What you see is not what you get.

David Eagleman addresses the differences between seeing and perception in Incognito – The Secret Lives of the Brain.  David Copperfield isn’t the only magician that can fool you into seeing something that’s not there – so can your brain.  Eagleman uses a conversational tone to explain the science behind how the brain registers and interprets vision.

Are you fascinated with perception puzzles?  Is it a vase or two faces?  Eagleman offers this popular figure-ground example, along with other exercises to test your awareness – some you’ve tried, others new – all fun.  Although Eagleman carefully includes the scientific principles behind the unconscious brain’s control, he’s careful to not overdue the pedagogy.  Just when you think you are getting more information than you need, he throws in another task for you to test a theory, almost making the book interactive.

“When you are losing {at tennis}, simply ask your opponent how she serves the ball so well.  Once she contemplates the mechanics of her serve and tries to explain it , she’s sunk.”

Eagleman suggests that we may each be operating in our private Truman shows – the reality we know only skims the surface of all that is possible. Using examples like choices in mates, the world economy, even bank accounts, Eagleman easily converts the science of the brain to common place experiential data that explains the battle in our heads. What inner negotiations are going on when you decide whether or not to eat that piece of chocolate cake? Why do you feel happier if you sit up straight instead of slouching?

In chapter 6, “Why Blameworthiness is the Wrong Question,” Eagleman’s  soap box approach to changing the criminal justice takes the subject off track – giving the author his say on the social implications of the subconscious mind.  Rehabilitation through rewiring – short of lobotomy – sounds humane; unfortunately, Eagleman has no sound suggestions for implementation.  In the end, without a means to study the brains of criminals before sentencing, he reverts to sending them to prison anyway, while he dreams of further study to create ” a neurally compatible social policy.”  If you skip this chapter, you will only miss Eagleman’s yielding to his own brain’s impulses.

In the first five chapters, Incognito is a primer – a simple “the brain for dummies”:

  • the conscious mind is “not the one driving the boat”
  • useful routines are burned into the brain’s circuitry (subconscious) and become the control default – we are slaves to our brains
  • human action is the result of an unconscious debate among competing factions in our brains – like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s’ a “team of rivals.”

He ends with a promise that a better understanding of neurobiology may lead to a better life, citing Montaigne’s introspective search for “What do I know?”  But Eagleman also acknowledges that the study of the brain is so complex, involving so much we do not know that…

“If our brains were simple enough to be understood, we wouldn’t be smart enough to understand them.”

For now, most of us are just happy to believe in the “magic” of the brain’s operation.