Incognito – The Secret Lives Of The Brain

There is someone in your head, but it’s not you.

David M. Eagleman – Incognito

Update: there is another review of this book by 52in52weeks.

This book provides fascinating insight into how we make our decisions based mostly on our unconscious mind.

A common saying is that “we are creatures of habit”. This book takes this even further to suggest that a lot of our decisions are made in our subconscious mind. We think we have decided something, when in fact it was decided for us in a part of our brain we can not easily access.

That was a slightly uncomfortable lesson for me. I’d like to think of myself as an autonomous person and not a victim of another mind that I have no power over.

However, after reading this book, I found the sheer capacity of our mind to process the multitude of impressions we receive rather admirable. Realizing that the mind makes its decisions in line with who we are and what w are learning, my discomfort waned. It’s simply impractical to make a complete conscious decision without automating large parts of the process, and that’s what the subconscious mind is very well trained to do.

We can still learn new tasks. We just don’t have a say over how our mind learns.

What makes this book unique?

This book shows the relation between subconscious and conscious mind (the inaccessible and accessible part of the brain). You can compare the latter to a newspaper  – when you read the headlines, everything has already happened. Your consciousness is like a tiny cabin on a transatlantic steamship taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the machinery underneath.

What is the most unexpected/controversial insight?

You can learn an activity without being aware of what you learn. For example, it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between a male and female chicken directly after hatching. Yet when you practise sorting those birds, your mind picks up on a trait that is not obvious to the untrained eye. The astonishing fact is that “chicken sexers” in Japan have learnt to distinguish males and females by just sorting them day in and day out, under guidance of a senior “sexer”.

A very similar story is how british citizens were able to distinguish German from incoming English planes during World War II, even though they looked exactly the same.

Significance of this book on my life

Making elaborate plans before you get started does more harm than good. The mind learns in ways that we simply cannot predict. We just have to know our goal, take action and leave the rest to our brain to pick up on,

Key concepts of “Incognito”

There is someone in my head, but it’s not me.

We have a hundreds of billions of neurons that connect in more numerous ways than stars in the universe. Even during sleep, the mind is “busy” like an active hub – if we’d put the electrical impulses that neurons communicate with every second into photons, we’d be blinded immediately. What we actively think at any moment is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Your mind matches incoming sensory data with your expectations

Your neurons process information more slowly than new impressions come up in your environment. Therefore, your perception of the world always lags behind.

To compensate for that, your brain integrates sensory data with experience that you already have.

For example, sound and visual impressions are processed at different speeds, yet when you snap your finger, the sound appears simultaneous with the movement of your hand. Another example are our eyes: the environment is projected upside down onto our retina, yet the brain flips the image right back 180 degrees.

Mind: the Gap

Your brain has automated a lot of tasks, such as tying your shoe laces, walking, changing lanes with your car etc. You have learnt these tasks once, and they have become ingrained in the subconscious part of your mind.

Your subconscious can even pick up on patterns before you are aware of it. Before you think you make a decision, you can already record a change in physiological parameters, such as skin conductance.

You can learn new tasks without being aware of what you learn, as the examples with the chicken sexers and plane spotters show (see above).

Your conscious mind sets the goals, but the learning process itself happens entirely in your subconscious. This automation makes the human brain supremely fast and efficient.

Not all thoughts are thinkable

We don’t have access to a lot of our decisions. We may have actually evolved to have more instincts than animals. This makes us more flexible and enables us to adapt better to the environment, because more steps are automated.

For example, being attracted to the opposite sex is not a choice. Men consider women with a waste-to-hip ratio between 0.67 and 0.80 not only most attractive, but also humorous, healthy and intelligent.

Ovulating women seem to prefer more masculine looking men, while non-ovulating women prefer men with softer, more social and caring features.

We also appear to lose interest in a partner after approximately three years – the time it takes to raise a child during the most vulnerable, early years.

The brain is a team of rivals.

We can hold rivaling emotional and logical opinions in our mind – e.g. “I want to eat this cake” vs. “This cake is not good for my health”. In the end, only one opinion wins.

The emotional “instant gratification” activates different brain areas than the logical decision concerned with long-term benefits.

The brain stores information in several redundant ways. If a brain area is destroyed, other parts can compensate. We may even be able to fight Alzheimer’s disease by having”back-up” areas in our mind trained to take over when the original areas are lost.