Incognito : the secret lives of the brain

by David Eagleman

Hardcover, 2011




New York : Pantheon Books, c2011.


"This book will shine light on some of the hard-to-reach places in the brain, showing the ways in which we are not the ones driving the boat. Why does the conscious mind know so little? What do visual illusions unmask about the machinery running under the hood? How much of our lives are determined by choices and behaviors that are hard-wired, unconscious, and beyond our control? Do we have any management over who we find gorgeous or repugnant? How is it possible to get angry at yourself: who exactly, is mad at whom? If the drunk Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite and the sober Mel Gibson is authentically apologetic, is there a real Mel Gibson? Why did Supreme Court Justice William Douglas claim that he was able to play football and go hiking, when everyone could see that he was paralyzed after his stroke? Why do people willingly give up their money to banks for Christmas accounts (and why don't monkeys do this)? Why do patients on Parkinson's medications become compulsive gamblers? Why do athletes follow routines, like bouncing the ball three times before taking a free throw? Why did Charles Whitman suddenly kill his family and shoot forty six others from the UT Austin tower, and what did this have to do with his brain? How much of who we are is in the genes, and how much in the environment? Does free will exist or not, and how does that affect our view of blameworthiness and credit? The emerging understanding of the brain drastically changes our view of ourselves, shifting us from an intuitive sense that we are at the center of the operations, to a more sophisticated, illuminating, and wondrous view of the situation"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member heike6
Somewhat dry, but nonetheless enlightening. Some things I learned:

We don't actually see our environment around us at every moment. Our mind creates internal models and we only become aware of our surroundings if something unexpected occurs. This is how we can drive to work and not remember it. This is also why people (except schizophrenics) are not able to tickle themselves... it is not unexpected.

The illusion-of-truth effect = "you are more likely to believe that a statement is true if you have heard it before - whether or not it is actually true."

What we think of as human nature is the collection of all of our instincts. Our minds work as well as they do precisely because most of our processes are automated.

Unlike machines, we have inner conflicts due to multiple systems combatting each other, such as emotion and reason.

The author spends a great deal of time discussing blameworthiness and justice. The new understanding of our brains shows us that the justice system is entirely wrong, and that since everyone's brain is different, the punishments and rehabilitation efforts must be different for each person. Since we know that emotion and reason can sometimes conflict, we can rehabilitate some criminals by helping one system gain an edge over the other.

When we first learn new things, our brains burn lots of energy, but as we get better, less brain activity is required due to our brains figuring out how to be energy efficient.

Who are we? Our thinking and personality are influenced by so many things out of our control. In addition to our unconscious processes in general, any microscopic change in neurotransmitters, hormones, bacteria, gene mutations, etc. causes us to be completely different people.

Most of history's prophets and martyrs probably suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. Anti-epileptic medications cause those voices and that hyperreligiosity to disappear.

Research in genetics is proving the inseparability of nature and nurture. Different allele combinations within genes predispose people to certain behaviors, but the behaviors only surface if they experience certain life events.

Emergence = "When you put together large numbers of pieces and parts, the whole can become something greater than the sum" = parts of the brain vs. our "selves".
… (more)
LibraryThing member Meggo
A fascinating look at how we parse the world, that helps explain quite a bit about why - and how - we do the things we do. Well written and researched, this book gives insights that could, potentially, be used to unlock as-yet uncontemplated behaviours. A very engaging and interesting read.
LibraryThing member JeremyPreacher
I am always up for reading pop neuroscience, even when I find it sort of annoying and glib. Incognito was about par for the course in that regard - there was some fascinating stuff, and a lot of obvious oversimplification.

