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141 of 171 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Overstating case detracts from book's other merits, April 26, 2011
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This review is from: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Hardcover)
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While parts of this book were new and fascinating to me, based on very compelling science, I felt the author overstated his case in several sections and often adopted too much of the slick, isn't-it-amazing tone brandished in so much popular writing. For example, in the first chapter he asks, "Who exactly deserves the acclaim for a great idea?" and ends up concluding, after giving only four narrow examples, that "Almost the entirety of what happens in your mental life is not under your conscious control." To get to this answer he tells of mathematician James Clerk Maxwell: "On his deathbed, he coughed up a strange sort of confession, declaring that 'something within him' discovered the famous equations, not he."

He then writes that William Blake, Samual Coleridge and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe each wrote a poem or novel with practically no conscious input, which makes a grand total of four noted persons saying that at least one of their works came to them out of nowhere. That's interesting, but what of the hundreds of thousands of others who believe they consciously think, experiment, revise, edit and do all manner of conscious thinking to produce their work? It bothered me that the author just leapt over this more common perception to assert "almost the entirety of what happens" in our minds is not under our control. I don't doubt that the unconscious is often involved, but to say the unconscious is almost all that's involved fails to address so much of what our on-the-spot verbal intelligence, writing, reading, and problem solving feel like. For example, what about that last term paper or email you wrote: Did it really seem like something you had nothing to do with consciously but which only emerged fully formed from your unconscious?

It certainly seems very much like a conscious process to me, and while the author tells us the conscious often assumes credit for ideas the unconscious generates, giving a few examples, he never goes into much detail on how the huge blocks of time we spend doing conscious-seeming tasks like reading, writing, doing math, studying, problem solving, debating are all really determined by the unconscious. Instead, the author skips from a few particular studies to a handful of individual examples and generalizes hugely in between. I kept waiting to see the definitive proof or even a thorough explanation of how almost everything is unconscious, but broad areas of human activity simply weren't discussed at all.

Other areas were extremely well documented, exploring the limits of sensory perception, the learning that is automatic and burnt into our circuits, the way the brain is a team of rivals, and the loopiness and duplication of various processes. I'd give these sections five stars but only two or three to the more opinionated and sometimes far-fetched seeming ones, like "A forward-loooking, brain-compatible legal system." Where as some earlier parts didn't seem long or developed enough, the last two chapters seemed at times to go on and on. Still, this is a book I'm sure many will very much enjoy, and I'm glad I read it. I just think it could have been better with more evidence in some places and less hype and hyperbole in others. The material is fascinating enough to stand on its own.
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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 29, 2011 4:46:06 PM PDT
Mike Donovan says:
It's a book about the known AND the unknown - the possibilities, if you will. No, this isn't a textbook with only facts and evidence. To me, that's what made it so fascinating.

Posted on Jun 1, 2011 8:09:45 AM PDT
Moysey says:
i have noticed that when I try to predict my next thought, or predict the next letter I will type, or predict the next point of focus well, try it and see. Also, for further study try, if you can, to add 'Really? YOU really pre-dicted THAT?' Maybe it's just my slow brain.

Posted on Jun 2, 2011 1:12:39 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 2, 2011 1:18:41 PM PDT
AlliCat says:
I can understand the reviewer having reservations of any scientific presentation making unsupported "leaps" from the science, especially in this field; Cognition & Neuroscience I find fascinating, but I have serious reservations once you wander into the "fuzzier" realm of psychology because I don't always agree the "scientific" conclusions seem that conclusive.

BUT, I can't say I find it a fair representation of this book, nor that the author uses a lot of "slick, isn't it amazing tones" to jump to any unsupported conclusions. I felt his style is actually very unlike the similar Best Seller, highly popularized scientific/economic/business topic books with their "ta-da!" rabbit-out-of-the-hat moments. I also think to say that the author implies the "unconscious is all that is involved" is a clear misrepresentation of the material presented. A point that is becoming more and more apparent in cognitive/neuroscience is that even simple processes require much more of the unconscious that we even begin to imagine. That was not a "leap" made in the book.

Perhaps I am biased -- I heard the author in an interview on NPR's Fresh Air (31 May 2011) and was completely in-"Gross"-ed (sorry-bad NPR pun). He had a very accessible and enthusiastic presentation of his material that was also clearly and factually presented without my ever feeling he jumped to a "conclusion." Even in the book he admittedly makes reasonable conjectures and hypothesizes based on his research-- and you can't make discovery without having a hypothesis different from the "common school of thought," and you can't generate a unique hypothesis without considering the whole table of possibilities.

I felt the book very sound, albeit from the perspective of a very open-minded and highly enthusiastic scientist. But isn't that what science is supposed to be? You can't have proofs and corollaries without observation and conjecture. The author was not being "opinionated and sometimes far-fetched;" I believe his point is to reflect (through conjecture) how and where, with lots more research, the possibilities and implications of this type of research to stimulate more research.

If you want a thought provoking, open-minded look on research and its farther reaching applications, this book is very well presented. If you have doubts, go listen to an interview and tell me if you find him "jumping to conclusions" or simply "hypothesizing" a next step. If you need a strictly scientific presentation of material with all the supporting material, charts, graphs, and statistics, go read his doctoral dissertation or a science journal essay. But I think for the rest of us, we want to have a balance of both.

And by the way -- lighten up! Science is fun, man! Geez Jo Ryan! You must be a real kill-joy at parties! ;-)

Posted on Jun 8, 2011 7:18:57 AM PDT
Martin Zook says:
I found this review far more insightful than many of those that gush because the reviewer was specific about what the text provides. Thanks. I wish more reviewers would follow your example. Less gush. More substance.

Posted on Jun 23, 2011 1:50:04 AM PDT
Mike Mellor says:
An extremely helpful review, thank you. I am a wannabe skeptic although my analytical skills aren't as sharp as they should be. Another reviewer has noted Eagleman's habit of asking "clever" questions intended more to confuse than to enlighten.

I had intended to write a book myself called "I am Not Guilty" about the perp in a sensational drugs-kidnap-murder case, showing that we have less control over our actions than we think. My aim was cynical, to try make a few bucks out of it. I agree with you that the "random walk" kind of mental activity is not dominant. Purpose cannot be so glibly explained away.

However from various other reviews it appears that the book is an interesting read and I may just buy it anyway. Anything to keep the old gray cells from atrophying any faster...
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