Monday, December 19, 2011

Incognito

Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain
© 2011 David Eagleman
304 pages



Carl Sagan once described astronomy as a 'profoundly humbling experience', for it allows us to appreciate how infinitesimally small Earth -- and ourselves --are in relation to the size of the Cosmos. David Eagleman sees neurology in very much the same way, and even uses Copernicus and Galileo as his models in introducing the study of the brain to lay readers. While those two astronomers unseated the heavens by helping people to realize Earth is not the center of the universe, neurology makes us realize we are not the center of ourselves. The conscience self is a very small part of an incredibly intricate and surprisingly autonomous brain.

The brain has always fascinated me. While those of us raised in the west are typically taught to take for granted that there is a separate, inviolable "I"-- a true Self, a soul -- residing in us, aspects of that "self", like our personality, have been proven to be tied to the ordinary grey matter of the brain and its millions of firing synapses. And from another angle -- that of philosophy or religion -- we seem to have not one Self, but multiple selves, each with its own ideas. Our brains produce thoughts completely without our input: are "we" really in control?  I'm reminded of a line from the Christian writer Paul: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."  But while Paul decided that he was a man possessed by sin, neurology can shed more light on the subject. Eagleman describes our brains as a 'team of rivals', an organ which has preserved several different evolutionary approaches to solving the same problem -- and while this allows us to be fundamentally creative creatures, it leads to self-conflict, self-conflict that requires that which we call consciousness. That small, minute portion of our brain can make important decisions, but it is rather like the CEO at the head of an international company -- a crucial, but overwhelmingly minor part. The vast majority of our body's and our brain's activity is completely concealed from us, and Eagleman's examples -- written for a lay audience - -should astonish those completely new to the subject.  I have a hearty appreciation for the subject matter (having read V.S. Ramachandran's Phantoms in the Brain), but found Incognito a fun reminder.

Incognito is open to all readers, though those who are more versed in the subject matter (readers of Ramachandran, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Pinker, say) may find it a bit  light in content.

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