Gotham Diary:
Wednesday, 22 June 2011

David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain isn’t a disappointment, exactly — which is to say that it is a disappointment, in being rather less amusing to read that I expected it to be. I have the awful feeling that I’m reading a book that is aimed at guys. Worse, it might even be written by one. Eagleman’s tone is that of the sharp guy who gets a kick out of showing you that your intuitions and unexamined assumptions are way off base. The prevailing imagery is drawn from business and sports. There’s a sense of wonder at all the trouble that the brain takes to make our lives simple and efficient — to make it possible for us to pay minimal attention. 

In other words, it’s a very different book from Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong. Schulz approaches the brain as an error-prone organ whose bad habits we have to bear more or less constantly in mind as we navigate the complexities of social life, correcting for bias and prejudice even when — especially when — we think that we’re free of them. Eagleman thinks that the brain is cool. “Sometimes it is tempting to think that seeing is easy despite the complicated neural machinery that underlies it,” runs a characteristic observation. “To the contrary, it is easy because of the complicated neural machinery.” Thinking and consciousness are not necessarily good things, especially when the brain can perform difficult tasks on autopilot. 

The handwriting on the wall appears early, on page 6. 

Consider the activity that characterizes a nation at any moment. Factories churn, telecommunications lines buzz with activity, businesses ship products. People eat constantly. Sewer lines direct waste. All across the great stretches of the land, police chase criminals,. Handshakes secure deals. Lovers rendezvous. Secretaries field calls, teachers profess, athletes compete, doctors operate, and bus drivers navigate. You may wish to know what’s happening at any moment in your great nation, but you can’t possibly take in all the information at once. Nor would it be useful, even if you could. You want a summary. So you pick up a newspaper — not a dense paper like the New York Times but lighter fare such as USA Today. You won’t be surprised that none of the details of the activity are listened in the paper; after all, you want to know the bottom line. You want to know that Congress just signed a new tax law that affects your family, but the detailed origin of the idea — involving lawyers and corporations and filibusters — isn’t especially important to that new bottom line. And you certainly wouldn’t want to know all the details of the food supply of the nation — how the cows are eating and how many are being eaten — you only want to be alerted if there’s a spike of mad cow disease. You don’t care how the garbage is produced and packed away; you only care if it’s going to end up in your backyard. You don’t care about the wiring and infrastructure of the factories, you only care if the workers are going on strike. That’s what you get from reading the newspaper.

Your conscious mind is that newspaper. 

This imaginary “you” whom Eagleman is addressing, this solipsistic USA Today glancer, is precisely the sort of person whom one would have expected a front-liner in the cognitive revolution to disdain. Instead, Eagleman adopts the fawning peppiness of a car dealer. What does this “you” want to do with all the free time that simplistic summaries open up? From what I can tell, all “you” wants to do is to play Tetris. 

I understand that the importance of Incognito is not its presentation of the psychology experiments and fMRI analyses that have become almost familiar in recent years, thanks to books like Being Wrong — indeed, Eagleman writes for readers who haven’t been following this issue (who haven’t, for example, been reading Malcolm Gladwell) — but rather its insistence that we need to reconsiders our ideas of conventional and legal responsibility. If Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower shooter, had survived his orgy of death, and if it had been possible to detect the tumor that was compressing his amygdala, would it have been correct to hold him criminally liable for his acts? How do we manage the problems that ensue when otherwise effective medication sparks the irrepressible urge to gamble in Parkinson’s victims? What is the culpability of drug addiction? These are all important questions, and working out practical answers — refashioning our criminal legal system in the process — is going to be a tough slog. What I’ve seen of Eagleman’s thinking on these points seems thoughtful and grounded, and I’m looking forward to seeing more. But I’m disappointed to see Eagleman giving a pass to vernacular masculine inattentiveness. 

At one point, Eagleman refers to what I’ve come to call the paradox of the centipede: the centipede managed its hundred feet just fine until it was asked how it managed, whereupon it was paralysed by second-guessing. If you think “too much,” you can screw up your golf swing or your sex life, and you can become awfully familiar with insomnia. But I don’t think that thinking is the problem. Thinking is the symptom. Centipedes, we may trust, never actually stop to consider their articulatory powers, but when we do, it’s usually a sign that they’re not working. When we toss in bed, it’s a sign that our wiring is faulty; whatever the cure might be (medication, life-style modification), it is consciousness that alerts us to the dysfunction. It’s too bad that more of our fallible parts don’t do the same. 

And it’s too bad, I suppose, that David Eagleman comes from Texas, and not the Northeast Corridor.