David Eagleman

Eagleman writes well, and he has a very good way with simple, straightforward analogies. He makes the same point over and over, true enough, but his kit bag of examples is ample enough to keep the repetition from becoming overly annoying.

David Eagleman is best known for Sum, the pop culture guide to the afterlife. With Incognito, Eagleman proposes to do the same for the human brain — but with a social policy twist thrown into the bargain.

The book’s full title is Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, but that’s not entirely honest. A more accurate subtitle would be Two Different Books in One.

Eagleman’s current pet project is justice reform based on brain research. To serve that end, Eagleman has written two books in one: one on the way the brain works, and one on the way penology should work because of that.

Now, I have no real problem with Eagleman’s ideas about reforming the justice system. I just don’t understand why those ideas belong in this book, which purports to be a popularization of current cognitive research. If justice reform is a worthwhile topic on its own, then put it into a book of its own. Instead, Eagleman’s discussion of the brain screeches to a sudden halt partway through, in order to make room for an out of place appeal for justice reform, before swerving back on topic for the last chapter. Neither part of the book is badly done; they’re just not a natural fit in a book that purports to explain the brain. It’s as if I were to write a book on automobile manufacturing and stick a chapter or two on stock car racing into the middle of it. Related, but not closely enough to work in a single volume.

With that criticism aside, I liked most of Incognito, taking it for what it is. If you want your brain science with all the details, this isn’t the book for you. But if you’re fascinated by optical illusions and the weird effects of different neurological disorders, this book will give you all you can eat, with dessert. Incognito is an entertaining and easy read (especially so if you skip the justice reform bits). Eagleman writes well, and he has a very good way with simple, straightforward analogies. He makes the same point over and over, true enough, but his kit bag of examples is ample enough to keep the repetition from becoming overly annoying.

The idea that Eagleman keeps repeating is simply that most of what happens in the human brain is unconscious, operating below our awareness or control. In one word, the brain is almost entirely incognito — unknown. This idea is repeated again and again in one form or another, and any iteration will serve to illustrate the bunch. Here’s one:

Although we are dependent on the functioning of the brain for our inner lives, it runs its own show. Most of its operations are above the security clearance of the conscious mind.

This fact is not alarming, Eagleman asserts, for that’s the way our brains are supposed to work:

Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision making. And most of the time, it’s not. … Your brain has been molded by evolutionary pressures just as your spleen and eyes have been. And so has your consciousness.

Consciousness developed because it was advantageous, but advantageous only in limited amounts. … Almost the entirety of what happens in your mental life is not under your conscious control, and the truth is that it’s better this way.

Eagleman understands that this new view of the brain as a series of unconscious processes faintly perceived by a mostly uninvolved consciousness is just the latest in a series of scientific advances that have “dethroned” human beings from our long-held belief in our central importance to life, the universe, and everything.

The last four hundred years have not been good for our self-image. Cosmology removed us from the centre of the universe. Geology expanded time so dramatically that all of human history shrank to insignificance. Darwin did in special creation, and DNA threatened to reduce us to machine-like automatons at the mercy of our mindless genes. And, Eagleman writes:

Over the past century, neuroscience has shown that the conscious mind is not the one driving the boat. A mere four hundred years after our fall from the center of universe, we have experienced the fall from the center of ourselves.

In this new construct, consciousness sits beside (“atop” no longer fits) the working brain, waiting for reports to come down the wire. These reports help us cope with the world around us, but that doesn’t mean that they are “true.” Vision, hearing, our perceptions of time, movement, and causality — all of them are mental tricks, the ways the brain shows us the world in terms we can understand and (most of the time) use.

One of Eagleman’s analogies is that consciousness is like someone reading the headlines of a newspaper. The research, the writing, and the editing of the articles, the selection of the photos and graphics — all of these decisions have already been made before the headlines are put above the text. And those headlines are all that we can see of the journalistic process that is normal brain function. As long as it’s not taken too far, it’s a useful analogy.

So what makes the human brain different from other animal brains? What functions other than newspaper subscriber does consciousness serve? Eagleman’s primary answer is that consciousness affords us the ability to be flexible learners:

Flexibility of learning accounts for a large part of what we consider human intelligence. While many animals are properly called intelligent, humans distinguish themselves in that they are so flexibly intelligent, fashioning their neural circuits to match the tasks at hand. It is for this reason that we can colonize every region on the planet, learn the local language we’re born into, and master skills as diverse as playing the violin, high-jumping and operating space shuttle cockpits.

The human brain” is a misnomer. Eagleman believes that our brains are an amalgamation of unique, redundant, cooperative, competitive subsections, what he calls “a team of rivals.”  He begins his chapter of this conception of the brain with an apt quotation from Whitman’s Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Eagleman  writes:

There is an ongoing conversation among the different factions in your brain, each competing to control the single output channel of your behavior. As a result, you can accomplish the strange feats of arguing with yourself, cursing at yourself, and cajoling yourself to do something.

In an acknowledged over-simplification, Eagleman divides the brain’s systems into two parts: emotion and reason.

The rational system is the one that cares about analysis of things in the outside world, while the emotional system monitors internal state and worries whether things will be good or bad. … The emotional systems are evolutionarily old, and therefore shared with many other species, while the development of the rational system is more recent. But as we have seen, the novelty of the rational system does not necessarily indicate that it is, by itself, superior. … Some balance of the emotional and rational systems is needed, and that balance may already be optimized by natural selection in human brains.

It’s not long after this that Eagleman inserts his inner book on justice reform, but having warned you already of its existence, I intend otherwise to ignore it completely.

In the final chapter, Eagleman addresses the charge of reductionism that so often tags along with neuropsychology:

Just because a system is made of pieces and parts, and just because those pieces and parts are critical to the working of the system, that does not mean that the pieces and parts are the correct level of description. … But reductionism is not the right viewpoint for everything, and it certainly won’t explain the relationship between the brain and the mind. This is because of a feature known as emergence.27 When you put together large numbers of pieces and parts, the whole can become something greater than the sum. … Watching The Simpsons depends entirely on the integrity of the transistors, but the parts are not themselves funny. Similarly, while minds depend on the integrity of neurons, neurons are not themselves thinking.

Eagleman argues that the reductionist approach which has worked well in other hard sciences won’t work with neuropsychology:

This break-it-down-to-the-smallest-bits approach is the same successful method that science has employed in physics, chemistry, and the reverse-engineering of electronic devices. … But we don’t have any real guarantee that this approach will work in neuroscience. The brain, with its private, subjective experience, is unlike any of the problems we have tackled so far. Any neuroscientist who tells you we have the problem cornered with a reductionist approach doesn’t understand the complexity of the problem.

Incognito (the good part) is certainly a worthwhile introduction to the topic of cognitive structure. But any reader who thinks that Eagleman’s book is the last word on neuropsychology doesn’t understand the  breadth of the subject.


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