Incognito by David Eagleman shows us how the human mind works. Specifically, the relationship between conscious and.. All that is not conscious.
- Exec Summary
- Incognito Summary
- Chapter 1: There’s Someone In My Head But It’s Not Me
- Chapter 2: The testimony of the senses: what is experience really like?
- Chapter 3: Mind: The Gap
- Chapter 4: The Kind Of Thoughts That Are Thinkable
- Chapter 5: The Brain Is A Team Of Rivals
- Chapter 6: Why Blameworthiness Is the Wrong Question
- Chapter 7: Life After the Monarchy
- Our conscious mind is only aware of a tiny fraction of what goes on -both within us and outside us-
- Our made is made up of competing forces and beliefs
- Genetics are important, but who you are and your actions of the results of too many variables to predict anything
Chapter 1: There’s Someone In My Head But It’s Not Me
David Eagleman says that most of what we do, think and feel is not in our conscious control.
Consciousness is a minor part in the operation of the brain, and it has little access and even less knowledge of the the processes taking “beneath the hood”.
You can easily realize when you:
- Hit the break pedal even before you know why
- Find someone attractive – but can’t really explain why
- Hear your name… Even though you weren’t listening on the conversation
Even when you think that you came up with something, in truth, it wasn’t probably a moment of genius but your brain did all the work in silence before the answer finally came up to the conscious part of the brain.
Chapter 2: The testimony of the senses: what is experience really like?
David Eagleman says that most of our experience is a personal and subjective construction. We’re not really perceiving objectively what’s out there, but simply our own interpretation of it.
And our brain makes all types of assumption that allows it to save time and resources, says the author. For example, as you read you are not aware of your left foot. Now that you read it though, you might consciously think about it, but you’re not aware of exactly what’s on the side of your computer.
If there’s a noise coming from another part of your room, then you won’t be aware of your computer for a while because all your attention and sense will be diverted towards the noise.
Basically, at any time, we only really know what we need to know, which is a tiny, tiny slice of the world around us.
David Eagleman uses a few more examples to highlight how our brain makes up facts based on pure assumptions.
For example, our eyes have a blind spot, but we’re not aware of it because the brain simply takes the information around the blind spot it and fills it up (here’s an experiment to check your blind spot).
The brain is plastic in the data is can accept, read and make sense of. Which opens up the door to amazing future possibilities. We’ll be able to plug ultraviolet or infrared light data. Our brain will struggle at first, but eventually will learn to make sense of the information and use it.
Chapter 3: Mind: The Gap
David Eagleman takes it on step further in chapter three.
Not only we don’t grasp fully what is happening in the world around us, but we don’t even consciously access all that we know. And it’s not just breathing or blood flow, but also riding a bicycle, driving… These are all skills we have but that we don’t consciously access.
These are all complex tasks ingrained within ourselves that would not benefit at all from conscious “meddling”. And we realize how complex these seemingly easy tasks are with artificial intelligence and robotics. Robotics started with quick progress but for decades it hasn’t overcome yet the most simple of human tasks: crossing a road safely, walking on a sidewalk without falling etc.
We Like Those Who Are Like Us
People tend to marry partner with the same initial of their name more often than pure chance otherwise would have. David Eagleman says it’s because people with the same initial somehow remind us of ourselves (also discussed in Influence by Cialdini).
The same goes for product we buy or say we like: we tend to prefer products with our same initial.
Psychologists say it’s because of unconscious self love or perhaps because we like things which are familiar (it’s called implicit egotism, here implicit egotism on Wikipedia).
My note: I wish the author could have explained if we like people who are familiar with us because they remind us of ourselves or because we like things which seem familiar.
Mere Exposure Effect
David Eagleman also adds we tend to like what we are familiar with. If we saw a face before and then we see it again we will judge it as being more attractive. Which is why some people in public spotlight are often not bothered by negative press but are happy anyway they’ll get air time and people will be exposed to them.
Similarly, we are more likely to believe as true what we heard several times, independently of whether or not it was true in the first place (Trump used it across his campaign and even in the debate with Clinton, check here an analysis of his tricks). An experiment showed people were more likely to rate as true statements they had heard before but which they couldn’t remember they had heard. As crazy as it might sounds, it worked even when people were told the statements was false!
Energy and Specialization
The author then goes here into a well known phenomenon of the learning process. Our brains are hyperactive and burn lots of energy when we learn a new skill. Once the skill is learned though the brain slows down. The skills become part of the brain’s system and now not much energy is needed anymore.
An athlete who has become great at a task will not think much about the task when he’s playing. That’s why when he’s learning he should push himself beyond the comfort zone (“deep practice, read The Talent Code for more on this) and when he’s playing he should be in the zone and not think much.
That’s when you can “trust your instincts” as Tim Grover says when he’s referring to the very top performers he calls “cleaners” (read Relentless).
