Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

Eagleman does a terrific job of explaining the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind. The latter only providing the former with the major details, similar to how a newspaper gives you the headlines for the day. He describes how our thoughts and actions are largely a result of the unconscious mind, not the conscious mind as we like to believe. Using a plethora of examples, he demonstrates how concepts like “free will” might not be as cut and dry as they seem.

Reading Notes

most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control.

In 1862, the Scottish mathematician James Clerk Maxwell developed a set of fundamental equations that unified electricity and magnetism. On his deathbed, he coughed up a strange sort of confession, declaring that “something within him” discovered the famous equations, not he. He admitted he had no idea how ideas actually came to him—they simply came to him.

As Carl Jung put it, “In each of us there is another whom we do not know.” As Pink Floyd put it, “There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.

Why did Supreme Court Justice William Douglas claim that he was able to play football and go hiking, when everyone could see that he was paralyzed after a stroke?

we believe we’re seeing the world just fine until it’s called to our attention that we’re not.

about one-third of the human brain is devoted to vision.

Your peripheral vision is far worse than you would have ever intuited, because under typical circumstances your brain leverages the eye muscles to point your high-resolution central vision directly toward the things you’re interested in. Wherever you cast your eyes appears to be in sharp focus, and therefore you assume the whole visual world is in focus.

Imagine you’re watching a short film with a single actor in it. He is cooking an omelet. The camera cuts to a different angle as the actor continues his cooking. Surely you would notice if the actor changed into a different person, right? Two-thirds of observers don

The majority of subjects continued giving directions without noticing that the person was not the same as the original one they were talking with.

Vision is active, not passive.
NOTE: Cube example with the faces flipping back and forth

You’re not perceiving what’s out there. You’re perceiving whatever your brain tells you.

“unconscious inference,

Vision does not simply exist when a person confronts the world with clear eyes. Instead, an interpretation of the electrochemical signals streaming along the optic nerves has to be trained up.

To the brain, it doesn’t matter where those pulses come from—from the eyes, the ears, or somewhere else entirely. As long as they consistently correlate with your own movements as you push, thump, and kick things, your brain can construct the direct perception we call vision.


Here’s an amazing consequence of the brain’s plasticity: in the future we may be able to plug new sorts of data streams directly into the brain, such as infrared or ultraviolet vision, or even weather data or stock market data.34 The brain will struggle to absorb the data at first, but eventually it will learn to speak the language. We’ll be able to add new functionality and roll out Brain 2.0.

Charles Bonnet syndrome,

As we’ve seen, what we call normal perception does not really differ from hallucinations, except that the latter are not anchored by external input. Hallucinations are simply unfastened vision.

Vision usually dominates over hearing, but a counter example is the illusory flash effect: when a flashed spot is accompanied by two beeps, it appears to flash twice.41 This is related to another phenomenon called “auditory driving,” in which the apparent rate of a flickering light is driven faster or slower by an accompanying beeping sound presented at a different rate.

One of the earliest examples of this framework came from the neuroscientist Donald MacKay, who in 1956 proposed that the visual cortex is fundamentally a machine whose job is to generate a model of the world.46 He suggested that the primary visual cortex constructs an internal model that allows it to anticipate the data streaming up from the retina (see the appendix for an anatomical guide). The cortex sends its predictions to the thalamus, which reports on the difference between what comes in through the eyes and what was already anticipated.

NOTE: Instead of interpreting the world, we create a model of it and then see how closely the real experience matches the model

This predictability that you develop between your own actions and the resulting sensations is the reason you cannot tickle yourself.

Interestingly, schizophrenics can tickle themselves because of a problem with their timing that does not allow their motor actions and resulting sensations to be correctly sequenced.47

Anton’s syndrome

The bottom line is that time is a mental construction, not an accurate barometer of what’s happening “out there.

“Trust your instruments.” This is because your senses will tell you the most inglorious lies, and if you trust them—instead of your cockpit dials—you’ll crash.

Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School in Japan

During World War II, under constant threat of bombings, the British had a great need to distinguish incoming aircraft quickly and accurately. Which aircraft were British planes coming home and which were German planes coming to bomb? Several airplane enthusiasts had proved to be excellent “spotters,” so the military eagerly employed their services.

As E. M. Forster quipped: “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?

The results can be troubling. The reaction times of subjects are faster when the pairings have a strong association unconsciously.8 For example, if overweight people are linked with a negative association in the subject’s unconscious, then the subject reacts faster to a photo of an overweight person when the response is linked to the same button as a negative word.

implicit egotism.

mere exposure effect

The illusion-of-truth effect highlights the potential danger for people who are repeatedly exposed to the same religious edicts or political slogans.

In Bush’s $2.5 million dollar television commercial, a frame with the word RATS flashes on the screen in conjunction with “The Gore prescription plan.

This is what consciousness does: it sets the goals, and the rest of the system learns how to meet them.

Instead of reality being passively recorded by the brain, it is actively constructed by it.

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.

Inspired by this art of consensus building, Abraham Lincoln chose to place adversaries William Seward and Salmon Chase in his presidential cabinet.

Sigmund Freud noted that arguments stemming from the intellect or from morality are weak when pitted against human passions and desires,20 which is why campaigns to “just say no” or practice abstinence will never work.

Freely made decisions that bind you in the future are what philosophers call a Ulysses contract.

during frightening situations—such as a car accident or a robbery—another area, the amygdala, also lays down memories along an independent, secondary memory track.

cognitive reserve

Minds seek patterns. In a term introduced by science writer Michael Shermer, they are driven toward “patternicity”—the attempt to find structure in meaningless data.

Consciousness is called in during the first phase of learning and is excluded from the game playing after it is deep in the system.

The main thing known about secrets is that keeping them is unhealthy for the brain.

This concern about the outcome is evidenced by the fact that people are more likely to tell their secrets to total strangers;

In the legal system, there is a defense known as an automatism. This is pled when the person performs an automated act—say, if an epileptic seizure causes a driver to steer into a crowd. The automatism defense is used when a lawyer claims that an act was due to a biological process over which the defendant had little or no control. In other words, there was a guilty act, but there was not a choice behind it.

And really, that’s all maturation is. The main difference between teenage and adult brains is the development of the frontal lobes. The human prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until the early twenties, and this underlies the impulsive behavior of teenagers. The frontal lobes are sometimes called the organ of socialization, because becoming socialized is nothing but developing circuitry to squelch our basest impulses.