Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

Posted by nliakos on June 20, 2016

by David Eagleman (Pantheon 2011; ISBN 978-0-307-37733-3)

In this excellent book, neuroscientist David Eagleman explores the question of who we really are, given that the conscious part of our brain is but a small part of the whole. He writes, “Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.” (p. 4)

That “massive engineering underfoot” not only runs our physical bodies (digestion, vision, reproduction, etc.) but also influences our conscious decisions in multiple ways, impacting who we are attracted to, what we choose to eat, what thoughts and ideas we have–pretty much everything, actually. As Eagleman writes, “Almost the entirety of what happens in your mental life is not under your conscious control.” (p. 8)

He likens this realization to the “dethroning” of the earth as the center of the universe and the “dethroning” of humankind as the apotheosis of creation or evolution, yet he stops short of espousing materialism and reductionism–the assumption that everything about us can be explained by understanding our physical components (the “break-it-down-to-the-smallest-bits approach”). He keeps an open mind and urges his readers to do likewise.

The book begins with a retrospective of our understanding of the role of the brain (“There’s Someone in My Head, But It’s Not Me”), continues with an exploration of sensory perception with an emphasis on vision (“The Testimony of the Senses”), and goes on to examine the automaticity of habitual actions, like changing lanes while driving, as well as the hidden preferences behind racism, mate selection, career choice, and more (“Mind: the Gap”).

In “The Kinds of Thoughts That Are Thinkable”, Eagleman examines the limitations placed by our biology on our experience of the world and our ability to interpret it, and considers how one person’s perception can differ from the next person’s–if she is a synesthete, for instance, Tuesday might be magenta to her. Next, he explores the question of whether there is a true self and concludes that there is probably not, in “The Brain Is a Team of Rivals”; to quote Walt Whitman, we “contain multitudes”, which explains our self-contradictory behavior. This chapter also considers the concept of being angry with oneself, making a deal with oneself, being ashamed of oneself, etc. Who is angry at whom?

“Why Blameworthiness Is the Wrong Question” advocates for a justice system that stops exacting retribution for criminal acts and instead metes out sentences based on the modifiability of the criminal’s behavior and the prevention of future crime. Finally, “Life After the Monarchy” (remember “dethroning”?) sums up the book’s themes and posits that one can be more than just the sum of one’s parts. Eagleman presents a strong case that the answer to the “nature or nurture?” question is usually “both”, or in his words, “The future of understanding the mind lies in deciphering the patterns of activity that live on top of the wetware, patterns that are directed both by internal machinations and by interactions from the surrounding world.” (pp. 219-220)  (I love the term wetware for the human brain!)

It’s a very interesting, readable, and thought-provoking book.

 

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