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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain


If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we'd be so simple that we couldn't. — Ian Stewart, The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World

I didn’t write this review and so if it’s a crap review don’t blame me, blame my brain. The same goes if it’s a brilliant and insightful review because I won’t be able to take credit for that either. And if I’m reading David Eagleman right then he also can’t take credit for his excellent book. It was his brain. But isn’t our brain simply a part of us? Yes, in purely physical terms, if we accept that everything you and I are is contained within the physical framework that is our bodies. But who are you really? I’m not myself today – how often have you said that or had that said to you? And you know exactly what people mean when they say that but, seriously, if they’re not themselves then who are they? And we’re not talking about schizophrenics or people with dissociative personality disorder, we’re talking about you and me, your parents, your kids, your neighbours and workmates. If you lose a leg, do you stop being you? What about your prefrontal cortex?

What is the purpose of a book? Broadly-speaking to entertain and/or educate. There is no doubt whatsoever that Eagleman does both in this book. This is science for the rest of us, an update on where they are at the moment. Not that long ago the breaking news was mapping the human genome, before that the discovery of DNA and a while before that the surprising new revelation was the fact that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, the ramification of that last one being that humans were also not the centre of the universe. In fact, over the centuries, our place in that universe has become ever smaller and smaller. Now our place in the universe-that-is-ourselves – the I that I am – is under threat: if I am not the centre of my own universe then who am I and who’s running the shop?

I don’t read popular science books. I don’t tend to watch popular science programmes on TV. I don’t actively avoid them but then neither do I seek them out. My brain mustn’t like them. I tend to find most could say what they have to say in ten minutes but they insist on padding everything out to fill an hour slot. Although there are one or two lulls in Incognito one thing I really cannot say is that you don’t get your money’s worth. It is crammed full of interesting facts and figures but mainly facts; he doesn’t burden us with pages and pages of scientific data, graphs, charts, diagrams, just nice round numbers. I mean, seriously, when you start quoting figures in billions and trillions all that I hear is “very very big” and I bet you do too.

I’ve been using the first person pronoun, ‘I’, up until now purely for convenience. I used to have a fair decent handle on who I was but after reading this book I am far from certain. I always thought that ‘I’ consisted primarily of the conscious part of me: I like Star Trek, I like chocolate, I like to write. Apparently it’s not that simple. Okay, so am I the sum of my experiences then? Yes and no. Scientists have argued for years over the whole nature vs. nurture view of human development and the view that Eagleman takes is that both are contributory factors (even though we choose neither one) but it is primarily who we are (our chemistry) that affects how we react to whatever life throws at us.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, in Texas, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Actions as well as the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. His has published considerable amounts of scientific research so is an actual, real scientist. This is not something he’s sat down and researched in his local library in order to write a book and make a few bucks, this is what he does day in and day out and he just happens to have written a book about it. His main interests are time perception, synaesthesia and neurolaw (punishments that fit the brain, not the crime) and it’s the last of these that really caught my interest, which he deals with in Chapter 5 of the book, ‘Why Blameworthiness in the Wrong Question’. You see the thing about discovering new things is that we often have to reassess how we treat people. There was a time people got burned alive at the stake for hearing voices. Joan of Arc springs to mind. She was probably suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy:

When brain activity is kindled in the right spot, people hear voices. If a physician prescribes an anti-epileptic medication, the seizures go away and the voices disappear. Our reality depends on what our biology is up to.

Now, that’s not such a new thought. People have suggested that Joan may have been schizophrenic in the past but the simple fact is we will never know for sure. The authorities judged her based on what they believed to be true at that time. Had the technology been available she might not have been burned at the stake, she might have been lobotomised instead. We now regard both treatments as barbaric and I’m reminded of Star Trek IV where, after listening to two 20th century doctors discussing treatments in an elevator, Doctor McCoy turns to Kirk and says, "Sounds more like the goddam Spanish Inquisition." As Eagleman puts it:

Keep in mind that every single generation before us has worked under the assumption that they possessed all the major tools for understanding the universe, and they were all wrong, without exception. Just imagine trying to construct a theory of rainbows before understanding optics, or trying to understand lightning before knowledge of electricity, or addressing Parkinson’s disease before the study of neurotransmitters. Does it seem reasonable to you that we are the first ones lucky enough to be born in the perfect generation, the one in which the assumption of a comprehensive science is finally true?

