Archive for April, 2012

“Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain” by David Eagleman

The brain is just sev­er­al ounces of neur­al tis­sue, not par­tic­u­lar­ly durable and pret­ty vul­ner­a­ble if it were not for the bone shell it resides in. Still, it is the seat of all con­trol oper­a­tions of any liv­ing crea­ture that pos­sess­es even the most rudi­men­ta­ry brain and is capa­ble of doing a num­ber of amaz­ing things, sev­er­al things all at the same time. Yet is also one of the most mys­te­ri­ous organs known, its many and var­ied func­tions only sketchi­ly under­stood, in part because of its com­plex­i­ty and com­plex inter­nal struc­ture, hid­den from view and direct manip­u­la­tion deep with­in the skull, acces­si­ble for the most part only indi­rect­ly and there­fore very dif­fi­cult to inves­ti­gate directly.

“Incog­ni­to: the Secret Lives of the Brain” is a book by a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, David Eagle­man. which attempts to shed some light on the sub­ject. It is a book pri­mar­i­ly des­tined for the lay per­son and is designed to show just how the brain is so com­plex and mys­te­ri­ous, yet under­stand­able if only by a process of obser­va­tion and deduction.

Com­men­tary: This book mir­rors much of what I’ve been think­ing regard­ing the inter­nal process­es of the brain, although I was com­ing to the sub­ject through the “brain as a com­put­er” par­a­digm. The brain may be just one organ but it com­pris­es many, many sep­a­rate sec­tions and func­tions, some of which are com­pli­men­ta­ry and some of which are even com­bat­ive. It is a won­der that it even func­tions at all, and, of course, any­one can come up with exam­ples from per­son­al obser­va­tion or expe­ri­ence when it does­n’t in one way or anoth­er, small or large.

My one biggest annoy­ance was that it was just a lit­tle too super­fi­cial for my tastes. It talked a lot about the what of the brain and its func­tions but not so much on the how and why of it. Grant­ed, this book was intend­ed for the gen­er­al audi­ence but I would have liked to see a lit­tle more meat to the descrip­tions and more space devot­ed to con­tem­pla­tion of the caus­es of how the brain does what it does. There are some flash­es of that, as for exam­ple the descrip­tion of how base­ball play­ers track fly balls in the out­field, where they do not auto­mat­i­cal­ly cal­cu­late the tra­jec­to­ry to fig­ure out where to run to to catch the ball: instead, they watch the track of the ball and if it appears to devi­ate from a straight line, mean­ing they or the ball are mov­ing away from the path, they change direc­tion to return it to a straight line. But most­ly the brain is treat­ed as a black box of many inter­nal devices, left unexplored.

My oth­er annoy­ance was that it does­n’t men­tion hyp­no­sis at all in the text, and only once in a foot­note, remark­ing how it can affect the results of a par­tic­u­lar type of test results.

Rec­om­men­da­tion: For the aver­age read­er who wants to under­stand more about the oper­a­tion of the brain, this would be a good start. How­ev­er, it is rather shal­low for some­one who wants a more in-depth expla­na­tion of the var­i­ous brain func­tions, and almost worth­less for any one who wants to under­stand the par­tic­u­lar sub­ject of hyp­no­sis functions.

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