Author: David Eagleman
I don’t really keep track, but every so often I finish a book and realize that it’s been a long time since I’ve read something so good. Looking back, it’s been at least six months since I enjoyed a book as much as Incognito, David Eagleman’s exploration of the human brain. One might be skeptical to think that anyone could adequately encompass the most complex structure in the known universe in just over 200 pages, but the author has created a concise and truly riveting tale, focusing on one particular aspect. The disconcerting idea that you’re really not in charge.
An apt analogy goes back to the geocentric view of the heavens that was overturned by Copernicus and Galileo. Earth’s demotion to small planet orbiting an average star in one arm of giant galaxy is mirrored in brain researchers’ gradual realization that most of our thinking goes on beneath the surface, infrequently rising to consciousness, if not actively suppressed. The conscious mind is only a small interested bystander inside the vast interconnected neural web that is the brain.
Eagleman – a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine – provides plenty of evidence to back up his thesis, discussing why consciousness became necessary during our evolutionary past. The basic idea is that our brains need to perform many simultaneous functions to live, eat, mate, raise offspring and avoid predators. If every neurologic process required conscious input, our minds would rapidly become overwhelmed.
Roger Federer is a fine example. If he had to actually think about each forehand and backhand, he’d be lousy. The surest way for him to screw up his serve is to think too much about it. Endless practice allows athletes or performers to coordinate and hard wire their neural functions so that when they’re “in the zone” they can produce a peak performance without “choking” by thinking too much. This is why it seems silly to ask Mariano Rivera how to throw a perfect cut fastball or to expect Usain Bolt to deliver a lecture on “How to Run Really Fast”. They can’t tell you because they