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23 March 2013

Book Review: Incognito

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the BrainIncognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"The vast, wet, chemical-electrical network called the nervous system.  The machinery is utterly alien to us, and yet, somehow, it is us."

An entire book about how our conscious brain isn't really in charge, which necessitates changing our conscious thinking about who we are, the decisions we make, the art we create.

Take Coleridge.  He began using opium in 1796.  He wrote "Kubla Khan" while on an opium high.  So is the genius of that poem Coleridge's?  "We credit the beautiful words to Coleridge because they came from his brain...But he couldn't get hold of those words while sober, so who exactly does the credit for the poem belong to?"

The book is chock full of great food for thought; the blind lady who can see, creating the illusion of truth simply be repetition of lies, what a "gut feeling" really is, cognitive reserve fighting off Alzheimer's,

Perhaps the most (conscious)thought-provoking chapter was Eagleman's exploration about our penal system and how brain studies could allow us to change our ideas of guilt and capacity for reform. 

A fascinating read.  Perhaps dumbed-down a little too much but, frankly, had it been more intellectual, I would not have found it as intriguing and meaningful.

"The way we see the world is not necessarily what's out there: vision is a construction of the brain, and its only job is to generate a useful narrative at our scales of interaction.  Visual illusions reveal a deeper concept; that our thoughts are generated by machinery to which we have no direct access. Useful routines are burned down into the circuitry of the brain and consciousness seems to be about setting goals for what should be burned into the circuitry."

"The complexity of the system we are is so vast as to be indistinguishable from magic.  As the quip goes: If our brains were simple enough to be understood, we wouldn't be smart enough to understand them."

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