Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain David Eagleman

Canongate, , pp. 290,, pp.290, 20

The quasi-religious zeal with which certain popularising neuroscientists claim that man is no different, essentially, from the animals, and that consciousness is but an epiphenomenon, strikes me as distinctly odd. The popularisers seem to take a sado-masochistic delight in it, in the way that some people get a thrill from envisaging the end of the world. They also seem to imply that we now understand almost everything about ourselves, apart from a few odd details to be filled in by ever-more-sophisticated scanners. In other words, man has finally come to understand himself.

Here is an addition to the fast-growing genre of books that claim scientific authority for the idea that we are, at base, not much different from the bacteria. Of course, this idea depends on what we consider important, and importance is a non-natural quality. Over and over again, the author stresses the insignificance of self-consciousness and self-reflexivity. He is both right and wrong to do so. It is perfectly true that an awful lot goes on in our nervous system (and elsewhere in our bodies) of which we are unaware; it could hardly be otherwise. But it is also true that a plug is only a tiny proportion of a bath’s mass or volume. This does not make it unimportant, at least for a bath’s most obvious functions.

Professor Eagleman explains scientific ideas with exemplary clarity. His style is lucid; his metaphysics is crude. He reminds me rather of Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, or of the mid-19th century physiologist Jacob Moleschott, who said that ‘the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile.’

He starts with an unfortunate demonstration that consciousness is not all it is cracked up to be. He relays the story of Coleridge’s opium dream from which, unbidden and unshaped by conscious thought, the poem ‘Kubla Khan’ emerged. This shows us that highly complex artistic creation can well up in us without the necessity on our part to think, a possibility that no doubt gives hope to us all. Unfortunately, it is almost certain that Coleridge was not entirely truthful about the origin of his poem; it was in fact highly reworked. But even if his account were true, it would not prove what the author thinks it proves; only that consciousness is not always necessary to creation, not that it never is.

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He is at his best when describing the pitfalls of experience as a guide to the nature of reality, not least about our own mental states. He describes many fascinating experiments. But these too do not prove what he wants them to prove. Hume argued, I think correctly, that you cannot talk of the totality of existence in the same way as you talk of particular objects that exist. In like fashion, you cannot, without falling into a paradox, use experience to demonstrate that all experience is untrustworthy.

Having established to his own satisfaction that consciousness is little more than the icing on the neurophysiological cake (although for most of us the cake would not be worth having without it), he tackles the question of legal responsibility. He regards the law as hopelessly out of date in its attempts to distinguish between those, the majority, who may be held to account, and those, the minority, who may not. He thinks that the neurosciences should be used to determine how criminals should be treated, grossly overestimating their explanatory predictive power; he believes in an Erewhonian world in which criminals are regarded, ex officio as it were, as ill. For some reason, neuroscientists seem to think that the acts of criminals are determined, but those of judges and juries are not. There is a central puzzle as to why someone who thinks that consciousness is so unimportant should try to persuade anyone of anything.

In his discussion of the quasi-medical treatment of criminals, he draws the line at psychosurgery because such surgery infringes peoples ‘neural rights.’ In what part of the purely physical universe do neural rights exist? How does one go about discovering them? He objects to psycho- surgery (whose history is in any case somewhat more nuanced than he will allow) because it alters the brain; but, ex hypothesi, anything that can be done to anybody alters the brain, and so brain alteration cannot be a criterion of inadmissibility. He also believes in the powers of Prozac (much exaggerated) with a fervour that makes belief in miracle-working Virgins seem like the last word in evidence-based medicine.

Modern neurosciences, he tells us, complete the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. The earth is no longer the centre of the universe, and man is no longer the paragon of animals. ‘A mere 400 years after our fall from the center of the universe’, he tells us confidently, ‘we have experienced the fall from the center of ourselves’.

But the whole argument of his book is that there is no ‘we’ to fall, because there is no ‘I’; there has never been an I, it is an impossibility that there should have been. But if we are capable of falling from the centre of ourselves, we must exist; therefore there is no metaphysical need for us to deny our own existence.

This book is valuable as an example of the technical ingenuity of modern neuroscience, combined with its Moleschottian overconfidence. The central mysteries of human existence remain untouched by it.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Body, Book review, Brain, Neuroscience, Non-fiction, Science