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How Brains Make Up Their Minds (MAPS OF THE MIND) [Paperback]

Walter Freeman
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

This text charts the brain's mind, progressing from single nerve cells to co-operative nerve cell assemblies to the emergence of complex brain patterns. By drawing on recent developments in brain imaging and theories of chaos and non-linear dynamics it shows how brains create intention and meaning.

Product details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Phoenix; New edition edition (3 Aug 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0753810689
  • ISBN-13: 978-0753810682
  • Product Dimensions: 19.2 x 13 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,089,963 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Raise your arm. Now: which came first? The raising of your arm, or the decision to raise it? Walter Freeman's admirably articulate and very difficult little book on the biological foundations of consciousness comes up with a surprising answer: action precedes consciousness of action. Consciousness has better things to do than involve itself with simple motor actions; rather, it establishes the parameters within which action occurs by itself. We are not divine homunculi, directing action independent of the physical constraints of cause and effect. But neither are we ghosts in the machine of the body, observing, and taking credit for, actions which are in reality dictated by conditioned responses and blind fate. Minds are like weather systems: at once evanescent and remarkably robust. Freeman's grasp of philosophy is unprecedented among experimental biologists, and he writes at the leading edge of that movement that makes study of the mind the venue for the long-awaited reconciliation of science and the humanities. This book would make a poor introduction to the subject: it is too much part of the ongoing debate, and readers would do better to tuck a few Dennetts, Calvins and Penroses under their belts first. But this caveat takes nothing away from Freeman's contribution or importance, and the book is a fine addition to Steven Rose's "Maps of the Mind" series, which looks to be the most diverse and rigorous science series for many years. --Simon Ings --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


