Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are

Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are

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This exciting, timely book combines cutting-edge findings in neuroscience with examples from history and recent headlines to offer new insights into who we are. Introducing the new science of cultural biology, born of advances in brain imaging, computer modeling, and genetics, Drs. Quartz and Sejnowski demystify the dynamic engagement between brain and world that makes us something far beyond the sum of our parts.

The authors show how our humanity unfolds in precise stages as brain and world engage on increasingly complex levels. Their discussion embraces shaping forces as ancient as climate change over millennia and events as recent as the terrorism and heroism of September 11 and offers intriguing answers to some of our most enduring questions, including why we live together, love, kill -- and sometimes lay down our lives for others.

The answers, it turns out, are surprising and paradoxical: many of the noblest aspects of human nature -- altruism, love, courage, and creativity -- are rooted in brain systems so ancient that we share them with insects, and these systems form the basis as well of some of our darkest destructive traits. The authors also overturn popular views of how brains develop. We're not the simple product of animal urges, "selfish" genes, or nature versus nurture. We survive by creating an ingenious web of ideas for making sense of our world -- a symbolic reality called culture. This we endow to later generations as our blueprint for survival.

Using compelling examples from history and contemporary life, the authors show how engagement with the world excites brain chemistry, which drives further engagement, which encourages the development of cultural complexity. They also share provocative ideas on how human development may be affected by changes in our culture. Their insights, grounded in science and far-reaching in their implications, are riveting reading for anyone interested in our past, present, and future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062028662
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 12/14/2010
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Steven R. Quartz, Ph.D., is director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and an associate professor in the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Computation and Neural Systems Program. He was a fellow of the Sloan Center for Theoretical Neurobiology at the Salk Institute and a recipient of the National Science Foundation's CAREER award, its most prestigious award for young faculty. He lives in Topanga, California.
Terrence J. Sejnowski, Ph.D., is regarded as the world's foremost theoretical brain scientist. His demonstration of NETtalk, a neural network that learned to read English words, helped spark the 1980s neural network revolution for which he received the IEEE Neural Network Pioneer Award in 2002. He received his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University before studying neurobiology at Harvard University School of Medicine. He is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and directs the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute. At the University of California at San Diego he is a professor of biology, physics, and neurosciences and directs the Institute for Neural Computation. He has published more than two hundred scientific articles and has been featured in the national media. He lives in Solana Beach, California.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Our Brains, Ourselves

The point of view taken here is neither a "biological" one nor a "sociological" one if that would mean separating these two aspects from each other.
-- Erich Fromm, The Sane Society

There's something disturbing about holding a human brain in your hands. It feels almost sacrilegious, as though you're violating some basic taboo. Even among medical students who think nothing of eating lunch beside the cadaver they're dissecting, you can feel their uneasiness when it comes time to remove the brain. Over the electric whir of a bone saw penetrating the skull just above the ears, someone inevitably tries to ease the strain with a joke.

Cutting away the tangle of fibers holding the brain in place is slow, delicate work, increasing the tension in the room. And when the brain is finally eased out, a sickening, sucking sound breaks the silence as air rushes in to fill the void left behind.

Holding this person's brain, turning it in your hands, you try to block the clichéd image of Hamlet pondering Yorick's skull, but it still floods your mind. You find yourself asking similar questions: What did this brain once think; what secret dreams did it hold; what memories are locked forever deep in its folds? Staring at it, you also can't blot out the thought that you are bound for a similar fate. One day all your hopes and thoughts -- all that you are -- will be reduced to a three-pound clump of silent cells that was once a person.

This book is about the first insights a new kind of brain science isgiving us into what makes us who we are. Somehow, your sense of being someone unique -- a thinking, feeling person -- emerges from the workings of the most complex object in the known universe: your brain. If someone close to you has ever suffered a brain injury or disease, you know that the connection between the brain and who you are is all too real. Consider Irene's story.

