Initial thoughts on David Eagleman's new book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

I just purchased David Eagleman’s new book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain and I like what I’m reading so far based on the first chapter. What immediately strikes me about Eagleman’s ideas is that his understanding of consciousness is very Jaynesian. Compare these two paragraphs:

“Reactivity covers all stimuli my behavior takes account of in any way, while consciousness is something quite distinct and a far less ubiquitous phenomenon. We are conscious of what we are reacting to only from time to time. … We are continually reacting to things in ways that have no…component in consciousness whatever.”

“Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision making. And most of the time, it’s not. Whether we’re talking about dilated eyes, jealously, attraction, the love of fatty foods, or the great idea you had last week, consciousness is the smallest player in the operations of the brain. Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.”

Which quote is which? It’s hard to tell isn’t it? (Answer: the first is Jaynes, the second is Eagleman). Eagleman seems to be arguing for an essentially Jaynesian thesis: consciousness is not ubiquitous in the daily life of humans (and almost entirely absent from many of our animal cousins, as well as newborn infants), it flickers in and out, hovering over the surface of the deep unconscious ocean, occasionally getting access to the abbreviated, filtered, narratized version of information that consciousness operates over and then feeds back into the unconscious system.

In one of his most lively metaphors, Eagleman likens our conscious mind to a newspaper. Imagine all the economic, social, and political activity that is going on in the world at any given time. It would be impossible for anyone to gather or comprehend all that information. So what do we do? We read a newspaper filled with headlines and articles that condense that mountain of information into digestible, easy to understand bites. The reader uses the newspaper to gather useful information without bogging down in the huge complexity of reality. But Eagleman points out that we are curious readers, for we read the headline and take credit for coming up with the thought ourselves. As Eagleman puts it, “You gleefully say, ‘I just thought of something!’, when in fact your brain performed an enormous amount of work before your moment of genius struck. When an idea is served up from behind the scenes, your neural circuitry has been working on it for hours or days or years, consolidating information and trying out new combinations. But you take credit without further wonderment at the vast, hidden machinery behind the scenes.”

Here’s another takeaway message from Eagleman: “One does not need to be consciously aware to perform sophisticated motor acts.” As I mentioned before, this is an essentially Jaynesian thesis. Just from reading the first chapter, I can already see that Eagleman understands perfectly what conscious is not: it is not at the center of our mental lives when scaled against the entirety of the unconscious mind. It only appears to the conscious mind that it is at the center of the show. This is a firm and convincing neural trick, one very hard to overcome without deliberately or inadvertently tampering with the neural machinery through drugs or worse. The illusion of centrality and “inwards looking outwards” generates a phenomenon of unified experience along with a narrative, autobiographical identity over time. While it is true we have unified conscious experience and sense of conscious self-hood, especially when we reflect on that self, it is true only in the sense that we experience ourselves as having unified experience, but not in the sense that our experience actually is consciously unified. A closer examination reveals that the unified experience is a neurological artifact of consciousness knitting itself over the unconscious mind in the form of “newspaper headlines” i.e. narratives summarized and constructed after the fact. Eagleman uses the example of baseball. A fastball flies from the mound to the batter in 4/10ths of a second. This is far too fast for a narratized headline to be useful in directing behavior. Luckily, the unconscious is quick enough to respond, otherwise no one could ever hit a fastball.

But does this mean that consciousness is a mere epiphenomenon, lagging behind but not exerting any influence of its own? No, not at all. Just because consciousness comes after the fact doesn’t mean that it has no causal effects. Afterall, newspaper headlines have causal force insofar as the consolidated information hits the brain and leads directly or indirectly to new behavior. Imagine you saw a newspaper headline that the world was about the end. This would have instant behavioral effects. Although the headline was generated “after the fact”, it still has causal force insofar as the digestion of that headline by the conscious mind allows for behavioral shortcuts to be made through higher-order categorization and planning. So the fact that consciousness “lags behind” and deludes itself into running the whole show does not imply that it has no effect on the show at all. It does have an effect, a great one actually. But part of the effect is the feeling of being more than just a neurological newspaper. The newspapers wants to think that it is more than just a narratized summary in higher-order packaging.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Initial thoughts on David Eagleman's new book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

  1. vicp

    Great post Gary. Even though consciousness is an “after the fact” phenomenon, it allows us to modify our behavior for future “after the fact” situations. We may have a problem hitting the pitcher’s fast ball in the first inning, but we can “learn him” and hit his fast ball in the fifth inning.

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