INCOGNITO…

Incognito: The Secret Lives Of The Brain
by
David Eagleman

Although we are dependent on the function of the brain for our inner lives, it runs its own show. Most of the operations are above the security clearance of the conscious mind. The I simply has no right of entry. p. 4

Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot. p. 4

When the men were choosing the most attractive women, they didn’t know that the choice was not theirs really, but instead the choice of successful programs that have been burned deep into the brain’s circuitry over the course of hundreds of thousands of generations. p. 5

The conscious mind is not at the center of the action in the brain; instead, it is far out on a distant edge, hearing whispers of the activity. p. 9

The illusion-of-truth effect – you are more likely to believe that a statement is true if you have heard it before (whether or not it is actually true) – highlights the potential danger for people who are repeatedly exposed to the same religious edicts or political slogans. p. 65

So, the next time a friend laments that she cannot decide between two options, tell her the easiest way to solve her problem: flip a coin. She should specify which option belongs to heads and which to tails, and then let the coin fly. The important part is to assess her gut feeling after the coin lands. If she feels a subtle sense of relief at being told what to do by the coin, that’s the right choice for her. If instead, she concludes that it’s ludicrous for her to make a decision based on a coin toss, that will cue to choose the other option. p. 68-9

…reality is far more subjective than is commonly supposed. instead of reality being passively recorded by the brain, it is actively constructed by it. p. 82

A recent study by scientists in New Mexico counted up the tips made by lap dancers at local strip clubs and correlated this with the menstrual cycles of the dancers. (“Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap-dancers: Economic evidence for human estrus?” Evolution and Human Behavior, 28 (2007): pp. 375-81.) During peak fertility, dancers raked in an average of $68 an hour. When they were menstruating, they earned only about $35. In between, they averaged $52. Although these women were presumably acting in a high capacity of flirtation throughout the month, their change in fertility was broadcast to hopeful customers by changes in body odor, skin, waist-to-hip ratio, and likely their own confidence as well. Interestingly, strippers on birth control did not show any clear peak in performance, and earned only a monthly average of $37 per hour (versus an average of $53 per hour for strippers not on birth control). Presumably they earned less because the pill leads to hormonal changes (and cues) indicative of early pregnancy and the dancers were thus less interesting to Casanova’s in the gentleman’s clubs. p. 94

…[mouse] pups must be running the proper genetic programs to correctly care about their mothers. this sort of problem may underlie disorders that involve difficulties with attachment, such as autism. p. 97

Does vasopressin [a hormone linked positively to monogamy] matter for human relationships? …researchers found that a section of the gene called RS3 334 can come in variable numbers: a man might have no copies of this section, one copy or two copies. The more copies, the weaker the effect of vasopressin in the bloodstream would have on the brain. The results were surprising in their simplicity. The number of copies correlated with the men’s pair-bonding behavior. Men with more copies of RS3 334 scored worse on measures of pair-bonding – including measures of the strength of their relationships, perceived marital problems and marital quality as perceived by their spouses. Those with two copies were more likely to be unmarried, and if they were married, they were more likely to have marital troubles. p. 98

In 1976, the American psychologist Julian Jaynes proposed that until late in the second millennium BCE, humans had no introspective consciousness, and that instead their minds were essentially divided in two, with their left hemispheres following the commands from the right hemispheres. (Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness.) These commands, in the form of auditory hallucinations, were interpreted as voices from the gawds. About three thousand years ago, Jaynes suggests, this division of labor between the left and right hemispheres began to break down. As the hemispheres began to communicate more smoothly, cognitive processes were able to develop. The origin of consciousness, he argues, resulted from the ability of the two hemispheres to sit down at the table together and work out their differences. p. 124-5

An advantage of overlapping domains can be seen in the newly discovered phenomenon of cognitive reserve. Many people are found to have the neural ravages of Alzheimer’s disease upon autopsy – but they never showed the symptoms while they were alive. How can this be? It turns out that these people continued to challenge their brains into old age by staying active in their careers, doing crossword puzzles or carrying out any other activities that kept their neural populations well exercised. As a result of staying mentally vigorous, they built what neuropsychologists call cognitive reserve. It’s not that cognitively fit people don’t get Alzheimer’s; it’s that their brains have protection against the symptoms. p. 128-9

The crux of the question is whether all of our actions are fundamentally on autopilot, or whether there is some little bit that is free to choose, independent of the rules of biology. This has always been the sticking point for both philosophers and scientists. As far as we can tell, all activity in the brain is driven by other activity in the brain, in a vast complex, interconnected network. For better or worse, this seems to leave no room for anything other than neural activity – that’s no room for a ghost in the machine. To consider this from the other direction, if free will is to have any effect on the actions of the body, it needs to influence the ongoing brain activity. And to do that, it needs to be physically connected to at least some of the neurons. But we don’t find any spot in the brain that is not itself driven by other parts of the network. Instead, every part of the brain is densely interconnected with – and driven by – other brain parts. And that suggests that no part is independent and therefore free. p. 166

My argument in this chapter has not been to redefine blameworthiness; instead it is to remove it from the legal argot. p. 191. (An argot is a secret language used by various groups—including, but not limited to, thieves and other criminals—to prevent outsiders from understanding their conversations. The term argot is also used to refer to the informal specialized vocabulary from a particular field of study, hobby, job, sport, &c.)

The concept and word to replace blameworthiness is modifiability, a forward-looking term that asks, What can we do from here? Is rehabilitation available? If so, great. If not, will the punishment or a prison sentence modify future behavior? If so, send him to prison. If punishment won’t help, then take the person under state control for the purposes of incapacitation, not retribution. p. 192

In his 1942 book Le mythe de Sisyphe, Albert Camus introduced his philosophy of the absurd, in which man searches for meaning in a fundamentally meaningless world. In this context, Camus proposed that the only real question in philosophy is whether or not to commit suicide. (He concluded that one should not commit suicide; instead one should live to revolt against the absurd life, even though it will always be without hope. p. 195 [Compare to Walter Mosley’s observation that “The act of writing is a kind of guerrilla warfare; there is no vacation, no leave, no relief. In actuality there is very little chance of victory.” From For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day. JH]

If an epileptic seizure is focused in a particular sweet spot in the temporal lobe, a person won’t have motor seizures, but instead something more subtle. The effect is something like a cognitive seizure, marked by changes of personality, hyperreligiosity (an obsession with religion and a feeling of religious certainty), hypergraphia (extensive writing on a subject, usually about religion), the false sense of an external presence, and, often the hearing of voices that are attributed to gawds. Some fraction of history’s prophets, martyrs and leaders appear to have had temporal epilepsy. p. 207

The brain is not so much the seat of the mind as the hub of the mind. p. 219

See also: The Brain On Trial.

2 Responses to “INCOGNITO…”

  1. […] of free will and responsibility. [Tierney, here, is writing, of course, about David Eagleman and Incognito: The Secret Lives Of The Brain. JH] p. […]

  2. […] David Eagleman is the author of Incognito: The Secret Lives Of The Brain. […]

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