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Saturday, 23 April 2011

Books - Incognito - The Secret Lives of the Brain - David Eagleman

Star rating – 9/10

This must be the first time I have actually picked up a science book out of choice, and the first time I have read anything scientific since school, but after hearing neuroscientist David Eagleman interviewed on the radio about his new book I was hooked. And it has not disappointed at all – in fact it is something that I would never have believed could exist, a real science page turner.

Eagleman possesses that rare skill of explaining complex scientific concepts to non scientists, in a way that makes them fascinating, and weaves in references to literature, philosophy and history, to create a fabulously rich book. And his subject is one which should really interest everyone, as it is all about us, and more specifically, the way our brains work.

The work looks at what makes our brain work the way it does, and includes a clever and enjoyable series of interactive tests for the reader to illustrate its point that what we see is not always the same, and our reality is very much manipulated and filtered by our brains themselves. It links these processes to some practical and everyday life choices that we make – we are, apparently and amazingly, more likely to like and have relationships with people who share our own details such as the first initial of our name, or our birthday.

There are thought provoking insights into the world of people who cannot see at all, as Eagleman argues that congenitally blind people are not missing anything that sighted people have, they just have a very different reality where other senses are much more heightened and sharp. So it seems that even our everyday realities are completely subjective. He discusses research that shows women with dilated pupils, which signals sexual interest, to be very much more attractive to men then when their pupils are not dilated.

Intriguingly, and perhaps controversially, he cites Swedish research (it just would be Swedish wouldn’t it!) that shows that men with a certain gene, or vasopressin receptor to get technical for a moment, are more likely to remain unmarried, or if they do have a partner, are more likely to be sexually unfaithful to them. You can just imagine how the arguments in expensive divorce cases might go.

Eagleman draws on many non scientific examples to prove his points too. The same arguments made by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her brilliant biography of Lincoln, ‘Team of Rivals’ are used here to show how our brain is actually a team of rivals itself, a union of systems competing against each other but held together by a common goal. He also uses the example of Ulysses resisting the fatal lure of the beautiful singing Sirens by having his men lash him to the mast of his ship, and to plug up their own ears with beeswax. That way he would be unable to go to the deadly beauties, who had caused the tragic end of many lesser men. So he was making his body resist what he knew his brain would implore him to do. Lastly, he gives a different take on the pathetic anti – Semitic tirade by the drunken Mel Gibson, who pleaded afterwards that that was not the real him, and that he did not believe what he had said. Whilst Eagleman certainly does not excuse the outrageous behaviour of Gibson, he argues that it is not as black and white as saying that we mean everything we say at all times, even when drunk.

This is a brilliant book, which has a very broad sweep of ideas, including a serious challenge to our legal system and the way it treats criminals. It is a brilliant, thrilling read, and a fantastic turnon to science for the non believer like myself. Move over Professor Brian Cox, David Eagleman has arrived.

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