Incognito | Notes & Review

[additional graphic notes forthcoming]

David Eagleman. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Pantheon, 2011. (304 pages; 5809 locations)

1. There’s Someone In My Head, But It’s Not Me

A vocalization seems ephemeral and ineffable: it is like opening a bag of feathers which scatter on the breeze and can never be retrieved. Voices are weightless and odorless, something you cannot hold in your hand. | So it comes as a surprise that a voice is physical. (74-)

And so it goes with thoughts. What exactly is a thought? It doesn’t seem to weigh anything. it feels ephemeral and ineffable. You wouldn’t think that a thought has a shape or smell or any sort of physical instantiation. Thoughts seem to be a kind of tremendous magic. | But just like voices, thoughts are underpinned by physical stuff. (80-)

The state of the physical material determines the state of the thoughts. (86)

Our hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears, cosmic instincts, great ideas, fetishes, senses of humor, and desires all emerge from this strange organ — and when the brain changes, so do we. So although it’s easy to intuit that thoughts don’t have a physical basis, that they are something like feathers on the wind, they in fact depend directly on the integrity of the enigmatic, three-pound mission control center. | The first thing we learn from studying our own circuitry is a simple lesson: most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control. The vast jungles of neurons operate their own programs. (91-)

Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot. This book is about that amazing fact: how we know it, what it means, and what it explains about people, markets, secrets, strippers, retirement accounts, criminals, artists, Ulysses, drunkards, stroke victims, gamblers, athletes, bloodhounds, racists, lovers, and every decision you’ve ever taken to be yours. (98-)

Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision making. And most of the time, it’s not. Whether we’re talking about dilated eyes, jealousy, attraction, the love of fatty foods, or the great idea you had last week, consciousness is the smallest player in the operations of the brain. Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it. (114-)

Consciousness developed because it was advantageous, but advantageous only in limited amounts. (125-)

When an idea is served up from behind the scenes, your neural circuitry has been working on it for hours or days or years, consolidating information and trying out new combinations. But you take credit without further wonderment at the vast, hidden machinery behind the scenes. | And who can blame you from thinking you deserve the credit? The brain works its machinations in secret, conjuring ideas like tremendous magic. It does not allow its colossal operating system to be probed by conscious cognition. The brain runs its show incognito. (145-)

In each of us there is another whom we do not know – Carl Jung

There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me. – Pink Floyd

…motor and sensory. The former carried information out from the command center of the brain, and the latter brought information back. (259-)

Herbart coined the term “apperceptive mass” to indicate that an idea becomes conscious not in isolation, but only in assimilation with a complex of other ideas already in consciousness. In this way, Herbart introduced a key concept: there exists a boundary between conscious and unconscious thoughts; we become aware of some ideas and not of others. (259-)

Within the nineteenth-century zeitgeist, the finding that thinking takes time stressed the pillars of the thinking-is-immaterial paradigm. It indicated that thinking, like other aspects of behavior, was not tremendous magic — but instead had a mechanical basis. (300-)

In this new view, the mind was not simply equal to the conscious part we familiarly live with; rather it was like an iceberg, the majority of its mass hidden from sight. | This simple idea transformed psychiatry. Previously, aberrant mental processes were inexplicable unless one attributed them to weak will, demon possession, and so on. (314-)

How is it possible to get angry at yourself: who, exactly, is mad at whom? (346-)

2. The Testimony of the Senses: What Is Experience Really Like?

Yes. We are astoundingly poor observers. And our introspection is useless on these issues: we believe we’re seeing the world just fine until it’s called to our attention that we’re not. (372-)

…the storm of nerve and muscle activity is registered by the brain, but what is served up to your awareness is something quite different. (390-)

…about one-third of the human brain is devoted to vision (400-)

There is some difficulty in rigorously defining “illusion,” as there is a sense in which all of vision is an illusion. (412-)

It is interesting to consider that the majority of human beings live their whole lives unaware that they are only seeing a limited cone of vision at any moment. (425-)

Neuroscientists weren’t the first to discover that placing your eyes on something is no guarantee of seeing it. Magicians figure this out long ago, and perfected ways of leveraging this knowledge. (456-)

Vision is more than looking. This also explains why you probably missed the fact that the word “of” is printed twice in the triangle above. (463-)

The brain generally does not need to know most things; it merely knows how to go out and retrieve the data. It computes on a need-to-know basis. (481-)

…brains reach out into the world and actively extract the type of information they need. (506-)

As your eyes interrogate the world, they are like agents on a mission, optimizing their strategy for the data. (508-)

Vision is active, not passive. (524-)

You’re not perceiving what’s out there. You’re perceiving whatever your brain tells you. (552-) [VIA: Is this the same for thoughts and beliefs?]

