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Tech Q&A

Michael Gazzaniga

Describe your latest project.
We humans are special. All of us solve problems effortlessly and routinely. When we approach a screen door with our hands full of bags of groceries we instantly know how to stick out our pinky and hook it around the door handle to open it up. The human mind is so generative and given to animation that we do things such as map agency on to almost anything, our pets, our old shoes, our cars, our world. It is as if we don't want to be alone up here at the top of the cognitive chain, the smartest things on earth. We want to see our dogs charm us, appeal to our emotions, imagine they too can suffer and have pity, love and hate and all the rest. We are a big deal and we are a little scared about it.

Thousands of scientists and philosophers over hundreds of years have either recognized this uniqueness of ours or have denied it and looked for the antecedents of everything human in other animals. In recent years clever scientists have found antecedents to all kinds of things that we had assumed were purely human constructions. We used to think that only humans had the ability to reflect on their own thoughts, possess what is called "meta-cognition". Well, think again. Two psychologists at the University of Georgia have shown that rats also have this ability. It turns out rats "know" what they don't know. Does that mean we should do away with our rat traps? I don't think so.

Everywhere I look I see tidbits of differences and one can always say a particular tidbit can be found in others aspects of biological life. For example, "Do flies sleep?" The short version of this story is that flies do sleep, just like we do and more importantly, flies express the same genes during sleep and awake hours that we do. Indeed, even protozoans sleep!

The point is that any human activity can be seemingly atomized. But to be swooned by such a fact is to miss the point of human experience. In this book, I wanted to comb though facts about our brains, our minds, our social world, our feelings, our artistic endeavors, our capacity to confer agency, our consciousness and indeed our growing knowledge that our brain parts can be replaced with silicon parts. From this jaunt one clear fact emerges. Although we are made up of the same chemicals, with the same physiological reactions, we are very different from other animals. Just as gases can become liquids, which can become solids, phase shifts occur, shifts so large in implications, it becomes almost impossible to think of a foggy mist being made up of the same stuff that makes up an iceberg. And yet the different substances have the same chemical structure. In a complex relationship with the environment, very similar stuff can become quite different in its reality and structure. Indeed, I have decided something like a phase shift has occurred in becoming human. There simply is no one thing that will ever account for our spectacular abilities, aspirations and capacity to travel mentally in time to almost the infinite world beyond our present existence. Even though we have all of these connections with the biologic world from which we came, and we have in some instances similar mental structures, we are hugely different. While most of our genes and brain architecture are held in common with animals, there are always differences to be found. And while we can use lathes to mill fine jewelry, and chimps can use stones to crack open nuts, the differences are light years apart. And while, the family dog may appear empathetic, no pet understands the difference between sorrow and pity.

A phase shift occurred and it occurred as the consequence of many things changing in our brains and minds. This book is the story of our uniqueness and how we got here. Personally, I love our species, and always have. I have never found it necessary to lessen our success and domination of this universe. So let us start the journey of understanding why humans are special and let's have some fun doing it.


  1. Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique
    $27.99 New Hardcover add to wishlist
    "As wide-ranging as it is deep, and as entertaining as it is informative, the latest offering from UC Santa Barbara neuroscientist Gazzaniga will please a diverse array of readers." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "A savvy, witty guide to neuroscience today." Kirkus Reviews


  2. The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas (P.S.)
    $6.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Stimulating, very readable and at its most edifying when it sticks to science...a cultural contribution in itself." New York Times Book Review
  3. Natures Mind
    $15.00 New Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Natures Mind

    Michael S. Gazzaniga
    "[A]n accessible treatise that takes the nature vs. nurture controversy to a new extreme..." Publishers Weekly
What inspires you to sit down and write?
Writing is hard work. I am inspired about various different matters all the time and on many occasions those inspirations have not left me with a presentable manuscript. At the same time my writing does come from inspiration. It is not a natural skill I possess. I have to work at it. My writing about the ordinary affairs of life can be pretty ordinary.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
It's all a blur now what with childhood being sixty years ago. I do know I had many great teachers and I was a good student but not a great student. I was endlessly curious and inventive. My father saw that in me and actually allowed me to develop a crude biochemistry lab in our garage. I wanted to know more about muscle enzymes and needed some samples of muscle. I don't know why but one day he brought home a rabbit, a scalpel, anesthetics, an old blender and away I went with my chemistry set doing my first biologic assay. He was a surgeon and stood by me all the way and watched me stumble through my first experiment. I guess my long view on these matters is that great teaching occurs when the mind of the learner is ready and since that readiness can occur anywhere at anytime, all of us are teachers and all of us should always be prepared to offer the teaching moment.

Chess or video games?
Chess was the game of my time. My brother, Alan and my father played all the time. My brother and I only rarely beat my father. Alan and I battled to roughly a tie score over the years. We were pretty good in our youth and only recently activated those boyhood days. Video games are for the present generation.

