Monday, July 29, 2013

Incognito: The secret lives of the brain

By David Eagleman

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

There is a 25-page bibliography and 25 pages of notes as well. I found his information on "perception" in the second chapter particularly interesting and noteworthy — enough to reproduce material (with permission, of course) on "Activity; from Within" (pp. 44-46) for my section on "perception" for my 11th edition of Communicating Effectively 10e (McGrawHill, 2012).

Also, I thought his information on attractiveness and the relation between alcohol, sex, and sexual desire was especially insightful (pp. 92-94), and because it relates so well to college students, I will (with permission), include it in a special box in my 11th edition.

One reviewer at (Bee from Seattle) writes: "One of the more intriguing facts revealed in this book is that one part of the brain invents stories to justify what another part sees or feels. Our brains constantly look for order and reason, even when there is none, leading us to regularly reach erroneous conclusions. Now apply this to politics or intimate relationships. Thinking about the implications makes my head spin." The reason I find this especially intriguing is that it fits perfectly into my textbook section entitled, "Deletions, Distortions, and Generalizations" (pp. 49-50), a part that supports the conclusion, "Any perceptions you have are less than perfect" (p. 49). It is a difficult concept for people to fully understand.

I thought the information on how brains differ, and all of the factors that affect brain development (pp. 157-158), was well developed. This is the kind of material readers — especially those who are unfamiliar with neuroscientific understandings — need to know.

Eagleman’s distinction between blame and biology, in the section, "The Shift from Blame to Biology," was superb (pp. 172-172). His explanation of the limits of neuroscience was exemplary: "[A neuroscientist] can say nothing about the minutiae of the microcircuitry, nor the algorithms that run on the vast seas of millisecond-scale electrical and chemical signaling" (p. 174).

One of the points Eagleman makes, and which people need to know for sure, "people do not arrive at the scene [any scene!] with the same capacities. Their genetics and their personal histories mold their brains to quite different end points" (p. 187).

I thought Eagleman’s arguments (evidence) to support "a biologically informed jurisprudence" were (even though a bit premature at this time regarding a complete legal theory) were exceptional (pp. 151-192). It is a terrific idea. Eagleman directs the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law and, thus, is in a position to promote such a proposal.

If you are trying to understand the structure of this book, Eagleman explains it in Chapter 6, "Why Blameworthiness is the Wrong Question": "We’ve spent the first five chapters exploring the degree to which we are not the ones driving the boat. We saw that people have little capacity to choose or explain their actions, motivations, and beliefs, and that the captain’s wheel is steered by the unconscious brain, shaped by innumerable generations of evolutionary selection and a lifetime of experiences. The present chapter has explored the social consequences of that . . ." (p. 190).

There is so much information in this book. Eagleman not only writes clearly, but he has avoided technical language and put the material into contexts readers can easily understand and appreciate. What this book does, and it does it in spades, is to challenge you, to make you question, and to cause you to think in new directions.

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