…the brain must make assumptions about the incoming data, and that these assumptions are based on your previous experience. (557-)

Vision does not simply exist when a person confronts the world with clear eyes. Instead, an interpretation of the electrochemical signals streaming along the optic nerves has to be trained up. (651-)

Here’s an amazing consequence of the brain’s plasticity: in the future we may be able to plug new sorts of data streams directly into the brain, such as infrared or ultraviolet vision, or even weather data or stock market data. The brain will struggle to absorb the data at first, but eventually it will learn to speak the language. We’ll be able to add new functionality and roll out Brain 2.0. (723-)

At least 15 percent of human females possess a genetic mutation that gives them an extra (fourth) type of color photoreceptor — and this allows them to discriminate between colors that look identical to the majority of us with a mere three types of color photoreceptors. (735-)

…what we call normal perception does not really differ from hallucinations, except that the latter are not anchored by external input. Hallucinations are simply unfastened vision. (775-)

…awareness of your surroundings occurs only when sensory inputs violate expectations. (842-)

It is not only vision and hearing that are constructions of the brain. the perception of time is also a construction. (868-)

So the first lesson about trusting your senses is: don’t. Just because you believe something to be true, just because you know it’s true, that doesn’t mean it is true. (908-)

3. Mind: The Gap

The ability to remember motor acts like changing lanes is called procedural memory, and it is a type of implicit memory — meaning that your brain holds knowledge of something that your mind cannot explicitly access. (948-)

There can be a large gap between knowledge and awareness when we examine skills that are not amenable to introspection, the first surprise is that implicit memory is completely separable from explicit memory: you can damage one without hurting the other. (989-)

People tend to love reflections of themselves in others. Psychologists interpret this as an unconscious self-love, or perhaps a comfort level with things that are familiar — and they term this implicit egotism. (1048-)

As crazy as it sounds, all these findings passed the statistical thresholds for significance. The effects are not large, but they’re verifiable. We are influenced by drives to which we have little access, and which we never would have believed had not the statistics laid them bare. (1077-)

Some part of your brain has been touched and changed by the words on the list. This effect is called priming: your brain has been primed like a pump. (1086-)

This is known as the mere exposure effect, and it illustrates the worrisome fact that your implicit memory influences your interpretation of the world — which things you like, don’t like, and so on. (1096-)

Another real-world manifestation of implicit memory is known as the illusion-of-truth effect: you are more likely to believe that a statement is true if you have heard it before — whether or not it is actually true. (1102-)

The illusion-of-truth effect highlights the potential danger for people who are repeatedly exposed to the same religious edicts or political slogans. (1109-)

Consciousness is the long-term planner, the CEO of the company, while most of the day-to-day operations are run by all those parts of her brain to which she has no access. (1189-)

This is what consciousness does: it sets the goals, and the rest of the system learns how to meet them. (1192-)

Automatization permits fast decision making. (1209-)

The second reason to burn tasks into the circuitry is energy efficiency. (1217-)

In the logic of the brain, if you don’t have the right tool for the job, create it. (1238-)

The irony is that a professional athlete’s goal is to not think. The goal is to invest thousands of hours of training so that in the heat of the battle the right maneuvers will come automatically, with no interference from consciousness. (1245-)

We have learned that the more things get automatized, the less conscious access we have. (1253-)

4. The Kinds of Thoughts That Are Thinkable

…the brain’s circuits are designed to generate behavior that is appropriate to our survival. (1272-)

Deliciousness is imply an index of usefulness. (1278-)

