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The Secret Lives of the Brain

By David Eagleman
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  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Incognito by David Eagleman

Unbeknownst to you, a subconscious part of your brain is constantly whirring away and wielding a tremendous influence on your thoughts, feelings and behavior. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (2011) is your guide to the other side of your brain, and how it shapes your life.

Key idea 1 of 7

Despite what we think, we’re not really in control of our thoughts, feelings and actions.

Most people assume they’re consciously aware of and in control of pretty much all their feelings, actions and thoughts. Astonishingly, neuroscience proves them wrong.

In fact, most of your brain activity stems from purely physical and biological processes of which you’re completely unaware, and which you’re unable to influence.

Our helplessness can be seen in the way alterations to the brain caused, for example, by accidents and diseases, affect people.

One shocking example was the case of a 40-year-old man whose wife of 20 years suddenly noticed he had – seemingly out of the blue – developed an obsession with child pornography. After a medical examination, it was found he had developed a massive tumor in a part of the brain responsible for decision-making: the orbitofrontal cortex. Once the tumor was removed, his sexual appetites returned to normal.

There are also other, more subtle ways in which we lack conscious control over our mental lives, and it turns out this is often for the best: many processes in our brain, like decision-making, actually work best on autopilot, without conscious interference that would slow it down.

For example, if you ask a musician to play a piece, but tell her to focus only on the individual movements of her fingers, she’ll find this very difficult. It is far easier for her to focus on the music, and let her fingers play it free from such vigilant, conscious control.

Or what about baseball, where some pitchers can throw a fastball that reaches the batter in just four-tenths of a second. It takes five-tenths of a second for the batter to form a conscious awareness of where the ball is going, so why don’t batters always miss fastballs? Because they actually leave the conscious component out of their decision, and respond instinctively, much las you might duck if you saw something come at you quickly.

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