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Nashville Scene Matters of Interpretation

Read. It's good for you

By Marc K. Stengel

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  I'm tempted to assign a special meaning to the following coincidence: On the morning that I set aside for writing this review of The Mind's Past (U. of California Press, 1998), by eminent "cognitive neuroscientist" Michael S. Gazzaniga, I heard a radio account of a new exhibit at the Library of Congress titled "Freud: Conflict & Culture." On one level, it amused me to hear of special veneration being afforded the father of what Gazzaniga calls "psychodynamic ideas" at the same time I contemplated Gazzaniga's opinion that "psychology itself is dead." At another, deeper level, I felt mildly self-conscious and even embarrassed that Gazzaniga's book essentially predicts my attempt to find meaning in random acts that coincide.

The Mind's Past is a thankfully short "doctor book" for the layman, written in an erratic combination of clear exposition and turgid "expertese." Gazzaniga bases his central, provocative thesis upon a premise of which he has no doubt: "Brain scientists who view the brain as a decision-making device are now gearing their experiments to find answers to the question, 'What is the brain for?' The smart-aleck answer to the question is sex. Put more completely, the brain exists to make better decisions about how to enhance reproductive success....In its capacity to carry out that task, it can do a lot of other things, which come along for free...."

On this foundation of strict and unrepentant Darwinism, Gazzaniga proceeds to construct an architecture of cognition that differentiates brain from mind. The brain, in short, is what scientists touch, measure, and observe. Like mechanics under the hood of our scalp, they move ever closer to an empirical conception of the connections and processes of brain function. Understanding the mind, on the other hand, is still druid's work in a sense. While our brains attend to such complex but fundamental operations as the evacuation of toxic exhaust through the renal system and the fueling of metabolism through an ingeniously designed cardio-pulmonary engine, the mind struggles first to perceive the external world and then to understand it. As far as our reactions to the world's stimuli are concerned, Gazzaniga builds a convincing case that "our brains aren't easily fooled--only our minds are."

Much of Gazzaniga's argument is spent dismissing competing academic views of the brain's function and of the origin of consciousness (if I may dare use such a traditional and unspecific term). When researchers exhort parents to read to their newborns for the sake of accelerating development of "neural connections," Gazzaniga throws up his hands in exasperation: "Don't read to babies because you think it builds better brains. Read to them because you want to be with them and to begin their education. Reading is a good thing! Our culture no longer seems able to say, 'Read. It's good for you.' Everything has gone over to the health idiom: 'Read. It's good for your brain.' Whatever happened to the idea that reading is pleasurable in and of itself?" Yet when the White House itself transforms pseudo-science into political initiative, Gazzaniga sympathizes with "public-minded scientists" struggling with social policy issues: "It is hard to be totally objective and truthful, especially in the presence of the president."

In light of current affairs Gazzaniga couldn't have foreseen, my mind is once again apt to read more into this last comment than the writer intended. And the reason why, no doubt, is the "interpreter" that Gazzaniga says is lurking in the shadows of my--our--consciousness. The most appealing and cohesive portion of The Mind's Past summarizes the current state of understanding about the right-left dichotomy of the human brain. Thankfully, there are anecdotes, do-it-yourself experiments, even eye-boggling illustrations that buttress Gazzaniga's persuasive proposition that a left-brain "interpreter" makes sense of our observations of the world by narrating the story of our experience--even if that story is intrinsically false.

When, in one experiment, Gazzaniga communicates the command "Take a walk" to "the silent, speechless right hemisphere [of a research volunteer]...[the] subject typically pushes back her chair and starts to walk away. You ask, 'Why are you doing that?' The subject replies, 'Oh, I need to get a drink.' The left brain really doesn't know why it finds the body leaving the room. When asked, it cooks up an explanation." In instance after instance, Gazzaniga illustrates how the "interpreter" in our left hemisphere "always comes up with a theory, no matter how spurious."

The implications of this premise, if true, are obviously enormous. At the very minimum, it opens the door onto all sorts of exculpatory behaviors predicated upon the human organism's involuntary reaction to stimuli. True to a strict Darwinian view, Gazzaniga suggests that we are all automatons with a primordial determination to replicate. Our "interpreter" merely comes along for a joy ride--literally. The "interpreter" explains away the past and thereby "liberates us from the sense of being tied to the demands of the environment and produces the wonderful sensation that our self is in charge of our destiny." Personally, I find little difficulty in contemplating Gazzaniga's not-so-inspiring thesis. I take an odd comfort in being excused from the quest after grandeur and glory that heretofore has always charged the human condition with its best purpose. At the same time, Gazzaniga's view clearly does not prevent me from embarking upon such a quest--as a satisfying elective of sorts, it seems.

My only real disappointment with the argument elaborated in The Mind's Past is that it doesn't go far enough: If the present state of the human conscious mind is a distillation of unyielding and unsentimental evolutionary selections in our species' past, does it not follow that consciousness itself, as presently configured, may yet prove an ineffectual survival trait in our evolutionary future? Sometimes this is the only interpretation I can draw from the stimuli that shower down around me.


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