What you are able to experience is completely limited by your biology. his differs from the commonsense view that our eyes, ears, and fingers passively receive an objective physical world outside of ourselves. As science marches forward with machines that can see what we can’t, it has become clear that our brains sample just a small bit of the surrounding physical world. (1302-)

umwelt (the environment, or surrounding world)

umgebung (the bigger reality)

synesthesia (meaning “joined sensation”)

Synesthesia, in its dozens of varieties, highlights the amazing differences in how individuals subjectively see the world, reminding us that each brain uniquely determines what it perceives, or is capable of perceiving. This fact brings us back to our main point here — namely, that reality is far more subjective than is commonly supposed. Instead of reality being passively recorded by the brain, it is actively constructed by it. (1385)

But the small differences within your own species have a great deal of effect in your brain. As an example, some people find the sight of a woman in short shorts intoxicating and a male in short shorts repulsive, even though the two scenes are hardly different from a geometrical perspective. (1614-)

This is not to say that choices and environment don’t matter — they do. But it is to say that we come into the world with different dispositions. Some men may be genetically inclined to have an hold a single partner, while some may not. in the near future, young women who stay current with the scientific literature may demand genetic tests of their boyfriends to assess how likely they are to make faithful husbands. (1676-) [VIA: As I read this, I felt that this was a bit silly and dehumanizing. However, that may be the point?]

5. The Brain Is A Team of Rivals

En oino aletheia (In wine there is the truth) [εν οινου αληθεια] [In vino veritas]

In came wine, out went a secret. – Babylonian Talmud

In three things is a man revealed: in his wine goblet, in his purse, and in his wrath. – Babylonian Talmud

Is there any reasons to believe that it’s not possible to have both racist and nonracist parts of the brain? (1770-)

Just like a good drama, the human brain runs on conflict. (1821-)

When the hostess at a party offers chocolate cake, you find yourself on the horns of a dilemma: some parts of your brain have evolved to crave the rich energy source of sugar, and other parts care about the negative consequences, such as the health of your heart or the bulge of your love handles. Part of you wants the cake and part of you tries to muster the fortitude to forgo it. The final vote of the parliament determines which party controls your action — that is, whether you put your hand out or up. In the end, you either eat the chocolate cake or you don’t, but you cannot do both. (1829-) [VIA: or, you just have a bite?]

Brains — whether rat or human — are machines made of conflicting parts. If building a contraption with internal division seems strange, just consider that we already build social machines of this type: think of a jury of peers in a courtroom trial. (1845-)

In the same way that liberals and conservatives both love their country but can have acrimoniously different strategies for steering it, so too does the brain have competing factions that all believe they know the right way to solve problems. (1858-)

The details of both of these theories have largely fallen out of favor among neuroanatomists, but the heart of the idea survives: brains are made of competing subsystems. (1873-)

In the effort to use labels tied neither to black boxes nor to neuroanatomy, I’ve chosen two that will be familiar to everyone: the rational and emotional systems. These terms are underspecified and imperfect, but they will nonetheless carry the central point about rivalries in the brain. The rational system is the one that cares about analysis of things in the outside world, while the emotional system monitors internal state and worries whether things will be good or bad. In other words, as a rough guide, rational cognition involves external events, while emotional involves your internal state. (1884-)

The ancient Greeks had an analogy for life that captured this wisdom: you are a charioteer, and your chariot is pulled by two thunderous horses, the white horse of reason and the black horse of passion. The white horse is always trying to tug you off one side of the road, and the black horse tries to pull you off the other side. Your job is to hold on to them tightly, keeping them in check so you can continue down the middle of the road. (1960-)

It’s because people “discount” the future, an economic term meaning that rewards closer to now are valued more highly than rewards in the distant future. (1973-) [VIA: I wonder if this is more due to cultural influences rather than mere biological wiring? However, again, that may be exactly the point.]

