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Who's In Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain Hardcover – Nov 7 2011

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco (Nov. 7 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780061906107
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061906107
  • ASIN: 0061906107
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.4 x 22.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 454 g
  • Average Customer Review: 2.0 out of 5 stars 1 customer review
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #314,632 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


“Gazzaniga is a towering figure in contemporary neurobiology. . . . Who’s in Charge? is a joy to read.” (Wall Street Journal)

“A fascinating, accessible, and often humorous read for anyone with a brain! And a must-read for neuroscientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and criminal attorneys.” (Library Journal (starred review))

“Fascinating. . . . Gazzaniga uses a lifetime of experience in neuroscientific research to argue that free will is alive and well.” (

“Terrific. . . . [An] engrossing study of the mechanics of thought.” (Publishers Weekly)

“A fascinating affirmation of our essential humanity.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“From one of the world’s leading thinkers comes a thought-provoking book on how we think and how we act. . . . An exciting, stimulating, and at times even funny read that helps us further understand ourselves, our actions, and our world.” (, Best Books for the Holidays)

“An utterly captivating and fascinating read that addresses issues of consciousness and free will and, in the end, offers suggestions as to how these ideas may or may not inform legal matters.” (Daily Texan)

“[The] scope of Michael S. Gazzaniga’s Who’s in Charge? is huge—it tackles the age-old debate of free will [and] offers a lot to consider about what Gazzaniga deems the ‘scientific problem of the century.’” (Portland Mercury)

“Fascinating. . . . [An] intriguing and persuasive treatment of the moral implications of modern neuroscience.” (

“This exciting, stimulating, and sometimes even funny book challenges us to think in new ways about that most mysterious part of us—the part that makes us think we’re us.” (Alan Alda, actor and host of Scientific American Frontiers)

From the Back Cover

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.

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This popularization will probably be a fun read for those who know little about contemporary brain science. However, at a deeper level it is replete with non-sequiturs and ultimately suggests that Gazzaniga is a closet dualist, as he argues that mind is emergent from the brain but ultimately plays a causal role in brain function. Not recommended for anyone seeking a sophisticated approach to these topics.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars 107 reviews
91 of 96 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Am I in Charge of My Actions? Does That Question Even Make Sense? Nov. 25 2011
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on
Format: Hardcover
We humans love our dualisms: good or evil, hot or cold, free or determined. Who's in Charge?, a book extrapolated from the author's 2009/10 Gifford Lectures, is a book that questions that last dualism. Given what we know about the brain, Gazzaniga writes, it is not quite clear whether the idea of 'free will' really makes sense (as generally conceived) or if determinism really has the implications we usually think it does.

Here is the picture Gazzaniga (roughly) paints. Marshaling much evidence from his and others' studies, it appears that our brain is something like a collection of modules performing different functions WITHOUT that 'central command' module that is supposed to approximate the free will (like a president who has final signing or veto power over bills). Moreover, that feeling we have of a unified conscious experience is most likely the result not of a 'central commander' module, but a module (appropriately) referred to as 'the interpreter,' whose role is to construct (somewhat) post hoc explanations of why we did what we did AS IF we were really conscious in doing it. Here, Gazzaniga draws on research of split-brain patients, whose corpus collossums are severed, disallowing their left and right brain hemispheres from talking to each other. Studies show that when the right hemisphere is told to do something (say, the left eye is shown a word and the patient is asked to grab the object that they are shown from an array of objects), the left hemisphere (where the interpreter is) will often construct a rationale for why the patient grabbed the object (that has nothing to do with the instructions to the right hemisphere). For a simpler example of the interpreter in action, think about when you hit your thumb with a hammer. Our pulling away of our thumb is usually automatic, before any pain is consciously felt, but when asked, people often say (and think) they pulled their thumb away because of the pain.

If this seems like depressing robotic determinism where "we" are not in charge of "our" brains, the next chapters might offer some relief. Gazzaniga questions the reductionism behind attempts to reduce the mind to the brain. Yes, he says, the mind is an outgrowth of the brain, its neurons, and its synapses. But as far as we can tell, the mind is an emergent property that is simply more than the sum of its parts. In the same way that while social groups are actually collections of individuals, but social behavior cannot be predicted solely by appealing to individual behavior (and social behavior can actually constrain individual behavior as easy as vice versa), Gazzaniga argues that the mind may just constrain the brain that gave rise to it. Add to that some developments like chaos theory, the butterfly effect, etc, that uproot some of our long-held notions about the determinism of the universe, and we at least have reason to doubt that our notions of causality and determinism when it comes to humans (if not elsewhere) are assumptive at best.

