Incognito: Book Summary & Review

incognito book cover

Incognito examines the unconscious part of our brains and how they interact with our conscious brain.

Exec Summary

  • 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

Incognito Summary

About The Author: David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and professor at Stanford University.

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 of the operation of the brain, and it has little access and even less knowledge of 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 to 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 toward 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 and fills it up (here’s an experiment to check your blind spot).

The brain is plastic in the data it 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 one 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 still 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 partners 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 a product we buy or say we like: we tend to prefer products with the same initial.

Psychologists say it’s because of unconscious self-love or perhaps because we like things that are familiar (in psychology it’s called implicit egotism).

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 that seem familiar. 

Mere Exposure Effect

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.
This is why some people in the public spotlight are often not bothered by the negative press but are happy anyway that 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 sound, it worked even when people were told the statements were 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 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 his comfort zone 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).

For more on peak performance read:

Chapter 4: The Kind Of Thoughts That Are Thinkable

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 number 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’s example.

Mel Gibson viciously attacked Jews and then retracted everything.

The author asks: 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 driven by different forces pulling in different directions.

The author says we could divide our brain into two forces:

  1. The rational part of our brain analyses information in the outside world, while
  2. The emotional part of our brain monitors our internal state and worries about the 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 indulges the immediate satisfaction, while another part of us wants to play the long game and do what’s best for us.

My Note:
Successful people are the ones able to resist the pull of immediate satisfaction, control their own minds and instruct their bodies 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 today’s world, we take a lot of decisions 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 (also read Leaders Eat Last).

Action / Feelings / Meaning Connections

David Eagleman says that “hidden programs” beneath our conscious level drive actions while our left hemisphere finds 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.

This is sometimes referred to as “sense-making” in psychology.

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 ways to cope with people’s problems. Something better than just jail, something to help them improve and society regains honest citizen.

Chapter 7: Life After the Monarchy

How to cope with our meaninglessness?

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.

My note
I disagree with this notion of us having been dethroned wholeheartedly. 

Much More Than DNA

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 correlate 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 suffers 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.

My note:
And that’s exactly why I don’t buy the thesis about humans having been “dethroned” by anything. 

incognito book cover


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 it feels like that.

Not applicable
Lots of info but not so much highly applicable advice.


What I disagree with
David Eagleman talks about the “dethroning revolutions” of human history.
Earth is not at the center of the universe, the subconscious, and now his book shows 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.
This 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.

Book review:
That being said, “Incognito” is a fantastic book on the human mind. It explains a lot of how things work and I absolutely recommend you get it.

Get the book on Amazon.

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