Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

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Overview

If the conscious mind—the part you consider you—accounts for only a tiny fraction of the brain’s function, what is all the rest doing? This is the question that David Eagleman—renowned neuroscientist and acclaimed author of Sum—answers in a book as accessible and entertaining as it is deeply informed by startling, up-to-the-minute research.
 
Our behavior, thoughts, and experiences are inseparably yoked to a vast, wet, electrochemical network called the nervous system. The machinery is utterly alien to us, and yet, somehow, it is us. In this dazzling journey, David Eagleman plumbs the depths of the brain to illuminate surprising mysteries: Why does the conscious mind know so little about itself? Why can your foot jump halfway to the brake pedal before you become consciously aware of danger ahead? What do Odysseus and the subprime mortgage meltdown have in common? Why do strippers make more money at certain times of the month? Why are people whose name begins with J more likely to marry other people whose name begins with J? Why did Thomas Edison electrocute an elephant? Why is it so difficult to keep a secret?
 
This mind-blowing voyage into the inner cosmos includes stopovers in mate-selection, synesthesia, beauty, free will, infidelity, artificial intelligence, visual illusions, dreams, and the future of criminal law. Throughout, Eagleman helps us understand how our perceptions of ourselves and our world result from the hidden workings of the most wondrous thing we have ever encountered: the human brain.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

This book helps answer the question that is frequently asked when an expert tells us that our conscious mind comprises only a tiny fraction of our working brain: What are the rest of my 160-190 billion brain cells doing? Neuroscientist/author David Eagleman (Sum; Wednesday Is Indigo Blue) is superbly positioned to plumb the depths of our subterranean mental processes. Drawing on cutting-edge research, his exploration illuminates real world decision-making, with examples that include everything from the mortgage meltdown and mating preferences to the fluctuating incomes of pole dancers. A provocative read for fans of Malcolm Gladwell.

Kirkus Reviews

An up-to-date examination of what used to be called the mind-body problem.

Eagleman (Neuroscience/Baylor Coll. of Medicine; Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, 2009) makes the point that our sense of ourselves as coherent, free-standing personalities is at odds with the most basic findings about the workings of the human brain, an organ so complex that an objective description of it sounds hyperbolic. Instinct, unconscious impulses, automatic systems, emotion and a dozen other forces, most of which we aren't even aware of, affect every thought and action. The book is full of startling examples; split-brain research, for example, shows how the two halves of a mind can be completely at odds, with neither being aware of what the other experiences. Nor are those of us with "whole" brains and a complete set of senses necessarily experiencing the world "as it really is." For example, other animals experience a different part of the visual spectrum, or can detect sounds and odors we have no awareness of. A significant segment of the population—about 15 percent of women—sees colors the rest of us can't. Our brains work differently when learning a skill and after it's become second nature – it's one thing to drive to a new place, another to drive a familiar route, and our brains work much harder doing the former than the latter, when we can go on "automatic pilot." There are lessons to be learned from various mental disorders, as well. Victims of strokes affecting certain parts of the brain may claim that they are operating at full capacity when they are clearly not; one former Supreme Court justice was forced to retire after displaying these symptoms. Eagleman has a wealth of such observations, backed up with case studies, bits of pop culture, literary references and historic examples.

A book that will leave you looking at yourself—and the world—differently.

From the Publisher
A Boston Globe Best Book of the Year

“Original and provocative. . . . A smart, captivating book that will give you a prefrontal workout.”
Nature 
 
“A popularizer of impressive gusto . . . [Eagleman] aims, grandly, to do for the study of the mind what Copernicus did for the study of the stars. . . . Incognito proposes a grand new account of the relationship between consciousness and the brain. It is full of dazzling ideas, as it is chockablock with facts and instances.”
The New York Observer
 
“Eagleman engagingly sums up recent discoveries about the unconscious processes that dominate our mental life. . . . [He] is the kind of guy who really does make being a neuroscientist look like fun.”
The New York Times
 
“Although Incognito is fast-paced, mind-bending stuff, it’s a book for regular folks. Eagleman does a brilliant job refining heavy science into a compelling read. He is a gifted writer.”
Houston Chronicle 

