Book by: David Eagleman
Review by: Kathy Zarges
College of Education, Health and Human Services
Kent State University

In the book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brains, David Eagleman explores questions about how the brain works. From the lighthearted to serious, questions include: “How is it possible to get angry at yourself: who exactly is angry at whom?”, “Why do strippers make more money at certain times of the month?”, and “Why did Charles Whitman, a high IQ bank teller and former Eagle Scout, suddenly decide to shoot forty-eight people from the University of Texas Tower in Austin?” (p. 19). This thought provoking text provides an in depth look at the science of the brain. To truly immerse oneself in this text, the reader must put aside preconceived assumptions about the brain and enter into this book with an open mind. A neuroscientist himself, Eagleman takes the layperson on a journey to better understand the mysteries of the mind. Combining scientific concepts and complicated theories with examples and illustrations, the book is realistic and relatable. 

One premise of the book is that the brain is an extremely complex system, and while scientists have learned much in the last hundreds of years, there is still much to be understood. Starting as early as 1610 when Galileo made his controversial discoveries about the universe, scientists have begun to learn more about the brain. Discoveries by Charles Darwin and studies by Sigmund Freud along with advancements of technology have helped shape current understanding of the brain. The book shares fascinating discoveries related to the sense of sight. From optical illusions and blind spots to stories of individuals who had to learn how to see after gaining vision as adults, the reader learns that one third of the human brain is devoted to vision (p. 39). As the book progresses, the author continues to explore the hidden secrets within the mind, from principles of attraction and beauty to implicit memory and hidden bias.

Perhaps the most intense and thought provoking are the questions posed about behavior, biology, free will, and blameworthiness. Eagleman provides several examples of people whose behavior changed dramatically because of alcohol, a prescribed drug, a medical condition, or an undiagnosed brain tumor. Eagleman poses the question of whether people truly have choice over their actions or instead are acting in response to their biology, and not their own free will. Someone may be considered less blameworthy if sleepwalking when committing a crime or getting into a car accident while having a heart attack. Why then shouldn’t biology be taken into consideration in other cases of determining culpability? He also proposes that punishment should be aligned with neuroscience and suggests that in the future, decisions regarding punishment of criminals will be based on neuroplasticity, the likelihood that the brain can be changed through classical conditioning (p. 188).

While not an obvious choice for an academic advisor, the book offers a new way of thinking about every day behavior of all people, and therefore has relevance to anyone working in higher education. Advisors can use the knowledge gained from the book to better understand the students with whom they are working. This is especially the case when the majority of traditional college students are still experiencing the development of their frontal lobe, as explained in the book, which has an impact on impulse control and decision-making. This text is a provocative and stimulating read that will keep the reader reflecting even after putting the book down.

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brains (2011). Book by David Eagleman. Review by Kathy Zarges. New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday (Random House). 291 pp., $15.95 (Paperback). ISBN 978-0-307-38992-3 

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