Subprime mortgage offers were perfectly optimized to take advantage of the I-want-it-now system… (1991-)

As the economist Robert Shiller noted in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, speculative bubbles are caused by “contagious optimism, seemingly impervious to facts, that often takes hold when prices are rising. Bubbles are primarily social phenomena; until we understand and address the psychology that fuels them, they’re going to keep forming.” (1994-)

So when we talk about a virtuous person, we do not necessarily mean someone who is not tempted but, instead, someone who is able to resist that temptation. We mean someone who does not let that battle tip to the side of instant gratification. We value such people because it is easy to yield to impulses, and inordinately difficult to ignore them. Sigmud Freud noted that arguments stemming from the intellect or from morality are weak when pitted against human passions and desires, which is why campaigns to “just say no” or practice abstinence will never work. It has also been proposed that this imbalance of reason and emotion may explain the tenacity of religion in societies: world religions are optimized to tap into the emotional networks, and great arguments of reason amount to little against such magnetic pull. (2007-)

Ancient Jewish writings proposed that the body is composed of two interacting parts: a body (guf) [VIA: גוף], which always wants things now, and a soul (nefesh) [VIA: נפש], which maintains a longer-term view. Similarly, Germans use a fanciful expression for a person trying to delay gratification: he must overcome his innerer schweinehund — which translates, sometimes to the puzzlement of English speakers, as “inner pigdog.” (2016-)

Thank goodness that we can sometimes rely on the dispassion of someone else, just as Ulysses relied on his sailors to ignore his pleas. The rule of thumb is this: when you cannot rely on your own rational systems, borrow someone else’s. (2090-)

In other words, there is more than one way to lay down memory. We’re not talking about a memory of different events, but multiple memories of the same event — as though two journalists with different personalities were jotting down notes about a single unfolding story. (2148-)

The brain lends itself well to the complexity of the world, but poorly to clear-cut cartography. (2228-)

Your brain, as well, interprets your body’s actions and builds a story around them. (2294-)

Minds seek patterns. In a term introduced by science writer Michael Shermer, they are driven by “patternicity” — the attempt to find structure in meaningless data. Evolution favors pattern seeking, because it allows the possibility of reducing mysteries to fast and efficient programs in the neural circuitry. (2371-)

…why are we conscious of anything at all? Why aren’t we simply a vast collection of these automated, burned-down routines that solve problems? | Circk and Koch’s answer, like mine in the previous chapters, is that consciousness exists to control — and to distribute control over — the automated alien systems. A system of automated subroutines that reaches a certain level of complexity (and human brains certainly qualify) requires a high-level mechanism to allow the parts to communicate, dispense resources, and allocate control. (2400-)

From an evolutionary point of view, the purpose of consciousness seems to be this: an animal composed of a giant collection of zombie systems would be energy efficient but cognitively inflexible. (2433-)

So are other animals conscious? Science currently has no meaningful way to make a measurement to answer that question — but I offer two intuitions. First, consciousness is probably not an all-or-nothing quality, but comes in degrees. Second, I suggest that an animal’s degree of consciousness will parallel its intellectual flexibility. (2443-)

When there are competing votes in the brain — one for telling, and one for withholding — that defines a secret. If no party cares to tell, that’s merely a boring fact; if both parties want to tell, that’s just a good story. Without the framework of rivalry, we would have no way to understand a secret. (2484-)

The main reason not to reveal a secret is aversion to the long-term consequences. A friend might think ill of you, or a lover might be hurt, or a community might ostracize you. This concern about the outcome is evidenced by the fact that people are more likely to tell their secrets to total strangers; with someone you don’t know, the neural conflict can be dissipated with none of the costs. This is why strangers can be so forthcoming on airplanes, telling all the details of their marital troubles, and why confessional booths have remained a staple in one of the world’s largest religions. it may similarly explain the appeal to prayer, especially in those religions that have very personal gods, deities who lend their ears with undivided attention and infinite love. (2489-)


The act of telling a secret can itself be the solution. An open question is why the receiver of the secrets has to be human — or human-like, in the case of deities. Telling a wall, a lizard, or a goat your secrets is much less satisfying. (2501-)

There is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and others. – Michel de Montaigne

I would love it if no one ever thought an anti-Semitic remark, but for better or worse we have little hope of controlling the pathologies of xenophobia that sometimes infect the alien systems. Most of what we call thinking happens well under the surface of cognitive control (2553-)

…if the conscious you has less control over the mental machinery than we previously intuited, what does all this mean for responsibility? (2556-)

