Book Report #7: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

#7: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman

Are you in control of your actions? In a few minutes when you’re finished reading this blog post you might get up to go to the restroom, make a midnight snack or call your mother to let her know how you’re doing. Who or what really made that decision? What does “you” really mean and what is a “personality”?

Using hundreds of documented examples, including many from patients with significant brain disorders, David Eagleman brings readers into the strange world of our brains’ inner workings to explore his thesis that our shared concept of free will is an elaborate illusion granted for our sanity. While we may rationalize the majority of actions we take as purposeful and well reasoned, most of the time we’re actually on ‘autopilot’ and don’t seem to have a say in what happens until we’ve already acted. (Don’t believe me? Read the book.)

One of my favorite concepts from this book is that our everyday thoughts, spoken words and outward actions are the result of a complex competition within a “team of rivals” — complementary and competing stored memories and actions in the neurons of our brain that compete, in an oddly cooperative fashion, to result in the neurons that eventually fire to drive motor activity that results in, for example, lifting a glass of water.

What happens when you apply the model of a “team of rivals” to our earlier question “what is a personality”? A personality is not one, fixed set of words, actions and beliefs, instead it is a conflicting lattice of billions of interconnected neurons representing often contradictory concepts and ideas, the “victor” of which bubbles up to externally represent itself to the outside world as the embodiment of your “personality” through your actions, words and conscious thoughts at a given time. But if external (or internal) conditions change, this dynamic personality made up of competing concepts may exhibit itself quite differently in different situations. I believe we see this in our own lives all the time — think how differently you would act speaking with a close friend compared to your mother or coworker.

The second half of Incognito wrestles with some slightly uncomfortable conclusions and the implications they could have on society, with a particularly heavy focus on and subsequent criticism of the American justice system and its core assumption that we are all rational actors. If physical and chemical causes prove to be behind acts of crime, what does it mean to be guilty of a crime? I’m not a particularly huge fan of our justice system and agree with many of Eagleman’s general criticisms, but I did find the focus on justice reform a bit long and distracting from some of the core messages earlier in the book.

Incognito highly complements Daniel Kahneman’s Fast and Slow, a book I read and reviewed earlier this year. Eagleman’s description of the majority of our actions and thoughts as being outside our direct control reminded me of Kahneman’s concept of the “fast” System 1. (“System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.”)

In writing this review I found it to be tougher than other books to clearly summarize and condense the author’s thesis and flow. While the book has great concepts and is definitely worth a read for those who enjoy this sort of subject, I felt it could have been a bit simpler, more focused and would benefit from cutting some of the more involved discussion of our justice system.

That said, if you can muster up the competing neurons to give this a read, I’d highly recommend it.

PS. This same author wrote Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives a collection of short fiction. Check out a fantastic excerpt of one of the short stories read aloud on this Radiolab episode.

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4 Responses to Book Report #7: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

  1. jj says:

    kf – enjoyed your reviews of Thinking, Fast and Slow and Incognito. If you’re looking for similar titles, I enjoyed Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain
    by Michael S. Gazzaniga. Lots of discussion on the team of rivals concept and some interesting experiments with split brain (severed corpus callosum) patients.

  2. How did you know I’d be reading this at midnight?!

  3. I’d believe I don’t have free will without even reading the book. Like you say, autopilot is the default and only when I achieve mental clarity do I decide how my day is going to be run. This is why checking email first thing in the morning is considered such a bad thing. (and I think that’s hardly disputed)

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