Tuesday, 9 April 2013
Who’s in Charge—Us?
Well, the on-line donation system to let our readers help fund The Brain from Top to Bottom is now up and running. To learn more about why we have turned to you to help meet our budget, and how you can make a donation, please read the column to the right.
As that column indicates, we plan to keep this site free, and free of advertising, and one day we hope to find a permanent sponsor so that we don’t have to ask you for help any more. But until then, we have had to turn to this fundraising method–sometimes known as “crowd-sourcing”–simply to survive. Since we first announced six months ago that we were looking for new funding, so many people have written to say that they would be happy to make a donation that we have decided to give them the chance to do so. To all of you who do make a donation, we want to say thanks in advance. Because of you, our team will be able to devote the time needed to maintain this site and keep adding new content to it.
When I was trying to pick a topic for this blog post—the first in this new era in the site’s history—I found myself free-associating from the name The Brain from Top to Bottom to the expression “top-down”, as in top-down control, a term often used to refer to the voluntary control of certain behaviours by the brain. The opposite kind of control, “bottom-up”, occurs when our sensory systems receive stimuli from the environment and trigger behavioural responses that are often automatic and unconscious.
No doubt the reason that I made these associations was that I had just finished listening to a Brain Science Podcast in which Dr. Ginger Campbell was summarizing Michael Gazzaniga’s latest book, Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain, published in 2011. Gazzaniga is often regarded as one of the founding fathers of the modern cognitive neurosciences. He founded or co-founded a number of important scientific journals in this field, and is the editor of The Cognitive Neurosciences, one of the classic reference works on this subject. He also conducted the now-famous experiments on patients with split brains.
Thus Gazzaniga comes out of a scientific community in which the dominant view is that human lives are determined for the most part by underlying physical laws, which makes the concept of individual responsibility almost meaningless. What makes Gazzaniga’s perspective so fascinating is that he takes strong exception to this prevailing position. While acknowledging that a person’s cognition and thoughts are undeniably generated by the activity of that person’s brain, he argues that they can also “constrain” this activity, somewhat the way that traffic constrains the movement of a car. Likewise, he argues, we cannot correctly understand the mind solely by examining the brain, any more than we can understand traffic solely by looking under the hood of a car. Gazzaniga argues that we become responsible agents because we interact with one another. In short, despite the defined laws of physics that govern our world, a certain amount of free will can emerge from our social interactions.
So what is the connection between Gazzaniga’s thinking and the financial concerns that have been preying on my mind for the past several months? Well, as Gazzaniga might put it, my “conscious interpreter” could probably provide an entirely coherent explanation in words. But I think that the reality is more elusive and chaotic, like the dynamic activity of the human brain—more of a series of colliding mental impressions, such as deciding (of my own free will, or not?) to keep the site running, accepting top-down financial constraints, seeking bottom-up voluntary contributions, and, perhaps, giving myself a bit more freedom as an author to embody some of the cognition arising from my own personal version of the most complex object in the universe, of which each of us has a unique example right between our ears!
How Mind Emerges from Brain (Brain Science Podcast 82)
PDF Transcript of Brain Science Podcast 82
Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain
Neuroscience and Justice Edge Master Class 2011