The final chapters deal with the idea of responsibility. As Gazzaniga points out, responsibility is a concept that only has any meaning in a social context. Asking whether I am responsible for my behavior is essentially a question about moral praiseworthiness and blameworthiness, and whether deserts are just in particular cases. The reason we have these concepts is inherently social, and so is the morality and law that we base these ideas on. Whether or not someone was consciously in control of their action is, to Gazzaniga, an interesting but irrelevant point to the working of justice. The question is - and the rationale for law is - whether certain actions should be punished in order to preserve civil society. (And by Gazzaniga and others' theories, it makes little sense to even ask whether I was or was not in control of an act that I performed, because if I performed it, something in me was responsible for it. Whether the interpreter can spin a story about it is irrelevant.)

It may be needless to say, but this book is both intriguing and unsettling. Gazzaniga is no philosopher and many of the deeper questions his ideas evoke have to wait until the philosophers get ahold of it. While Gazzaniga is very convinced that the brain's function (among other things) is as a decision machine, it is difficult to see how that works in absence of a 'central commander' doing the presidential deciding. Another question that Gazzaniga doesn't address is how our vocabulary should change when discussing ideas about free will versus determinism. He is certain that our vocabulary must change in order to be accurate (he rhetorically asks what it is that free-willers want to be free from), but doesn't give much clue as to how we might go about this. Does it even make sense to ask whether "I" am in charge of "my" actions, as if there is an "I" that is distinct from all the subconscious parts of me (like, can I really ask whether I am in charge of my breathing? In one way, it is obvious that I am not, and in another way, it is clear that I am.). There are many other questions this book evokes, but I am sure each reader will find their own. Either way, it is remarkable fun to read, absorb, and puzzle over the vast territory Michael Gazzaniga exposes us to here.

Who's in Charge? is not in any sense an easy read. While Gazzaniga makes it easier than it probably could be in the hands of a less skilled writer, the middle chapters in particular (where we are getting familiar with the idea of the mind as an emergent property of the brain and the physics that helps explain it) are slow going. But Gazzaniga does a good job in using analogies, anecdotes, and plain language to make his points, and the careful and patient reader will be rewarded with a very interesting theory about how humans really work. While Gazzaniga does not leave all ends tied up (there are some loose ends left), he has written a very powerful survey of what neuroscience is telling us about who is in charge.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is an excellent book about how the brain works July 4 2016
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is an excellent book about how the brain works, with some implications regarding the concept of free will. The author is a neuro-scientist, not a philosopher, and he doesn't seem particularly well acquainted with or interested in what philosophers think of free will. A neuro-scientist should not, of course, be an expert in philosophy, but anyone who dares to write a book about free will should be. For a book on the science of the brain and free will to really work, it should be co-authored by a scientist and a philosopher. Hence, this book doesn't really work as a book about science and free will, but for me the science is good enough to rate this as an outstanding book. Perhaps some of the author's other books are better in terms of books only about brain science, but I have not read his other work.

The author's views on free will can be briefly summarized by the following quotes: "YOU is your vastly parallel and distributed brain without a central command center. There is no ghost in the machine, no secret stuff that is YOU. That YOU that you are so proud of is a story woven together by your interpreter module to account for as much of your behavior as it can incorporate, and it denies or rationalizes the rest. 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." In other words, he believes that we falsely perceive being in conscious control, equates conscious control with free will, and since the perception of conscious control is false, free will does not exist. At least that is how I understand his argument, correct or not.

I believe there is more to free will than just the perception of conscious control, so the book does not, for me, deny free will. I believe the author does himself deny free will, but the case he makes in the book is only relative to a restricted version of free will.

For an excellent philosophical discussion of free will that follows up very closely on Who's in Charge, see Freedom Regained by Julian Baggini. Baggini even quotes Who's in Charge in his own book. To understand both the science and philosophy of free will, I highly recommend Who's in Charge followed by Freedom Regained.
2.0 out of 5 stars Unconvincing and unclear arguments for choice and responsibility June 26 2016
By Nik - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The author's thesis on free will is mostly incomprehensible to me. He says that at the individual level we don't have free will and in fact we don't even have a "self", and I agree with him. However, he says that at the social level (two or more minds interacting) people do have responsibility, they can make choices, and they are deserving of punishment. Why? Because of ... chaos theory, emergence, and downward causation, it seems. I'm not going to try and describe his argument fully here, because it would hurt my brain trying to write it out in a way that is comprehensible.

His argument is partly based on the idea of mental causation. This basically says that a current mental state can cause a future physical brain state. For example, if you are angry, that mental state can cause changes at the molecular level in the brain, in a "top down" fashion. This is in opposition to the generally accepted scientific idea that one physical brain state causes the next physical brain state via the laws of physics (which may include randomness), and that mental states are simply the result of underlying physical brain states. If mental causation makes sense to you, then you might agree with the author's thesis.

