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20220108 – Incognito (Brain)



Here is how the author identifies the main idea of this book:” 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.”


1. There’s Someone in My Head, But It’s Not Me
This chapter first identifies the theme of this book, and then it discusses various cases of small detail changing human perception either about beauty or many other things. It then makes the statement about the author’s position:” Consciousness developed because it was advantageous, but advantageous only in limited amounts.” It also makes the positioning statement:” The conscious mind is not at the center of the action in the brain; instead, it is far out on a distant edge, hearing but whispers of the activity.” Further, the author discusses the history of thoughts about consciousness from Thomas Aquinas to Freud and poses many questions about human behavior,

2. The Testimony of the Senses: What is Experience Really Like?
This chapter discusses the complexity of human perception, providing multiple examples that it is not a simple process of reading sensory input but a rather complex process of interpreting the multitude of inconsistent signals from the environment. This process sometimes produces quite different results from the same input, and the author provides several examples of visual illusions when the same picture is perceived differently. The typical example is “vase vs. two profiles.”  The discussion includes the eye scanning process, blind spot, text reading, etc. The author also makes a significant point that blind people who recovered vision later in life still could not see because their brains did not develop the neural networks necessary for the interpretation of visual signals. Finally, the author also discusses the perception of time, which he also defines as a construction.

The conclusion the author makes is this:” 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. The most important maxim for fighter pilots is “Trust your instruments.” This is because your senses will tell you the most inglorious lies, and if you trust them—instead of your cockpit dials—you’ll crash. So the next time someone says, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” consider the question carefully.”

3. Mind: The Gap

This chapter defines the unconscious as the gap between:” what your brain knows and what your mind is capable of accessing.”  The author presents an example of chicken sexers – people who select chickens by sex without fully understanding how they do it, just based on acquired experience. He then expands on other similar workings of the unconscious. After this discussion, the author moves to discuss the process for the development of subconscious hunches and similar processes:” When the brain finds a task it needs to solve, it rewires its own circuitry until it can accomplish the task with maximum efficiency. The task becomes burned into the machinery. This clever tactic accomplishes two things of chief importance for survival.” The author defines these two things a speed and energy efficiency. Finally. The author arrives to the conclusion:” Evolutionary selection has presumably tuned the exact amount of access the conscious mind has: too little, and the company has no direction; too much, and the system gets bogged down solving problems in a slow, clunky, energy-inefficient manner.”

4. The Kinds of Thoughts That are Thinkable
Here the author discusses human limitations:” What you are able to experience is completely limited by your biology. This 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.” The author discusses the notion of umwelt for an organism, meaning the totality of inputs that create this organism’s world. For example, radio waves were outside human umwelt until technology changed it. The author also discusses a condition of synesthesia, when the inputs are perceived idiosyncratically, as when a person can see music. After reviewing the development of humans as a combination of inherited features and results of social interactions that define human behavior, the author concludes:” We’ve seen in this chapter that our deepest instincts, as well as the kinds of thoughts we have and even can have, are burned into the machinery at a very low level. “This is great news,” you might think. “My brain is doing all the right things to survive, and I don’t even have to think about them!” True, that is great news. The unexpected part of the news is that the conscious you is the smallest bit-player in the brain. It is something like a young monarch who inherits the throne and takes credit for the glory of the country—without ever being aware of the millions of workers who keep the place running.”

5. The Brain is a Team of Rivals
This chapter discusses human complexity using real-life examples of inconsistent human behavior, poetic expression of “I am large, I contain multitudes,” an analogy with various forms of government: “Democracy of mind.”  The author even refers to a two-party system: Reason and Emotion. Here is the author’s summary of the chapter:” The main lesson of this chapter is that you are made up of an entire parliament of pieces and parts and subsystems. Beyond a collection of local expert systems, 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. Note that the population of the mental society does not always vote exactly the same way each time. This recognition is often missing from discussions of consciousness, which typically assume that what it is like to be you is the same from day to day, moment to moment. Sometimes you’re able to read well; other times you drift. Sometimes you can find all the right words; other times your tongue is tangled. Some days you’re a stick in the mud; other days you throw caution to the wind. So, who’s the real you? As the French essayist Michel de Montaigne put it, “There is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and others.” A nation is at any moment most readily defined by its political parties in power. But it is also defined by the political opinions it harbors in its streets and living rooms. A comprehensive understanding of a nation must include those parties that are not in power but that could rise in the right circumstances. In this same way, you are composed of your multitudes, even though at any given time your conscious headline may involve only a subset of all the political parties.”