6. Why Blameworthiness Is the Wrong Question

To put it in the legal argot: was he culpable? To what extent is someone at fault if his brain is damaged in ways about which he has no choice? After all, we are not independent of our biology, right? (2626-)

…when your biology changes, so can your decision making, your appetites, and your desires. The drives you take for granted (“I’m a hetero/homosexual,” “I’m attracted to children/adults,” “I’m aggressive/not aggressive,” and so on) depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption; (2638-)

The lesson is clear: a slight change in the balance of brain chemistry can cause large changes in behavior. The behavior of the patient cannot be separated from his biology. If we like to believe that people make free choices about their behavior (as in, “I don’t gamble because I’m strong-willed”), cases like Alex the pedophile, the frontotemporal shoplifters, and the gambling Parkinson’s patients may encourage us to examine our views more carefully. perhaps not everyone is equally “free” to make socially appropriate choices. (2678-)


Many of us like to believe that all adults possess the same capacity to make sound choices. it’s a nice idea, but it’s wrong. (2683-)

So when it comes to thinking about blameworthiness, the first difficulty to consider is that people do not choose their own developmental path. (2691-)

If you think genes don’t matter for how people behave, consider this amazing fact: if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, your probability of committing a violent crime goes up by eight hundred and eighty-two percent. (2698-)

In other words, if you carry these genes, you’re eight times more likely to commit aggravated assault, ten times more likely to commit murder, thirteen times more likely to commit armed robbery, and forty-four times more likely to commit sexual assault.

…we are not the ones driving the boat of our behavior, at least not nearly as much as we believe. Who we are runs well below the surface of our conscious access, and the details reach back in time before our birth, when the meeting of a sperm and egg granted us with certain attributes and not others. Who we can be begins with our molecular blueprints — a series of alien codes penned in invisibly small strings o acids — well before we have anything to do with it. We are  product of our inaccessible, microscopic history. (2713-)

By the way, as regards that dangerous set of genes, you’re probably heard of them. They are summarized as the Y chromosome. If you’re a carrier, we call you a male.

When it comes to nature and nurture, the important point is that you choose neither one. We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint and born into a world of circumstances about which we have no choice in our most formative years. (2720-)

When modern brain science is laid out clearly, it is difficult to justify how our legal system can continue to function without it. (2731-)


Man is a masterpiece of creation, if only because no amount of determinism can prevent him from believing that he acts as a free being – Georg C. Lichtenberg, Aphorisms

As far as the legal system sees it, humans are practical reasoners. (2757-)

Thus, in the legal system, a prosecutor must not merely show a guilty act, but a guilty mind as well. (2758-)

We’ve reached the crux of the issue. How exactly should we assign culpability to people for their varied behavior, when it is difficult to argue that the choice was every really available? | Or do people have a choice about how they act, despite it all? Even in the face of all the machinery that constitutes you, is there some small internal voice that is independent of the biology, that directs decisions, that incessantly whispers the right thing to do? Isn’t this what we call free will? (2765-)

Could it be true that the conscious mind is the last one in the chain of command to receive any information? Did his experiment drive the nail into the coffin of free will? (2858-)

So despite all our hopes and intuitions about free will, there is currently no argument that convincingly nails down its existence. (2881-)

…propose that the answer to the question of free will doesn’t matter — at least not for the purposes of social policy — and here’s why. (2896-)

So I’m going to propose what I call the principle of sufficient automatism. The principle arises naturally from the understanding that free will, if it exists, is only a small factor riding on top of enormous automated machinery. So small that we may be able to think about bad decision making in the same way we think about any other physical process, such as diabetes or lung disease. (2904-)

Even if free will is conclusively proven to exist one hundred years from now, it will not change the fact that human behavior largely operates almost without regard to volition’s invisible hand. (2908-)

Before moving into the heart of the argument, let’s put to rest the concern that biological explanations will lead to freeing criminals on the ground that nothing is their fault. Will we still punish criminals? Yes. Exonerating all criminals is neither the future nor the goal of an improved understanding. Explanation does not equal exculpation. Societies will always need to get bad people off the streets. We will not abandon punishment, but we will refine the way we punish — as we turn to now. (2921-)


