Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book Review: Human by Michael Gazzaniga


One of the world's leading neuroscientists explores how best to understand the human condition by examining the biological, psychological, and highly social nature of our species within the social context of our lives.
What happened along the evolutionary trail that made humans so unique? In his widely accessible style, Michael Gazzaniga looks to a broad range of studies to pinpoint the change that made us thinking, sentient humans, different from our predecessors.
Neuroscience has been fixated on the life of the psychological self for the past fifty years, focusing on the brain systems underlying language, memory, emotion, and perception. What it has not done is consider the stark reality that most of the time we humans are thinking about social processes, comparing ourselves to and estimating the intentions of others. In Human, Gazzaniga explores a number of related issues, including what makes human brains unique, the importance of language and art in defining the human condition, the nature of human consciousness, and even artificial intelligence.  (Synopsis and book image from bn.com)

My Review:

I picked up this book because I had heard of Michael Gazzaniga before, through my Honors Intro to Neuroscience class (yes, I was a neuroscience major!) and the premise of the book intrigued me. Are humans unique and distinct from all animals that came before us or are we merely on an evolutionary continuum with even more evolved species to follow us?

Gazzaniga believes that humans are unique and sets about convincing his audience through explaining what is known (and still not known) about different cognitive processes in humans and animals, especially comparing us to non-human primates (i.e. monkeys and apes). Topics include language, art, and consciousness. An example of this is asking if animals produce or appreciate art. We know humans do, but why? What is the evolutionary function of art? How does it help us to survive?

Gazzaniga is able to cover many topics in this book to provide evidence for his pont. All of his facts are well referenced, so that interested readers can find the primary documents for the research (I even found a paper that he cited because I wanted to know more!). Gazzaniga's own research is also very interesting, he studies split brain patients, patients who have had their corpus callosum (the main fiber tract that allows the two hemispheres of your brain to communicate with each other); through his research, Gazzaniga is able to test what each hemisphere is responsible for doing and how important that communication between hemispheres is for an integrated self-awareness.

While I found many of Gazzaniga's points interesting, there were a few things I did not like about the writing in the book. Some parts went into very basic explanations of science (which is good for many readers without a science background!) but then other parts listed more scientific detail than necessary to make the point, which meant that some parts felt tedious. I read this book for the ideas that Gazzaniga postulated and to find out why he believed that humans are distinct, not to pretend that I was retaking functional neuroanatomy. While I have no problem with either basic scientific explanation or in-depth scientific reasoning, I felt that they didn't belong in the same book. Non-science readers can still read the book and understand most of Gazzaniga's point, there may just be a few parts that are best to skim if you want the ideas and not the explanations.

My favorite section was the last topic covered in the book, robots and artificial intelligence. I've never studied much computer science or robotics (nor do I want to), but I find it fascinating nonetheless. I liked that Gazzaniga brought in many perspectives on A.I., from believing that we will soon have human-like robots to the belief that we will never be able to create computers that act/behave/think/feel like humans. This section also included DNA therapy ideas and the ethic questions that necessarily go along with these therapies.

Overall, I enjoyed the ideas in this book and I learned many interesting facts (my favorite: monkeys have two tubes in their throat, one for eating and the other for breathing, which means that it is impossible for them to choke! Yet it was evolutionarily more advantageous for humans to combine the tubes, making it possible to choke, but allowing us to make all the sounds that we can make- which monkeys cannot). I recommend this book for anyone interested in neuroscience and human nature, regardless of science background, but with the understanding that it is not necessary to understand every point if you don't have a biology or neuroscience foundation.

My Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5 stars

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