And if Star Trek chronology is to be believed then it looks like McCoy didn’t/won’t live long enough to see a dermal regenerator in common use in Starfleet sickbays. The point is that our understanding is growing all the time and the more we understand the more we realise we don’t yet understand. Take neuroimaging as an example. The history of neuroimaging, began in the early 1900s with a technique called pneumoencephalography and you would have thought in the last century that the technology would have improved in leaps and bounds and it has:

[N]euroimaging remains a crude technology, unable to meaningfully weigh in on assessments of guilt or innocence, especially on an individual basis. Imaging methods make use of highly processed blood flow signals, which cover tens of cubic millimetres of brain tissue. In a single cubic millimetre of brain tissue, there are some 100,000,000 synaptic connections between neurons. So modern neuroimaging is like asking an astronaut in the Space Shuttle to look out of the window and judge how America is doing. He can spot giant forest fires, or a plume of volcanic activity billowing from Mt. Rainier, or the consequences of broken New Orleans levies – but from his vantage he is unable to detect whether a crash of the stock market has led to widespread depression and suicide, whether racial tensions have sparked rioting, or whether the population is stricken with influenza.

And we have much the same problems when we look at ourselves. We see the things we do and assume that we’re the one doing them. So what about Kenneth Parks, a 23-year-old Toronto man with a wife, a 5-month-old daughter, and a close relationship with his in-laws, a man described by his mother-in-law as a “gentle giant”?

[I]n the wee hours of the morning of May 23, 1987, Kenneth got out of bed, but did not awaken. Sleepwalking, he climbed into his car and drove twenty-three kilometres to his in-laws’ home. He broke in and stabbed his mother-in-law to death, and then assaulted his father-in-law who survived; He then drove himself to the police station. Once there, he said, “I think I have killed some people . . . my hands,” realising for the first time that his own hands were severely cut.

That Kenneth did the deed is not an issue. Whether he is culpable is another matter. There is a condition, believe it or not, called homicidal somnambulism and after testing it was discovered that Kenneth was not acting of his own free will and was subsequently found innocent. Sounds incredible but we accept Tourette’s sufferers effing and blinding and most of us will be aware of alien hand syndrome so is it really so incredible what Kenneth did?

The crux of the question is whether all of your actions are fundamentally on autopilot, or whether there is some little bit that is “free” to choose, independent of the rules of biology.

Dark-Side-sleeveThis is what Eagleman explores in the four chapters leading up to this one and he begins with a chapter with a quote from Dark Side of the Moon: ‘There’s Someone in my Head but it’s Not Me.’ (My brain made me play the album twice after reading that chapter.) Beginning here he shows us just how little we know and can trust ourselves. In fact he even demonstrates how consciousness can be an impediment:

[H]and a friend two dry erase markers – one in each hand – and ask her to sign her name with her right hand at the same time that she’s signing it backward (mirror reversed) with her left hand. She will quickly discover that there is only one way she can do it: by not thinking about it. By excluding conscious interference, her hands can do the complex mirror movements with no problem – but if she thinks about her actions, the job gets quickly tangled in a bramble of stuttering strokes.


The conscious mind is not at the centre of the action in the brain; instead, it is far out on a distant edge, hearing but whispers of the activity.

Okay, this is a neat parlour trick and there are plenty more where our body fools us into believing or doing one thing when we ought to be doing another. Magicians have been taking advantage of us that way for generations even if they weren’t aware of the science behind their misdirection skills. But what about something a bit more serious, not as serious as trying to kill you in-laws, but pretty damning: racism.

If anyone was to ask me if I am a racist I know what answer I would give. I know what answer I would be expected to give but I’d like to think I would give the right answer because it was true and not simply to prevent getting myself into trouble. But after reading about poor Mel Gibson in this book I’m not so sure how honest I could be. Let me fill you in. I was aware that Mel Gibson had said or done something a while back that had got him into hot water but I didn’t know the specifics. What happened was this:

On July 28, 2006, the actor Mel Gibson was pulled over for speeding at nearly twice the posted speed limit on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, California. The police officer, James Mee, administered a breathalyser test which revealed Gibson’s blood-alcohol level to be 0.12%, well over the legal limit of 0.08%. […] The officer announced to Gibson that he was under arrest and asked him to get into the squad car. What distinguished this arrest from other Hollywood inebriations was Gibson’s surprising and out-of-place inflammatory remarks. Gibson growled, “Fucking Jews…. Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” and asked the officer, “Are you a Jew?” Mee was indeed Jewish. Gibson refused to get into the squad car and had to be handcuffed.