What accounts for the shift from blame to biology? Perhaps the largest driving force is the effectiveness of the pharmaceutical treatments. No amount of beating will chase away depression, but a little pill called fluoxetine often does the trick. Schizophrenic symptoms cannot be overcome by exorcism, but can be controlled by risperidone. Mania responds not to talking or to ostracism, but to lithium. These successes, most of them introduced in the past sixty years, have underscored the idea that it does not make sense to call some disorders brain problems while consigning others to the ineffable realm of the psychic. Instead, mental problems have begun to be approached in the same way we might approach a broken leg. (2937-)

The more we discover about the circuitry of the brain, the more answers tip away from accusations of indulgence, lack of motivation, and poor discipline — and move toward the details of the biology. (2949-)

It cannot make sense for culpability to be determine by the limits of current technology. A legal system that declares a person culpable at the beginning of a decade and not culpable at the end is not one in which culpability carries a clear meaning. (3001-)

The heart of the problem is that it no longer makes sense to ask, “To what extent was it his biology and to what extent was it him?” The question no longer makes sense because we now understand those to be the same thing. There is no meaningful distinction between his biology and his decision making. They are inseparable. ( 3005-) [VIA: Kind of like the material and the spiritual are also the same thing.]

Here’s the right question: What do we do, moving forward, with an accused criminal? (3021-)

The history of a brain in front of the judge’s bench can be very complex — all we ultimately want to know is how a person is likely to behave in the future.


Prison terms do not have to be based on a desire for bloodlust, but instead can be calibrated to the risk of reoffending. (3029-)

Prisons have become our de facto mental health care institutions. (3071-)

To help a citizen reintegrate into society, the ethical goal is to change him as little as possible to allow his behavior to come into line with society’s needs. (3098-)

If it seems difficult to empathize with people who have poor impulse control, just think of all the things you succumb to that you don’t want to. Snacks? Alcohol? Chocolate cake? Television? One doesn’t have to look far to find poor impulse control pervading our own landscape of decision making. (3106-)

The human prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until the early twenties, and this underlies the impulsive behavior of teenagers. The frontal lobes are sometimes called the organ of socialization, because becoming socialized is nothing but developing circuitry to squelch our basest impulses. (3125-)

Many people (but not all) have a strong retributive impulse: they want to see punishment, not rehabilitation. (3155-)

I speculate that someday we will be able to base punishment decisions on neuroplasticity. (3207-)

This proposal seeks to align punishment with neuroscience. (3221-)

My argument in this chapter has not been to redefine blameworthiness; instead it is to remove it from the legal argot. (3254-)

7. Life After the Monarchy

In the wake of all the scientific progress, a troubling question has surfaced int he minds of many: what is left for humans after all these dethronements? (3299-)

The dethronement led to a richer, deeper understanding, and what we lost in egocentrism was counterbalanced in surprise and wonder. (3332-)

All this leads to a key question: do we possess a soul that is separate from our physical biology — or are we simply an enormously complex biological network that mechanically produces our hopes, aspirations, dreams, desires, humor, and passions. (3464-)

A common version of materialism is called reductionism; this theory puts forth the hope that we can understand complex phenomena like happiness, aarice, narcissism, compassion, malice, caution, and awe by successively reducing the problems down to their small-scale biological pieces and parts. (3473-)

Our reality depends on what our biology is up to. (3538-)

Who you turn out to be depends on such a vast network of factors that it will presumably remain impossible to make a one-to-one mapping between molecules and behavior (more on that in the moment). Nonetheless, despite the complexity, your world is directly tied to your biology. 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. (3566-)


In ways not currently understood, it appears that repeated social rejection perturbs the normal functioning of the dopamine systems. (3599)

The point of the previous chapter was to highlight the difficulty of assigning culpability under these circumstances. The point of this chapter is to highlight the fact that the machinery that makes us who we are is not simple, and that science is not perched on the verge of understanding how to build minds from pieces and parts. Without a doubt, minds and biology are connected — but not in a manner that we’ll have any hope of understanding with a purely reductionist approach. (3675-)

…emergence. When you put together large numbers of pieces and parts, the whole can become something greater than the sum. (3697-)

The concept of emergent properties means that something new can be introduced that is not inherent in any of the parts. (3701-)

…while minds depend on the integrity of neurons, neurons are not themselves thinking. | And this forces a reconsideration of how to build a scientific account of the brain. (3713-)

What is it about observation? Do human minds interact with the stuff of the universe? This is a totally unsolved issue in science, and one that will provide a critical meeting ground between physics and neuroscience. (3749-)

…I’ll mention what I’ll call the “radio theory” of brains.

