, records, memories, controls, or causes … Consequently, no concept of causation, especially downward causation, can have much fundamental explanatory value at the level of microscopic physical laws. – Howard Pattee

[T]he concepts of causation have completely different meanings in statistical or deterministic models. – Howard Pattee

If you were to ask “What is the cause of temperature?” a determinist will assume that cause refers to a microscopic event and say it is caused by the molecules exchanging their kinetic energy by collisions. But the skeptical observer, scratching his head, will note that the measuring device averages this exchange, and does not measure the initial conditions of all the molecules and that averaging, my dear sir (or madam), is a statistical process. An average cannot be observable in a microscopic, determinist model. (123)

I am using complementary here in Boltzmann’s and Bohr’s sense of logical irreducibility. That is, complementary models are formally incompatible but both necessary. One model cannot be derived from, or reduced to, the other. Chance cannot be derived from necessity, nor necessity from chance, but both concepts are necessary … It is for this reason that our concept of a deterministic cause is different from our concept of a statistical cause. Determinism and chance arise from two formally complementary models of the world. We should also not waste time arguing whether the world itself is deterministic or stochastic since this is a metaphysical question that is not empirically (123) decidable. (124)

Of course many determinists are anxious to point out that the chain of causes according to determinism is a chain of events not particles, so it never gets down to atoms or subatomic particles. Instead, it traces back to the big bang. In Aristotelian terms, the chain is a series of efficient causes rather than material causes. (124)


Emergence is when micro-level complex systems that are far from equilibrium (thus allowing for the amplification of random events) self-organize (creative, self-generated, adaptability-seeking behavior) into new structures, with new properties that previously did not exist, to form a new level of organization on the macro level. There are two schools of thought on emergence. In weak emergence, the new properties arise as a result of the interactions at an elemental level and the emergent property is reducible to its individual components, that is, you can figure out the steps from one level to the next, which would be the deterministic view. Whereas, in strong emergence, the new property is irreducible, is more than the sum of its parts, and because of hte amplification of random events, the laws cannot be predicted by an underlying fundamental theory or from an understanding of the laws of another level of organization. (124)

Ilya Prigogine.

It turns out that Newton’s laws aren’t fundamental, they are emergent; that is, they are what happens when quantum matter aggregates into macroscopic fluids and objects. It is a collective organizational phenomenon. (125)

Yes! Physics has given up. We do not know how to predict what would happen in a given circumstance, and we believe now that it is impossible–that the only thing that can be predicted is the probability of different events. It must be recognized that this is a retrenchment in our earlier ideal of understanding nature. It may be a backward step, but no one has seen a way to avoid it. … So at the present time we must limit ourselves to computing probabilities. We say ‘at the present time,’ but we suspect very strongly that it is something that will be with us forever–that it is impossible to beat that puzzle–that this is the way nature really is. – Richard Feynman, 1961

Albert Einstein. Niels Bohr. Jefrey Goldstein.

Explained emergence is still emergence. – Mario Bunge

Consciousness takes time, but it arrives after the work is done! (128)


Benjamin Libet. John-Dylan Haynes.

If actions are initiated unconsciously, before we are aware of any desire to perform them, then the causal role of consciousness is volition is out of the loop: conscious volition, the idea that you are willing an action to happen, is an illusion. But is this the right way to think about it? I am beginning to think not. (129)


  1. The brain enables the mind and the brain is a physical entity
  2. The physical world is determined, so our brains must also be determined
  3. If our brains are determined, and if the brain is the necessary and sufficient organ that enables the mind, then we are left with the belief that the thoughts that arise from our mind are also determined
  4. Thus, free will is an illusion, and we must revise our concepts of what it means to be personally responsible for our actions.

Put differently, the concept of free will has no meaning. The concept of free will was an idea that arose before we knew all this stuff about how the brain works, and now we should get rid of it. (129)

Many physicists are no longer sure that the physical world is predictably determined because the nonlinear mathematics of complex systems does not allow exact predictions of future states. (129)

Quantum mechanics are the rules for atoms. Newton’s laws are the rules for objects, and one couldn’t completely predict the other … Or even more problematic is the outcome with the encounter of three brains. Can we derive the macro story from the micro story? I do not think so. (130)


Eve Marder.