I found the detour into legal philosophy in the middle of the book rather annoying, though - it was clear that the author had an axe to grind and by God this was where he was going to grind it, so instead of it being convincing or even thought-provoking I found myself questioning the validity of the book as a whole. Bait-and-switch is bad, people.… (more)
LibraryThing member rivkat
Popular neuroscience, arguing that the best way to think about the brain is as a team of rivals, with conscious and unconscious processes striving to solve problems, sometimes in conflicting ways. Despite giving significant space to the general idea of environmental influence as a key determinant of what happens to the brain (what skills are learned and become automatic, whether genetic differences that are correlated with violence manifest themselves in behavior, etc.), his perspective is fundamentally individualist. So, when he talks about criminal responsibility, he argues that rather than blameworthiness—which isn’t a coherent concept given what we’re starting to understand about human brains—we should focus on incapacitation (locking up people who can’t control themselves) and rehabilitation (offering people the tools to train themselves to behave). What this glosses over is various kinds of criminogenic environments, say Wall Street, or circumstances where the problem is not, as Eastman argues, that the criminal can’t restrain his short-term desires in furtherance of long-term goals, but that the long-term rewards of so doing are too implausible. When you analogize slipping self-control to “trying to elect a party of moderates in the middle of war and economic meltdown,” it might be productive to consider that many people are in the middle of war and economic meltdown. As written, it seems like neuroscience has nothing to offer them.… (more)
LibraryThing member wislak
Incognito written by David Eagleman is a wonderful and interesting book that delves into the depths of our brains and how much we are capable of doing. I found it full of amazing information that really made me think about what this little mass in my head can do however for some people it just may be too wordy. After all, Mr. Eagleman is a neuroscientist and tends to write, at times, at that level. He does bring home just how complex a 3 pound jelly-like mass can be. My mother’s only question was why I don’t use more of it!!!!… (more)
LibraryThing member CK25_00
Recently seen on The Colbert Report, David Eagleman, took to comparing the organ mass in our heads to a 'neural Parliament', with different sides battling it out to be the one that gets to dictate how a person decides what to do next. This is just one of many points made about the brain and its relation to the human body that ultimately tends toward a question of what exactly free-will is and whether or not humans exercise it when they go about their daily routine.

Like many answers Incognito purports to tackle, it's one giant gray area of yes and no answers.

Eagleman starts off by comparing the brain to a newspaper. His definition of a functioning newspaper is to give analysis of headline-grabbing agendas. When a person opens the paper, they may not want the full story, rather, just the one or two lines that give a summary of what the story's about. The conscious brain (the part of consciousness we think we're controlling when we're awake), he states, acts similarly, with the details of our life's thoughts and decisions taking place below the conscious purview of our mind. Eagleman uses this as a jumping-off point to relate several instances of weird behavior, normally excoriated in our modern society, to explain that such behavior isn't necessarily a choice.

Take, for example, the case of a pedophile he writes about. A married man in his thirties, he had shown no tendancies toward such leud behavior in his life up until then, which were also accompanied by an increasing number of headaches. Suddenly, he was consumed by his habit, spending every waking hour looking at images and, eventually, locating an underage prosititute. When his wife finally took him to get a brain scan, a nickel-sized mass compressing his amygdala (next to the hippocampus region) was discovered. Once removed, the behavior subsided immediately. When the cancer was discovered to have not been fully burned away, the pedophilic thoughts returned. Again, once the tumor was gone for good, so were the thoughts and the man (named Alex...not real name, obviously) was able to resume his normal life again.

Cases like the one above illustrate a good point Eagleman makes about the kinds of people that fill our prisons. How many of them are suffering from some unknown tumor or brain-damage that still allows them to function (somewhat) normally? How can we go about prosecuting criminals without the full range of facts?

Ultimately, Eagleman stresses the importance of not adopting a fully reductionist point of view when it comes to how the brain operates. Sure, people who have Huntington's disease can be reduced to the single mutated gene that causes them to flail their arms and lose bodily function, but in many other cases dealing with disease or psychological maladies the problem can be seen as having elements of environmental origin in addition to badly aligned brain chemisty. It's not enough to merely have the bad genes that predispose a person toward a certain disease or condition. They also must have possesed enough life experiences that drove them to the disease along with carrying those specific genes.

