Monday, September 12, 2011

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

by David Eagleman

The human brain is both an incredible piece of engineering and a very flawed interface through which to experience the world. Every year or two I find it helpful to read something that reminds me of both these ideas. Eagleman, author of the delightful Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, does a terrific job of giving us a tour of the brain in all its biased glory - in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.

The subtitle refers to one of the book's main ideas: that the human mind is far from a singular entity. Just as there are thousands of processes happening at the same time, there are also multiple "voices" in every brain, each contributing to the actions and decisions that are eventually carried out. Our conscious mind, which usually seems to be a singular and consistent narrative telling us what's happening in the world and in our heads, is, in Eagleman's view, like a newspaper giving us an extremely simplified summary of current events. Even those things we think we're currently deciding are more like the slightly-delayed minutes of a corporate board meeting, all of it presented to the CEO as if he or she was the only decision maker.

Eagleman's style is fun, with lots of memorable examples. A lot of the material has been covered before, in other popular cognitive science books, and at times, I wished for a bit more depth to his explanations, but in general I found the book entertaining and thought-provoking.