“Eagleman has a talent for testing the untestable, for taking seemingly sophomoric notions and using them to nail down the slippery stuff of consciousness.”
The New Yorker  
 
Incognito does the right thing by diving straight into the deep end and trying to swim. Eagleman, by imagining the future so vividly, puts into relief just how challenging neuroscience is, and will be.”
The Boston Globe
 
“Appealing and persuasive.”
The Wall Street Journal
 
“Your mind is an elaborate trick, and mastermind David Eagleman explains how the trick works with great lucidity and amazement. Your mind will thank you.”
Wired
 
“A fun read by a smart person for smart people. . . . It will attract a new generation to ponder their inner workings.”
New Scientist

“Fascinating. . . . Eagleman has the ability to turn hard science and jargon into interesting and relatable prose, illuminating the mind’s processes with clever analogies and metaphors.”
Salt Lake City Weekly
 
“Touches on some of the more intriguing cul-de-sacs of human behavior.”
Santa Cruz Sentinel
 
“Startling. . . . It’s a book that will leave you looking at yourself—and the world—differently.”
Austin American-Statesman
 
“Sparkling and provocative. . . . A thrilling subsurface exploration of the mind and all its contradictions.”
The Courier-Journal
 
“After you read Eagleman’s breezy treatment of the brain, you will marvel at how much is illusory that we think is real, and how we sometimes function on autopilot without consciously knowing what is happening. . . . This is a fascinating book.”
The Advocate
 
“A pleasure to read. . . . If a reader is looking for a fun but illuminating read, Incognito is a good choice. With its nice balance between hard science and entertaining anecdotes, it is a good alternative to the usual brainless summer blockbusters.”
Deseret News
 
Incognito is fun to read, full of neat factoids and clever experiments. . . . Eagleman says he’s looking to do for neuroscience what Carl Sagan did for astrophysics, and he’s already on his way.”
Texas Monthly
 
“Eagleman presents difficult neuroscience concepts in an energetic, casual voice with plenty of analogies and examples to ensure that what could easily be an overwhelming catalog of facts remains engaging and accessible. . . . The ideas in Eagleman’s book are well-articulated and entertaining, elucidated with the intelligent, casual tone of an enthusiastic university lecturer.”
—TheMillions.com
 
“Written in clear, precise language, the book is sure to appeal to readers with an interest in psychology and the human mind, but it will also please people who just want to know, with a little more clarity, what is going on inside their own skulls.”
—Booklist

 
“A stunning exploration of the we behind the I. Eagleman reveals, with his typical grace and eloquence, all the neural magic tricks behind the cognitive illusion we call reality.”
—Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide

“A fascinating, dynamic, faceted look under the hood of the conscious mind. . . . Equal parts entertaining and illuminating, the case studies, examples and insights in Incognito are more than mere talking points to impressed at the next dinner party, poised instead to radically shift your understanding of the world, other people, and your own mind.”
—Brain Pickings 

“Eagleman engagingly sums up recent discoveries about the unconscious processes that dominate our mental life.”
—The New York Times Book Review  
 
“Fascinating. . . . Eagleman has the ability to turn hard science and jargon into interesting and relatable prose, illuminating the mind’s processes with clever analogies and metaphors.”
Salt Lake City Weekly
 
“A great beach read.“
Philadelphia City Paper

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.”
—Frontier Psychiatrist 
 
“One of those books that could change everything.”
—Sam Snyder, blog
 
“Buy this book. The pithy observations, breezy language and wow-inducing anecdotes provide temporary pleasure, but the book’s real strength is in its staying power.“
Science News 
 
“A whirlwind, high-definition look at the neural underpinnings of our everyday thinking and perception . . . fascinating.”
—Brettworks.com

“Eagleman embodies what is fascinating, fun, and hopeful about modern neuroscience.”
—Brainstorm.com  
 
“After you read Eagleman’s breezy treatment of the brain, you will marvel at how much is illusory that we think is real, and how we sometimes function out autopilot without consciously knowing what is happening. . . . This is a fascinating book.”
—The Advocate 
 
“Funny, gripping and often shocking . . . Eagleman writes great sentences of the sort that you might be inclined to read to those in your general vicinity.”
—bookotron.com 

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 is obvious and contagious.”
—Spectrum Culture 

Incognito is popular science at its best . . . beautifully synthesized.” —Boston Globe Best of 2011

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307377333
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/31/2011
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 232,343
  • Product dimensions: 9.34 (w) x 6.34 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Meet the Author

David Eagleman

DAVID EAGLEMAN directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action, as well as the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, at the Baylor College of Medicine. He is the author of the internationally best- selling novel Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, and is the co- author, with Richard Cytowic, of Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia. His website is www.eagleman.com. He lives in Houston, Texas.  