Does it seem reasonable that we are the first ones lucky enough to be born in the perfect generation, the one in which the assumption of a comprehensive science is finally true? Or does it seem more likely that in one hundred years people will look back on us and wonder what it was like to be ignorant of what they know? (3799-)

If our brains were simple enough to be understood, we wouldn’t be smart enough to understand them. (3815-)

What a perplexing masterpiece the brain is, and how lucky we are to be in a generation that has the technology and the will to turn our attention to it. It is the most wondrous thing we have discovered in the universe, and it is us. (3819-)

— VIA —

[Timely that Unbelievable? radio has just done a program: Has Neuroscience killed God? Dr Alasdair Coles vs Martyn Frame – Unbelievable? 21 Jan 2012]

There’s a lot to discuss here regarding the relationships of faith and science, and the physical and the metaphysical. Indeed, for some, this kind of research and writing only continues the ever-growing “evidence” against the supernatural and substantiates and validates of the demise and — in Eagleman’s words — the “dethronement” of the supernatural.

I would suggest, however, that if what Eagleman writes is true, then it does not provide substantive evidence, rather, it only complicates the matter even further.

I appreciate Eagleman’s suggestion of a “radio theory” and his discussion on “free will” and whether it is the right question or not. These concepts and ideas allude to the possibility of things further yet to be discovered that we know nothing about. I suggest, however, it also alludes to things further yet to be discovered that may never be understood “on this side of heaven” (to use a religious colloquialism), because they exist outside of the categories of human comprehension, even, apprehension.

In addition, those whose “minds are made up” about “the matter” (pun intended) and take evolutionary cognitive psychology to heart as their buttress, only provide evidence for their minds at work that have just as much questionable grounding in reality as an opposing viewpoint. In other words, if our minds are a complicated filter through which reality is only perceived, and perhaps even distorted (as Eagleman writes), then the very idea of naturalism or materialism must, by definition, fall into those same categories, thus a “material dethronement” if you will. Earlier religious or supernatural theories can perhaps be set aside as science grows in its understanding (though this statement itself needs further fleshing out, because what really constituted a “supernatural theory”). But it is dishonest, and, I submit, anti-scientific to dismiss the supernatural category in total. Just like physical theories are replaced by newer ones as information and discoveries grow, so supernatural theories can also evolve; better understandings replacing older, less substantive understandings. The mere evolution of understanding does not in anyway dismiss the categories, in only provides strong evidence that humans are becoming more astute in their understanding, and, paradoxically, less comprehending.

In all, the only statement of affirmation that does get stronger is that “we don’t really know.”

Regarding the judicial system, (because this is a blog that deals with faith), I would suggest Eagleman’s proposal falls in line with what religious people have talked about for a long time, namely “forgiveness,” and “redemption.” And, as we attend better to the developmental aspects of human development, may these ideas not only inform our judicial system, but our educational system as well.

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  4. Paul Sutton

    I’m only about 1/3 through the book, and I’ve gotten to the puzzles on Pages 85 and 86. I can agree with the logic involved in both, and I’m sure that at least partially, the author is right about a “neural specialization.” Likewise, that the question on page 85 is outside of that same “neural specialization.” However, one’s a softball lobbed over the middle of the plate while the other is a low-outside fastball thrown by Nolan Ryan. The two problems are not in the same league. Getting one right while the other wrong is proof of nothing more than that most of us can’t hit big-league fast-balls.

    Then there’s the caveat tacked on after the problem on page 85: “…, because I never specified what odd number may have on their other side.” Once all the facts are presented, the answer on 85 is obvious; the answer on 86 was dirt-dumb by comparison, and the answer, by simply substituting 16 for 18, was already in the question. No wonder “most participants get it right,” though I’m not sure I’d attribute that to “neural specialization” any more than I’d attribute it to common sense and “life experience.”

