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Customer Review

2,047 of 2,240 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Derivative and vague, June 5, 2011
This review is from: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Hardcover)
Perhaps I shouldn't have read this book. I am a neuroscientist, and clearly this is meant for a lay audience, however I often enjoy such books for their concise synthesis of research and the freedom they give the author to speculate. Unfortunately it became clear quickly that this would not be such a book - p.19 announces that the author is from the Malcolm Gladwell school of nonfiction "Why was Topsy the elephant electrocuted by Thomas Edison in 1919? ... is there a real Mel Gibson? ... why do strippers make more money at certain times of month?" Ask intriguing questions, link them with vague explanations, file them under a catchy one-word title, and voila NY Times bestseller. While I have little doubt that this book will do well commercially and be enjoyed by many, I cannot recommend it to anyone with a serious interest in neuroscience.

While chapter two is a solid introduction to perception as inference, it is downhill from there. It becomes clear that Eagleman is not interested in any systematic review of the unconscious factors that influence our decisions, but is merely interested in presenting flashy examples. This by itself wouldn't be so objectionable, if he had actually come up with interesting and novel examples, instead of simply reciting old standards and cribbing from other authors. Eagleman has borrowed so much of his material that V.S. Ramachandran should demand royalties. However, Eagleman apparently hasn't read Ramachandran carefully enough, as he references his paper "Why do gentlemen prefer blondes?", apparently unaware that the paper was satirical. How embarrassing.

Eagleman attempts to go beyond the flashy examples in Chapter 5, declaring that the brain is a "team of rivals." This reference to D.K. Goodwin's book about Lincoln is both unfortunate and vague. It is vague because Eagleman never makes it clear what the 'rivals' are. What neural circuits are competing? What are their respective computations? It is unfortunate because it just isn't a good analogy for the brain. If we stick with the simple rational-emotional dichotomy, the goal of 'rationality' is not to rival emotion. Emotion forms the basis for all rational computation - without emotion there is no goal. While it is cliche, Eagleman's second analogy to a corporation (with consciousness as CEO) seems a far better fit than a 'team of rivals'.

Chapter 6 is a rather sophomoric look at the legal implications of brain research. Forty self-important pages can be summarized by saying that Eagleman believes that the legal system should focus on rehabilitation. Eagleman speculates that future brain science will tell us how 'modifiable' a brain's circuits are, suggesting that 'prefrontal workout' could be used to rehabilitate certain transgressors - those who are hopeless would be 'warehoused'. Even with 'warehousing' of the incurable, Eagleman's view is fundamentally naive. He completely ignores the role of punishment as a deterrent. Stephen Pinker's take on this topic in 'The Blank Slate' is far more balanced and thoughtful.

The book ends with Eagleman offering the familiar refrain that consciousness is an unspecified emergent property, and then declaring himself agnostic on deeper questions. It's a disappointing ending to a disappointing book. Eagleman's material is for the most part derivative and cliched, and his attempts at synthesis are muddled and vague.
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Showing 1-10 of 98 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 12, 2011 5:09:46 AM PDT
Polite review. You're even too kind. Other than that, an excellent review. Much of this book is misleadingly sensationalist. Parts of this book are outright crackpot. Supporting evidence is often selective without addressing available counter-examples that would void pre-determined conclusions. This is the kind of work that should be ridiculed as faux, not praised as fact.

Posted on Jun 17, 2011 10:16:39 AM PDT
N.W. Clerk says:
Great review! It really helps to hear the perspective of another neuroscientist. I am a young aspiring scientist myself and I was a bit suspicious of the material in this book because it appeared to be teeming with cliches and catch phrases to attract the public's attention rather than an actual exploration into the scientific processes that govern our consciousness. I also heard Eagleman speak on a Nature podcast, and when he mentioned he had written a best-selling work of fiction, I was thinking maybe he has found his calling. There's no doubt that he is a bright neuroscientist, but it appears this book is a bit fantastical.

Posted on Jun 20, 2011 8:09:40 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 20, 2011 8:10:51 PM PDT
Amazon should post this somewhere as an example of how to write a negative review and Carole "Jeremiah 20:9"'s 1 star review as an example how not to write one. The problem is that it is often too painful to read a bad book to the end. Usually if its crap (or simply not to your taste) its very apparent before the end of the first chapter. whiteelephant deserves special praise for suffering the torture of completing a bad book just so he could authoritatively warn others away.

Posted on Jun 23, 2011 2:13:02 AM PDT
Shadeburst says:
An excellent review, well written and soundly argued. I went through your reviews hoping (in vain) you'd covered Dennett's "Consciousness Explained" and Pinker's "How the Mind Works." I'm a total layman and these two books represent the leading edge of neuroscience to me. So I'd love for you to offer a suggested reading list.

Every now and then I read "bad" books like Fritjof Capra and Rhonda Byrne as an exercise in skepticism. "Incognito" written by a prominent neuroscientist can be dangerous for the layman because we won't know what to believe and what to discard. Your review goes a long way towards amending that.

Posted on Jun 23, 2011 8:26:38 AM PDT
Julia says:
Good review, but I think White Elephant needs to write a book on the brain.

Posted on Jun 23, 2011 11:52:36 AM PDT
Mark Levison says:
For those searching for rigourous writing try either: David Rock's "Your Brain at Work" or Elkhonon Goldberg's "The New Executive Brain". The later is full of detailed references to papers and so can be a slog at times.

Mark Levison

Posted on Jun 23, 2011 6:06:19 PM PDT
Bob Terrace says:
I am glad I read your review. I felt similar but being a lay person, I was confused. You confirmed my take on this book. I read V.S. Ramachandran's "The Tell-Tale brain" and agree that is a far better book.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 24, 2011 12:18:30 AM PDT
Shadeburst says:
Thanks Mark, I'll definitely do that. I'd also love to follow an expert discussion thread on free will if you know of one.

Posted on Jun 25, 2011 9:28:09 AM PDT
Thank God for helpful reviews like this from another professional in the same field that save me from spending my money on, and reading a book such as this, when perhaps there are many others that would be more worth my time!

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 26, 2011 7:02:16 AM PDT
sylvia baer says:
Have you read, "Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will"? Great chapters written by top philosophers and psychologists.
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