She had been denying the signs for a year. Then one day she had trouble finding her way home from her office, her daily commute for the last twenty years. Finally arriving home, shaken and confused, she couldn't deny it any longer. Something was happening to her, and it terrified her. Her husband, Bill, had suspected something was wrong a few weeks earlier when they'd gone out for dinner because Irene said she had forgotten to make it. When they returned home, he had found the dinner she had prepared waiting for them at the table. Trying to protect her pride, he quickly cleared it away without her seeing. But after this latest incident they both realized they couldn't deny the signs anymore.

Many doctors and tests later, Irene's worst fears were confirmed: Alzheimer's disease. Her doctor tried to explain what was probably happening in her brain. Something about plaques, tangles, and dying brain cells. But he couldn't offer much hope for treatment. As Irene's condition worsened, she would have the occasional clear day, only to break down in tears at the realization of what was happening to her. She was losing control to a disease that was attacking more than her body. It was slowly stealing her away from herself. Bill recounts how hard it was to sit by her bedside day after day when she no longer recognized him or even knew her own name, helpless to fight a disease that slowly robbed her of who she was until she was no more.

As Irene's tragedy makes painfully clear, who you are hangs in a delicate balancing act inside your brain. And although its breakdown brings unspeakable horrors, your strongest feelings of elation and even love likewise spring from your brain's intricate workings. The chemical soup inside your head gives rise to your deepest feelings, to your capacity to wonder, even to the grief that makes you human. Not all brain disorders bring the sort of tragedy that afflicted Irene. Some alter the texture our brains give to our everyday life, even making some patients curiously appreciative of the changes brought on by a stroke. Consider the strange case of a Swiss political journalist. At the age of forty-eight, Klaus suffered a stroke, a rupture in the blood supply to his brain. But as he recovered in the hospital he seemed little concerned with his condition. Instead, he fixated on the hospital food, which he complained about bitterly. Now you might not think too much of that, since hospital food is pretty miserable stuff. That's what his doctor, Marianne Regard, thought at the time, too. She asked Klaus to keep a diary, and it revealed a strange change in him. Before his stroke, Klaus had always been one who ate to live. After his stroke, he lived to eat. This wasn't just bingeing on Big Macs, though. He didn't even gain weight. Instead, he had a newfound preoccupation, bordering on an obsession, with gourmet food. Damage to his brain had transformed the experience of gourmet food into one of pure rapture. Klaus even quit his job as a political journalist to become a fine-dining columnist. Since Klaus's case eight years ago, Dr. Regard has found many more cases of what's now known as "gourmand syndrome." Injury somewhere in the right frontal part of the brain can turn some people into fine-food lovers of the highest order.

As this strange brain condition suggests, every nuance of yourself, the very fabric of your experience, ultimately arises from the machinations of your brain. The brain houses your humanity. Without it, you would be as heartless and cold as a robot, an automaton for which life might have goals but would have no meaning.

Among the astounding diversity of brains in nature, ours seems capable of many unique capacities. As far as we know, our brains are the only ones to generate a sense of who we are. Our brains create a life history ...

Liars, Lovers, and Heroes. Copyright © by Steven Quartz. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

1Our Brains, Ourselves1
2Making Connections21
3How to Make a Human: The 1.6 Percent Solution32
4Life on the Far Shore: Crossing the Mental Rubicon61
5Between Thought and Feeling: The Mystery of Emotions88
6Becoming You: Genes, Parenting, and Personality123
7Friend, Lover, Citizen: The Mystery of Life Together148
8The Killer Within: From the Solitary Killer to the Killing Crowd189
9Inside Intelligence: Rethinking What Makes Us Smart216
10The Search for Happiness252
Afterword: After September 11278

What People are Saying About This

Sandra Blakeslee

“An evocative solution to a classic problem: which is more important in shaping the human brain, nature or nurture?”

V. S. Ramachandran

“A superb book … a breath of fresh air.”

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