Book Review: Incognito

I heartily recommend the book Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain. The author David Eagleman is a neuroscientist who tells engaging stories that illustrate the workings of the brain.  The central thesis is that “most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control.” It raises a disturbing question of who am I if my thoughts, decisions and even self discipline, will power and impulse control are all decided well before I become aware of thinking about them?

He explains that the brain is in the business of collecting information about the world and making appropriate decisions, and that most of that happens without our ever becoming aware of it.  One telling example he gives is that you can be driving down a familiar street and your foot jumps to the brake and begins stopping the car BEFORE you notice that a child is running out into the street to chase a ball.  The brain has noticed the unusual situation and responded to it.  Because this is such an emergency the brain determines that it is worth sending the decision to stop the car up into the level of your consciousness.  But you were stopping the car before you ever had a conscious thought to do so, and the decision to stop had been made before you were aware that a hazardous situation was emerging.  So…who made that decision? Not the conscious “you” with whom you identify.  That self-conscious, aware person that you consider as your identity was the LAST to be informed about the decision.

One way he illustrates the mechanics of our brains is through optical illusions and tricks of timing of perception, showing that we construct our understanding from mechanical processes that may not be based upon what is actually in front of us.  One striking line from the book is, “So the first lesson about trusting your senses is: don’t.  Just because you believe something to be true, just because you know it’s true, that doesn’t mean it is true.”  Consider the implications that this has on eye witness testimony in a court of law…another situation that he goes into some detail describing.

Eagleman points out that the workings of the brain are so complex that our awareness would obstruct the operations.  He draws the analogy that our brain is like a nation, full of industry, and our awareness is like  a newspaper with articles about specific trends of interest.  Our conscious thoughts are after-the-fact headlines describing work that has already been done.  One of the subchapters is called: How Far in the Past Do You Live?

Building upon all of this, he devotes an entire chapter to “The Kinds of Thoughts That Are Thinkable.” This is based upon the human “Umwelt” which is our ability to perceive and interact with the world.  Our eyes can perceive certain wavelengths of light and focus to a certain distance, our ears hear a specific range of vibrations, our skin can perceive temperatures only within a certain range.  Other animals can perceive other spectra of these ranges…each species has its own umwelt.  Ours evolved to allow us to survive upon the African savannah and those are the ranges available for our perception.  Even among individuals there are differences, such as color blindness or hearing deficits.  We cannot conceive of perceptions outside of our ranges nor process concepts outside of the circuitry of our brains. For example, humans tend to have great social intelligence and much more limited logical abilities, because our survival depended upon staying together as a group.  You can’t imagine a five-dimensional cube. Even though a mathematician would tell you that it is every bit as real as one that is three dimensional, that mathematician would not be able of visualize it either.

One concept from the book made a particularly strong impression upon me.  In the chapter “The Brain Is a Team of Rivals” he explores how deeply divided our mental processes operate.  This results in the familiar feelings of ambiguity about a decision, or the frequency with which we might change our minds, even the ability we have to argue with ourselves.

He works through the chapters giving clinical examples of aberrant behavior and links it to specific sectors of the brain.  He does an excellent job of demonstrating how our personality and its changes are neurological and hormonal, further undercutting the our sense of sovereign self-determinism.  Toward the end of the book he explores implications to the concept of free will.  He suggests a new model for the criminal justice system that changes the burden of proof from establishing guilt and consequent punishment to a system of rehabilitation with the sentence determined by the probability that the offender will not repeat the offense.

This is one of those books that keeps coming up in my conversations, in that it is relevant to so many different threads of perception and discussion.  I would like for everyone to have read this book so that we would all have these concepts in common.  It is simultaneously humbling and empowering.  I’m loaning it to several friends.  I suggest that YOU read it too!

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David M. Eagleman, Vintage Books, April 2012

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