It seems that the author has fallen into a trap that many writers about free will have fallen. He believes that we "must" be able to make choices and take responsibility for things because that's how he feels and how most people feel at an intuitive and emotional level. As a result, he creates convoluted arguments that misuse ideas from modern physics to try and get to the conclusions that he needs to reach. He also annoyingly does not spell out his conclusions clearly, forcing the reader to do more work than necessary to make sense of what he is saying.

Though "free will" is in the title of the book, he probably devotes less than ten pages to directly arguing about free will. These rest is just explaining neuroscience to a lay audience. Some of it is quite good, especially chapter 3 on consciousness where he describes how the "self" is really just a fiction created by the mind. For this chapter I give the book two stars instead of one.
139 of 161 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic if not fully complete discussion of the brain and consciousness Nov. 15 2011
By Alan F. Sewell - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The first question is whether a layperson can enjoy this book about such a profoundly complex subject as the human brain and its relationship to sentient consciousness. The answer is YES! Not because the hyper-complex nature of the subject is "dumbed down" but because Michael Gazzaniga is a gifted writer talented in expressing the most complex ideas in easy-to-understand sentences. He has a most delightful sense of humor that conveys his insights in a light-hearted and enjoyable manner.

Let me also say up front that this book is useful in explaining how the brain operates on two levels. Gazzaniga explains how the "right brain" is driven by the senses and acts on an immediate, subconscious level. The "left brain" applies a conscious after-the-fact reasoning that attempts to make sense of the actions that the subconscious mind has already taken. The left-brain's "interpreter module" is always at work inventing theories to "explain" what the right half of the brain has already "decided" on the basis of reflexive subconscious instinct.

Gazzaniga gives powerful examples of how easily the "interpreter module" can be deceived into coming to false conclusions. Suffice it to say that our brains can work against us by making poor decisions on the basis of perceived information that is false or unreliable. Understanding how the conscious mind rationalizes decisions that the subconscious mind has already acted on has relevance in helping us to make better decisions in every aspect of life. The book should be read for this reason alone. It explains how our conscious mind is far more fallible than we ever imagined.

The book answers some most intriguing questions about the relationship between the brain and consciousness:

We are still left with this thorny little problem: What is going on in the brain to produce this magnificent ability that humans have, how did it come about, and how do you capture it? Fortunately for job security and today's graduate students, the mystery is alive and well, but some of the secrets are being revealed, which we will now explore.

Here are some of the mysteries revealed:

* Are the brain's neural circuits hard-wired by DNA genetics, or are they created by the acquisition of experience as the organism lives?

* Does the brain "learn" by experience or is it pre-programmed with instinctive responses that are activated by encounters with reality?

* Are babies born with brains already "wired" to understand physical properties, for example why dropped objects fall down but not up, or why animate objects differ from inanimate ones?

* How did our brain evolve from the brains of lower primates? Which of our evolutionary human ancestors would be recognized as the first "human?"

* Are there unique structures in the human brain that make it qualitatively superior to every other species?

* Are the neurons in the human brain structured differently from those in the brains of other animals?

* Are particular mental processes and memories stored in one location in the brain or are they dispersed throughout the brain as a whole?

* Is the brain a "bottom-up" or "top-down" device, i.e. does consciousness control the brain, or is consciousness the sum of the brain's "dumb / automatic" processes?

Gazzaniga answers these questions in interesting detail, in so far as they CAN be answered based on our current state of knowledge. Some of the answers are surprising. For example, it seems that certain survival behaviors (fear of snakes and other predators, for example) ARE hardwired in the brains of humans and animals, but that over a period of thousands of years these instincts have been shown to "wash out" in cases where predator species have become extinct and are no longer threats. Gazzaniga explains numerous ingenious experiments that discern which behaviors are learned and which are innate. There are many surprising revelations about the structure and function of the human brain.

Gazzaniga also wonderfully explains that consciousness is a complex phenomenon. He says trying to understand consciousness by analyzing neurons in the brain would be like trying to figure out the traffic patterns of a large city by looking at the carburetor of one automobile!

Thus has Gazzaniga explained the FINITE capacities of the human brain up to the current state of knowledge. What is lacking is a theory to explain why the brain has a seemingly INFINITE capacity. Every structure in the universe appears to have constraints except the human brain. As we live our lives we accumulate a mental image of every sight, sound, and physical activity we have experienced since assuming consciousness. We layer more memories into our consciousness without losing the old. Our ability to learn seems to be unlimited. A person who is fluent in five languages can become fluent in five more.

