52 in 52 Book Summaries

Book Summary: The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas by Michael Gazzaniga

The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas by Michael Gazzaniga

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The Essence

Neuroscience has impacted a vast number of fields, leaving no rock unturned (neuro-philosophy, neuro-marketing, neuro-law, and neuro-pharmacology just to name a few). With an ever growing relevance, understanding how modern brain science reveals discrepancies in how we ought to live, and how we currently live, has become a staple when voicing an opinion on social issues like morality, and lifestyle. Science and society will interact in ways that we have never considered possible, The Ethical Brain is an excellent primer on the conversations that are to come as biological technology begins to change how think, compete, and punish. Scientific findings must be applied to important ethical decisions or else we risk wielding knowledge that does not fit in the societal scaffold that has been set. For technology to integrate successfully into society, we need to talk about it; Michael Gazzaniga may be one of the first, but surely won’t be the last.

The Ethical Brain Journal Entry Notes:

This is my book summary of The Ethical Brain. My notes are a reflection of the journal write up above. Written informally, the notes contain a mesh and mix of quotes and my own thoughts on the book. Sometimes, to my own fault, quotes are interlaced with my own words. Though rest assured, I am not attempting to take any credit for the main ideas below. The Journal write up includes important messages and crucial passages from the book.

  • A brain based philosophy of life.
  • Neuoethics: The examination of how we want to deal with the social issues of disease, normality, morality, lifestyle, and the philosophy of living informed by our understanding of underlying brain mechanisms.
  • To squelch scientific advancement before it happens, out of fear, is a mistake.
  • We humans seem to adapt to almost anything. We will adapt, set new norms of behavior, and then await the next wave of challenges for our culture.
  • Moral status or an embryo?
  • The fetus is not a sentient, self-aware organism (13 weeks) at this point; it is more like a sea slug, a writhing, reflex bound hunk of sensory-motor processes that does not respond to anything in a directed, purposeful way (intention).
  • Home Depot metaphor: A house may be conceived at home depot, but a home depot is not hundreds of house. Mere possession of genetic material for a future human being does not make a human.
  • The left-hemisphere interpreter is the master of belief creation.
  • As it stands, aging is inevitable and part of life’s deal.
  • Three laws of behavior genetics are widely agreed on:
    1. All behavioral traits are heritable (capable of being passed down from one generation to the next).
    2. The environmental effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effects of genes.
    3. Neither genes nor family environment account for a substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavior traits.
  • The interaction between genes and environment makes us who we are. Genes are the scaffolding but the fine detail is tuned by interaction with the environment; a pure genetic description of the human species does not describe a human being.
  • You are your brain. The neurons interconnecting in its vast network, discharging in certain patterns modulated by certain chemicals, controlled by thousands of feedback networks-that is you. And in order to be you, all those systems have to work properly.
  • Practice changes the brain in areas involved in producing specific movements.
  • All of us think we have a story to tell. Why? It is not hubris. It is because this is what our minds are constantly doing-interpreting events, creating narratives, devising theories. All we need is a couple of facts and we can create a story from them.
  • Accurate memories are an idea, not a reality of the human condition.
  • Divided attention wreaks havoc with our memory.
  • The 7 Sins of memory (Daniel Schacter): Transience, Absent mindedness, Blocking, Misattribution, Suggestibility, Bias, Persistence. All of which are ways that our memories are skewed.
  • Memory is not so much a mechanism for remembering the past as a means to prepare us for the future. Some of the best memories are false.
  • Universal Ethics? There seems to be common subconscious mechanisms that are activated in all members of our species in response to moral challenges.
  • Once something has been figured out, much work must then be applied to the solution, that is the hard part.
  • “Free” Will? Neuroscience shows that by the time any of us consciously experience something, the brain has already done its work.
  • Speedy thought does not necessarily mean wise thought.
  • Brains are automatic, rule-governed, determined devices, while people are personally responsible agents, free to make their own decisions. Just as traffic is what happens when physically determined car interact, responsibility is what happens when people interact. Personal responsibility is a public concept. It exists in a group, not in an individual. If you were the only person on earth, there would be no concept of personal responsibility. Responsibility is a concept you have about other people’s actions and they about yours. Brains are determined; people[s] follow rules, they live together, and out of that interaction arises the concept of freedom of action.

If you liked what you saw. Here are 3 titles that I recommend based on what was discussed in The Ethical Brain.

  1. Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael Gazzaniga
  2. Free Will by Sam Harris
  3. The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers by Daniel L. Schacter

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