Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jerome Braun reviews The Consciousness Instinct

Michael S. GazzanigaThe Consciousness Instinct: Unravelling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. 288 pp.

Review by Jerome Braun 

According to Ecclesiastes 12:12, “of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” The same can be said of the many books on the study of the mind. No doubt there are ramifications for morality, mental health, getting along with people, politics, and rationality in general. This recent book by Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is a welcome addition to this long list because he ultimately is writing about the history of the study of the mind, not merely as a physical entity, but indeed as a producer of consciousness.  

This book is holistic in the very best sense, and provides the kind of overview that adds methodological depth to such recent books as Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014), Joseph LeDoux, Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety (2015), Patricia Churchland, Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition (2019), and for those interested in the social sciences with a phenomenological bent, Scott Lash, Experience: New Foundations for the Human Sciences (2018). 

This book is an introduction to philosophical as well as biological psychology. For example, he notes that David Hume believed in a psychology composed of impressions, external sensations or internal reflections such as desire, and ideas ultimately copied from impressions. William James believed in the common tendency to combine practical pessimism with metaphysical (often religious) optimism. None of these approaches answer why we in making decisions describe this as the application of free will, except that as a phenomenological reality we feel relatively free from constraints on thinking and then acting, even if we are not absolutely free because of the nature of physical reality.

The sections of this book that follow the philosophical section discuss the modular model of the brain, though they don’t answer the question of free will either. He especially emphasizes that since the brain’s modular systems allow for specialization in processing of information this allows for one system of information to end up with precedence over another, resulting in appropriate reactions to the environment as well as learning. Such decision-making often feels like free will. It also results in the creation of psychological priorities that are the basis of personality.  

As to how useful the creation of clarity in understanding the brain’s physiology is for understanding personality, culture, and values, it all depends on what level of analysis is appropriate for a particular purpose. Ultimately this book discusses the physiological substrates for the stream of consciousness. It doesn’t really discuss the nature of personality or of the psychological meaning of free will, but that will come in time, or not. No doubt this book is a beginning for learning how brain science can undergird the humanities, and even psychology. There are certainly worse places to start.