Eagleman's book is one that not only delves into the murky waters surrounding the brain's development but also traces its history from the early 1600's and onward and the context of historical/scientific discoveries (and their subsequent dismissal from the public at large when trying to convince others that man isn't at the center of the universe, just as the earth wasn't). He's careful, though, not to let our ignorance of how the brain truly does its job operate as an easy answer for criminals to argue at their next parole hearing, but I believe he does show sympathies in regarding how dismissive our legal system tends to be. The quest for the true definition of how our brain works is far from over, but there are definitely enough ideas provided in this book for one to become aquainted with a modern view of the subconscious mind without any fingerpointing. Great read!!
… (more)
LibraryThing member Berly
Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman was an interesting look at the unconscious mind and the amazing influence it has over our everyday decisions. Eagleman steals the popular movie title, "A Team Of Rivals," to describe the inner workings of the mind. The author is just a tad egotistical, but he delves into fascinating discussions ranging from time as a mental construct, the ability to make predictions ahead of actual sensory input (think hitting a fastball), implicit memory, instinct blindness, criminal activity as a positive indicator of brain dysfunction and the whole question of blameworthiness. Did I agree with all his conclusions? No. But the journey was so worth it!… (more)
LibraryThing member mazeway
I probably would have enjoyed this more if I hadn't just read "Sleights of Mind." Many of the same studies and anecdotes are used and this one doesn't reveal magic tricks, so it didn't hold up as well. Still, it's very interesting and he raises ethical issues at the end that are going to have me thinking for a while.
LibraryThing member Jaylia3
This very interesting and thought provoking book by neuroscientist David Eagleman is a little disorienting. After all, based on the numerous observations and scientific experiments he details Eagleman’s conclusion is that we have no freewill. I may think I am considering options, making decisions, and choosing, for instance, what book to read, but according to scientists who study these things I am not in charge, if by “I” what I mean is the “I” that I know--my conscious mind. It’s not surprising that drugs, alcohol, brain injury, and evolutionary forces exert power over us that we are not always aware of while it is going on, but according to the science Eagleman reports there is more to it than that. In an experiment in which people were asked to lift their fingers at the time of their choosing, the conscious brain impulse to move was preceded by unconscious brain activity.

Is this proof that the conscious decision to move a finger is governed by the unconscious mind? I’m not sure. And if it is proof, would that carry over into every kind of decision? Does the unconscious mind really have invisible, almost god-like power over every thought and action?

While I am not convinced that the freewill/determinism question has been fully answered--neuroscience is still a very young field of knowledge--the first five chapters of Incognito are full of fascinating, persuasive examples that demonstrate how the reality we perceive with our conscious minds bears sometimes only a rough resemblance to what is actually happening. When reading Incognito I frequently broke off to share these examples with whoever was around me. There are illustrations you can try yourself, for instance there is a graphic that allows you to prove to yourself that your eyes have a blind spot, a gap in vision that your unconscious brain fills in based on what is probably there.

In the final chapters of Incognito Eagleman uses the latest information from brain science to draw logical but sometimes counterintuitive and unsettling conclusions about the future of the justice system. With little or no freewill, what should society do with criminals? Since the unconscious operates on a “team of rivals” model in which conflicting impulses struggle for control, Eagleman would have incarceration based on the neuroplasticity of the offender—that is on how likely it is that the criminal’s brain could respond to reconditioning techniques. Those who could be reconditioned so that they would no longer cause damage to society would be; those who couldn’t be reconditioned because of frontal lobe impairment or other brain defects would be warehoused.

Even though neuroscience is still in its infancy there is a lot of riveting information here about how the brain works. You don’t have to agree with all the conclusions Eagleman draws in this book for it to be worth reading. Incognito is a great book for sparking deep and engaging discussions.
… (more)
LibraryThing member PhilipKinsella
There a just a huge amount of things that the brain does out of conscious awreness. One of the best popular neoroscience/psychology books.
LibraryThing member bobp0303
Great book! The author builds his case carefully and completely as he proceeds to the startling conclusion.
LibraryThing member MarieAlt
Is it really that hard for people to understand that there's a lot going on below any possible understanding of the consciousness?

And I had a lot of trouble getting used to the introductory level of the text. Not being a neuroscientist, I still have a general understanding of how the brain works, thank you very much. Please don't hold my hand, I find it overly familiar.… (more)
LibraryThing member antao
In "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain" by David Eagleman

I've experienced significant creative leaps in shorter timelines than 4 weeks I think because over many years I've become increasingly adept at recognising and leveraging useful elements and catalysts. However I also agree that deep, long-term immersion in a creative problem, descending into disillusion and the chaotic abyss and then often out of failure or accident finding a new path based on hard won knowledge and insight - is where real invention and deeper epiphanies reside. The first time I experienced the creative process at this depth was after months of investigation and it was life changing - not in terms of the creative result so much but because of my first hand experience of the creative journey itself. Sometimes, even Steven King takes thirty years to write a book. Often only a year or two. Sometimes he manages to pop one out in a couple of weeks. Some of his best-loved stories came about that way, inspired by events that would hardly be remarked upon by someone trained out of their natural creative instincts. Odd-beat thing happens, go home, drink a lot, do some cooking, and write compulsively until story done in a fortnight. It takes dedication. Temporarily obliterating the mind in the best of Hunter S. Thompson style is by no means a mandatory requirement, but Steven King shows us that for certain kinds of unputdownable stories it may play a key, amplifying part. And no one should be complaining.