Chapter 4: The Kind Of Thoughts That Are Thinkable
David Eagleman is on a roll now against the brain’s capabilities. In chapter four he says that not only the reality we see is only a tiny portion, but also the thoughts we can think are very limited. We can’t comprehend the vastness of the universe or the amount of stars and celestial bodies in it for example.
The same is true for our instincts. We can’t see or access our instincts.
Chapter 5: The Brain Is A Team Of Rivals
David Eagleman begins chapter 5 with Mel Gibson example. Mel Gibson viciously attacked jews and then retracted everything. The author ask: what’s the reality, does he really believe what he said about jews or is it possible our brain holds different views at the same time?
Is it possible to have a racist part of our brain and a non racist part of our brain?
Well, it turns out, yes. Our brain is constantly drive by different forces pulling in different directions.
The author says we could divide our brain in two forces: rational part of our brain analyses information in the outside world, while the emotional part of our brain monitors internal state and worries about consequences.
Short Term VS Long Term
You know the feeling: someone offers you a piece of cake, or you sit down to eat and love the food. One part of us wants to eat everything, while another part of us wants to stay stronger so we can keep our weight.
One part of us is concerned with the short term and indulge the immediate satisfaction, while another part of us wants to play the long game and do what’s best for us.
successful people are the ones able to resist the pull of the immediate satisfaction, control their own mind and instruct their body to do what is best in spite of the difficulties and hardships (also read: The Marshmallow Test and Grit).
This is what constitutes emotional intelligence, and that’s why Daniel Goleman said that Emotional Intelligence predicts 80% of success (read Emotional Intelligence).
Emotional / Rational Balance
David Eagleman says the internal struggle is actually optimal, we do need a balance of “right now” and “future” and a balance of rational and emotional.
The author also mentions the current technology might pose a problem in the sense that in today’s world we take a lot of decision when we are far removed from the people that will be affected, and that will make us less “emotional”, and hence less concerned for them (Simon Sinek says when we remove physical presence people are not people anymore but become costs lines in a spreadsheet, read Leaders Eat Last).
Action / Feelings / Meaning Connections
David Eagleman says that “hidden programs” beneath our conscious level drive actions while our left hemisphere find a way to rationalize and justify.
We are constantly looking for meaning, even when there’s none, which often leads to loads of wrong rationalizations.
The author says our brain looking for meaning is the same reason why we are happier if we sit straight or force a smile. The brain reads the smile and says it must be because we’re happy.
Consciousness = CEO
The conscious part of our brain acts like a CEO. He sets the goals and then the vision and the rest gets to work. The CEO is not aware of most of what goes on, but only steps in when his attention is required.
Chapter 6: Why Blameworthiness Is the Wrong Question
David Eagleman says there’s no evidence that convincingly supports free will.
Then he goes into something I fully disagree with: that we are the product of both nature and nurture, but that we choose neither.
He says depending on the brain chemistry we are born with, or with the genes that have been activated in our environment, some of us are more prone to violent behavior or addictions.
The author is very clear though that it doesn’t mean we will not punish criminals. Explanation does not mean exculpation, he says. It simply means we need to find better way to cope with the people problems. Something better than just jail, something to help them improve and society regain an honest citizen.
Chapter 7: Life After the Monarchy
This chapter talks about what’s left for us humans to feel special about after we’re not at the center of the universe anymore, we’re not created by God and we’re not even controlling forces of ourselves anymore.
I disagree with this notion of us having been dethroned wholeheartedly.
Much More Than DNA
David Eagleman says we’re definitely tied to our biology, and yet the variables that influence us and our behavior as so innumerable that mapping everything is nearly impossible.
For example, have we found any genes that correlates to schizophrenia? Yep… Hundreds of them. And yet the most important predictor is the passport people have. If someone lives in a foreign place and looks different and he suffer because of it instead of being proud of his heritage.. He’s at higher risk of becoming schizophrenic.
Genetics play a role, but at the end of the day, says the author, we behave and turn out immensely different than what’s written in our DNA.
and that’s exactly why I don’t buy the thesis of us having been “dethroned” by anything.
Disempowering Narrative – at times-
David Eagleman is upbeat in the narrative and never says anything in the tone of “we’re screwed”. But at times if feels like that.
Lots of info but not so much highly applicable advice.
What I disagree with
David Eagleman’s talks about the “dethroning revolutions” of human history. Earth not at the center of the universe, the subonscious and now his book showing how little we really control.
I don’t feel less empowered in discovering how the brain works. It does NOT matter how much you can control. Your task is simple: whatever you can control, you’ll do your best on that. That’s it.
And whether that control is 0.1% or 99%… It doesn’t even matter.
Which leads me to the last part I disagree with, which is that I believe you control yourself… A lot. If you want to. And if you are willing to put in the work.
Now, moving on… Incognito s a fantastic book on the human mind. It explains a lot of how things work and I absolutely recommend you get it.