The Way We Are

Our brains are a vastly parallel and distributed system, each with a gazillion decision-making points and centres of integration. The 24/7 brain never stops managing our thoughts, desires, and bodies. The millions of networks are a sea of forces, not single soldiers waiting for the commander to speak. It is also a determined system, not a freewheeling cowboy acting outside the physical, chemical forces that fill up our universe. And yet, these modern facts do not in the least convince us there is not a central “you”, a “self” calling the shots in each of us. Again, that is the puzzle, and our task is to try and understand how it all might work.

The accomplishments of the human brain are one good reason we are convinced of our central and purposeful self. The modern technology and know-how of humans is so crazy-amazing that a monkey with a neural implant in North Carolina can be hooked up to the Internet, and, when stimulated, the firing of his neutrons can control the movements of a robot in Japan. Not only that, the nerve impulse travels to Japan faster than it can travel to that monkey’s own leg!

Closer to home, take a look at your dinner. If you are lucky, tonight you might have a locally grown salad with sliced pears from Chile and an amazingly tasty gorgonzola from Italy, a lamb chop from New Zealand, roasted potatoes from Idaho, and red wine from France. How many different and innovative people cooperated in both scenarios to pull them off? Tons. From the person who first thought about growing his own food, and the one who thought the old grape juice was a bit interesting, to Leonardo, who first drew a flying machine, to the person who took the first bite of that moldy-looking cheese and thought they had a winner, to the many scientists, engineers, software designers, farmers, ranchers, vintners, transporters, retail dealers, and cooks who contributed. Nowhere in the animal kingdom does such creativity or cooperation exist.

Humans have spread across the world and live in hugely varying environments. Meanwhile our closest living relatives, the chimps, are endangered. You have to ask why humans have been so wildly successful, while our closest living relations are barely hanging on.

We can solve problems that no other animal can solve. The only possible answer is that we have something that they do not. Yet we find this difficult to accept. As we are perched here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have more information to help answer some of these questions, information that was not available to the curious and inquiring minds of the past. And curious were those who have gone before us. Human interest in what and who we are is at least as old as history.

So I guess that leaves science to explain the mechanisms. The difficulty is to detach the framework of fact, of absolute undeniable fact, from the embellishments of theorists and reporters. Then, having established ourselves upon this sound basis, it is our duty to see what inferences may be drawn and what are the special points upon which the whole mystery turns.

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.

Who’s in Charge
Free Will and the Science of the Brain
Michael S. Gazzaniga