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'Consciousness Instinct' Explores
the Origins of Mind

Michael Gazzaniga's new book is interested in how our brains create consciousness
Michael Gazzaniga's new book, 'The Consciousness Instinct,' aims to understand how the brain gives us our minds.

From Descartes' iconic maxim, "I think, therefore I am," to the Tool-sampled quip from cult comedian Bill Hicks—"We are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively"—humans have been wrestling with the fundamental mystery of consciousness for eons.

One might think, then, in a publishing industry regularly churning out titles on brain science, that consciousness would be a preoccupation. However, in a field dominated by discussions of the nuts and bolts of the brain, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga is one of the few who would rather wrestle with a more elusive concept—the mind.

Gazzaniga comes to Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on the heels of the publication of his latest book The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). There, he will participate in a live interview with science journalist Kara Platoni.

Gazzaniga is certainly no newcomer to neuroscience. The director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at UC Santa Barbara, he has been regularly publishing books on brain science for more than 30 years. In 2010, he was even on the receiving end of a kind of rock-star tribute, a collection of essays by scientists he had influenced and inspired.

As the author of more than a dozen books on cognitive neuroscience, Gazzaniga has had to confront the paradox of mainstream success: the general public's curiosity on the subject versus its impulse to oversimplify.

"A previous book I wrote was called Who's in Charge? and it basically dealt with the free-will question," says Gazzaniga, 78. "Well, the book came out and I did the book tour. And what I discovered was that nobody wanted to read about the argument in the book. They just wanted my vote: Do you have free will, or don't you?"

Gazzaniga often finds himself pushing back against facile misunderstandings and simplistic metaphors. "I had a hearing test recently," he says. "And I had to hear from the technician why the test was needed. And it was this very simplistic view of how the brain works. I didn't say anything, but I thought, this has got to stop."

In that spirit, Gazzaniga's newest book will never be cited in the next "10 Awesome Brain Hacks for Greater Productivity" listicle you see on the internet. The Consciousness Instinct is, instead, both a historical overview of how ancient and modern philosophers have generally understood consciousness, and a new theory of mind that asserts consciousness is a specific process borne of the interplay between various "modules" in the brain. Though the science is complex, Gazzaniga is known for his straightforward and relatable writing style.

From the ancient Greeks forward, Gazzaniga explores many of the ideas that Western civilization has toyed with in the realm of consciousness, including the problems with the popular notion of the mind as a machine. The book assesses many of those who contemplated the idea of the mind before modern science, and some, Gazzaniga says, were prescient in their grasp of where consciousness comes from, including Enlightenment-era Scottish philosopher David Hume and Victorian psychologist William James.

"There's also some very modern people who I'm trying to bring into the conversation, people who have worked very hard on this problem and who haven't gotten the attention they deserve. I try to integrate it all in one story."

Gazzaniga himself comes from a background in split-brain research. The split brain is a phenomenon in which connections between the two hemispheres of the brain are severed, which will often result in each hemisphere developing a separate consciousness. It's that grounding in the split-brain phenomenon and other brain injuries that form the foundation of Gazzaniga's ideas of separate modules and layered architecture. Consciousness isn't a thing in itself, like eyesight or handedness, but rather an orchestration of many other functions of the brain.

Once Gazzaniga romps through the history of the study of consciousness and dives into the science on how it works, then—well, things get weird.

"I get into some physics, some semiotics," he says. "All kinds of crazy things. That part, you have to read."

Michael Gazzaniga
Apr 4, 7:30pm, $25+
Kepler's Books, Menlo Park
keplers.org


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