David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

April 24, 2011 · Posted in Blog, Book Reviews 

Eagleman was recently interviewed on Andrew Marr’s Start the Week (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00zzqy9#synopsis).  In his new book ‘Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain’ he explores the brain and presents, in an accessible way if the reviews are to be believed, his case that decisions are made by the brain all the time and that we are usually not aware of the reasons for the decision.

“In a recent experiment, men were asked to rank how attractive they found photographs of different women’s faces. The photos were 8 x 10 inches, and showed women facing the camera, or turned in three-quarter profile. Unbeknownst to the men, in half the photos the women had their eyes dilated, and in the other half they did not. The men were consistently more attracted to the women with dilated eyes. Remarkably, the men had no insight into their decision making. None of them said, “I noticed her pupils were 2 millimeters larger in this photo than in the other one.” Instead, they simply felt more drawn toward some women than toward others, for reasons they couldn’t quite put a finger on.

But their choices weren’t accidental. In the largely inaccessible workings of the brain, somethingknew that a woman’s dilated eyes correlates with sexual excitement and readiness. Their brains knew this, but the men didn’t—at least not explicitly. Presumably, the men also didn’t know that their sense of beauty and attraction is deeply hard-wired, steered in the right direction by programs carved by millions of years of natural selection. When the men were choosing the most attractive woman, they didn’t know that the choice was not theirs, really, but instead the choice of successful programs that had been burned down deep into the brain’s circuitry over the course of millions of years and hundreds of thousands of generations.”  (page 6)

Read more here: http://www.eagleman.com/incognito

For philosophers and politicians the question here is if our decisions are largely made by our brains, rather than ‘us’ (and by us we mean the conscious self) to what extent are they free and therefore to what extent can we be blamed for our choices, for example to commit crimes. Eagleman thinks this is the wrong question to think about.  The right question is what to do with an individual who has done something, in the light of the brain that they have.  He thinks that punishments should be individualised to the particular individual, rather than universalised.  If human judgments are the result of the particular developments of the brain caused by decades of experience  and inherited genes, the important thing to do is work out what needs to be done to that individual to prevent a repeat of the offence.  It is simply not a question of moral responsibility which is something Eagleman finds mysterious and perhaps inaccessible.    Eagleman is not a hard determinist in that he believes there is some space for free action, but it is a small space.

This leaves questions for religious systems that place a lot of importance on moral responsibility, such as those that consider ‘sin’ an important feature or karma.  Eagleman’s work is based on neuroscience, not theology, but surely theology must respond to these new understandings of our brain operations?

You can buy the book here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1847679382/rsweb-21

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