Magazine article American Scientist

The Organ of Reality

Magazine article American Scientist

The Organ of Reality

Article excerpt

The Organ of Reality TOUCHING A NERVE: The Self as Brain. Patricia S. Churchland. 304 pp. W. W. Norton, 2013. $26.95.

We are what we are because our brains are what they are. That connection between self and brain-obvious yet endlessly elusive-lies at the foundation of some of life's most profound questions. What part of our body thinks our thoughts and binds us to morals? Is there a soul? An afterlife? How do we know what is real? Addressing such matters requires taking an outside view of an organ that we are all forced to experience from the inside. Making headway toward answers requires thinking simultaneously like a philosopher and a neuroscientist.

Fortunately, Patricia Churchland is both: a philosopher turned neuroscientist, who once taught a course called neurophilosophy to undergraduates at the University of California, San Diego. She begins her new book by walking the reader through her threepoint organizational logic. This section is not a page-turner, but it sets the foundation for all that follows. Point one: Integrating reality into our state of mind allows us to avoid danger (for example, by preventing disease) and improve our world (by finding cures). Two: Wishful fantasy may be enjoyable, but it is temporary. Conversely, knowledge of what is true and real may be repugnant, but facts will triumph, as Churchland illustrates through the case of Galileo and the Catholic Church. Third: We can control how we use science. An excess of knowledge does not hurtle us to Armageddon.

Touching a Nerve is not a neuroscience textbook; it is accurate, without the burden of excessive scientific detail. Instead, Churchland crafts a big-picture discussion of how the brain engineers human consciousness, thought, and behavior, presenting the underlying science in a conversational tone that's lively and engaging. She aims to make science relevant, exciting, accessible.

When Churchland explores the origins of moral behavior, she lays out fire thesis that the mammalian brain is wired for self-care and the care of others. And yet, as she notes, the people we love often provoke us to anger. Paradoxically, an individual can shift from a state of mind we call love to one that allows him or her to commit an "honor killing."

Churchland devotes another chapter to aggression and sex, digging deeply as she engages some enduring mysteries. What is the lure of hatred and aggression? Why are we so predisposed to frame interactions as "us versus them"? Churchland outlines her intriguing belief that hate and aggression are linked to the brain's sensation of pleasure. (Why else would gossip be so enjoyable?) This chapter is an interesting sausage of overlapping topics that could easily fill many more pages. Here the author mixes her personal experience with science, an effective approach for such potent subject matter. The reader almost feels part of the conversation.

I was initially apprehensive when I got to the part of the book where Churchland takes on the contentious topic of "testosterone poisoning." The term suggests that iconic masculine behavior may be ridiculed as a hangover from prehistory. Would Churchland be condescending here, I wondered, presenting feminine traits as more progressive and enlightened, even a new unisex norm? No. Instead, she gives a balanced view of why so much of human behavior extends from the deep biological roots of distinctly different female-brain and male-brain behaviors.

Churchland explains that the brain makes mating and survival in a hostile world possible, and doing so requires it to be energized and cunning. …

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