“Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” is a book on the topic of neuropsychology written by David Eagleman. He is working as an assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston (Bilger, 2011).The book was published in 2011 by Vintage publishers.
This book is appealing and interesting in that it has presented the scientific concepts in an easy-to-understand manner and has successfully given surprising lessons in neuroscience. Eagleman has presented the tricks that are played by our brain and senses in this physical world. In the start of the book, Eagleman illustrates the incomprehensible complexity of the human brain that has hundreds of millions of neurons having hundreds of thousands of connections with other neurons. Scientists are working on different aspects of the brain, but most of the aspects are still a mystery for science (Eagleman, 2011).
He has showed that those tasks which can easily be done without knowledge are difficult to explain or redevelop with the conscious mind that is a type of advantageous situation for us. Our conscious mind is same to our senses in that both have natural limits as, for example, we can see only a little portion of all the wavelengths of light but some insects can see beyond that limit. Similarly, a bloodhound can smell a wide range of odors as compared to human beings.
Working of the conscious mind is only a small part of all the brain activities and functions. So, the book deals with the interesting question, i.e. “If the conscious mind-the part you consider to be you-is just the tip of the iceberg, what is the rest doing?” In this book, Eagleman states that we are not aware of many processes of the brain. He claims that who we “are” is mostly the function of the unconscious process of the mind. The conscious mind shows the whole processing as “I”, but in fact different thoughts, actions, and behaviors can only be generated after a huge amount of procedures in the brain.
Most of the tasks of our daily routines such as those related to tying of shoelaces, talking with friends, and playing video games can happen without our conscious knowledge. The book “Incognito” has several illustrations of brain functions that are happening without our conscious knowledge. These examples range from the simple work of attraction and affinity to the dazzling processes such as “blindsight”, in which some blind people are able to tell correctly about different objects and things in the surrounding area. Eagleman noted that making a process unconscious can help in improving the efficiency of the brain (Chabris, 2011).
According to Eagleman, consciousness is working as a superintendent to fulfill the lower programs of the mind. Conscious mind only stops working when people start learning something new or their cognitive routines are interrupted.
This book shows that our mind is actually a combination of different chemicals and tiny objects such as neurotransmitters, hormones, and genes. “Incognito” shows, in a step-by-step manner that every concept of the reader is just a feeling, and there is nothing except some structures and chemicals. These chemicals are driving a huge number of our actions and our brain, especially the left hemisphere. Every part of the brain is connected to other parts in the network, and no part is found to be independent or “free” from other parts of the brain.
Many factors can affect the conscious mind, and Eagleman has provided many examples to support this concept. Our senses of touch, hearing, or seeing etc. can be affected or disturbed by a number of factors changing our perception of reality. Eagleman illustrated his concepts with the perception of vision. He noted that about one-third of the brain works on vision showing that it is really a complicated process. However, brain has flawless impressions of presenting reality, which are actually illusions. Eagleman has presented many examples to show that vision is not a passive process as it seems to us. We look at things with brain, whereas eyes help the brain in taking information from outside. Brain can determine different things on the basis of this information and past experiences. Many different calculations or computations take place in all these processes but we have no conscious knowledge or control on all of them as most of the work of the brain is unconscious. Eagleman has presented the perceptual processes with the help of deceptive illustrations, some of which are already popular such as the illusion of the vase-or-two-heads, and certain other case histories. Sensory substitution is probably the most interesting example of the surprising powers of the brain. Every brain activity can be considered as of similar kind, i.e. different senses such as vision, touch, and hearing etc. have no dedicated neurons. This shows that it is possible for blind people to have a perception of the surrounding such as the room in which they are present, with the help of electronic signals from a video camera relayed to different parts of the body other than eye as, for example, the back and the tongue. With the passage of time, these electronic signals start making patterns that are helpful in building a visual space with the help of other sensory information. This shows that eyes are not actually responsible for vision, but it is the brain that helps in interpreting the information coming with light waves through eyes.
Most of the experiments in the book also show the change in people’s perception and/or behavior after some form of damage or drugs. These changes are often responsible for complete change in behavior of the personality, i.e. contrary to the previous behavior or personality.
Eagleman has proposed a model of the brain referred to as “team of rivals”. This model shows that the brain has various separate functions that are sometimes opposite to each other. In this case, Eagleman has presented an example of a person’s possible reaction towards eating a dessert. The person may have some conflicting thoughts, whether he can eat the dessert or not due to health related issues. Eagleman argues that these competing or conflicting thoughts are actually produced by the unconscious mind, and the conscious mind works as a chief executive in making the final decision on whether to eat the dessert or not.
David Eagleman has thoughts of salvation. His professional and academic work as neuroscientist is showing that he wants to work on bad people and want to convert them into good ones, i.e. rehabilitation of criminals, through the better knowledge of the brain. With the help of “Incognito”, Eagleman has showed that the American criminal justice system has to work on the brains of criminals and other such people in punishing them. According to Eagleman, acts of criminal are mostly the result of our unconscious minds. He suggests that rather than sentencing or punishing criminals on the basis of offense, judges or jury have to punish them in order to reframe their behavior on the basis of neurological influences. New policies in this regard can help in improving the behavior of these people.
We are not always able to understand our own motivations. We can’t even know from where such motivations are coming. According to Eagleman, the American criminal justice system considers motivation to be a part of crime that is punishable as, for example, a person who kills some other person in order to steal his money has motivation of crime but a person who kills some other person in sleepwalking has no motivation that is why he is not “blameworthy”. He argues that the actions of both these persons can better be illustrated with the help of neuroscience and that punishing any person on the basis of motivation can’t help in preventing the person from committing the same crime again. He suggests that punishment should be based on the person’s ability to be rehabilitated through proper medical or psychological treatment according to the neurological basis for their actions. Other scientists have also worked on this concept as, for example, Pustilnik talked about the “psychopathology of crime” in 2009 (Pustilnik, 2009).
Critically speaking; although this book has presented many examples but it is not the systematic review of the unconscious factors influencing our decisions. It can be said that most of the material has been taken from other authors as, for example, most of the work is similar to that of V.S. Ramachandran. Moreover, Eagleman is not able to illustrate “rivals” in a better way in the 5th chapter.
Overall, this book is interesting in that it has illustrated the exclamation “I think, therefore I am” by René Descartes. Moreover, its general flow is such that during reading any reader can feel that he or she is watching a science documentary series.
Bilger, B. (2011). What a brush with death taught David Eagleman about the mysteries of time and the brain. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/04/25/the-possibilian?currentPage=all
Chabris, C. F. (2011). The actions of the unconscious are so powerful and pervasive that they may 'dethrone' the conscious mind. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304474804576371522374025268?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10001424052702304474804576371522374025268.html
Eagleman, D. (2011). Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
Pustilnik, A. C. (2009). Violence on the brain: a critique of neuroscience in criminal law. Wake Forest L. Rev., 44, 183.