Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Anglais) Relié – 31 mai 2011
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Take a close look at yourself in the mirror. Beneath your dashing good looks churns a hidden universe of networked machinery. The machinery includes a sophisticated scaffolding of interlocking bones, a netting of sinewy muscles, a good deal of specialized fluid, and a collaboration of internal organs chugging away in darkness to keep you alive. A sheet of high-tech self-healing sensory material that we call skin seamlessly covers your machinery in a pleasing package.
And then there’s your brain. Three pounds of the most complex material we’ve discovered in the universe. This is the mission control center that drives the whole operation, gathering dispatches through small portals in the armored bunker of the skull.
Your brain is built of cells called neurons and glia—hundreds of billions of them. Each one of these cells is as complicated as a city. And each one contains the entire human genome and traffics billions of molecules in intricate economies. Each cell sends electrical pulses to other cells, up to hundreds of times per second. If you represented each of these trillions and trillions of pulses in your brain by a single photon of light, the combined output would be blinding.
The cells are connected to one another in a network of such staggering complexity that it bankrupts human language and necessitates new strains of mathematics. A typical neuron makes about ten thousand connections to neighboring neurons. Given the billions of neurons, this means there are as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
The three-pound organ in your skull—with its pink consistency of Jell-o—is an alien kind of computational material. It is composed of miniaturized, self-configuring parts, and it vastly outstrips anything we’ve dreamt of building. So if you ever feel lazy or dull, take heart: you’re the busiest, brightest thing on the planet.
Ours is an incredible story. As far as anyone can tell, we’re the only system on the planet so complex that we’ve thrown ourselves headlong into the game of deciphering our own programming language. Imagine that your desktop computer began to control its own peripheral devices, removed its own cover, and pointed its webcam at its own circuitry. That’s us.
And what we’ve discovered by peering into the skull ranks among the most significant intellectual developments of our species: the recognition that the innumerable facets of our behavior, thoughts, and experience are inseparably yoked to a vast, wet, chemicalelectrical network called the nervous system. The machinery is utterly alien to us, and yet, somehow, it is us.
THE TREMENDOUS MAGIC
In 1949, Arthur Alberts traveled from his home in Yonkers, New York, to villages between the Gold Coast and Timbuktu in West Africa. He brought his wife, a camera, a jeep, and—because of his love of music—a jeep-powered tape recorder. Wanting to open the ears of the western world, he recorded some of the most important music ever to come out of Africa. But Alberts ran into social troubles while using the tape recorder. One West African native heard his voice played back and accused Alberts of “stealing his tongue.” Alberts only narrowly averted being pummeled by taking out a mirror and convincing the man that his tongue was still intact.
It’s not difficult to see why the natives found the tape recorder so counterintuitive. A vocalization seems ephemeral and ineffable: it is like opening a bag of feathers which scatter on the breeze and can never be retrieved. Voices are weightless and odorless, something you cannot hold in your hand.
So it comes as a surprise that a voice is physical. If you build a little machine sensitive enough to detect tiny compressions of the molecules in the air, you can capture these density changes and reproduce them later. We call these machines microphones, and every one of the billions of radios on the planet is proudly serving up bags of feathers once thought irretrievable. When Alberts played the music back from the tape recorder, one West African tribesman depicted the feat as “tremendous magic.”
And so it goes with thoughts. What exactly is a thought? It doesn’t seem to weigh anything. It feels ephemeral and ineffable. You wouldn’t think that a thought has a shape or smell or any sort of physical instantiation. Thoughts seem to be a kind of tremendous magic.
But just like voices, thoughts are underpinned by physical stuff. We know this because alterations to the brain change the kinds of thoughts we can think. In a state of deep sleep, there are no thoughts. When the brain transitions into dream sleep, there are unbidden, bizarre thoughts. During the day we enjoy our normal, wellaccepted thoughts, which people enthusiastically modulate by spiking the chemical cocktails of the brain with alcohol, narcotics, cigarettes, coffee, or physical exercise. The state of the physical material determines the state of the thoughts.
