INCOGNITO: The Secret Lives of the Brain

David Eagleman
Vintage Books ($15.95)

by Scott Vickers

Since the dawn of the natural sciences, when Galileo first gazed into the heavens and surmised that Earth was not the center of the universe, humans have been anxiously trying to understand some basic questions: “Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here?” These questions have driven, in large part, the evolution of the sciences. Shortly after Galileo’s blasphemous observations took hold, European proto-scientists invented a new teleology that became known as the scientific method, based on objectively provable outcomes during experimentation. At first, these experimenters concerned themselves with the natural world—the plant, animal, and mineral kingdoms, while the study of humankind was left to philosophers and theologians. Eventually, a convergence occurred that gave birth to what we today know as neuroscience—a growing sub-specialty of general neurology—which has gained a huge influence over how humans currently attempt to answer the questions of who, what, and why we are.

Neuroscience’s influence over our self-conception is evidenced by its alignment with the pharmaceutical industry: it has helped to create psychoactive drugs that are all too familiar to us today, such as Prozac, Ritalin, and Wellbutrin. Scandals surrounding the development and testing of some of these drugs are well documented, and have given neuroscience as a whole a bad name. Reading David Eagelman’s Incognito, therefore, is a refreshing testament to the integrity of neuroscience as a valuable asset toward understanding the ongoing mysteries of the human psyche.

As majestically as Carl Sagan used to speak about the outer galactic regions of space, David Eagleman writes about the “billions and billions” of neurochemical phenomena that take place every millisecond inside the human nervous system and its command center, the brain. His elegant descriptions of the structures and substructures of the brain, coupled with his deeply humanistic concerns, are enthralling and he proffers an irresistible mystery as the central theme of Incognito: “There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.” (Any scientist who can so meaningfully quote Pink Floyd, as well as Whitman, St. Augustine, Jung, and Loren Eiseley, among others, might well be worth reading.) Eagleman answers the primal question “Who are we?” with an equally confounding proposition, “[The brain] does not allow its colossal operating system to be probed by conscious cognition. The brain runs its show incognito.”

As a neuroscientist, Eagleman’s main concerns focus on the treatment of the “diseased” mind—including the fairly common conditions of depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, Parkinson’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, and epilepsy—and of the criminal mind, especially as it concerns one’s capacity to be rehabilitated, or not, from sociopathic behaviors. In both cases, he eschews the purely scientific reductionism and so-called neo-Darwinism of those who believe that the mysteries of the human brain can and will be resolved through the discovery of smaller and smaller subsystems and genetic/chemical formulations, as if “humans are best described only as pieces and parts” and are “no more than the cells of which we are composed.” On the other hand, he is reluctant to subscribe fully to the notion of the human soul:

If there’s something like a soul, it is at minimum tangled irreversibly with the microscopic details. Whatever else may be going on with our mysterious existence, our connection to our biology is beyond doubt. From this point of view, you can see why biological reductionism has a strong foothold on modern brain science. But reductionism isn’t the whole story.

As for who we are, why we’re here, and where we came from, Eagleman goes on to say, “the truth is that we face a field of question marks, and this field stretches to the vanishing point.” If we could all adopt Eagleman’s astonishing sense of humility in the face of uncertainty, it might go a long way toward freeing us to interpret these questions in a manner that both ensures our continued curiosity and creates a narrative of meaning that informs our individual lives.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2012/2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012/2013