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Read an Excerpt

There’s Someone In My Head, But It’s Not Me
 
Take a close look at yourself in the mirror. Beneath your dashing good looks churns a hidden universe of networked machinery. The machinery includes a sophisticated scaffolding of interlocking bones, a netting of sinewy muscles, a good deal of specialized fluid, and a collaboration of internal organs chugging away in darkness to keep you alive. A sheet of high-tech self-healing sensory material that we call skin seamlessly covers your machinery in a pleasing package.
 
And then there’s your brain. Three pounds of the most complex material we’ve discovered in the universe. This is the mission control center that drives the whole operation, gathering dispatches through small portals in the armored bunker of the skull.
 
Your brain is built of cells called neurons and glia—hundreds of billions of them. Each one of these cells is as complicated as a city. And each one contains the entire human genome and traffics billions of molecules in intricate economies. Each cell sends electrical pulses to other cells, up to hundreds of times per second. If you represented each of these trillions and trillions of pulses in your brain by a single photon of light, the combined output would be blinding.
 
The cells are connected to one another in a network of such staggering complexity that it bankrupts human language and necessitates new strains of mathematics. A typical neuron makes about ten thousand connections to neighboring neurons. Given the billions of neurons, this means there are as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
 
The three-pound organ in your skull—with its pink consistency of Jell-o—is an alien kind of computational material. It is composed of miniaturized, self-configuring parts, and it vastly outstrips anything we’ve dreamt of building. So if you ever feel lazy or dull, take heart: you’re the busiest, brightest thing on the planet.
 
Ours is an incredible story. As far as anyone can tell, we’re the only system on the planet so complex that we’ve thrown ourselves headlong into the game of deciphering our own programming language. 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.
 
And what we’ve discovered by peering into the skull ranks among the most significant intellectual developments of our species: the recognition that the innumerable facets of our behavior, thoughts, and experience are inseparably yoked to a vast, wet, chemicalelectrical network called the nervous system. The machinery is utterly alien to us, and yet, somehow, it is us.
 
THE TREMENDOUS MAGIC
 
In 1949, Arthur Alberts traveled from his home in Yonkers, New York, to villages between the Gold Coast and Timbuktu in West Africa. He brought his wife, a camera, a jeep, and—because of his love of music—a jeep-powered tape recorder. Wanting to open the ears of the western world, he recorded some of the most important music ever to come out of Africa. But Alberts ran into social troubles while using the tape recorder. One West African native heard his voice played back and accused Alberts of “stealing his tongue.” Alberts only narrowly averted being pummeled by taking out a mirror and convincing the man that his tongue was still intact.
 
It’s not difficult to see why the natives found the tape recorder so counterintuitive. A vocalization seems ephemeral and ineffable: it is like opening a bag of feathers which scatter on the breeze and can never be retrieved. Voices are weightless and odorless, something you cannot hold in your hand.
 
So it comes as a surprise that a voice is physical. If you build a little machine sensitive enough to detect tiny compressions of the molecules in the air, you can capture these density changes and reproduce them later. We call these machines microphones, and every one of the billions of radios on the planet is proudly serving up bags of feathers once thought irretrievable. When Alberts played the music back from the tape recorder, one West African tribesman depicted the feat as “tremendous magic.”
 
And so it goes with thoughts. What exactly is a thought? It doesn’t seem to weigh anything. It feels ephemeral and ineffable. You wouldn’t think that a thought has a shape or smell or any sort of physical instantiation. Thoughts seem to be a kind of tremendous magic.
 