And the physical material is absolutely necessary for normal thinking to tick along. If you were to injure your pinkie in an accident you’d be distressed, but your conscious experience would be no different. By contrast, if you were to damage an equivalently sized piece of brain tissue, this might change your capacity to understand music, name animals, see colors, judge risk, make decisions, read signals from your body, or understand the concept of a mirror—thereby unmasking the strange, veiled workings of the machinery beneath. Our hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears, comic instincts, great ideas, fetishes, senses of humor, and desires all emerge from this strange organ—and when the brain changes, so do we. So although it’s easy to intuit that thoughts don’t have a physical basis, that they are something like feathers on the wind, they in fact depend directly on the integrity of the enigmatic, three-pound mission control center.
The first thing we learn from studying our own circuitry is a simple lesson: most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control. The vast jungles of neurons operate their own programs. The conscious you—the I that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning—is the smallest bit of what’s transpiring in your brain. Although we are dependent on the functioning of the brain for our inner lives, it runs its own show. Most of its operations are above the security clearance of the conscious mind. The I simply has no right of entry.
Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot. This book is about that amazing fact: how we know it, what it means, and what it explains about people, markets, secrets, strippers, retirement accounts, criminals, artists, Ulysses, drunkards, stroke victims, gamblers, athletes, bloodhounds, racists, lovers, and every decision you’ve ever taken to be yours.
* * *
In a recent experiment, men were asked to rank how attractive they found photographs of different women’s faces. The photos were eight by ten inches, and showed women facing the camera or turned in three-quarter profile. Unbeknownst to the men, in half the photos the eyes of the women were dilated, and in the other half they were 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 two millimeters larger in this photo than in this other one.” Instead, they simply felt more drawn toward some women than others, for reasons they couldn’t quite put a finger on.
So who was doing the choosing? In the largely inaccessible workings of the brain, something knew that a woman’s dilated eyes correlates with sexual excitement and readiness. Their brains knew this, but the men in the study didn’t—at least not explicitly. The men may also not have known that their notions of beauty and feelings of attraction are deeply hardwired, steered in the right direction by programs carved by millions of years of natural selection. When the men were choosing the most attractive women, they didn’t know that the choice was not theirs, really, but instead the choice of successful programs that had been burned deep into the brain’s circuitry over the course of hundreds of thousands of generations.
Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision making. And most of the time, it’s not. Whether we’re talking about dilated eyes, jealousy, attraction, the love of fatty foods, or the great idea you had last week, consciousness is the smallest player in the operations of the brain. Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.
You see evidence of this when your foot gets halfway to the brake before you consciously realize that a red Toyota is backing out of a driveway on the road ahead of you. You see it when you notice your name spoken in a conversation across the room that you thought you weren’t listening to, when you find someone attractive without knowing why, or when your nervous system gives you a “hunch” about which choice you should make.
The brain is a complex system, but that doesn’t mean it’s incomprehensible. Our neural circuits were carved by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species’ evolutionary history. Your brain has been molded by evolutionary pressures just as your spleen and eyes have been. And so has your consciousness. Consciousness developed because it was advantageous, but advantageous only in limited amounts.
Consider the activity that characterizes a nation at any moment. Factories churn, telecommunication lines buzz with activity, businesses ship products. People eat constantly. Sewer lines direct waste. All across the great stretches of land, police chase criminals. Handshakes secure deals. Lovers rendezvous. Secretaries field calls, teachers profess, athletes compete, doctors operate, bus drivers navigate. You may wish to know what’s happening at any moment in your great nation, but you can’t possibly take in all the information at once. Nor would it be useful, even if you could. You want a summary. So you pick up a newspaper—not a dense paper like the New York Times but lighter fare such as USA Today. You won’t be surprised that none of the details of the activity are listed in the paper; after all, you want to know the bottom line. You want to know that Congress just signed a new tax law that affects your family, but the detailed origin of the idea—involving lawyers and corporations and filibusters— isn’t especially important to that new bottom line. And you certainly wouldn’t want to know all the details of the food supply of the nation—how the cows are eating and how many are being eaten—you only want to be alerted if there’s a spike of mad cow disease. You don’t care how the garbage is produced and packed away; you only care if it’s going to end up in your backyard. You don’t care about the wiring and infrastructure of the factories; you only care if the workers are going on strike. That’s what you get from reading the newspaper.
