Incognito, by David Eagleman

Incognito, by David Eagleman

Incognito, by David Eagleman

“The brain runs its own show incognito.”

We tend to think that we choose what we like, and we decide what we do. We believe that we are in command, that we are the captains of our lives. But in reality, we only control a tiny bit of what is going on in our mind. Our free will is only a very small fraction of what we think it is, or what we would like it to be.

In Incognito, neuroscientist and writer David Eagleman does a fantastic job of explaining the workings of the beautiful and mysterious machine that lies within us: our brain.

Physical Changes To The Brain Affect Our Thought Process

In his book, Eagleman explains that the physical dimension has a prominent role to play in defining our thoughts, our behavior, and ultimately who we are.

(…) thoughts are underpinned by physical stuff. We know this because alterations to the brain change the kind of thoughts we can think. (…) The state of the physical material determines the state of the thoughts.

Because of the inaccessible fluctuations in our biological soup, some days we find ourselves more irritable, humorous, well spoken, calm, energized, or clear-thinking. Our internal life and external actions are steered by biological cocktails to which we have neither immediate access nor direct acquaintance.

(…) a slight change in the balance of brain chemistry can cause large changes in behavior.

The author thoroughly illustrates the importance of the physical dimension with vivid examples. An interesting case is one of a 40-year-old-man he calls Alex, whose sexual preferences suddenly began to transform as a result of a brain tumor.

He underwent a brain scan, which revealed a massive tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex. Neurosurgeons removed the tumor. Alex’s sexual appetite returned to normal.

Alex’s story highlights a central point: when your biology changes, so can your decision making, your appetites, and your desires. The drives you take for granted (‘I’m hetero/homosexual,’ ‘I’m attracted to children/adults,’ ‘I’m aggressive/not-aggressive,” and so on) depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption.

We Don’t Know What’s Going On

We are only conscious of a small part of what’s actually going on within our mind, or as Eagleman puts it: “The brain runs its own show incognito.”

(…) 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.

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. (…) Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.

Almost the entirety of what happens in your mental life is not under your conscious control, and the truth is that it’s better this way. Consciousness can take all the credit it wants, but it is best left at the sidelines for most of the decision making that crafts along in your brain. When it meddles in details it doesn’t understand, the operation runs less effectively. Once you begin deliberating about where your fingers are jumping on the piano keyboard, you can no longer pull off the piece.

We Don’t Decide What We Like

We do not choose what we like or whom we feel attracted to. Our “neural circuitry” does it for us from within, and we can hardly access it.

(…) our sense of attraction is not something ethereal (…) but instead results from specific signals that plug, like a key into a lock, into dedicated neural software.

What people select as beautiful qualities primarily reflect signs of fertility brought on by hormonal changes. Until puberty, the faces and body shapes of boys and girls are similar. The rise in estrogen in pubescent girls gives them fuller lips, while testosterone in boys produces a more prominent chin, a larger nose, and a fuller jaw. Estrogen causes the growth of breasts and buttocks, while testosterone encourages the growth of muscles and broad shoulders. So for a female, full lips, full buttocks, and a narrow waist broadcast a clear message: I’m full of estrogen and fertile. For a male, it’s the full jaw, stubble, and broad chest. This is what we are programmed to find beautiful. Form reflects function.

(…) we have almost no direct access to the mechanics of our attractions. Instead, visual information plugs into ancient neural modules that drive our behavior.

Consciousness Plays A Critical Role

However, the conscious mind does play a critical role in our know-how, by planning much of the knowledge that is stored in “the depths of the unconscious brain”.

The competitors at Wimbledon are rapid, efficient machines that play tennis shockingly well. They can track a ball traveling ninety miles per hour, move toward it rapidly, and orient a small surface to intersect its trajectory. And these professional tennis players do almost none of this consciously. (…) They are, for all practical purposes, robots.

But these robots are trained by conscious minds. (…) Conscious parts of the brain train other parts of the neural machinery, establishing the goals and allocating resources. ‘Grip the racket lower when you swing,’ the coach says, and the young player mumbles that to herself. She practices her swing over and over, thousands of times, each time setting as her end point the goal of smashing the ball directly into the other quadrant. As she serves again and again, the robotic system makes tiny adjustments across a network of innumerable synaptic connections. Her coach gives feedback which she needs to hear and understand consciously. And she continually incorporates the instructions (‘Straighten your wrist. Step into the swing.’) into the training of the robot until the movements become so ingrained as to no longer be accessible.

(…) a professional athlete’s goal is to not think. The goal is to invest thousands of hours of training so that in the heat of the battle the right maneuvers will come automatically, with not interference from consciousness. The skills need to be pushed down into the players’ circuitry. When athletes ‘get into the zone’, their well-trained machinery runs the show, rapidly and efficiently.

The Brain As A Team Of Rivals

Eagleman classifies the activity of the brain into two systems: the rational and the emotional. According to the author, these two do not get along well and find themselves in a process of permanent negotiation in their attempt to dominate over the other. He proposes that “the brain is best understood as a team of rivals”.

The rational system is the one that cares about analysis of things in the outside world, while the emotional system monitors internal state and worries whether things will be good or bad. (…) You can do a math problem without consulting your internal state, but you can’t order a dessert off a menu or prioritize what you feel like doing next. The emotional networks are absolutely required to rank your possible next actions in the world (…)

Your behavior –what you do in the world- is simply the end result of the battles.

The emotional and rational networks battle not only over immediate moral decisions, but in another familiar situation as well: how we behave in time.

(…) minds can develop a meta-knowledge about how the short- and long-term parties interact. The amazing consequence in that minds can negotiate with different time points of themselves.

So imagine the hostess pressing the chocolate cake upon you. Some parts of your brain want that glucose, while other parts care about your diet; some parts look at the short-term gain, other parts at long-term strategy. The battle tips towards your emotions and you decide to dig in. But not without a contract: you’ll eat it only if you promise to go to the gym tomorrow. Who’s negotiating with whom? Aren’t both parties in the negotiation you?

Becoming aware of the prominent role of the subconscious mind, and the  strong conditioning power of our neural chemistry on our lives  should make us more humble and thankful. Humble to accept that a lot of what we do, like or choose is not consciously defined by us, and thankful to appreciate the gift we have received by being the carriers of such a magical machine that makes us the most sophisticated species on the planet.

Incognito is very entertaining and easy to follow guide in to the workings of our brain, and a must-read for anyone interested in learning about the latest findings of neuroscience. If you enjoyed this article you may want to hear some of the most prominent aspects covered in the book straight from David Eagleman, in our video-article You Are Your Biology.

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