But just like voices, thoughts are underpinned by physical stuff. We know this because alterations to the brain change the kinds of thoughts we can think. In a state of deep sleep, there are no thoughts. When the brain transitions into dream sleep, there are unbidden, bizarre thoughts. During the day we enjoy our normal, wellaccepted thoughts, which people enthusiastically modulate by spiking the chemical cocktails of the brain with alcohol, narcotics, cigarettes, coffee, or physical exercise. The state of the physical material determines the state of the thoughts.
 
And the physical material is absolutely necessary for normal thinking to tick along. If you were to injure your pinkie in an accident you’d be distressed, but your conscious experience would be no different. By contrast, if you were to damage an equivalently sized piece of brain tissue, this might change your capacity to understand music, name animals, see colors, judge risk, make decisions, read signals from your body, or understand the concept of a mirror—thereby unmasking the strange, veiled workings of the machinery beneath. Our hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears, comic instincts, great ideas, fetishes, senses of humor, and desires all emerge from this strange organ—and when the brain changes, so do we. So although it’s easy to intuit that thoughts don’t have a physical basis, that they are something like feathers on the wind, they in fact depend directly on the integrity of the enigmatic, three-pound mission control center.
 
The first thing we learn from studying our own circuitry is a simple lesson: most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control. The vast jungles of neurons operate their own programs. The conscious you—the I that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning—is the smallest bit of what’s transpiring in your brain. Although we are dependent on the functioning of the brain for our inner lives, it runs its own show. Most of its operations are above the security clearance of the conscious mind. The I simply has no right of entry.
 
Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot. This book is about that amazing fact: how we know it, what it means, and what it explains about people, markets, secrets, strippers, retirement accounts, criminals, artists, Ulysses, drunkards, stroke victims, gamblers, athletes, bloodhounds, racists, lovers, and every decision you’ve ever taken to be yours.
 
*
• *
In a recent experiment, men were asked to rank how attractive they found photographs of different women’s faces. The photos were eight by ten inches, and showed women facing the camera or turned in three-quarter profile. Unbeknownst to the men, in half the photos the eyes of the women were dilated, and in the other half they were not. The men were consistently more attracted to the women with dilated eyes. Remarkably, the men had no insight into their decision making. None of them said, “I noticed her pupils were two millimeters larger in this photo than in this other one.” Instead, they simply felt more drawn toward some women than others, for reasons they couldn’t quite put a finger on.
 
So who was doing the choosing? In the largely inaccessible workings of the brain, something knew that a woman’s dilated eyes correlates with sexual excitement and readiness. Their brains knew this, but the men in the study didn’t—at least not explicitly. The men may also not have known that their notions of beauty and feelings of attraction are deeply hardwired, steered in the right direction by programs carved by millions of years of natural selection. When the men were choosing the most attractive women, they didn’t know that the choice was not theirs, really, but instead the choice of successful programs that had been burned deep into the brain’s circuitry over the course of hundreds of thousands of generations.
 
Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision making. And most of the time, it’s not. Whether we’re talking about dilated eyes, jealousy, attraction, the love of fatty foods, or the great idea you had last week, consciousness is the smallest player in the operations of the brain. Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.
 
You see evidence of this when your foot gets halfway to the brake before you consciously realize that a red Toyota is backing out of a driveway on the road ahead of you. You see it when you notice your name spoken in a conversation across the room that you thought you weren’t listening to, when you find someone attractive without knowing why, or when your nervous system gives you a “hunch” about which choice you should make.
 
The brain is a complex system, but that doesn’t mean it’s incomprehensible. Our neural circuits were carved by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species’ evolutionary history. Your brain has been molded by evolutionary pressures just as your spleen and eyes have been. And so has your consciousness. Consciousness developed because it was advantageous, but advantageous only in limited amounts.
 
Consider the activity that characterizes a nation at any moment. Factories churn, telecommunication lines buzz with activity, businesses ship products. People eat constantly. Sewer lines direct waste. All across the great stretches of land, police chase criminals. Handshakes secure deals. Lovers rendezvous. Secretaries field calls, teachers profess, athletes compete, doctors operate, bus drivers navigate. You may wish to know what’s happening at any moment in your great nation, but you can’t possibly take in all the information at once. Nor would it be useful, even if you could. You want a summary. So you pick up a newspaper—not a dense paper like the New York Times but lighter fare such as USA Today. You won’t be surprised that none of the details of the activity are listed in the paper; after all, you want to know the bottom line. You want to know that Congress just signed a new tax law that affects your family, but the detailed origin of the idea—involving lawyers and corporations and filibusters— isn’t especially important to that new bottom line. And you certainly wouldn’t want to know all the details of the food supply of the nation—how the cows are eating and how many are being eaten—you only want to be alerted if there’s a spike of mad cow disease. You don’t care how the garbage is produced and packed away; you only care if it’s going to end up in your backyard. You don’t care about the wiring and infrastructure of the factories; you only care if the workers are going on strike. That’s what you get from reading the newspaper.
 
