Saturday, October 8, 2011

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman: A review

In this book, neuroscientist David Eagleman, who has a knack for translating complicated scientific concepts into everyday language, argues that most of the activity of the brain occurs on an unconscious level. This unconscious is hard-wired by our genetics, by our experience in the womb, our early nurturing, the various chemicals that we are exposed to in our environment, and so many other factors over which we have absolutely no control that it calls into serious question the popular idea that humans possess free will. If our brains are already bent by circumstances in one direction and our brains control our minds, our thoughts, our physical actions, both deliberate and autonomic, what is the control that our conscious can exert over our actions? Are our "choices" not already predetermined by all the factors that have gone into our hard-wiring? And, this being the case (and it's very hard to argue that it isn't), how can anyone ever be truly "blamed" for his or her actions? Is blameworthiness the wrong question? Eagleman clearly thinks so. He says, "How you turn out depends on where you've been." As he explains:

Many of us like to believe that all adults possess the same capacity to make sound choices. It's a nice idea, but it's wrong. People's brains can be vastly different - influenced not only by genetics but by the environments in which they grew up. Many "pathogens" (both chemical and behavioral) can influence how you turn out; these include substance abuse by a mother during pregnancy, maternal stress, and low birth weight. As a child grows, neglect, physical abuse, and head injury can cause problems in mental development. Once the child is grown, substance abuse and exposure to a variety of toxins can damage the brain, modifying intelligence, aggression, and decision-making abilities.

Reading this, one might think that Eagleman is arguing that one can never be held accountable for anything, but that really isn't the case. He's arguing that our justice system should take into account the state of the brain, its physical make-up as well as the psychological influences that shaped it, and that punishment or rehabilitation should be planned accordingly. This is a very humanistic approach to the concept of justice. It's one that a society still stuck, as ours seems to be, in the "eye for an eye" stage of psychological maturity - or lack of maturity - is probably unable to accept or even consider. But Eagleman has put the idea on the table, and perhaps at some later, more enlightened time, it might even become our normal way of dealing with such issues.

David Eagleman writes with clarity and wit and constantly introduces anecdotes from current events to illustrate his points. This is a very accessible book about the most complicated of subjects, our internal computers. Interesting to find out that, for the most part, those computers travel with us, Incognito.

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