HOW can an organ the size of a bowling ball store what appears to be an infinite amount of information? Can this be a purely biological, chemical, and electrical process? Is there some hidden dimension to the brain that CAN'T be explained in terms of physical processes?

And WHY HAVE our brains acquired the power to discern the nature of the universe? We are able to express in mathematical formulas the entire spectrum of the universe, from the quantum mechanics of the subatomic scale to the megastructures that anchor the galaxies. A few pounds of matter in the head of each of us is able to comprehend the entire scale of creation!

Our brain is unique as the only anti-entropic entity in the universe. The natural trend of the universe is that order descends into chaos. The brain creates order FROM chaos. The brain has the capacity to create fantastic wealth from the most common materials that are found in nature. It allows us to create the most sublime artistic expressions.

The brain's capabilities seem to go far beyond the requirements of mere evolution to insure the survival of the species. Wouldn't human beings be more prolific as a species if we were a bit LESS intelligent, smart enough to feed and breed but NOT smart enough to divert energies into non-reproductive agendas like art and philosophy? (Gazzaniga might express the question as: "Why did the conscious aspect of the brain develop when the subconscious works so well?" Consciousness slows us down with rationalizing decisions that the unconscious mind has already made, wasting time and energy and coming to conclusions that are often wrong.)

I know there is no scientific basis for answering these questions yet, but it sure would have been interesting if Gazzaniga had given us his speculative insights!* Also the book is a little weak in the back chapters because it goes into a relatively uninteresting discussion of how consciousness relates to ethics, such as why some humans are altruists and some are criminals. This question boils down to "free will" --- whether or not we really have any conscious choice about the decisions we make.

Discussions along these lines have always seemed pointless to me. If we don't have free will then we are merely robots responding to stimuli. If that were so there would be no need for conscious decision making, which Dr. Gazzaniga points out time and again is an inefficient and sometimes even detrimental aspect of our brains. The fact that we ARE sentient proves to me that we have free will. Otherwise, why waste the body's resources creating a conscience? Isn't it a law of nature that energy is never expended for no purpose? I am tired of this discussion and would have rather read speculations as to how the brain can store a seemingly infinite amount of information and process that information so as to discern the nature of the universe.

The discussion of free will aside, this book is a fascinating, practical, and entertaining read for laypersons. It thoroughly discusses the finite aspects of the brain, but would have been even more interesting if Gazzaniga had engaged in a bit of speculation about the brain's seemingly infinite capabilities. The insights into the mechanisms of the brain and its relationship to the consciousness we call the mind are more valuable than what I've read in every previous book on the subject combined.

* if Gazzaniga had given us his speculative insights! Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are by Sebastian Seung was released on 2/7/2012. It is an excellent complement to this book. It contains exactly the types of speculative insights I was looking for, such as whether we will ever learn enough about the functioning of the brain's neural networks to duplicate human intelligence in a machine, or to immortalize ourselves by uploading our consciousness.
231 of 252 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A lively book with three main weaknesses Dec 19 2011
By Peter Clarke - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This easy-to-read book is skilfully written for a lay readership by a veteran cognitive neuroscientist, famous for his work on split brain patients. The elogious reviews of Alan Sewell, J. Gomez and others spell out in detail its numerous merits. I agree with many of those positive comments, but rather than repeating them I would like to focus on three weaknesses.

First, in tackling a subject at the intersection of neuroscience and philosophy, the author needed to draw on modern scholarship in both areas. But he fails in this. He describes the work of dozens of modern neuroscientists and psychologists, and briefly mentions a few classical philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Locke), but has nothing to say about modern philosophical scholarship. There is no mention at all of the contributions of philosophers such as Dennett, Van Inwagen, Kane, Kim, Murphy and Miele, who have all written extensively on the philosophical questions that the book attempts to address (free will, emergence, selfhood, complementarity and downward causation).

Second, Gazzaniga fails to define what he means by "free will". This is a serious defect, because the definitional problem is central to the modern debate about free will. I'm not by any means a Dennett fan, but the subtitle of Dennetts's 1984 book Elbow Room was a true aphorism: "The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting". Some varieties don't exist but others do, and those are in Dennett's view (and mine) the ones worth wanting.

Third, in introducing chaos and quantum indeterminism as a defence against hard determinism, Gazzaniga attempts to guide the unsophisticated layman through a deep and difficult controversy, all in eight pages. In my opinion he totally fails to show any relevance of chaos and quantum indeterminism to brain function and free will.

Despite these failings, the book is a fascinating mine of up-to-date information on the cognitive neuroscience related to free will and selfhood. I am glad I bought it.