Your conscious mind is that newspaper. Your brain buzzes with activity around the clock, and, just like the nation, almost everything transpires locally: small groups are constantly making decisions and sending out messages to other groups. Out of these local interactions emerge larger coalitions. By the time you read a mental headline, the important action has already transpired, the deals are done. You have surprisingly little access to what happened behind the scenes. Entire political movements gain ground-up support and become unstoppable before you ever catch wind of them as a feeling or an intuition or a thought that strikes you. You’re the last one to hear the information.
 
However, you’re an odd kind of newspaper reader, reading the headline and taking credit for the idea as though you thought of it first. You gleefully say, “I just thought of something!”, when in fact your brain performed an enormous amount of work before your moment of genius struck. When an idea is served up from behind the scenes, your neural circuitry has been working on it for hours or days or years, consolidating information and trying out new combinations. But you take credit without further wonderment at the vast, hidden machinery behind the scenes.
 
And who can blame you for thinking you deserve the credit? The brain works its machinations in secret, conjuring ideas like tremendous magic. It does not allow its colossal operating system to be probed by conscious cognition. The brain runs its show incognito. So who, exactly, deserves the acclaim for a great idea? In 1862, the Scottish mathematician James Clerk Maxwell developed a set of fundamental equations that unified electricity and magnetism. On his deathbed, he coughed up a strange sort of confession, declaring that “something within him” discovered the famous equations, not he. He admitted he had no idea how ideas actually came to him—they simply came to him. William Blake related a similar experience, reporting of his long narrative poem Milton: “I have written this poem from immediate dictation twelve or sometimes twenty lines at a time without premeditation and even against my will.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe claimed to have written his novella The Sorrows of Young Werther with practically no conscious input, as though he were holding a pen that moved on its own.
 
And consider the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He began using opium in 1796, originally for relief from the pain of tooth - aches and facial neuralgia—but soon he was irreversibly hooked, swigging as much as two quarts of laudanum each week. His poem “Kubla Khan,” with its exotic and dreamy imagery, was written on an opium high that he described as “a kind of a reverie.” For him, the opium became a way to tap into his subconscious neural circuits. We credit the beautiful words of “Kubla Khan” to Coleridge because they came from his brain and no else’s, right? But he couldn’t get hold of those words while sober, so who exactly does the credit for the poem belong to? As Carl Jung put it, “In each of us there is another whom we do not know.” As Pink Floyd put it, “There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”

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Table of Contents

1 There's Someone In My Head, But It's Not Me 1

2 The Testimony of the Senses: What Is Experience Really Like? 20

3 Mind: The Gap 55

4 The Kinds of Thoughts That Are Thinkable 75

5 The Brain Is a Team of Rivals 101

6 Why Blameworthiness Is the Wrong Question 151

7 Life After the Monarchy 193

Appendix 225

Acknowledgments 227

Notes 229

Bibliography 255

Index 281

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Customer Reviews

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( 58 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 60 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2011

    Worth The Read

    This is an interesting read. As anticipated Mr. Eagleman attributes our known and unknown brain functionality to accidental organic evolutionary self design....intelligence without intelligence...hmmm. Also, It wasn't clear to me in his alternative plan for prison inmate rehabilitation what would motivate a career criminal to use his proposed self help technique. I enjoyed reading this book with the perspective that science is mans tool to discover what God has created and set in motion rather than using it to explain Him away. Yes, I would recommend this book.

    23 out of 30 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 15, 2011

    Blew my mind!

    One if the most interesting books i've read in a long time! Filled with ideas that will have you re-thinking everything you've come to know about how your mind works. Very well written and adds science to what you may have suspected all along but couldnt prove it!!

