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David Eagleman's "Incognito"

Posted by Josh Rothman  June 1, 2011 03:19 PM

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David Eagleman's new book, Incognito, looks more or less like every other neuroscience book. It has a catchy, slightly lurid subtitle (The Secret Lives of the Brain); it's suffused with the overpowering, gee-whiz rhetoric of science writing (everything is "rich," "wondrous," "surprising," "magical," "awe-inspiring" and so on); and it piles on the optical illusions, head injuries, and gotcha! psychology experiments that have become staples of the neuroscience genre.

All the fluff, however, hides a bracing surprise. Before Incognito draws to a close, Eagleman turns to his real subject: not, in fact, "the secret lives of the brain," but the deep, disturbing questions neuroscience raises about crime, punishment, and the organization of society. Neuroscience, Eagleman argues, by revealing the extent to which different people have different capacities for self-control and human connection, will force us to give up on "the myth of human equality"; in the process, it will upend the legal system, "which is built partially upon the premise that humans are all equal before the law."

Eagleman is a neuroscientist, specializing in the perception of time, and in synesthesia. He is also a prolific, imaginative writer: His previous book, Sum, consisted of forty neuroscientifically informed vignettes about the afterlife; it's been translated into 23 languages. In Incognito, Eagleman begins from a simple premise and imagines, almost science-fictionally, its conclusions. The premise is that much of what you think, choose, and do is driven by unconscious processes. Many of your preferences, thoughts, and intentions form without your conscious participation: they aren't the product of "you," but rather of "your brain."

In itself, of course, this can't be too surprising. Where, after all, would your thoughts and personality come from, if not from your brain? (It would be truly astonishing to find out that they come from somewhere else!) Meanwhile, we use our bodies all the time to do things, and don't find it at all unsettling. You use your legs, for instance, to walk from place to place -- and yet you would never say that it's really your legs that do the walking, rather than yourself. We use our legs to walk; in just the same way, we use our brains to choose, think, and act. The fact that brains are involved doesn't, in itself, make those thoughts any less our own.

The trouble, then, isn't that, as Incognito sometimes puts it, your brain is in charge rather than you. It's that you rely on your brain to do everything important, and, as Eagleman rather bluntly puts it, "all brains are not created equal." Brains are shaped by genes. And they change over time; they can be cultivated by education and experience, or ravaged by abuse or disease. It's usually obvious whose body is stronger or weaker: that's why heavyweight boxers don't fight lightweights. Neural inequality, however, has not been as obvious. Neuroscience, Eagleman argues, is about to change that.

Today, we acknowledge neural inequality in only the crudest ways: We protect criminals under 18, or with IQs of less than 70, from capital punishment. But, Eagleman writes, "As neuroscience improves, we will have a better ability to understand people along a spectrum, rather than in crude, binary categories. And this will allow us to tailor sentencing and rehabilitation for the individual rather than maintaining the pretense that all brains respond to the same incentives and deserve the same punishments."

Eventually, Eagleman argues, we will have to acknowledge that "criminal activity itself should be taken as evidence of brain abnormality." Eagleman envisions a time when we will sentence criminals based on their neural "modifiability," giving harsher sentences only to those who could, conceivably, change their behavior. At the same time, we will stop thinking about crime in terms of "blameworthiness," If someone couldn't have done otherwise than commit a crime, we might sequester him without punishing him, and without holding him, in a moral sense, responsible. Many criminals might turn out to be like Charles Whitman, who, taking aim from a tower at the University of Texas, killed 16 people and wounded 32 more. Whitman suspected that he was suffering from a mental illness, and requested, in a suicide note, that an autopsy be performed on his brain. Sure enough, the autopsy revealed a brain tumor; it had damaged Whitman's amygdala, which, Eagleman explains, "is involved in emotional regulation, especially as regards fear and aggression."

Incognito, obviously, is far from the last word on this subject. Eagleman seems too comfortable with a brave new world in which well-intentioned scientists determine just how much an individual can be expected to change, grow, and take responsibility for his own actions. People care, for profound reasons, about ideas like selfhood and equality, and can defend them in sophisticated, rigorous ways; the "myth of human equality" is not like one of the dubious "intuitions" Eagleman spends much of the book so joyfully overturning. But Incognito does the right thing by diving straight into the deep end and trying to swim. Eagleman, by imagining the future so vividly, puts into relief just how challenging neuroscience is, and will be.

David Eagleman will be appearing at Harvard Book Store this Friday.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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