Canongate £20

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, By David Eagleman

Sometimes you just don't know what's going on in your head

When Galileo observed that we are not, in fact, at the centre of our solar system, man's initial shock at the dethronement gave way to an exponential increase in his awe at the vastness and complexity of the universe.

In Incognito, the neuroscientist David Eagleman argues that something analogous happened in the 20th century. What Freud intuited and neuroscience has confirmed is that the vast majority of your neural activity occurs at levels for which the conscious you, "the 'I' that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning", just doesn't have security clearance. "The conscious mind is not at the centre of the action in the brain; instead, it is far out on a distant edge, hearing but whispers of the activity .... A mere 400 years after our fall from the centre of the universe, we have experienced the fall from the centre of ourselves."

Things which seem to come naturally to you, such as instincts, appetites, perceptions, desires and motor functions, seem so, not because they don't require much brain activity, but because they're the product of neural sub-routines that run more efficiently when the conscious mind isn't invited to get involved. A large part of Incognito is dedicated to the ingenious experiments, fascinating behavioural quirks, and bizarre case studies from which we can nevertheless infer what's going on in there. For example, why can't you tickle yourself unless you're schizophrenic; how do Parkinson's medications cause compulsive gambling; and what's going on when a patient has Anton's syndrome (the failure to recognise one's own blindness), synaesthesia (the condition in which sensory perceptions are blended, such that one might hear a colour), or alien hand syndrome (which is much as it sounds, and disturbingly like a scene in The Evil Dead)?

There's another category of tasks which you used to have to perform consciously, but that you're now better at when you don't. Tying shoelaces, say, or catching a ball. According to some models, burning in the necessary neural circuitry is about all that the conscious part of the human mind was evolved for. In Eagleman's model, however, consciousness was needed in order to manage an increasing number of complex and competing neural sub-populations. This explains our impulse for coherent narratives, and why we're able to argue with ourselves, or talk ourselves into something.

If Eagleman's name is already familiar it will be for his bestselling 2009 book Sum, a wildly imaginative collection of short stories which purported to be about the afterlife but were actually profoundly sensitive to what it means to be human in the here and now. Incognito is a different kind of book, intended to explain his day job to a general reader – and as such, it is a shining example of lucid and easy-to-grasp science writing. Which isn't to say that it is reductionist ("By itself, the biology only gives partial insight"), nor that there's no space for poetic phrasing (information is carried by "flotilla of drifting molecules"). Nor does Eagleman feel bound by his field. Neuroscience is at a stage, he argues, where it can weigh in on age-old philosophical debates. So, Incognito asks where exactly – when our heads are so full of unconscious thoughts and hard-wired behaviours – free will is supposed to reside and, if it is missing, what does this mean for our legal system? It's a book about the things it is impossible to think about, and others that it is no longer possible not to.

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'