The enormous diversity of network configurations that could lead to an identical behavior leads one to wonder if it is possible to figure out, with single-unit analysis and very molecular approaches, what is going on to produce a behavior. This is a profound problem for the neuroscientist reductionist, because it shows that analyzing nerve circuits may be able to inform how the thing could work but not how it actually does work. (131)


[W]e must place the thing of interest in its context instead of treating it as a solitary individual. – Mario Bunge (133)

…something happens that can’t be captured from a bottom-up approach. Reductionism in the physical sciences has been challenged by the principle of emergence. … There is a phase shift, a change in the organizational structure, going from one scale to the next.

The main fallacy in this kind of thinking is that the reductionist hypothesis does not by any means imply a ‘constructionist’ one: The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe. In fact, the more the elementary particle physicists tell us about the nature of the fundamental laws, the less relevance they seem to have to the very real problems of the rest of science, much less to those of society. – Philip W. Anderson, 1972

What we re seeing is a transformation of worldview in which the objective of understanding nature by breaking it down into ever smaller parts is supplanted by the objective of understanding how nature organizes itself. – Robert Laughlin (135)

Emergence, this idea of symmetry breaking, is simple. Matter collectively and spontaneously acquires a property or preference not present in the underlying rules themselves. (135)

Emergence is not a mystical ghost but the going from one level of organization to another. (136)

The key to understanding emergence is to understand that there are different levels of organization. (136)

Responsibility is a dimension of life that comes from social exchange, and social exchange requires more than one brain. When more than one brain interacts, new and unpredictable things begin to emerge, establishing a new set of rules. Two of the properties that are acquired in this new set of rules that weren’t previously present are responsibility and freedom. They are not found in the brain, just as John Locke declared when he said, “the will in truth, signifies nothing but a power, or ability to prefer or choose. And when the will, under the name of a faculty, is considered, as it is, barely as an ability to do something, the absurdity in saying it is free, or not free, will (136) easily discover itself.” (137)


Howard Pattee.

In neuroscience when you talk about downward causation you are suggesting that a mental state affects a physical state. You are suggesting that a thought at the Macro A level can affect the neurons on the Micro B physical level.

David Krakauer.



Our individualist thinking has actually influenced how we have approached and what we have focused on while studying humans and brain function. Thus, we do know a lot about the psychology of the individual, but we are just now understanding the neuroscience of the influences of social interactions. (144)


It turns out that we are wired from birth for social interactions. (144)

David and Ann Premack. J. Kiley Hamlin. Karen Wynn. Paul Bloom.

The ability to evaluate other people is essential for navigating the social world. It appears that even preverbal infants can figure out who is helpful and who is note, an obvious advantage to a child who needs many years of help to survive. (145)

Felix Warneken. Michael Tomasello.



The realization has come slowly to neuroscience and psychology that we can’t just look at the behavior of one brain. (147)

Asif Ghazanfar.


There have been many theories about what forces were relentlessly driving the enlarging of the human brain. Through the processes of natural and sexual selection, it is coming to be accepted that two main factors were at work: A diet with sufficient calories to feed the increasingly metabolically expensive bigger brain, and the challenge of living in a large group (that “social world,” which was necessary to guard against predators and to hunt and gather food). (148)

Richard Byrne. Andrew Whiten. Henrike Moll. Michael Tomasello. Lev Vygtosky.


Robin Dunbar.

To have social relationships, you call on five cognitive abilities

  1. you must interpret visual information to recognize others, then
  2. be able to remember both faces and
  3. who has a relationship with whom;
  4. you must process emotional information, and then
  5. manipulate information about a set of relationships. (150)


Leon Festinger. David Premack. Stanley Schachter.

Festinger concluded that sedentary existence was the fundamental change that irreversibly altered the course of human evolution. A sedentary lifestyle allowed humans to reproduce more successfully (owing to a reduction of miscarriages and a reduction of spacing between children), and group size quickly increased to around 150. (151)



As a general rule, then, we can expect that genetic fixity will be favoured when there is long-term environmental stability, and that learning will be selected for when there are variable environments. Given environmental stability, genetic fixity will have the…advantages of reliable and cheap acquisition. But these advantages can easily be outweighed by loss of flexibility when there is significant environmental instability. – David Papineau (153)

In essence, the Baldwin effect is a mechanism that explains the evolution of phenotypic (observable trait) plasticity, the ability which allows an organism to be flexible in adapting its behavior to changing environments. (153)

Becoming Flexible Isn’t from Doing Yoga

There are two types of biological mechanisms that can result in the Baldwin effect: genetic assimilation and niche construction. (154)

F. John Odling-Smee. Kevin N. Laland. Marcus W. Feldman. David Papineau.


Jessica Flack.


