Book Review: David Eagleman – Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

David Eagleman – Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (New York: Vintage, 2011)

Interesting and engaging, but second-rate compared to the leading works of the genre. Eagleman describes how the brain’s conscious and unconscious systems interact. The human brain turns out to be a wonderful economist. It is constantly taking in more information than it can process, and has evolved sophisticated, almost automatic algorithms to prioritize its resources to focus on what is important, and ignore what isn’t, to save energy. If it didn’t do this, our energy-hungry brain, which already accounts about a fifth of an average person’s calories burned despite being about 2 percent of body weight, would outpace what the body can provide it.

Along the way he gives the reader a tour of both famous and overlooked research, teaches brain anatomy, and at times turns philosophical. It also briefly name-checks Ryan Braun, one of my favorite baseball players, who won the National League MVP award around the time this book was written. As it turns out, the paths outfielders such as Braun take to catch flyballs are determined mostly unconsciously. Rather than direct routes to where the ball will likely land, even the best players take curving, circuitous routes that nobody would consciously follow. Same goes for hitters. The human eye cannot track a 90-mph fastball. Every swing is a guess, based on an unconscious algorithm. Deliberate thought simply isn’t fast enough.

Eagleman’s main public policy proposal is statistically-based sentencing for criminals, based on the likelihood of a person’s recidivism. This is not that far removed from the movie Minority Report, based on a dystopian Philip K. Dick story featuring a department of pre-crime, which punished people who have not committed crimes, but are about to.

Statistically-based sentencing proposal has two fatal flaws. One is a knowledge problem. Well-meaning experts cannot reliably predict who will re-offend, and who will not. Today’s most advanced experts might as well flip a coin, Eagleman points out. The second is a public choice problem—those experts are not always well-meaning.

Experts are subject to the same cognitive biases, mood swings, personal grudges and corruptibility as everyone else—which Eagleman describes elsewhere throughout the book. And the real-world government that would enact such a proposal would be influenced by electoral politics, by ideological and rent-seeking special interests, and would be bogged down by bureaucratic infighting and turf battles among prestige-seeking experts. Anyone interested in criminal justice reform should take a hard pass on Eagleman’s idea.

But Eagleman does offer up a good read on how the brain’s conscious and unconscious systems interact, and describes a lot of the research in an entertaining way. He does not operate at the same analytical heights as Kahneman and Tversky, Robin Hanson, Steven Pinker, or Michael Shermer. Eagleman’s certainty about philosophical determinism is also questionable, given that he, too, has the human brain’s cognitive shortcomings and shortcuts that he convincingly describes. But even if this book is a B or a B- compared to the top tier, most readers will still get quite a lot out of Incognito.


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