Big Ideas:
The Museum of Cognitive Monuments
Monday, 27 June 2011

Toward the end of Incognito, David Eagleman discusses the strange case of Phineas Gage. The name first appears at the beginning of a section entitled “What It Does and Doesn’t Mean To Be Constructed of Physical Parts,” and, as is my habit, I glanced at it even as I decided to take a short break from the book. Before Eaglemen reminded me, I recalled that Phineas Gage was a nineteenth-century laborer who survived a ghastly head injury, which was so wondrous and strange in itself that it took his doctors a while to note a personality change for the worse. I had read about the case somewhere else, not too long ago. But where?

This was only the last of several such experiences while reading Incognito. An earlier example was Eagleman’s summary of a “time discounting” experiment by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Not only had I read about that experiment, but I recalled that Tversky died before Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for their work together. Where did I read that? Not in Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works, which mentions the Kahneman and his Prize, but in connection with another experiment altogether, all in one succinct paragraph on page 206. Not in Eduardo Porter’s The Price of Everything, which mentions other work by Kahneman several times, but not Tversky. Not in Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong, which doesn’t mention either scientist.

Frustrated, I conceived the idea of the Museum of Cognitive Monuments, a Web site devoted to curating the cases and experiments that pop up again and again in books on the most exciting of current topics, the cognitive revolution — in which the notion of man as a rational animal &c &c is trounced and trashed. The Museum of Cognitive Monuments would be a concordance, collection references to discoveries in the field (both in psychology and in neurobiology, which are approaching a state of lamination), and offer brief précis of different writers’ handling of the material. In addition to indexing the growing library of books in the field, the MCM would work as a prolegomenon to it, allowing writers to assume that readers were already familiar with the relevant cases and experiments, cutting down on instances of entertaining but distracting pops of magazine-style introduction.

Incognito is altogether an introduction to “the secret lives of the brain” (the book’s subtitle), clearly aimed at readers who have never concerned themeselves with the cognitive revolution — otherwise, there would be no need for the first three chapters, which address a reader who, assuming that the conscious mind controls behavior, appears to be unaware that a cognitive revolution is underway. Eagleman’s original contribution begins when he borrows Doris Kearns Godwin’s phrase about the Lincoln Cabinet: a “team of rivals.” This metaphor serves Eagleman well, although, as I wrote last week, I find the overall tone of his business- and sports-flavored language distastefully complacent. Not to mention his reliance on the term “zombie” to describe more or less automatic and unconscious behavior patterns.

As long as the zombie subroutines are running smoothly, the CEO [the conscious mind] can sleep. It is only when something goes wrong … that the CEO is rung up. Think about when your conscious awareness comes online: in those situations where events in the world violate your expectations. When everything is going according to the needs and skills of your zombie systems, you are not consciously aware of most of what’s in front of you; when suddenly they cannot handle the task, you become consciously aware of the problem. The CEO scrambles around, looking for fast solutions, dialing up everyone to find who can address the problem best.

This is so guy that it’s embarrassing. If the passage has one inadvertent virtue, it’s that it silhouettes the unsleepingly resourceful nature of artistic consciousness. Eagleman seems unwilling to propose that the health of the moderrn mind depends on its ability to register a fair current of internal contradiction. But he lays out the evidence for such a conclusion.

Eagleman is far more interested in the assessment of criminal behavior, which he all but defines as deviant — another complacency. The book’s final two chapters constitute a mini-treatise on the overhaul of criminal law. His argument on behalf of legal reform that would bypass considerations of “blameworthiness” is interesting and persuasive, and it will undoubtedly be taken up again by Eagleman and others in bolder form elsewhere. By then, I hope, the author will have outgrown the boyish tendency to associate the normal mind with inattentiveness.