6. Why Blameworthiness is the Wrong Question
This chapter references the Texas sniper with the damaged brain. It discusses whether it is possible to blame people for their actions if these actions are caused by biological factors such as DNA or brain damage outside of their control. As usual, this discussion moves to free will and presents events and experiments that demonstrate that actions often occur outside of conscientious control. However, the author provides a unique point of view: “I 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. In the legal system, there is a defense known as an automatism. This is pled when the person performs an automated act—say, if an epileptic seizure causes a driver to steer into a crowd. The automatism defense is used when a lawyer claims that an act was due to a biological process over which the defendant had little or no control. In other words, there was a guilty act, but there was not a choice behind it… 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. The principle states that the answer to the free-will question simply does not matter. 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.”

The author nevertheless states that “Explanation does not equal exculpation” and

 Offer a graphic representation of dynamic approach based on the level of technological development:

After that, the author discusses what he calls:” A FORWARD-LOOKING, BRAIN-COMPATIBLE LEGAL SYSTEM.” He also looks at the maturation of the human brain and human inequality and concludes that legal measures should be based on modifiability to align punishment with neuroscience. The author especially stresses that his position does not mean letting criminals go free, but instead defining appropriate action, precisely:” The concept and word to replace blameworthiness is modifiability, a forward-looking term that asks, what can we do from here? Is rehabilitation available? If so, great. If not, will the punishment of a prison sentence modify future behavior? If so, send him to prison. If punishment won’t help, then take the person under state control for the purposes of incapacitation, not retribution.”

7. Life After the Monarchy

This chapter discusses scientific progress overall and its philosophical reflection, including the understanding of humans. The author discusses how difficult it is for people to accept the materiality of who they are despite the enormous amount of evidence demonstrating the impact of mechanical and chemical interferences on the human condition, from thought processes to physical actions. The author also discusses the complexity of nature/nurture interaction and provides a simple and interesting example based on a short/long combination of alleles of two genes controlling serotonin in everybody’s genome:

In short, humans are defined by both nature and nurture in complex and unpredictable combinations. The reduction to materialism does not simplify the analysis of human thoughts and behaviors. Here is the author’s final word:” In the same way that the cosmos is larger than we ever imagined, we ourselves are something greater than we had intuited by introspection. We’re now getting the first glimpses of the vastness of inner space. This internal, hidden, intimate cosmos commands its own goals, imperatives, and logic. The brain is an organ that feels alien and outlandish to us, and yet its detailed wiring patterns sculpt the landscape of our inner lives. 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.”


I think it is time to finally recognize that there is no clear division between the human mind and brain or between the role of nature vs. nurture in human development. This book provides a pretty good set of real-life examples and experimentation supporting these two statements. It also provides an excellent discussion on the individual’s control over his/her actions and blame that could or could not be assigned as a result. I also like the idea that this is not relevant to the reality of crime and punishment because the goal should be preventing crime from happening rather than inflicting retribution on the perpetrator. However, I think that in real life, retribution and prevention functions could not be separated. For example, I am always puzzled by the statement that capital punishment does not prevent crime. As far as I know, no dead criminal murdered or caused harm to anybody else, while it is not unheard of for murderers convicted to life in prison to kill again. Somehow, it is challenging for quite a few highly educated people to move from abstract thinking about “general deterrence” to simply understanding that dead people do not do anything, crimes included.

The only thing that I probably do not entirely agree with the author is about the complexity of a mind/brain being comparable to the cosmos. I think that despite a huge number of neurons in the human brain, unlike the universe, it is finite and therefore comprehensible and could be modeled or even artificially recreated if not on a silicon basis, then biologically or even mathematically. However, I do not think that it will be done on a regular basis beyond scientific research. What is the point in creating artificial humans when plenty of them are produced naturally. Indeed, technologically developed specialized brain-like systems will be and already are made, but they are just tools. They will remain tools forever because, after a tragedy or two with artificially developed conscious beings, the cruelty and meaningless of such exercise would become evident, and it would stop. I think that eventually, people would understand that a complex dynamic system is not possible to fully control externally, as well as reliably predict its behavior, so it would be better not to play with fire.           

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