Author: David Eagleman

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

Published: 2011

I read it: July 2013


“However, lately…I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”

These words were written by Charles Whitman the night before he went on a shooting spree in Austin in 1966. He murdered many people, including family members, and had foreseen something like this happening. That’s because he had a tumor on his brain which drove him to extreme actions. Was he correct in describing himself as a “victim” of his own thoughts? After all, was the tumor not an external force acting on–and eventually transforming–an otherwise healthy mind?

Incognito rests heavy on the idea that when you investigate the situation upstairs, there is very little “you” to be found. The book begins with the most interesting aspects of high school psychology, such as optical illusions, Phineas Gage, and the like. There are quality explanations to teach or remind you of overlooked concepts—such as the fact that vision has to be learned and is not simply translated through an eye, or the prevalence of synesthetes (my 4s and 9s are female, which I finally realize is a modest version of the phenomenon).

The setup is clever in that the reader gets lured into following an idea that is more and more disconcerting as the book progresses: we are not the ultimate authors of our actions. To some this may be a fascinating topic to explore, while for others it may border on blasphemous. Eagleman uses the analogy of political parties fighting internally for resolution within your gray matter to illustrate how difficult it is for the various parts to reconcile. Conscious brain activity is Freud’s tip of the iceberg, but all the real stuff happens underneath.

The final chapters confront blameworthiness and the misguided notion that we can ultimately hold individuals accountable for their actions. Eagleman discusses the complexities this introduces to justice and the current structure of legal systems. If we are not the authors, are we responsible for the contents of our books? Eagleman leans toward no, and lays out some digestible philosophy that seems to more clearly address issues brought up in Sam Harris’ Free Will. I would be curious what a reader thinks who has never considered the issue in quite this way, and who approaches the end of the book reading about how perhaps we should reassess how we treat—and even categorize—criminals.

While the writing seems a bit dictated at times—David Eagleman is no Carl Sagan—the examples and ideas presented here are well worth exploring. The heart of his arguments lies incognito behind an inviting yellow cover, and when taken seriously could prove explosive to our modern mores.

P.S. I finished reading this when Laura was laboring in the hospital, shortly before Isaac’s new brain came into this world.

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