Thursday, June 2, 2011

Incognito - The secret lives of the Brain by David Eagleman - Book Review

I am more than I think!

"I think - therefor I am" said Descartes. Each one of us is much more than what we can ever think - shows David Eagleman in this fascinating book - Incognito. Not only that, but it is amazing that we are aware only of a very small part of our brain. All of us strongly believe that we are in control of ourselves (at least most of the time) and so responsible for our actions. However our conscious self is more like the CEO of a large company that coordinates and supposedly directs the various divisions. The CEO may set the goals for the company, but he gets only a summary view of the situation and is seldom aware of the details. Similarly different sections of the brain work more or less independently - some through hard wired circuits that evolved over millions of years and others through culture and habits. We believe we are in charge but we are actually driven by what our brain (or more importantly different parts of our brain) perceives and tells us - surprisingly including what we see!

The ancients always exhorted us to understand ourselves - whether it is the Greek Delphi saying `Know Thyself' or the Indian upanishads with the cryptic `Thathwamasi' which can roughly translated to `That is you'. But they would have never expected the complexity that is in our brains. Fully understanding how the brain works is the holy grail for neuroscientists - however Mr.Eagleman explains how far away we are from this goal.

Our actions are driven by our brain and at the end of the day, the brain is only a set of neurons interacting through electrical and chemical signals. This is easily proven by the effects of various drugs on the brain and how it immediately affects what we think or do. Nature (genetics), Nurture (upbringing and environment) and life experiences creates the individual and Mr.Eagleman explains in a very simple manner how these three combine to create the complexity and beauty of humanity. Based on this understanding it makes it more easy to understand how and why various heinous and criminal acts are committed by humans. More importantly, Mr.Eagleman explains how this knowledge should be used to change our legal systems - do read the book to find out! It might even change the way you think about yourself!!

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