I think anyone inspired to creativity through writing (rather than musical or dance languages, say), even Steven King himself, has to marvel in disbelief at the output of Isaac Asimov. He was a total Boss.

Witten aptly writes about consciousness in a way I absolutely can't. He distinguishes the brain's working from consciousness itself, so it's worth listening to Witten on this:

Witten: "Consciousness … I tend to believe that consciousness will be a mystery."

Q "Remain a mystery?"

Witten: "Yes, that’s what I tend to believe. That’s what I tend to believe. I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent, so I tend to believe that biologists and perhaps physicists contributing will understand much better how the brain works but why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think will remain mysterious, perhaps I’m mistaken. I’ll have a much easier time imagining how we’d understand the Big Bang, though we can’t do it now, than I can imagine understanding consciousness."

Q: "Understanding superstring is easy compared to understanding how your brains are working…"

Witten: "When you say understanding how the brain is working, um, I think understanding the functioning of the brain is a very exciting problem on which there will probably be a lot of progress in the next few decades, that’s not out of reach. But I think there’s probably a level of mystery that will remain about why the brain has functionings we can see. Um, it creates consciousness or whatever we want to call it. How it functions in the way that a conscious being functions will become clearer but what it is we are experiencing when we experience consciousness I see as being remaining a mystery."

This is an interesting area and Eagleman's take on the nature of consciousness, AI, and creativity is quite impressive. Purely anecdotally, as someone who spends about half my working time in highly focused logical pursuits (IT) and the other half in the creative domain (Creating/Making Stuff), I sometimes find that spending a lot of time in one domain can have an adverse effect on the other, if only for a short time. It's not quite as simple as that of course. There is creativity involved in the IT work and any art is typically a combination of creativity and practical application.
… (more)
LibraryThing member sjh4255
Very good book describing in layman's terms the intricacies of the known brain. References a number of other literature or scientists for further study and provides a number of examples with statistics and research. (Some not so believable, ie: people marry other people with the same first letter of their first name.. I don't even know anybody that did that!!)… (more)
LibraryThing member dickmanikowski
Fascinating examination of the many hidden levels at which the brain governs human behavior. In the process of discussing various brain functions (including perception, consciousness, and decision making), he demonstrates how much we are not in control of our behavior. He raises some thought provoking questions about criminal behavior and the corrections system.… (more)
LibraryThing member dtw42
I'm not entirely sure WHAT I thought of this book. The first three-quarters were - as books on neuroscience tend to be - very interesting. Chapter six, "Why Blameworthiness is the Wrong Question", is the one that divides reviewers. Many have responded as though he is saying that an understanding of the workings of a criminal's brain activity shifts responsibility for their actions away from their personal choice toward mere determinism; but he seems to have predicted that people would interpret his text that way, and keeps repeating that this is NOT what he's driving at. He's trying to say that a knowledge of whether a criminal act was the result of a rational choice or the inevitable outcome of altered brain chemistry should alter the STYLE of sentencing applied to those found guilty.
Still in all, I can see why some readers felt queasy during this last section - anything that questions our notions of free will has that effect.
Frankly, I was more irritated by his constant use of trite analogies. Every time he introduced some concept, he'd launch into a couple of "It's a bit like..." sentences describing some piece of everyday life. Some of the analogies were more worthwhile than others, but after a while the sheer barrage of them got a bit grating.
… (more)
LibraryThing member klburnside
The human brain is fascinating and there was some interesting information in this book, but overall I didn't enjoy it too much. I thought it was poorly organized and too wordy.
LibraryThing member LaPhenix
Enlightening and informative, it presented many unconventional perspectives worth considering.
LibraryThing member sami7
Had a few good & novel idea but so repetitive. After saying something smart, you will encounter 5 examples and 10 pages of the same previously said smart thing reworded to the point of boredom. The call to complete reform of the justice system at the end is also nice, but yet again should've been summarized into much much fewer words.… (more)
LibraryThing member Kronomlo
The author is both a neuroscientist and a writer, so as most neuroscience books are pretty "heavy" with content, which this one is, it's easier to absorb since it reads like it's been written by a journalist. This is nice because reading a neuroscience book written by someone who is not a writer, is really, REALLY, complicated and you get tired after about three pages.

This is a neat book.
… (more)
LibraryThing member AJBraithwaite
Fascinating, accessible read about the current state of knowledge on the inner workings of the human brain. I felt a bit brow-beaten by the chapter on the legal status of free will, but otherwise really enjoyed the book.



Page: 0.6168 seconds