by David Eagleman
I first heard about David Eagleman earlier this year in a feature run in The New Yorker. In it, the author toured through the neuroscientist’s working environment, exploring some of the more interesting aspects of his work, as well as the oddity that is Eagleman’s abnormally large public life, in which he seems to have the following of a small cult leader or a luminary – take your pick.
What I took as most striking from this article was Eagleman’s naturally curious intellect. Apparently, in addition to advancing our understanding of human cognition and publishing the acclaimed collection of short stories, Sum, he has also become versed in a range of subjects from herpetology to Western philosophy and literature. What I believe makes Eagleman most interesting however, is his ability to transcend the narrow, often single-minded technical focus that can keep some of the most interesting studies of the human condition out of the layman’s reach.
To this end, Eagleman’s new book, Incognito, represents a high-level summary of his work on the human brain, diving deeply into all of the nitty-gritty philosophical and social connotations that come as a packaged deal. Having spent the majority of my university days immersed within the social sciences, I had little time for things that didn’t directly relate to validating my area of focus (that’s a little thing we like to do in the soft sciences). And, save from having my mind blown by an introduction to astrophysics course shared with about 900 other kids in an auditorium, I missed my opportunity to dive into the science of thought. In this way, Incognito feels like a rain check for the elective class in introductory neuroscience that I never had time to take. True to the author’s form, the book reads exactly like a lecture series, offering neat summaries of ridiculously complex subjects that pique your own curiously in exactly the right way. Each chapter of Incognito feels like a one-hour lecture, introducing thin slices of new concepts within the wider theme of the book, breaking down complex thoughts into bite-sized ideas.
At the center of Eagleman’s thesis in Incognito is the concept of the human cognitive duality: the separation between the conscious and unconscious mind. A concept that, while most already likely grasp, the character and manner in which the two communicate is much more of a black box than we realize. As he describes, the dynamic between the two is much more like the creation of the news, in which the conscious mind simply reads tightly summarized headlines prepared by the unconscious mind about the phenomenal world occurring around us.
Whereas traditional thinking considers the headlines to be the factual report of sensory happenings (what you see is what you get), Eagleman suggests that this interaction relies so heavily on the interpretation of this information by the different faculties of the brain, that our entire world, in its totality, is a completely subjective experience. As he writes, “Instead of reality being passively recorded by the brain, it is actively constructed by it.” Yup – I don’t think I could count the squiggly, creeped out and supremely existential moments that Incognito caused me.
What’s beautiful about Eagleman’s demeanor throughout this book is despite all of its headiness, the tone and pace of his writing is light and easy to digest. Moreover, his personality jumps right off the page and he has an easy wit about the subject matter. It’s easy to envision Eagleman standing in front of an amphitheatre full of freshman undergrads, explaining these complicated ideas with clever and easy to digest anecdotes. His clear love for pop culture certainly helps his case as well. I never would have expected an Evil Dead 2 reference or anecdotes about Mel Gibson and US foreign policy in the same book that explains how severing the connections between the brain’s two hemispheres will result in “double brain syndrome.” Yes, you read that correctly – two brains. Or, how a person who loses half of their field of vision due to brain damage can still tease out descriptions of objects they should not be able to see, as if the unconscious mind is still taking in information.
The battle between the emotional and rational self is one of the more fascinating, and universally relatable concepts covered in Incognito. The division of the brain hemispheres Eagleman explains, is, “…best understood as a team of rivals.” For example, if you’ve ever wondered why you can have conflicting ideas or emotions about the same idea, like say, whether or not to eat a piece of chocolate cake: it turns out that the different parts of the brain have overlapping duties and can share influences over what the conscious brain decides. Eagleman described this as a “neural democracy,” explaining that the part of the brain which tells you that you need gluten and sugar to survive thinks it’s a good idea, while the part that’s concerned about how you’re perceived socially will argue against it. Both of these factors (as well as potentially innumerable others) have an overlapping claims on the decision making process that’s been a process of “burning it into the circuitry” throughout our evolution.
Incognito reads like a series of fascinating vignettes, offering plenty of pauses for self-reflection. Eagleman’s anecdotes are funny and easily tie to the concepts he explains. Moreover, his enthusiasm for the subject matter is obvious and contagious, as he gently relates new information to the anecdotes that preceded it, giving a strong sense of context and helping the reader along in their understanding.
If Eagleman’s work in neuroscience is creating another layer of perspective of the human condition, Incognito is the perfect introduction for the uninitiated to the utterly fascinating, and often extremely humbling, world of neurobiology. Through his knack for communicating complicated ideas with simple and engaging language, Eagleman takes his subject matter down from the ivory tower, and in the process removes the black box over our mysterious inner world.
by Jordan Ardanaz