Brian Hare. Michael Tomasello

…humans may have undergone a self-domestication process in which overly aggressive or despotic others were either ostracized or killed by the group. Thus, the gene pool was modified, which resulted in the selection of systems that controlled (that is, inhibited) emotional reactivity such as aggression. … The social group constrained the behavior and eventually affected the genome. (157)

Dmitry Belyaev.


Socialized behavior is…the supreme achievement of the cortex. – Floyd Henry Allport

Nicholas Emler.


David Premack.

…humans have the innate ability to understand that others have minds with different desires, intentions, beliefs, and mental states, and the ability to form theories, with some degree of accuracy, about what those desires, intentions, beliefs, and mental states are. He called this ability theory of mind (TOM) and wondered to what extent other animals possessed it. Just the fact that he wondered if other animals possessed it sets him apart from the most of us. (159)

Once you understand the power of this mechanism, what activates it, and how we humans apply it to everything from our pets to our cars, it is easy to understand why anthropomorphism is so easy to resort to, and why it can be so hard for humans to accept that some of their psychological process are unique. We are wired to think otherwise. (160)

TOM is fully developed automatically in children by about age four to five, and there are signs that it is partially, or even fully, present by eighteen months. Interestingly, children and adults with autism have deficits in theory of mind and are impaired in their ability to reason about the mental states of others, and, as a result, their social skills are compromised. (160)


Giacomo Rizzolatti.

…mirror neurons. … They were the first concrete evidence that there is a neural link between observation and imitation of an action, a cortical substrate for understanding and appreciating the actions of others. … The mirror neurons in the monkey are restricted to hand and mouth movements and only fire when there is goal-directed action, which may be why monkeys have very limited imitation abilities. In humans, however, there are mirror neurons that correspond to movements all over the body, and they fire even when there is no goal; in fact, the same neurons are active even when we only imagine an action. The mirror neurons are implicated not only in the imitating of actions, but also in understanding the intention of actions. (161)


…the human mirroring systems are…thought to be the neural basis of not only action understanding, but emotional understanding as well. (161)

…the visceromotor response. (161)

in order to understand the mental states of others, we literally simulate their mental state. (163)


…nonconscious imitation, or mimicry. We actually mimic others constantly, but it happens so fast, we cannot actually perceive it. … Not only do we unconsciously copy the mannerisms of others, but we like and have smoother interactions with strangers if the stranger copies our mannerisms. Unconsciously, a connection is formed, and you “like” people who are similar to you. If we have been mimicked, we are also more helpful toward other people who are present than are nonmimicked individuals. (163)

The consequences of this tendency to automatically mimic facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person are to converge emotionally with them, known as emotional contagion. (163)


Donald Brown.

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible. – Jonathan Haidt (166)

[via: all morality is, therefore, a “social morality.”]

All cultures have incest taboos. (167)

Edward Westermarck. Debra Lieberman.

It is a trait that has been selected by evolution because it worked in most situations to avoid producing offspring who were less healthy due to inbreeding and the expression of recessive genes. It is innate, and that is why it is universal in all cultures. (168)

That Ol’ Trolly Problem

Marc Hauser. Philippa Foot. Judith Jarvis Thomson. Joshua Greene.

Moral Judgment and Emotions

Antonio Damasio

Moral Emotions, Moral Rationalizations, and the Interpreter

…we don’t generally engage in moral reasoning. (171)


Craig Joseph.

Virtues Are Not Universal

While the moral modules are universal, virtues, which are based on a hodgepodge from these modules, are not. Virtues are what a specific society or culture values as morally good behavior that can be learned. (174)


Rebecca Saxe.


