AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 29, Number 1, 2020


The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind – A Review

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The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the
Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind 

Michael S. Gazzaniga
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 
New York. 2018. 

The relationship between the brain and the mind has baffled scientists and philosophers for eternity. Perhaps that is why so many have flocked to read Dr. Gazzaniga, who has a PhD in psychobiology and is president of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute. After 60 years of researching and puzzling about the state of consciousness, his book suggests that it is just an instinct that we are born with. Since we have instincts for survival, sex, resilience and walking, why not consciousness? He reached this conclusion largely because no single location has been identified that controls consciousness anywhere in the brain. He has done a great deal of research on split-brain surgery and for some reason is amazed that it does not produce loss of consciousness.

I was stunned that this respected neuroscientist would say,

It is as if our mind is a bubbling pot of water. Which bubble will make it up to the top at any given moment is hard to predict. The top bubble ultimately bursts into an idea, only to be replaced by more bubbles. The surface is forever energized with activity, endless activity, until the bubbles go to sleep.

Gazzaniga is astounded that people with profound dementia remain conscious. He postulates that we have to return to the ideas of the ancient Greek philosophers who linked mental and physical into one system and saw the brain as a machine. The good news is that he believes that artificial intelligence will never replace the human brain.

Modern neuroscience fails to explain how electrochemical reactions are transformed into life experiences. Although structure and function are complementary properties, neither one informs the other. The function of a neuron cannot be derived from its structure, nor can the structure be derived from its function. The author concludes that consciousness is inherent throughout the brain. He, therefore, returns to the theory of William James who 125 years ago concluded that every brain cell has its own individual consciousness.

The bottom line, according to this book, is that “the gap between living and non-living is at the root of the gap between the mind and the brain”!

This is a best-selling, high profile book that many people are reading. I don’t think neurosurgeons need to read it: perhaps Dr. Gazzaniga’s life studies might be impacted if he spent some time outside his own research talking with neurosurgeons.


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Lori McBride | April 12, 2019 at 10:15 am

Thanks for the very frank review, Dr. VanderArk. I won’t waste my time.

EyeOfTheBeholder | July 15, 2019 at 5:58 am

How can anyone call this a “review”?