    How many over the age of 24 versus how many aged seven-to-ten got the right answer, I suspect, might demonstrate a correlation to “neural specialization” that might otherwise just be a question of “life and experiences.”

    Conversely, how many people solve logic problems for fun isn’t any more or less a question of “neural specialization” than asking the more relevant question: “How many of you who got this right have seen a question like this before?”

    Like some technical tests I’ve seen, leaving the relevant contextual content out of the question skews both the question and the answer. They only make “sense” after you know the answer and can thus put the question into context; then the question and answer together make sense. It’s like stating “The 19th century in the United States was a time of westward expansion. Who was President at the time?” If you know the answer, then you can relate it to a specific expansion. The Louisiana Purchase, or the statehood of California?

    The page 85 problem exists in a vacuum where one has to make multiple assumptions that only make complete sense after the answer is known. It is both a logic problem, and one of probability, but not one of pure logic, and it’s presented as a question of whether or not the poser is lying or not, which is not syntactically the same as asking if the rules presented have been broken. The rules are implicit, rather than explicit. And, it’s the type of question, that if you’ve encountered it before, you know that what’s not said in the question is as important as what is said, and you already know the answer, and aren’t likely to forget it for the rest of your life – that’s the 25% or so who got it right.

    The first, and most obvious answer is to turn the 8. It’s either a primary color, or its not. But that can only prove the negative, as in, if it’s a non-primary color, the poser is lying. After that, what can the other colors tell you?

    If you turn the red and it’s odd, is that proof that the poser is lying? It would seem to be so, but if you could also turn the 5 and the purple also, and the 5 was also non-primary, and the purple was also odd, would that prove the poser was lying? Yes. Within the confines and context of the question as posed.

    But this is like one of those questions about how to get a chicken and a fox across a river in a rowboat. There’s obviously an answer of the joke would be old by now, and likewise, if there’s only one correct answer to the problem on 25, you have to change the rules so that only one answer is possible. That rule is that odd cards can ALSO have primary colors on them. Then it becomes obvious.

    If nothing is to be gained by turning the 5, since it could have either a primary or non-primary color on it, the same can be said of red for the same reason. That is, it could have and odd or even number on its back side. Then the only answer is purple. But does that prove anything? Actually, no, it doesn’t, not in the greater context of infinite cards. But given that you only have four cards, within that limited context, it’s the only right answer.

    As a logic problem, it sucks. It’s not up there with Sudoku where the rules are clear, and there is always a single solution. The problem is completely different in this regard than the one that follows it on page 86. The one on 85 is a test to see if you can, working from the one rule you’ve been given, think far enough outside the box to see that your conclusion that one explicit rule, “even cards only have primary colors on them,” necessarily leads to another explicit rule, that “odd cards have non-primary colors on them.” The problem can’t be solved until you jettison the second rule as being “not necessarily so” and adopt a different rule that says that “odd cards can have either primary or non-primary colors on them.”

    Until you do, the problem cannot be definitively solved, which is what makes the problem on page 85 totally different than the one on page 86. It’s not that I’m against the idea of “neural specialization,” in fact, so far, I find the book utterly fascinating, and proposes something that as a computer specialist I’ve believed for years: there are a lot of “processors” at work in the brain, they work independently of one another, largely, and only occasionally, when they have something really important to convey, don’t bother to tickle the executive processor for any reason. Having had more than one dissociative experience (kidney stones will do that to you), I’d also agree that the brain is also a team of rivals as well.

    I just think this one example was a poor choice. It’s not unlike those IQ tests from years ago that included portions of digital clock seven-section displays with missing sections that then asked you to predict what should the next “picture” be. Once you knew they were digital clock faces made of seven-segments, you could get a bunch of them right, skewing the IQ test results upwards, but if you failed to perceive what they represented, you fall on the low side. The question on page 85 is like that. Once you know the question and answer, for the rest of your life, if you see anything even remotely like it, you’ll know how to solve it. But that first time? Almost impossible unless someone leads you through the “reasoning.”

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