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Governing Behavior: How Nerve Cell Dictatorships & Democracies Control Everything We Do

By: Ari Berkowitz(Author)

235 pages, 8 plates with 9 colour photos and colour illustrations; 21 b/w photos, 18 b/w illustrations

Harvard University Press

Hardback | Apr 2016 | #227777 | ISBN-13: 9780674736900
Availability: Usually dispatched within 4 days Details
NHBS Price: £19.95 $26/€23 approx

About this book

From simple reflexes to complex choreographies of movement, all animal behavior is governed by a nervous system. But what kind of government is it – a dictatorship or a democracy?

Nervous systems consist of circuits of interconnected nerve cells (neurons) that transmit and receive information via electrical signals. Every moment, each neuron adds up stimulating and inhibiting inputs from many other neurons to determine whether to send an electrical signal to its recipients. Some circuits are dominated by a single "dictator" neuron that gathers information from many sources and then issues commands, such as the Mauthner neuron that triggers escape in fish. In other more "democratic" circuits, such as those mediating eye movements in monkeys, the outcome is determined by a tally of "votes" from a large population of neurons. Rhythmic movements like breathing and locomotion are generated by "government programs" within the central nervous system, but modified by a soup of chemicals and by free market-like feedback from sensory neurons. Nervous systems also use sophisticated surveillance of the surrounding environment and keep track of their own decisions in order to avoid internal conflicts. Nervous systems are not restricted to using one set of procedures at a time. They have evolved over long periods to control behaviors in whichever ways are most effective, and they essentially combine multiple forms of government simultaneously.

Engaging and accessible, Governing Behavior explains the variety of structures and strategies that control behavior, while providing an overview of thought-provoking debates and cutting-edge research in neurobiology.

"This book would be incredibly useful for students just embarking on a career in neurophysiology, or for any student of science who is interested in the history of neural thought. It presents the experimental evidence that led to our present-day understanding of many neuroethological concepts such as command neurons, efference copy, neuronal networks, neuronal multifunctionality, the ubiquitous role of inhibition, and others."
– Peter Narins, University of California, Los Angeles

"Governing Behavior provides an accessible and engaging review of modern theories of neuroethology. Berkowitz presents an account of the experiments behind the theories that is at once clear, concise, scholarly, and entertaining. His overarching analogy between nervous systems and governments works – and helps the reader to grasp the fundamental concepts of autonomy and partnership that characterize neural circuits."
– Leslie Tolbert, University of Arizona



    1. How to Spy on the Government
    2. Isn’t There an Easier Way?
    3. Neuronal Dictatorships
    4. Neuronal Democracies
    5. How Are the Factories Run?
    6. The Plot (and the Chemical Soup) Thickens
    7. Government Surveillance
    8. Government Self-Monitoring
    9. Becoming a Political Animal
    10. Governing Behavior

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Ari Berkowitz is a Presidential Professor in the Department of Biology and Director of the Cellular and Behavioral Neurobiology Graduate Program at the University of Oklahoma.

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