Book Review: Incognito: The Hidden Lives of the Brain


I recently finished reading the book “Incognito: the hidden lives of the brain,” written by David Eagleman. It purports to be an expose’ of the best and most recent developments in neuroscience. The author wants “to do for neuroscience what Carl Sagan did for astrophysics,” that is, to demystify the current research on consciousness and to explain to the average lay reader how it all works.

This is, admittedly, a very difficult task and Eagleman sets to walking a very fine line between absurd reductionism and misty-eyed material mysticism on the other. As with Newberg and D’Aquilli’s “Why God won’t go away” it is a discussion of where supernaturalism fits in the light of science, but with less perspicacity and more brash materialism.

In the first half of the book Eagleman explicitly tries to debunk the myth of the “little man” in the brain, that is, of consciousness as an entity independent of the biology of the brain, over and above its biological functions. In essence, the “mind” is not separate from the “brain.” Mind is the sum total of electro-chemical activity in the brain. He explicitly contrasts this with all spiritualist views that posit an extra-material soul which control the mind, and of which the brain is just a mouthpiece.

He does this by deconstructing free will, using case studies and other studies that show the influence of the subconscious upon perception and decision making, including extreme cases of people being turned into murderers, compulsive gamblers and pedophiles by organic brain lesions. His conclusions:

  1. Consciousness is an “elaborate trick” and is not in charge of the brain. It is one small part of total brain activity, and does not drive that activity. Mostly it rationalizes it after the fact.
  2. Free will is an illusion. Our ‘decisions’ are made for us by countless automated brain sub-routines which are the result of deterministic electro-chemical processes.
  3. Consciousness is an emergent property arising from spontaneous interactions between those thousands of automatic sub-routines.
  4. Therefore a “person” is a “team of rivals” somewhat analogous to a government made up of thousands of independent yet interacting functions, each with its own origin and goals. Our thoughts and actions are the sum total of their interactions.
  5. Contradicting #1, he allows the possibility that consciousness serves (or rather is) the function of arbitrating and goal-directing the interactions of the sub-routines.

After making these points and explaining how they contradict the religious and non-materialist point of view (more on that later) he goes into a critique of criminal justice based on a concept of punishment, insisting that in some future “enlightened” society neuroscientists will “test” criminals to find the biological roots of their anti-social behavior and to determine which ones are treatable and which are not. The ones who are treatable will be “treated” and the ones who are not will be “removed” for the sake of society. He does not discuss what either “treatment” or “removal” might entail, but both give me a shudder and remind me of C. S. Lewis’ critiques of treatment based criminal justice.

But I digress.

In the final chapter he steps right off the line and goes straight into what I have come to call “evo-devo spirituality.” He acknowledges in passing that science has not ruled out the existence of an extra material spiritual realm (he does not address the idea of God) but he speaks with certainty of its inevitability. He also admits to having destroyed the concept of a soul, but insists that it has not removed the basis of morality or of spirituality, or of numinous awe. Instead of that morality, spirituality and awe being based upon some transcendent being somewhere “out there” it is based upon observable natural processes which he extolls in a rhapsodic chapter rivaling the exultant prose of Carl Sagan.

My critiques of the book are:

  1. Most of the research he presents is not new, but it is one sided. He presents tons of cases showing how biological processes influence cognition and decision making, but does not present the balancing research showing that cognition and decision making influence neurobiology.
  2. The spiritualism that he claims to refute is one-sided and simple, more of a straw man. In fact, in the statement “If there’s something like a soul, it is at a minimum tangled irreversibly with the microscopic details” is as good a refutation of Gnosticism as I have ever heard, and squares fully with what the Catholic Church has always taught about the nature of the human person.
  3. The interpretation of the science that he offers as a revolutionary insight, i.e. that the human mind is a collection of multiple competing elements all clamoring for ascendency, is not a contradiction of traditional philosophy or religion. It is not even new. It is, in fact, the very reason for the existence of moral philosophy and most religious traditions. They have always seen the human person as something of a chimera, and have all been oriented towards unifying that conglomeration of competing elements, albeit by various means.

In conclusion, Eagleman’s book is an entertaining read, and the first half presents some interesting studies, albeit ones which are capable of a multitude of various interpretations reflecting the reader’s worldview. His interpretations and his ultimate program of social reform are neither very coherent, nor very attractive.

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