It appears we all share the same moral networks and systems, and tend to respond in similar ways to similar issues. The way we differ is not our behavior but our theories about why we respond the way we do and the weight that we give these different moral systems. Understanding that our theories and the value that we place on them are the source of all our conflicts would go a long way, it seems to me, in helping people with different beliefs systems to get along. (178)


Incapacitation, retribution, or rehabilitation are the three choices society has for dealing with criminal behavior. (181)

Gary Watson. …as we come to think about ourselves, we shape the rules that we decide to live by. (182)

As we look into issues of how brain enables mind, we are asked to decide if we must come to a different belief about the nature of man, about what we are, and how we should interact. It may follow that inevitably we will consider whether it would be beneficial or not to change our legal structure. (182)

The questions being chewed over are at the very foundation of our legal system: Is our natural inclination for retribution necessary, or is utilitarian accountability sufficient? Is punishment justified? (182)

These are questions that haven’t in any way been answered, but they are brought to the fore by research on the brain and what it tells us about who we are. We are going to see that our current legal system has emerged from innate intuitions, honed by evolution, just as our moral systems have been. (183)


Richard Nisbett. Trey Hedden. John Garbrieli.

…judgments about individuals required less work by the brain, but judgments about relationships used more. (184)

Heejung Kim.

It is powerful to see that behavior, cognitive stance, and underlying physiology affect and can be affected by the cultural milieu. (185)

…the environment and the organism are coupled across time. (186)


After the previous chapters and the evidence for determinism, we are confronted with the question: Who do we blame in a crime, the person or the brain? Do we want to hold the person accountable or do we want to forgive him because of this determinist dimension of brain function? Ironically, this question is treading dualist waters, suggesting that there is a difference between a person and his brain and body. (187)


Once we step into the court room, the laboratory of judicial proceedings, neuroscience has an enormous amount to say about the goings on. It can provide evidence that there is unconscious bias in the judge, jury, prosecutors and defense attorneys, tell us about the reliability of memory and perception with implications for eyewitness testimony, inform us about the reliability of lie detecting, and is now being asked to determine the presence of diminished responsibility in a defendant, predict future behavior, and determine who will respond to what type of treatment. It can even tell us about our motivations for punishment. (188)

Robert Sapolsky.

At stake in the arguments is the very foundation of our legal system, which holds a person responsible and accountable for his actions. The question is this: Does modern neuroscience deepen our ideas about determinism, and, with more determinism, is there less reason for retribution and punishment? Put differently, with determinism there is no blame, and, with no blame, there should be no retribution and punishment. (189)


Common Law is based on the belief that it is unfair to treat similar facts differently on different occasions, so “precedent” or past decisions blind those of the future. Thus, it is the past judgments of judges and juries that make common law, not legislative statues. (189)

Recent studies have shown that when adults read the explanations of psychological phenomena, the explanations are more positively evaluated and considered important if a brain scan is shown in the material they read, even when they have nothing to do with explanations! (190)


In short the legal decision was delivered in terms of existing beliefs about the purpose of punishment in the law. (193)

It does not follow that a person with an abnormal brain scan has abnormal behavior, nor is a person with an abnormal brain automatically incapable of responsible behavior. Responsibility is not located in the brain. The brain has no area or network for responsibility. … Responsibility reflects a rule that emerges out of one or more agents interacting in a social context, and the hope that we share is that each person will follow certain rules. (193)


Daubert-Joiner Kumho “validity” rule. (195)


Like fingerprints, everyone’s brain is slightly different, has a unique configuration, and each of us reliably solves problems in different ways. (195)

Jean Talairach. Pierre Tournoux. Michael Miller.

There are also variations in how our brains are connected. (197)


Currently the case against using scans in the courtroom is quite evident for several reasons: (a) As I described, all brains are different from one another. It becomes imnpossible to determine if a pattern of activity in an individual is normal or abnormal. (b) The mind, emotions, and the way we think constantly change. What is measured in the brain at the time of scanning doesn’t reflect what was happening at the time of a crime. (c) Brains are sensitive to many factors that can alter scans: caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, fatigue, strategy, menstrual cycle, concomitant (198) disease, nutritional state, and so forth. (d) Performance is not consistent. People do better or worse at any task from day to day. (e) Images of the brain are prejudicial. A picture creates a bias of clinical certainty, when no such certainty is actually present. (199)

Sir Edward Coke.


Marcel Brass. Patrick Haggard

What we think of as willed activity has various components that can be separated into different brain areas, each of which can be identified. It is now understandable that when a brain scan is brought into the courtroom, if there is a lesion anywhere along the pathway from intention to action, a claim could be made that the person is either functioning normally or not. The scan, however, provides evidence of neither. (200)


Frederick Schauer.