Needless to say the very next day the press got wind of this and a contrite Gibson apologised, as he jolly well should. And he appeared to be sincere. But the question that needs answering is: Is Mel Gibson a bigot at heart? Okay, if a guy can get away with homicide then a small thing like bigotry is going to be easy to wriggle out of you’d think. It is once you realise just how conflicted we are all the time:

There is an ongoing conversation among the different factions in your brain; each competing to control the single output channel of your behaviour.

This sounds like it might be a bad thing but we already build social machines of this type: think of a jury of peers in a courtroom trial:

The jurors debate, coax, influence, relent – and eventually the jury coheres to a single decision. Having differing opinions is not a drawback to the jury system, it is a central feature.

Broadly-speaking Eagleman reduces these factions to the rational and the emotional but he admits that there will be many more involved. He does this a lot in the book as you might expect; looks for simple examples and illustrations to make his points. And he manages it quite effectively.

Probably one of the best is where he describes consciousness as the CEO of a large company, a large company of zombies actually:

As long as the zombie subroutines are running smoothly, the CEO can sleep. It is only when something goes wrong (say, all departments suddenly find that their business models have catastrophically failed) that the CEO is rung up.


This may be the way in which our conscious minds – who play only a small part in our total neural function – really shine.

But what if the CEO, as in the case of Mel Gibson’s, was incapacitated due to overindulging in tequila? Some people believe that a drunk never lies, indeed the Romans used to use alcohol as a kind of truth serum (in vino veritas – in wine there is the truth), but all we can truly state about what was said on the night of July 28, 2006, is that Gibson is capable of anti-Semitism:

In the end, we can reasonably speak of someone’s “most dangerous” colours, but “true” colours may be a subtly dangerous misnomer.

In the final chapter Eagleman allows himself space to ponder: What is the soul? Is there a connection between quantum mechanics and consciousness? Do human minds interact with the stuff of the universe? These are questions perhaps more suited to philosophers than scientists but who says you can only be one or the other?

This is a fascinating book not simply because it’s crammed full of interesting stories like the blind woman with Anton's syndrome who believed she could see (if you asked her how many fingers you were holding up she’d give you an answer) or the mass murderer who asked for his brain to be examined after his death to see if something had changed to make him behave the way he found himself compelled to behave (yes, a dirty great tumour) or the fact that if you carry a particular set of genes your probability of committing a violent crime goes up by 982% (no, I didn’t miss out a decimal point). What is really scary is that all the evidence Eagleman has amassed points to the fact that “we are not the ones driving the boat of our behaviour, at least not as much as we believe.” This has certainly made me pause and think. I’m not sure it excuses everything I’ve ever done wrong in my life but it has made me think about my actions a little differently; to open myself up to other possibilities like the fact that the first girl I ever fell in love with’s name began with a ‘J’ might not have been a coincidence because apparently more of us marry people whose names begin with the same letter as ours does than you would reasonably expect.

The book is not perfect, however. On the website Brian Clegg point out a couple of faux pas:

We are told that the visible universe is 15 billion light years across – probably a factor of 5 out. Eagleman suggests that Galileo's near-contemporary Bruno was burned at the stake for rejecting an Earth-centred universe – which he wasn't. (He was burned at the stake, but for heretical religious views, not his science.)

but admits that these “aren't huge errors” and goes on to give the book 5-stars. I agree with him wholeheartedly on this particular point: “One good mark of the mary-the-elephanteffectiveness of this book was that I couldn't resist telling people about a couple of things I read here.” The example he gives is about the fact that some women have a fourth colour receptor in their eyes, so would see colours and colour matches differently but the simple fact is that this is the kind of book that you want to share. I keep thinking of bits I wish I’d told you, like the fact that someone once hanged an elephant: Murderous Mary, a five-ton cow elephant with the Sparks Brothers Circus, was hung by the neck from Derrick Car 1400 on September 13, 1916. You can read all about it here. Also Thomas Edison also once electrocuted an elephant. (I think those are the only pachyderm-related factoids from the book.)

Not every reviewer has been as charitable. Alexander Linklater had this to say in The Observer:

This book belongs to a popular trend of neuro-hubris wildly overstating the ramifications of a science that is still in its infancy. The true fascination of neuroscience lies not in bombastic philosophical claims but in the fine detail of brain function, illustrations of the mind-brain problem, and the human interest of case histories. There isn't even that much actual neuroscience in Incognito. Its illustrations are drawn just as much from the annals of evolutionary psychology, behavioural economics and more traditional forms of psychology.