Your conscious mind is that newspaper. Your brain buzzes with activity around the clock, and, just like the nation, almost everything transpires locally: small groups are constantly making decisions and sending out messages to other groups. Out of these local interactions emerge larger coalitions. By the time you read a mental headline, the important action has already transpired, the deals are done. You have surprisingly little access to what happened behind the scenes. Entire political movements gain ground-up support and become unstoppable before you ever catch wind of them as a feeling or an intuition or a thought that strikes you. You’re the last one to hear the information.
However, you’re an odd kind of newspaper reader, reading the headline and taking credit for the idea as though you thought of it first. You gleefully say, “I just thought of something!”, when in fact your brain performed an enormous amount of work before your moment of genius struck. When an idea is served up from behind the scenes, your neural circuitry has been working on it for hours or days or years, consolidating information and trying out new combinations. But you take credit without further wonderment at the vast, hidden machinery behind the scenes.
And who can blame you for thinking you deserve the credit? The brain works its machinations in secret, conjuring ideas like tremendous magic. It does not allow its colossal operating system to be probed by conscious cognition. The brain runs its show incognito. So who, exactly, deserves the acclaim for a great idea? In 1862, the Scottish mathematician James Clerk Maxwell developed a set of fundamental equations that unified electricity and magnetism. On his deathbed, he coughed up a strange sort of confession, declaring that “something within him” discovered the famous equations, not he. He admitted he had no idea how ideas actually came to him—they simply came to him. William Blake related a similar experience, reporting of his long narrative poem Milton: “I have written this poem from immediate dictation twelve or sometimes twenty lines at a time without premeditation and even against my will.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe claimed to have written his novella The Sorrows of Young Werther with practically no conscious input, as though he were holding a pen that moved on its own.
And consider the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He began using opium in 1796, originally for relief from the pain of tooth - aches and facial neuralgia—but soon he was irreversibly hooked, swigging as much as two quarts of laudanum each week. His poem “Kubla Khan,” with its exotic and dreamy imagery, was written on an opium high that he described as “a kind of a reverie.” For him, the opium became a way to tap into his subconscious neural circuits. We credit the beautiful words of “Kubla Khan” to Coleridge because they came from his brain and no else’s, right? But he couldn’t get hold of those words while sober, so who exactly does the credit for the poem belong to? As Carl Jung put it, “In each of us there is another whom we do not know.” As Pink Floyd put it, “There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”
Revue de presse
“Eagleman has a talent for testing the untestable, for taking seemingly sophomoric notions and using them to nail down the slippery stuff of consciousness.” –New Yorker
“Your mind is an elaborate trick, and mastermind David Eagleman explains how the trick works with great lucidity and amazement. Your mind will thank you.” –Kevin Kelly, Wired Magazine
“A fun read by a smart person for smart people…it will attract a new generation to ponder their inner workings.” –New Scientist
“Written in clear, precise language, the book is sure to appeal to readers with an interest in psychology and the human mind, but it will also please people who just want to know, with a little more clarity, what is going on inside their own skulls.” –Booklist
“Original and provocative…Incognito is a smart, captivating book that will give you a prefrontal workout.” –Nature
“Incognito is fun to read, full of neat factoids and clever experiments...Eagleman says he’s looking to do for neuroscience what Carl Sagan did for astrophysics, and he’s already on his way.” –Texas Monthly
"Although Incognito is face-paced, mind-bending stuff, it's a book for regular folks. Eagleman does a brilliant job refining heavy science into a compelling read. He is a gifted writer." -Houston Chronicle
“A popularizer of impressive gusto…[Eagleman] aims, grandly, to do for the study of the mind what Copernicus did for the study of the stars.” –New York Observer
“The journey to the heart of neurological darkness is also a kind of safari, and we spend a lot of time taking in the marvelous birds…Incognito proposes a grand new account of the relationship between consciousness and the brain. It is full of dazzling ideas, as it is chockablock with facts and instances.” –The New York Observer