What do you do for relaxation?
This has always been a great paradox for me. I love what I do and in that work I am relatively peaceful. Sure, there are tedious aspects of academic life like faculty meetings, administration, grant writing, and grading student papers. However, the core of academic life is vibrant and along with my wife Charlotte have made it even more so by the simple act of having dinner parties of 10-12. We have them constantly. We usually put the guest of honor in what we call the "hot seat" and go after them about their ideas. It is always great fun and the food, thanks to Charlotte, is sublime. But it is the conversation we thrive on and one reason our table may be the hottest ticket in town is that we kick people out after 3 hours. Our evenings of relaxation do not drag on.

I must add that my children were always around and usually after dinner would perform music of some kind. They have grown up around adults and to this day, all of them are always at ease with adults. No teen age sulking was ever allowed. It is so easy to run a happy house when you are married to a strong willed Texan. As you can see, I really don't need to relax.

What's your favorite blog right now?
I once asked Leon Festinger, probably one of the greatest psychologist who ever lived, how he dealt with his critics. He said, "I don't. Once you start, you are letting other people tell you how to spend your time." That always stuck with me. Blogs seem to me to run up against that basic insight. They take lots of time and ultimately not remembered or are enduring. The tides of ideas, facts and norms continually change. On the other hand, we give our essays, our books our best shot, and hopefully as clearly as we know how to do. Let others debate the worth. I want to go on and do other things.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
Books came into my life in college in any kind of meaningful way and the first one was Crime and Punishment. Before college I read the usual stuff but reading was not a big part of my life. While I read all the time, I am not a reader. I am an experimentalist at heart. I do things.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
There will be some kind of silicon-based chip that assists us in our failing memory system. As one well into those years where it becomes more difficult with each passing day to remember proper names, etc., I would like some kind of cyborg type device that would help. It will happen.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
That's easy. Richard Feynman. I knew him, knew what he was like but never could be him in the sense of how he apprehended phenomena. To have a sense of how he grasped the world and its relationships would be a stunning experience. He once spent a sabbatical year in the laboratory of the great biologist Max Delbruck. He toiled in the lab everyday doing experiments and at the end of year he gave a seminar to the Caltech biology department reporting on his studies. At the end he said, "Thanks for a great year but I am going back to physics. I don't think like a biologists and I would never be any good." Well, I realized then and as I do now, I will never be able to grasp such things as quantum mechanics and the other geometrical relationships Feynman saw and that is an unhappy fact about my own brain. I would like that for a day although I doubt it would change my psychological life much at all.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
The most taxing was surely French. My teacher passed me after I swore to her I would never attempt to utter out loud a French word. As for other topics, I struggled with them all, especially Latin. I remember William F. Buckley once said he could never take credit for things that came to him naturally. For him that was a long list of topics. Mine is very short.

Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
The great museums of the world, such as the American Natural Museum, the Museum of Science in London are all breathtaking. However, the two I remember most vividly are the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles and the Montshire Museum in Norwich, Vermont. The former because it opened my eyes to the vastness of the universe. Look up, you fool and come to grips with the uniqueness and improbable nature of your species. That impulse changed my life and in similar fashion I saw the brilliantly interactive and well thought out small town museum do the same for two of my children. Science takes no prisoners. Either you get it or your don't, and when gifted educators pose a natural problem and then take you by the hand and explain it in terms a child can not only understand but appreciate, that is noteworthy. Science museums should be a part of every community.

By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
The large changes in human culture won't come about for decades upon decades. There will continue to be incredible and almost phantasmagoric discoveries in science and technology and the ones with practical utility will spread throughout the civilized world with lightening speed. But a cure for a disease, a PDA with endless functions, a machine that can absolutely detect a mental state such as lying and any of hundreds of other developments will not quickly change humankind. We are a social species and our lives are powerfully enveloped in social, secular and religious institutions that will be slow to yield. If we shot up to Mars a 100 humans and gave them all the resources in the world, within a generation or two, all the problems we have here on Earth would be evident there. It's in our social interaction its successes and failures, where the great issues of humankind reside.

Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?
America is still the monetary engine to world science. When all the research and development money in America is added up it is a staggering sum. But that isn't the story. Who is doing the research? For the past few decades American graduate schools have been full of young men and women from third world countries. By and large American students don't go into basic research. All one has to do is to look at the percentage of Ivy League graduates that go into research and graduate school in the basic sciences. It is less than 5 percent.

So the American science engine is being farmed out and is being eagerly accepted by other countries like India, China, Korea and many, many others. As I see it, the ultimate leaders most likely will be India and China.

÷ ÷ ÷

Michael S. Gazzaniga is the director of the University of California-Santa Barbara's SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, as well as its Summer Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience. He serves on the President's Council on Bioethics and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Dr. Gazzaniga is the author of The Ethical Brain and lives in California.

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