The law makes a promise: neutrality. If the promise gets broken, the law as we know it ceases to exist. – Justice Anthony Kennedy

…own-race bias (ORB) phenomenon… People are better able to correctly recognize face exemplars from their own-race compared with those from another racial group, and this phenomenon is not related to the level of prejudice. (203)

In 1996 the U.S. Department of Justice reported that 85 percent of convictions that had been later overturned because of subsequent DNA analysis were due to erroneous eyewitness identifications. One of the factors affecting the accuracy of other-race identification is “study time;” false alarms increase with shorter study time of the face, and eyewitnesses often only catch a quick glimpse. Accuracy also suffers with increasing time between viewing the crime and viewing a suspect. (203)

David Turk. Lasana Harris. Susan Fiske.

The emotions of envy (when viewing the rich), pride (seeing American Olympic athletes), and pity (while viewing photos of elderly people) are all associated with activity in the area of the brain (the medial prefrontal cortex, or mPFC) that is activated in social encounters. However, the emotion of disgust (looking at photos of drug addicts) is not. (204)


Retributive justice is backward-looking. … The crucial variable is the degree of moral outrage the crime engenders, not the benefits to society resulting from the punishment. (206)

Utilitarian justice (consequentialism) is forward looking and concerned about the greater future good of society resulting from punishing the individual offender. (206) … Utilitarian justice also may punish one person to deter others, the severity need not relate to the actual offence. (207)

Restorative justice holds the offender directly accountable to the victim and the affected community, requires the offender to make things whole again to the extent that it is possible, allows the victim a say in the corrections process, and encourages the community to hold offenders accountable, to support victims, and to provide opportunities for offenders to reintegrate themselves into the community. (208)


Renee Baillargeon. Paul Bloom.


What people say they believe about punishment and what their actual behavior is are two different animals, and they aren’t really able to offer logical explanations why. (210)

Kevin Carlsmith. John Darley.


Janet Radcliffe Richards.


Sanford Kadish.

To punish a man who lacks the power to reason is as undignified and unworthy as punishing an inanimate object or animal. A man who cannot reason cannot be subject to blame. – Holloway vs. U.S.

Is forgiveness a viable concept? Is it possible to run a society where forgiveness trumps accountability and punishment? Would such a system work? (214)


As I said in the last chapter, the point is that we now understand that we have to look at the whole picture, a brain in the midst of and interacting with other brains, not just one brain in isolation. (215)


It is that magnificence of being “human” that we all cherish and love and that we don’t want science to take away. We want to feel our own worth and the worth of others. (217)

I once asked Leon Festinger one of the smartest men in the world, whether or not he ever felt inept. He replied, “Of course! That’s what keeps you ept.” (219)


The great philosophical battle between “free will” and “determinism” (FW/D) is one of the most contentious of intellectual conundrums as the conclusions (or rather presumptions) on the topic have grave implications for our personhood and our society. Gazzaniga’s brain science approach offers an incredibly simple way forward through his own philosophical musings emerging from his research in brain science. The simplicity of his approach exposes the fallacious categories and inadequate streams of thought that far too many are engaged in when it comes to FW/D, and the implications are, in my opinion, beautiful. The mysteries of human volition remain, and the pursuit for human explanation is alive and well. What is dead is absolutism, the view that we are either fully determined, or fully in control. Those binaries are no longer viable categories, and this makes our universe, oh so wonderful.

He concludes his book with the following:

While reviewing material for this book, I realized that a unique language, which has yet to be developed, is needed to capture the thing that happens when mental processes constrain the brain and vice versa. The action is at the interface of those layers. In one kind of vocabulary it is where downward causation meets upward causation. In another vocabulary it is not there at all but in the space between brains that are interacting with each other. It is what happens at the interface of our layered hierarchical existence that holds the answer to our quest for understanding mind/brain relationships. How are we to describe that? That emergent level has its own time course and is current with the actions taking place. It is that abstraction that makes us current in time, real and responsible. The whole business about the brain doing it before we are conscious of it becomes moot and inconsequential from the vantage point of a different level of operation. Understanding how to develop a vocabulary for those layered interactions, for me, constitutes the scientific problem of this century.


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  1. Pingback: The Storytelling Animal | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

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