“Incognito does the right thing by diving straight into the deep end and trying to swim. Eagleman, by imagining the future so vividly, puts into relief just how challenging neuroscience is, and will be.” –Boston Globe
“Appealing and persuasive.” –Wall Street Journal
“Eagleman has a nice way with anecdotes and explanations…delightful.” –The Observer’s Very Short List
“Eagleman presents difficult neuroscience concepts in an energetic, casual voice with plenty of analogies and examples to ensure that what could easily be an overwhelming catalog of facts remains engaging and accessible…the ideas in Eagleman’s book are well-articulated and entertaining, elucidated with the intelligent, casual tone of an enthusiastic university lecturer.” –The Millions
“A fascinating, dynamic, faceted look under the hood of the conscious mind...Equal parts entertaining and illuminating, the case studies, examples and insights in Incognito are more than mere talking points to impressed at the next dinner party, poised instead to radically shift your understanding of the world, other people, and your own mind.” –Brain Pickings
“Eagleman engagingly sums up recent discoveries about the unconscious processes that dominate our mental life.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Fascinating…Eagleman has the ability to turn hard science and jargon into interesting and relatable prose, illuminating the mind’s processes with clever analogies and metaphors.” –Salt Lake City Weekly
“A great beach read.“ –Philadelphia City Paper
“Touches on some of the more intriguing cul-de-sacs of human behavior.“ –Santa Cruz Sentinel
“Startling…It’s a book that will leave you looking at yourself—and the world—differently.” –Austin American Statesman
“Incognito feels like learning the secrets of a magician. In clear prose, Eagleman condenses complex concepts and reinforces his points through analogies, pop culture, current events, optical illusions, anecdotes, and fun facts.” –Frontier Psychiatrist
“One of those books that could change everything.” –Sam Snyder, blog
“Sparkling and provocative…a thrilling subsurface exploration of the mind and all its contradictions.” –Louisville Courier-Journal
“Buy this book. The pithy observations, breezy language and wow-inducing anecdotes provide temporary pleasure, but the book’s real strength is in its staying power.“ –Science News
“A whirlwind, high-definition look at the neural underpinnings of our everyday thinking and perception…fascinating.” –Brettworks.com
“Eagleman embodies what is fascinating, fun, and hopeful about modern neuroscience.” –Brainstorm.com
“After you read Eagleman’s breezy treatment of the brain, you will marvel at how much is illusory that we think is real, and how we sometimes function out autopilot without consciously knowing what is happening…This is a fascinating book.” –The Advocate
“A pleasure to read…If a reader is looking for a fun but illuminating read, Incognito is a good choice. With its nice balance between hard science and entertaining anecdotes, it is a good alternative to the usual brainless summer blockbusters.” –Deseret News
“Funny, gripping and often shocking…Eagleman writes great sentences of the sort that you might be inclined to read to those in your general vicinity.” –bookotron.com
“Incognito reads like a series of fascinating vignettes, offering plenty of pauses for self-reflection. Eagleman’s anecdotes are funny and easily tie to the concepts he explains. Moreover, his enthusiasm for the subject is obvious and contagious.” –Spectrum Culture
“Incognito is popular science at its best…beautifully synthesized.” –Boston Globe Best of 2011
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Also fun to read, great style and no specialist jargon.
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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.
Is it narcissistic for humans to be fascinated by the study of our own minds? Probably. But let's face it. The human mind is REALLY interesting, even if we do have to say so ourselves. And David Engleman makes this topic easy to understand with plenty of real-life examples interwoven with the scientific study. Some of the conclusions are expected, some are shocking, and some are important enough to change social policy (if we believe them). This is the print equivalent of a great episode of NOVA. When it's over, you've been entertained, but more importantly, you've learned something. And for those of us who love to read, doesn't that simple desire lay hidden at the base of each reading selection we make?
If you want to really dig deeper into the scientific studies themselves, a comprehensive bibliography is included at the end of the book. You can continue to research to your heart's content by tracking down his source material and reading it for yourself.
Do yourself a favor and read this book. I highly recommend it.
