Review: Incognito by David Eagleman

Posted on December 27, 2012. Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , , |

“There’s a war going on in the three-pound ball of gray mush trapped in your skull,” David Eagleman says. The Baylor School of Medicine neuroscientist has studied the most complex system in the world—the human brain—and drawn fascinating conclusions in his new book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.

It’s well known that the human brain is made up of a complex web of instinct, unconscious impulses, automatic systems, emotion, and a dozen other forces, most of which we aren’t even aware of, and all of which affect every thought and action we make.  Eagleman points out that our sense of ourselves as coherent, free-standing personalities is at odds with the most basic findings about the workings of the human brain. Through experiments, anecdotes, puzzles, optical illusions, and current events, Eagleman reveals the extent of the neural wizardry operating behind the conscious curtain of the “I”. It is this wizardry, he suggests, that constructs the cognitive illusion we confidently declare reality.

One of his more interesting points is to reveal the tricks the brain is constantly playing on us. These tricks make up the bulk of the book.  The brain offers a seamless impression of reality, but that is merely an illusion. Eagleman gives  examples to demonstrate that vision is not a passive process, with the eye serving as a camera, as it appears to us. In fact, we see with the brain, not the eye, and the brain generates expectations of what is out there, which are then modulated by the signals coming in.

Another of Eagleman’s main conclusions is that rather than the conscious mind dictating one’s actions, he says, it’s a “team of rivals”—neural networks that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years—fighting for control.  For example, our brains work differently when learning a skill and after it’s become second nature—it’s one thing to drive to a new place, another to drive a familiar route, and our brains work much harder doing the former than the latter, when we can go on “automatic pilot.”

Eagleman has the clever ability to turn hard science research into interesting and relatable prose, illuminating the mind’s processes with fascinating analogies and metaphors. He navigates a wide range of areas such as dating, criminal law, work processes, beauty and brain damage.

Incognito is an exploration of the mind and all its contradictions with much for the business leader to draw on.

Published in 2011 by The Text Publishing Company

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eagleman

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, where he directs the Laboratory of Perception and Action as well as the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law.  His scientific research is published in journals from Science to Nature, and his non-fiction books include Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia and Why the Net Matters.  He is also the author of the internationally bestselling book of fiction Sum: Tales from the Afterlives.

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