This book takes a significant position that sets the stage for unifying research results in neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy into a cohesive interpretation of the psychological and philosophical aspects of brain activities. Delightful to read, cohesive, and thought-provoking. Choice A must read for anyone who seriously wants to understand how brains make up their minds. -- Stan Franklin Minds & Machines (2007) 17 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
51 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars this is a fascinating book a gifted exposition 23 Jan 2001
By A Customer
This is a fascinating book. Walter Freeman has taken the most vexing problem in neuroscience today and offered a compelling and well reasoned explanation. How does a mind emerge from a brain? Schopenhauer call a version of this problem "the universal knot", and there are thousands of years of discussion about how the mental relates to the physical, the age old mind-body problem. Freeman has devoted his life to neurobiological research, and teaches in the graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. In this book (which builds upon his two previous books and 350 articles)Freeman moves effortlessly between the fields of neurobiology, philosophy, the history of science, engineering and computer science, mathematics, and non linear dynamics, to weave together a comprehensive explanation to the universal knot. Part of Freeman's task is to appeal to a wide audience and not merely to those interested in a particular discipline, and to balance breadth with appropriate level of depth. Interdisciplinary studies are tricky that way, as depth in one area can become alienating to one reader, but too much breadth can seem to only cover the surface. This book strikes that delicate balance quite well, and anyone with an abiding interest in this topic will find plenty to be captivated by. The book is also poetically written. Freeman is devoted to a form of emergentism that allows for the realities of imagination, creativity, and free choice to exist in brains. Unlike many neurobiological researchers, his ideas of causality are explicit and his philosophical biases well articulated and direct. He is critical of chemical and structural determinisms which attempt to reduce, in their severe forms, our experience to a form of epiphenomenalism. Read more ›
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars not up to expectations 11 Jan 2005
After Ramachandran's Reith Lectures 2003, it seems hard to find a reading about neuroscience as exciting. Had I read 'How Brains Make Up Their Minds' three or four years ago, I might have thought that this was a very detailed and exhaustive book. But in 2005 it looks old. It addresses academic debates which do not seem to me of crucial importance and it is overly conservative in its philosophical excursions. If you expect some excitement from this book you might discover that you can find it only in the title.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
44 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A small outstanding book packed with real insight 20 May 2001
By Todd I. Stark - Published on
Walter Freeman packs a lot of his experience and knowledge of how the brain works in this fascinating little book.
Freeman's emphasis is a bit unique in that he focuses on the dynamics of how neurons communicate rather than on either the anatomy of the brain, or on either mental states or behavior.
By adopting this focus on neural dynamics, the author accomplishes some interesting things that other authors haven't been quite able to accomplish. He comes up with a multi-step mathematical model of how neurons organize themselves in order to function as a mind. His model is far more specific than most (such as the vague model in Susan Greenfield's "Private Life of the Brain" for example) and he links his model clearly and consistently to the pragmatist philosophy of mind.
The key to Freeman's unique approach is that he addresses from the outset the critical observation that makes hte "mind-brain problem" difficult. He recognizes that most models of brain function fail to address how top-down function in the brain could possibly work. How, in the classical model of brain function, can we have an expectancy that reliably alters basic perception, such as in hypnotic anesthesia and hallucinations ?
Materialist and cognitivist models of mind (in terms of simple flows of neural energy or information between neurons) simply have no way to explain why some behaviors should be "voluntary" and others "involuntary," or how meaning is somehow created from symbol processing. Representational models (which consider the brain to store "images" in some sense) still have some serious explanatory gaps.
If the brain simply links together sensory stimuli from the senses, and then somehow "taps into memory" to help interpret what we perceive, why should our initial perceptual gestalts themselves be altered by what we expect to perceive ?
The way attention and expectancy work - requires a different way to look at the brain, such as providing a continual staging process for awareness. The point is made succinctly and eloquently by Freeman, although readers interested in mroe of the background to this will find John McCrone's "Going Inside" a great read as well. Rather than discussing the background of this modern view of conscious awareness, Freeman links it to his own model of complex dynamics among populations of neurons and discusses various implications for philosophy of mind and brain.
Freeman's view is that consciousness is not itself a "cause" of neural effects, but a global linkage for smoothing chaotic fluctuations through interactions. The author borrows from a definition by Thomas Aquinas to make a point of defining intentionality in biological terms as a frame for problem solving rather than the weaker sense of "aboutness" used by analytic philosophers. He then builds a model of mind that uses chaotic attractor patterns to explain how we create meaning in individual brains by interacting usefully with the environment.
Walter Freeman is one of the scientists seriously trying to address such puzzling matters as _choice_, and how others can sometimes become aware of our own choices before we are, in both daily life and careful experiments. A lot of Freud's speculations in his theory of the Unconscious mind were intended to address this, but theorists today are in a better position to do it more scientifically. How can choice seemingly be "unconscious" and yet we have a very real sense of free will ? Is it an illusion ? Freeman makes a strong entry in the race to explain this in a way that works scientifically and yet explains what we actually experience. I read this at about the same time as John Taylor's "The Race for Consciousness," and found that it covers a lot of very similar ground, and often more elegantly.
While this book is surprisingly readable for having so much relevant technical detail in neuroscience and complexity maths, it will often frustrate readers who want to follow it in great detail unless they have some background in both neuroscience and nonlinear dynamics. In spite of this, I give it my highest recommendation because I think anyone who reads it will learn something interesting about the brain and its relationship to the mind.
28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting combination of neuroscience, philosophy and math 27 Aug 2001