He probably has a point. I’m not clever enough to argue in his defence. Barbara Melville in her review for The Scottish Review of Books has some quibbles about the way the book is organised and the length of certain chapters. I think her points are valid; I found the last chapter a bit out of place when he starts conjecturing but I still don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask questions you don’t have answers to. As Stewart Hotston says in his review on his blog, The Universal Library:

[O]ne shouldn't forget that he is a scientist not a philosopher and so his method is particular to his training. It's not a great sin to be accused of, because at least he's looking for new ideas and explanations to fit the data that we have now.

I am grateful to one Amazon reviewer from California who had this to say:

There was an interesting profile of the author recently published in New Yorker magazine (April 25, 2011, p. 54-65). For me it made the book even richer by having first read the profile, to understand the interests, motivations, and background of the author. If you are interested in reading this book, you may enjoy reading the New Yorker profile first.

The whole article is online and you can read it here. Normally I’m not especially interested in the author and like to judge a book on its own merits but I did find this interesting especially the fact that wrote his first words at the age of two, on an Underwood typewriter. I was easily five before I got anywhere near my dad’s typewriter.

I expected to find some people who absolutely ate up everything Eagleman has to say and also those who were more cautious in what they chose to praise but this is a hard book to dislike and I certainly didn’t hate it. Probably the harshest opinion was one, again on Amazon, where the reviewer wrote the whole thing in capitals. This is the salient bit: “THE BOTTOM LINE IS THAT THIS IS A DANGEROUS BOOK WRTTTEN IN A FRIENDLY WAY; BUT REMEMEBER IT IS ONLY ONE VIEW OF HOW THE HUMAN BRAIN WORKS.(sic)”

If it comes to that this is a claim that could be levelled against so much literature in so many fields in the past from Freud on although I’m not sure how friendly Freud’s writing style was. If this review has piqued your interest, buy it, read it, make your own mind up or, if Eagleman is right (I really should be addressing all of this to your brain); he’s the one in charge anyway and has probably already made your mind up for you.

You can read an extract from the book here.

Let me leave you with a video of the author talking:

There’s also a video profile on the PBS site here but you can’t view it in the UK. There's also an audio podcast here and a radio interview here.


eaglemanDavid Eagleman grew up in New Mexico to a physician father and biology teacher mother, where he attended the Albuquerque Academy. An early experience of falling from a roof raised his interest in understanding the neural basis of time perception. As an undergraduate he majored in British and American Literature at Rice University, with his junior year abroad at Oxford University, graduating in 1993. He earned his PhD in Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in 1998, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute. He serves on the editorial boards of the scientific journals PLoS One and Journal of Vision. He directs a neuroscience research laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine. Eagleman sits on several boards of arts organizations, and is the youngest member of the board of the Long Now Foundation. In 2011 he was named a Guggenheim Fellow. Eagleman has written several neuroscience books—including Unsolved Mysteries of the Brain; Dethronement: The Hidden Hegemony of the Unconscious Brain; The Dynamically Reorganizing Brain; Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synaesthesia, and a book of fiction titled Sum: Tales from the Afterlives.


Dave King said...

I guess I'm an agnostic when it comes to a good deal of cutting edge science, but saying that, I do find it fascinating and I am pretty sure I would enjoy this book.
May even end up buying it! My compliments on a thorough and even handed review. Just the job!

Jim Murdoch said...

As I mentioned on your blog, Dave, science is not really my thing. We’re talking the physical sciences here: chemistry, biology and physics. Things like behavioural science, psychology, sociology, now they’re more the kind of thing that pique my interest as a writer. If people were not so contrary I probably wouldn’t care but whereas the big sciences can generally reduce things to theorems and formulae, when it comes to how people act on their own and with others it all still feels like so much guesswork. I found this whole book fascinating, the whole illusion of control – absolutely fascinating. Well, you can tell by some of the articles I have a go at like my last one on Concentration which all stemmed from the fact that I couldn’t just sit down and read one of your poems when I wanted to. What/who was stopping me?

Anonymous said...

Excellent review mate. You picked up on some of the same quibbles in Eagleman's book as I did (Or I guess I should say that my brain did). But honestly I feel that he's taking a really small picture and trying to make it the big one, but thats just how people have done it for the last decade or so when it comes to consciousness.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, J.Dupuis. I’m no expert (not on anything) but I’m always a bit wary of ‘experts’ because, as I get older and see their theories fall by the wayside, I realise that they’re just good guessers once you get down to it. Okay because they’re clever I’d hope that their guesses might get closer to the mark than mine but I’m not overly in awe of them. I do like people though who think outside the box – and who drag me with them – and Eagleman most definitely did that.

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