by David Eagleman


May 13, 2011 | by David Eagleman

David Eagleman
CANONGATE, £20 272PP ISBN 978-1847679383

David Eagleman’s first book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, a short story collection, was met with critical acclaim. In his day job Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, and has published papers on a number of topics such as time perception, synaesthesia, and visual illusions. Combining accessible language and linguistic flourishes, Incognito is a work of non-fiction, vastly different from Sum. It discusses recent developments in neuroscience, offering us some insight into what’s really going on in our brains.

Incognito regards the conscious self – ‘The I that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning’ – as the tip of a neural iceberg. What lies beneath the surface of our consciousness is out of bounds to it. Still, we question and study ourselves.

As Eagleman puts it, ‘Imagine that your desktop computer began to control its own peripheral devices, removed its own cover, and pointed its webcam at its own circuitry. That’s us.’ Neuroscience is a discipline in its infancy, but it is growing up fast. Eagleman’s book takes us on an incredible journey through what we’ve learned so far.

For example, consider people with a form of amnesia that blights them with no recall whatsoever of recent events. Experiments show if you get them to play the computer game Tetris every day, they retain no memory of playing, yet their play will improve over time – the unconscious brain keeps learning. Blind people can learn to see thanks to a device which stimulates the tongue with electrical impulses, which are interpreted by the brain as vision.

And then there is the hemispherectomy, a treatment for seizure disorders where half a child’s brain is removed. Not only does this treat the disorder, but the child can go on to have a relatively normal life.

Eagleman portrays the brain as a complex and multi-faceted problem-solver. He asks us to picture it as a ‘team of rivals’ which allows us to argue with ourselves and make decisions based on examining options.

At times this criss-crossing is echoed by the book’s structure. As Incognito progresses, Eagleman recalls examples from earlier chapters, reminders of how the machinery of the mind works together. This is helpful in a book containing so much information; it helps the reader’s own mind absorb what he or she has learned so far.

The book’s organisation isn’t perfect, however. Eagleman devotes a chapter to exploring responsibility and the law, proposing the involvement of neuroscience in informing a customised system of social policy. While he raises a number of interesting ideas, this is an area so complex it merits its own book. He ties up his ideas in the final chapter, but also introduces new information which would have made more sense if we’d been given it earlier. For example, he raises here the relationship between genetics and the environment, which would have better fitted the fourth chapter, which looks at evolution. He also uses the final pages to question the usefulness of a reductionist approach, which he would have done well to place near the beginning of the book, as his position on this subject was unclear.

Though some of the information could have been better arranged, Incognito is fascinating in content and eloquent in style. The questions Eagleman raises about the constitution of the brain and free will are unsettling but have to be asked. It may be a mistake to reduce our understanding of the self to strictly material terms, but we mustn’t go the other way and play down the role of biology. The brain is flexible, capable of finding multiple solutions, and it doesn’t give up. And neither should we. We still have a lot to learn from it.

Barbara Melville

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