November 18, 2002

New Book Reveals Complexities Of The Human Mind

Salk News

New Book Reveals Complexities Of The Human Mind

La Jolla, CA – Who are we? Are we good or fundamentally evil? What makes us happy? Who can we become? These are the questions prefacing a new book, Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are.

Written by neuroscientists Terrence J. Sejnowski, Ph.D., and Steven R. Quartz, Ph.D., the book, published by Morrow Press at Harper-Collins, introduces the science of cultural biology and takes readers on a journey inside the brain in search of answers to those enduring questions.

The answers they uncover are often surprising, paradoxical and shocking. Many of the noblest human qualities – altruism, love, courage, and creativity – are rooted in brain systems so old that we share them with insects. These systems also form the basis of some of our darkest, most destructive traits.

Sejnowski, considered one of the world’s foremost theoretical brain scientists, is director of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. His collaboration with co-author Quartz began when Quartz, now a professor at the California Institute of Technology, was a fellow at the Salk’s Sloan Center for Theoretical Neurobiology. The two would often meet during afternoon tea to discuss their work. This new book, inspired in part by those discussions, brings together cutting-edge scientific advancements with examples from history and recent headlines to illustrate the new science of cultural biology.

Born of recent developments in brain imaging, computer modeling and genetics, cultural biology explains the complex relationship between genes and environment that shapes the human brain and affects – for better or for worse – human behavior.

“We have learned that nature and nurture are partners,” says Sejnowski. “Nurture can affect genes and change the actual structure of the brain.”

As the book details, the interaction can result in extremely complex behavior. Among the chapters of the book is an examination of the Columbine High School massacre, which takes into consideration the effects of violent video games and high school social hierarchy. The authors also contrast the uncommon violence shown by the terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, with the uncommon compassion shown by strangers in the aftermath.

“Although we do not yet have the complete answers,” the authors state in their preface, “remarkable progress in brain science now provides us with the tools that we believe are crucial to uncovering the mystery of who we are.”

About the Authors:
Terrence J. Sejnowski, Ph.D., is director of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He is a professor of biology, physics and neuroscience and directs the Institute for Neural Computation at the University of California, San Diego. He lives in Solana Beach, Calif.

Steven R. Quartz, Ph.D., is director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. In 2000, he received the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award, its most prestigious award for young faculty. In August 2002, Dr. Quartz received a $1 million award from the Packard Foundation to study the neural basis of evaluative behavior. He lives in Topanga, Calif.

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