    17 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2011

    A page turner about the brain

    I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the brain and how what we are learning about the brain could be used to understand ourselves and society better.

    There's no jargon to wade through and the ideas are simple enough that it's easy to miss how profound they are.

    Many real-world examples and case studies strongly call into question some very fundamental ideas (and some commonly held beliefs upon which our legal system is based) about the extent to which we are responsible for, or are even aware of, what we are doing. The author clearly and convincingly illustrates why our concepts of consciousness and "self" are a lot more suspect than many people may want to believe. The idea about the brain being a series of cooperating rivals is also very interesting (it "feels" true, for what it's worth) and was what drew me to the book when I heard the author interviewed on Fresh Air.

    9 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2012

    A Wonder!

    I already knew most of what Eagleman presents, having read the original articles and books by the researchers he discusses. As a professor, I taught language and the brain, and one of my fields of research was schizophrenia. Even so, it was a delight to read Eagleman's flowing, lucid prose.

    What's even better is that he relates brain functions to everyday behavior, explaining why we behave irrationally, for instance, as when we deliberately don't claim a dependent on our income tax deduction, so that we get a larger tax refund later on.

    I was especially taken by his insights into the evolutionary basis of consciousness. Even if you don't believe in evolution, his discussion of the reasons for consciousness is convincing.

    Most important is this book's presentation of the complexity of the brain, the different subsystems working on the same stimuli. Eagleman likens our brain to a team of rivals. He explains why we have hunches, why we're attracted to certain people, even why so many marriages fail in their 4th year.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 24, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Thought Provoking Book

    Before purchasing this book, I read some of the reviews on this site and elsewhere. I noticed that this book was rated as a "hit-or-miss." A hit, for people that do not know much about neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, etc. A miss, for people who are the opposite; very knowledgeable in these topics and feel that the information within the book seems to be repetitive to what they already know. Because of this, I almost decided to pass on purchasing and reading this book. I am glad I chose to do otherwise. It is very informative and thought provoking. Some people have made comments on the chapter before the last discussing neuroscience/cognition and law and how this chapter is out of place. I saw nothing out of the ordinary with this chapter being placed within the book as the author has some expertise in law within the neuroscience field. This is a recommended read more so for people who lack knowledge in this field like myself.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2011

    Amateurish Cake with the Icing of Arrogance

    Basically the book tells us that humans are complex beings beyond our present scientific comprehension, and the brain is doing things we aren't consciously aware of at the time. That's the amateurish cake -- we have known this for centuries even before we knew what parts of the brain light up.

    The icing is the arrogant tone of the work - the examples begin with the introduction and end with the concluding sentence: "...this book was written over the course of a few years by several different people, all of whom were named David Eagleman, but who were somewhat different with each passing hour."

    This book sells well, because the cake is delicious to some: Are you the type of person who drives to the Whole Foods in your Plymouth Spyder with your COEXIST sticker on the back and the dreamcatcher in the front? Then you're going to love the author's way with words.

    Or are you someone who already has a good intuition that the brain does things that you don't think about (start with breathing, move to cleaning up visual images that are perceived, then up to being happy for reasons that have since faded, etc.)? Have you already figured out that the human brain and its interactions with environment is complex in its expression of human traits, feelings, thoughts and behaviors? Then congratulations, you have graduated beyond eating cake to nourishing yourself on real science!

    6 out of 25 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 11, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Loved this read

    What a great book. If you are fascinated with the human mind and human behavior, this book is for you.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 16, 2012

    The thesis is incognito

    While I do appreciate David Eagleman's argument that an understanding of how the brain works could help to reform our justice system, I really did not appreciate his argument that we can somehow scientifically disprove the need to believe that human beings have a soul. One minute he is saying we know so little about the brain and even detecting small tumors that could be causing changes in behavior is something that we are not yet able to do with the technology we have; the next he is claiming a full understanding of the brain and how it functions leads us to the conclusion that we really don't have "free will" given that all of our decisions begin in our "zombie systems" and then are regulated by our conscious minds.

