On David Eagleman’s Incognito: How We Know What We Know

by Thomas Brett

The field of neuroscience is hot these days, and I suspect that it will continue to get hotter still as it explains away more and more of the mysteries of how our minds work.  Case in point: David Eagleman’s recent book Incognito: The Secret Lives Of  The Brain is a whirlwind, high-definition look at the neural underpinnings of our everyday thinking and perception, specifically that substrate known as the unconscious.  For Eagleman, the brain is a remarkable and infinitely powerful thing, and this book tries to explain some of the ways its workings shape our lives.

The brain is not called “dark matter” for nothing either.  Eagleman provides example after example of the gap between our knowledge and our awareness (58), how the brain makes decisions before we’re aware of it, how it’s driven towards “patternicity” (136), how it’s composed of conflicting parts (108), and intriguingly, how it’s influenced by physical realities such as our body posture and facial expressions (134).

I suppose that one of the slightly disconcerting feelings Incognito leaves us with is the sense that we are not, and perhaps never really were, in full control of our cognitive processes.  But this realization reminds us of how awesome our creative machinations really are–everyday stuff like driving a car in traffic or getting a joke, but also in the context of our affinity for abstract or non-representational arts . . . like, say, music.

We “get” music without having to “think” about it, and Eagleman would probably cite this ability as one more example of a seemingly simple skill guided by unconscious processes so complex that they have yet to be successfully modeled by a computer.  Case in point: Have you ever wondered about the geography of your musical tastes?  About how this terrain could possibly be modelled without recourse to the billions points of neural firing that comprise “you”?  It’s this kind of rich perspective that Eagleman opens up again and again in this fascinating book, inviting us to think about how wonderous a technology the brain is.

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