Will the Real Me Please Stand Up

Eagleman, David.  Incognito.  Edinburgh: Cannongate Books, 2012.


When you get angry at yourself, who exactly is getting angry at whom?  If a mass shooter is found days later to have a tumor in his brain pressing on those regions of the brain involved with social behavior, does that lessen in your mind the shooter’s culpability?  If Mel Gibson, when drunk, is a raging anti-Semite, but when sober is sincerely sorry for his slip into antisemitism, who is the real Mel Gibson?  Is there a real Mel Gibson? These and other fascinating questions are explored in the book, Incognito, by Baylor University neuroscientist, David Eagleman.


Most of us grew up thinking that there is some center in the brain, call it “the self” or “I,” that is in charge of the mind and body and calling the shots.  Eagleman’s book leads us to think that this is an illusion, albeit a necessary one or we probably couldn’t function.  He describes the brain (borrowing the term from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin) as a team of rivals.  “…we are collections of overlapping ceaselessly reinvented mechanisms, a group of competing factions.  The conscious mind fabricates stories to explain the sometimes inexplicable dynamics of the subsystems inside the brain.  It can be disquieting to consider the extent to which all of our actions are driven by hardwired systems, doing what they do best, while we overlay stories about our choices.”


The various parts of the brain compete with each other for control.  At times one pattern will take the lead and at other times another pattern will.  There is no one in command.  “When the hostess at a party offers chocolate cake… 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…. 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….


“Because of these internal multitudes, biological creatures can be conflicted… Your car cannot be conflicted about which way to turn… Brains, on the other hand, can be of two minds, and often many more.  We don’t know whether to turn toward the cake or away from it, because there are several little sets of hands on the steering wheel of our behavior.”


Worse yet is the fact that we are not even conscious of most of these forces at work.  The brain runs its own show.  Take something as seemingly simple as vision.  Most of us have an idea of vision as something like a set of eyes that operate like a camera to give the brain a picture of the outside world.  But, in fact, we really see very little of the outside world.  And from the input our brain does receive, it constructs a story based on context and our own histories and temperaments and personalities.  This helps to explain why eyewitness testimony can vary so widely among people who supposedly “saw” the same thing.  “… we are aware of very little of what is ‘out there’” writes Eagleman.  “The brain makes time-saving and resource-saving assumptions and tries to see the world only as well as it needs to.  And as we realize that we are not conscious of most things until we ask ourselves questions about them, we have taken the first step in the journey of self-excavation.  We see that what we perceive in the outside world is generated by parts of the brain to which we do not have access.”  The bottom line is 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.”


The work of Eagleman and other neuroscientists is forcing us to confront some previously unthought (or little thought) conundrums.  The question in the first paragraph of this review about the mass shooter is not a hypothetical question.  It refers to the real-life tragedy in August of 1966 when Charles Whitman killed 13 people from the top floor of a building on the campus of The University of Texas.  Whitman himself was killed by police officers responding to the scene.  An autopsy later showed that Whitman’s brain harbored a tumor about the diameter of a nickel.  The tumor impinged on an area of the brain involved with fear and aggression.  A close friend later observed, “’Even when he looked perfectly normal, he gave you the feeling of trying to control something in himself.’”  Eagleman adds, “Presumably, that ‘something’ was his collection of angry, aggressive, zombie programs.  His cooler, rational parties were battling his reactive, violent parties, but damage from the tumor tipped the vote so it was no longer a fair fight.”  Does this knowledge affect your feelings about his culpability for his murderous rampage?  That is only one of many questions Eagleman’s fascinating book will leave with you.


Four-hundred plus years after Copernicus and Galileo caused humankind to fall from the center of the universe, Eagleman notes, neuroscience has now brought about our fall from the center of ourselves.  But he does not find this dispiriting.  A richer understanding of ourselves can bring about a greater sense of both awe and humility.  Not a bad trade-off for giving up the sense that we are in control.

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