    I've read other reviews on this book and I have seen a lot of criticism of the choice of audience, the structure, and the use of anecdotes; I must agree. I have yet to see one positive review from a neuroscientist. The audience appears to be for the layperson, but I am not a neuroscientist and I found the book incredibly dumbed down. It was complicated only in that the anecdotes often went off track from the argument and supporting details which were in themselves vague. The use of anecdotes felt almost like sensational or exceptional examples to draw back to a poorly constructed theory.

    As far as structure, the overall structure and sentence structure needs work. As an aspiring editor, this is good news for me that Vintage, an imprint of Random House, is willing to take on editors who do a mediocre job. I shouldn't have trouble finding work.

    I enjoyed the use of anecdotes, such as the details of Charles Whitman, "the tower sniper", and his suspicions of having a brain tumor. It was a compelling detail that supported Eagleman's view that mental health is physical health and behavior and decision making are the result of mental processes. But still, without further evidence of the direct correlation between mental processes and decision making, absent of any other potential factor, it is difficult for me to believe that this man had no control over preventing the murders that he committed.

    Could someone with mental health issues be rehabilitated under the proper care, given the appropriate medications, and after undergoing necessary surgery? I absolutely believe that is possible. I found his argument about improving the way we hold criminals accountable for their actions to be compelling, but nothing I haven't heard before. Of course it would be ideal to rehabilitate any criminal that could be scientifically proven to be capable of reentering society and not commit future criminal offenses. Some criminals will never be rehabilitated. I don't think anyone disagrees with that. But even if they can reenter society, if their actions were the result of a brain tumor or other mental health issue, does that mean they shouldn't have to "do the time"? Can we ever really prove that their con

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2012

    I have read over 15 books about cognitive science, by 13 differe

    I have read over 15 books about cognitive science, by 13 different authors. This author is excellent at keeping the reader in touch with his points, consistently throughout the book, I did not come to a point, in any of the chapters, where he lost my attention by over explaining or losing sight on connecting his points back to his concepts. The book is written in colloquial easy to understand grammar, he minimizes the use of complex scientific terms. It's a great book with tons of insight to concepts that you can apply to your everyday life and casual perception

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 17, 2011

    Fascinating engaging book!

    Wonderful look into how the brain works with and without our conscious awareness.
    The exploration of inner space is an adventure trip worth taking with the author as an engaging guide. Energizing and uplifting look at who we are.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 19, 2011

    Informative, good pace, and elegant writing

    One of the best books I've read in a while that's full of information, fun to read, and the perfect length for both.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2011

    No way, Jose!

    I have just read David Eagleman's book INCOGNITO and I have a achieved a new reduction in knowledge!

    3 out of 30 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 25, 2011

    ?..

    ?..

    3 out of 39 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2012

    Revealing

    Written in a very entertaining yet scientifically based manner that explains how and why we think and do so many very common things. I now more clearly understand myself and others. I did briefly resort to speed reading in a too long section concerning the judicial system sentencing and the mind. It almost became preachy... but then Eagleman returned to his previous comfortable and enjoyable rhythm. I put it in the Must Read Category.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 12, 2012

    Well written and executed primer to current brain science.

    This book went well alongside two others I've read recently, Brain Rules and The Head Trip. Incognito straddles the middle ground between these other two books and, while it covers much of the same ground and actually many of the same scientific examples and case studies, it makes a good starting point for learning about the brain and cognition.

    The three books together actually make a great triumverate of knowledge.
    The Head Trip tackles the brain from a consciousness perspective, and Brain Rules is more of a owner's manual to the brain.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 29, 2011

    Think? You should buy it!

    Startling in it's scope, thoroughness and importance. You have never read a book that will change the way you think of thinking as much as this one. The one negative...the title sounds like a thriller suspense novel...or is it just me?

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2011

    Very good

    Excellent

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2013

    Excellent

    Excellent

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 26, 2013

    Very enlightening

    Well written, easy for the lay person to understand. Excellent book

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2013

    Didn't meet expectations

    I was really looking forward to this book when I bought it, but I found the mainstream elements turned me off. I enjoyed the new material and studies when they came along, but the book was littered with generalizations, dumbing-down, repetition and little games I didn't find intriguing or amusing. In his area of expertise, Eagleman know his stuff and I realize to be a book it has to have some length, but I found the extras irritating and couldn't get through it. :(

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