How do baseball players catch fly balls? Is Mel Gibson really Anti-Semitic? Are murderers culpable for their crimes? Did Pink Floyd read Carl Jung?
These are some of the questions raised in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, a new book in which David Eagleman blends his expertise as a neuroscientist with his skill as a fiction writer to produce a lively primer on brain science for the layperson. Imagine a talk show hosted by Oliver Sacks and Nick Hornby (or the editors of Frontier Psychiatrist).
Eagleman is best known for Sum, a short story collection that ponders the existence of God. In Incognito, he turns to the secular and argues that our notion of reality is a fiction. We believe we control our bodies and minds when in fact we’re slaves to our brains, which dictate not only how we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, but how we act, feel, and think. Forget objective reality. Forget God. Forget the soul. Forget free will. What we call existence occurs within a three-pound ball of nerves, mostly without our awareness. If our brains are ships, our conscious minds are mere passengers, oblivious to the complex mechanisms that ferry us across the sea of life.
To a non-scientist reader, much of Incognito feels like learning the secrets of a magician. In clear prose, Eagleman condenses complex concepts and reinforces his points through analogies, pop culture, current events, optical illusions, anecdotes, and fun facts. Try these at your next social gathering:
- People are more likely to fall in love with a person whose first name starts with the same letter as their first name.
- Men are more attracted to women with dilated pupils.
- Men are more likely than women to commit assault, murder, armed robbery, and rape.
- Immigrants are more likely to be schizophrenic.
- Schizophrenics are the only people who can tickle themselves.
The only fuzziness in this otherwise lucid book is the concept of “biologically-based jurisprudence.” As the director of a neuroscience and law institute at Baylor University, Eagleman dreams of a criminal justice system that more fully accounts for the myriad ways that people’s brains are wired. It’s a provocative idea that seems grounded in a humane approach to criminal behavior –and has profound social implications. Unfortunately, Eagleman is short on specifics. If he wants to write a sequel to Incognito, this topic would give him plenty of material.
As Incognito shows, our grasp of the brain has come a long way in the centuries since Thomas Aquinas first posited the idea of the unconscious and even in the century since Freud revolutionized psychiatry. In one central conceit, Eagleman compares the brain to a “team of rivals,” a phrase borrowed from Doris Kearns Goodwin book about Abraham Lincoln’s diverse cabinet of advisers. Essentially, human action is the fruit of unconscious debate among competing factions within our brains. Still, we have much to learn about how the brain works. As Eagleman says, modern brain scans are the equivalent of “asking an astronaut in the space shuttle to look out the window and judge how America is doing.”
Ultimately, Incognito is a plea for humility. Just as Galileo removed the earth from the center of the universe, neuroscience has dethroned man from the kingdom of himself. In essence, we have far less control over our lives than we imagine. While that sounds troubling, Eagleman says it’s also cause for awe and wonder and an opportunity to re-imagine what it means to be human.