The book, which is grounded in a massive amount of neuroscience research, is written in a conversational manner with lots of analogies and metaphors that make the information both accessible and retrievable. For example, consciousness is described as being like the CEO of a very large company, having little awareness of the details of day-to-day operation, responsible only for setting major goals and for adapting to major changes. While his metaphors become redundant at times (especially "team of rivals," a phrase repeated so often as to become irritating), the author is generally skilled at finding ways to explain complicated processes in a straightforward manner. He also creates opportunities for active engagement by providing optical illusions and mental exercises that help the reader actually experience some of the idiosyncrasies of the brain.
Since I had read some of the Amazon reviews before finishing the book, I was apprehensive about the penultimate chapter on the justice system and the concept of culpability. I thought the main point would be that nobody should be held culpable for misdeeds because so many of our actions are not under our control. But the author clearly states that "explanation does not equal exculpation." He does, however, suggest that although we don't currently have the scientific sophistication to find the biological underpinnings of all deviant behavior, we have learned enough to suggest that we will keep finding more explanations. This has some major implications for our justice system; the author explains it better than I can. All I will say is that this issue is extremely thought-provoking.
The final chapter begins with an eloquent brief description of the evolution of science and philosophy leading to the current efforts to find a "deeper understanding of the inner cosmos." He arrives at a humble conclusion regarding our current state of knowledge ("Does it seem reasonable that we are the first ones lucky enough to be born in the perfect generation, the one in which the assumption of a comprehensive science is finally true?") paired with a trust that the scientific method will keep revealing more about the wonders of the universe both outside and inside of our brains.
One of the more intriguing facts revealed in this book is that one part of the brain invents stories to justify what another part sees or feels. Our brains constantly look for order and reason, even when there is none, leading us to regularly reach erroneous conclusions. Now apply this to politics or intimate relationships. Thinking about the implications makes my head spin. And here's another thing I've learned. Just because that is my reaction in no way predicts that it will be yours. But if you are interested in human thought, feeling, and behavior or if you are interested in the interplay between biology and environment, I'm pretty sure that you will find this to be a stimulating, thought-provoking, and yes, maybe even a mind-blowing book.
This book argues the following ideas and more:
1) Your conscious mind is the "tip of the iceberg" and the rest of the iceberg (your brain) is what is really running the show
2) The vast majority of your brain's processing which leads to what you do and what you think is not accessible to your conscious mind
3) Your brain contains many modules that overlap and compete as rivals
4) "You" are your biology, but you can't be understood by simple reductionism
5) You have little if any "free will" and what that means
6) Your neurobiology is a result of a constant interplay of genes and environment
The ideas in this book in general are not new to me although they probably are to many people. If you have read popular books about the mind in the last decade, the idea that much of our mind is not accessible to us introspectively is hardly a revelation. However the author articulated some of my own vague ideas about what this actually means and I found myself say "Yes!" fairly frequently. I thought his chapter on free will and blame was outstanding; finally some sane analysis on the implications of these questions. His final chapter "Life After the Monarchy" summed up his views and argument beautifully. If you are fascinated, as I am, by the human mind I highly recommend this book.
I noticed the previous reviewer complained about the quality of the illustrations in his free preview copy. I see that too and wish they had been better. HOWEVER, any of you purchasing this book should not let that in any way discourage you. We have galley copies that are not intended for sale and this is what you often get. I'm sure that won't be the case in the published copies. I would hate that kind of thing in a galley copy would discourage buyers from this fine book.
As I read it, I feel like I am watching an excellent science documentary series. It is the best non-fiction book I have read in a long time. However, a caveat: cognitive science and artificial intelligence are some of my areas, so I do not know how interesting the book will be as a popular science book for the general audience.
The book contains some proposals, predictions, and speculations that are not yet borne out. It makes some strong claims about what consciousness is not, and how it emerges from the activities of the non-aware parts of brain activity. I find this interesting, but to some, this may detract. It certainly sets the stage for future work.
The one chapter that did not work so well was where he speculated on the legal system and how our notions of punishment should be altered as a consequence of things learned about neurology. It was less grounded and just contained a lot of hand waving.
There was an interesting profile of the author recently published in New Yorker magazine (April 25, 2011, p. 54-65). For me it made the book even richer by having first read the profile, to understand the interests, motivations, and background of the author. If you are interested in reading this book, you may enjoy reading the New Yorker profile first.