By DR P. Dash - Published on
This is one of several books in the last couple of years written by leading neuroscientists attempting to explain consciousness. Outstanding examples are Damasio's "The Feeling of What Happens" and Edelman and Tononi's "A Universe of Consciousness," which are both very worthwhile reading. Freeman takes a different tack, based on his years of research into the olfactory system. Though this short book appears to be aimed at the educated layman, many will be stopped short in their tracks by his "ten building blocks" of "how neural populations sustain the chaotic dynamics of intentionality," such as the ever-popular #8, "Attenuation of microscopic sensory-driven activity and enhancement of mesoscopic amplitude modulation patterns by divergent-convergent cortical projections underlying solipsm." These ten statements form the core of the book, and although they are ultimately explained with some degree of clarity, I found myself wishing for more specific examples from the neuroscientific literature beyond the very limited samples provided, which tended to be either very basic circuit diagram type drawings, or taken from his work in the olfactory system. I did find the application of chaos theory to brain dynamics fascinating, though for a critique of Freeman's approach and an alternative view see the article by Laurent et al in the 2001 Annual Review of Neuroscience. Overall, though, I found the book a stimulating and interesting read.
26 of 33 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars unclear and unconvincing 7 Nov 2001
By King David - Published on
In this book, Prof. Freeman is trying to resolve a very difficult problem : if my brain operates as mechanically as a car, then how can I be free to make choices and be responsible for my decisions ? He makes a detail ( lengthy ) presentation on his proposed solution. Unfortunately, after reading the whole book, I think he fails to provide a clear answer to the question.
His main idea is that there is an important difference between human brain and other substances in the universe such as a car. The brain is a complicated nonlinear system and capable of self-organization. It does not respond directly to incoming stimuli like a reflex action, but it is continuously changing and constructing its own neural activity patterns in order to adapt to and synchronize with the external stimuli. The active involvement of the brain can be seen from the fact that we won't interpret the world as moving backward when we know we are walking on a street. This self-awareness and the real-time interactions between the brain and the environment form what he called the circular causality. He concludes that a behaviour comes from the final decision of the brain itself who therefore bears the responsibility.
However, I find that what he is talking about is how the brain works ( yes, the title of the book is correct ), but it doesn't follow that the nature+nurture determinism is wrong. Of course our decision depends on our history ( memory and experience ), but we should ask what then the history depends on ? Genetic makeup and continuous stimuli from environment are the only factors or sources that cause people different from each other, while chaos and self-organization are just the mechanism within ( the laws of nonlinear dynamics are universal ). As a result I consider his circular causality as a misleading myth, at least he has ignored the initial condition : genes.
Although I disagree with Prof. Freeman's idea, I respect him as the greatest neuroscientist in our times. Readers can find more of his information from his website at U C Berkeley...
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting new ideas and some valuable information 9 July 2001
By Zentao - Published on
Freeman wraps up a long history (30 years, I believe) as a neurophysiologist with a good general overview of some interesting information and philosophy. The book starts with a general overview of the brain, using a salamander's brain structure as the building block from which to start the discussion.
Freeman's main area of study revolves around the olfactory sense which is not a very common area within the "mainstream" of currently in-vogue neural work. This might explain why his views are rather different from many of his colleagues as well as those who stand on the "edge" of the whole mind-brain debate such as the Churchlands and Dennett.
Freeman details how we usually represent problems in a linear fashion and how this type of philosophy is not at all appropriate for the study of the nervous system. Freeman does a great job of delving into circular causality (feedback systems) and why this naturally leads to some interesting conclusions about the interrelationship of the brain and mind.
Freeman refers to himself as a "pragmatist" in the book although I found this to be a bit confusing based on some of his views. He is clear that he is not a materialist (like the Churchlands and Searle) but also not a dualist (such as Penrose and Chalmers) but I think he should have gone a further step and really stepped outside of the constraint of calling himself a "pragmatist".
He has some good and easy-to-digest information about chaotic systems and how they tend to seek islands of stability (that is, there is emergent order in a sea of unpredictability) but he never really gets down to the nitty and gritty of tackling how the physical realm ultimately manages to link causally to the mental. Tallis' book has some better leads on this "problem" and it would be interesting if these two and Austin ("Zen and the Brain") could get together to discuss some ideas.
All in all a pretty good read that won't hurt anyone who doesn't have a background in science. But we have a long way to go understanding the "hard problem" still...
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Goes Back to the Basics of Intentionality and Aquinas 22 Nov 2010
By Walter J. Geldart - Published on
Walter J. Freeman brought philosophy to his research into the neuroscience of biology, brains, and human nature in How Brains Make Up Their Minds (2000), and in his earlier Society of Brains (1995). He grounds his findings in neuroscience with an understanding of an organism's purpose using the philosophical idea of intentionality which was described by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Meaning arises in and between minds when the brain creates intentional behaviors and then changes itself based on sensory feedback from those behaviors. Meanings exist in the minds of observers, and not in objects, events, and body motions.

Freeman escapes the trap of subject-object dualism by embracing intentionality. Human civilization is an expression of the development of the intentional object type to communicate images between minds. Psychological, philosophical, and neurological discussion of the human mind and its brain must include the intentional object type, along with the real external and subjective internal object types. See Mortmer Adler's Philosophical Dictionary, and his critique of the Kantian philosophy that poured out the baby of intentionality with the bath water.

Freeman engages some of the same Jamesian ideas that Domasio handles so well in his latest Self Comes to Mind (2010). I rate Freeman's book highly because it is an early advocate for the knowledge category of intentionality to understand biological organisms.
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