Incognito, The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman

Your brain is a cavern of ideas and wonder.

Where does it all come from?

We can formulate ideas on the spot and turn them into action in a matter of seconds. Milliseconds even. Some of our greatest geniuses had a head on their shoulders just like you and I but, what’s so fascinating about them aside from who they were?

Well the question is, who are you? Really?

Incognito kc

The mind is but a sliver of what’s actually going on behind the scenes in our head. I’m not sure if you know this, or even notice, but we like to come up with different ways to carry out a task or think of new ways to go about our daily lives all the time. It’s part of our problem solving technique. We make split second decisions based on last minute judgments, and we’re only able to do so because of the dense, watery-meat cells we have sitting between our ears.

No one quite knows how it’s done though. We have an idea, but some functions of the brain are just as much of a mystery as the brain itself – it’s very existence. Some things we have no idea as to how it works or why it’s there, but science is steadily working on answers to one of the biggest mysteries of the universe.

The universe of the mind that is, or the mind’s universe.

What we know is nothing compared to what we don’t know. Einstein said it himself in a book called Cosmic Religion: “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.”

Truth is, the brain has billions and billions of individual neurons that govern what you’re thinking, without you even knowing it. It’s like your brain is playing I Spy, except in secret or in hiding.

Consciousness is just “the tip of the iceberg”.

Sometimes our mind plays tricks on us and makes us believe we see things that aren’t there. Optical illusions trick our brains all the time.

For example, if you spend some time gazing at a waterfall and suddenly shift your view elsewhere, stationary objects will look as if they’re moving upward, creating what I call ‘The Waterfall Affect’. David explains,
“Here the imbalanced activity of your motion detectors (usually upward-signaling neurons are balanced in a push-pull relationship which downward-signaling neurons) allows you to see what is impossible in the outside world: motion without position change.” He says, “The illusion illustrates that vision is the product of different modules: in this case, some parts of the visual system insist (incorrectly) that the rocks are moving, while other parts insist that the rocks are not, in fact, changing position.”

There’s so much going on in our visual systems alone that our brain gets confused. That’s a lot of communication and miscommunication! It’s no wonder people get in accidents or run through red lights – some things just don’t register correctly.

What we are conscious of  – the smells in our environment, the taste of our food, someone’s looks, a book, a statement – they’re all judged by systems in our head that we can’t be accountable for. It kind of questions the idea of free will. Are we really free considering all the things that go on behind the scenes that we have absolutely no idea about?

Not only that but some of these systems leave out information as well.

David Eagleman says,
“The brain doesn’t need a full model of the world because it merely needs to figure out, on the fly, where to look, and when”.

There’s so much stuff, so much build-up of ideas and patterns and mechanisms of understanding that are bubbling in our minds at any given moment that to be aware of them would be a waste of time and energy.

The complexity of the human brain makes you ask questions about self-awareness.

Can we dig into our minds and figure out why we are the way we are – form the habits we have or like the people we like?

Are we the only organisms able to reflect and ask questions about the nature of being and what it means to be human?
“Are other animals conscious?”

The answer is ‘Yes’, ‘I don’t know’, and ‘Possibly’.

Mindfulness and meditation can help us discover things deep rooted in our being that we didn’t even know about. So many people discover things about themselves through experiments or the test of life and are shocked – sometimes appalled at what they come to know. This is why some people form new lives or become better as a person, they tricked their brains into saying ‘Hey, you gotta do better’, and sure enough they were able to make it happen.

Are we the only biological species that can do this – now that’s a good question, and we’re still working on an answer. What we can say is that “consciousness is probably not an all-or-nothing quality, but comes in degrees.”  Eagleman says, “I suggest that an animal’s degree of consciousness will parallel it’s intellectual flexibility.”
A squirrel is only conscious at the capacity to which it is necessary. “The more subroutines an animal possesses, the more it will require a CEO to lead the organization.”

My guess is that our field of awareness is just as tiny as consciousness is compared to the brain. If we evolve for another billion years or two, who knows what kind of intellectuals we’ll be? Shoot we might even be invisible, our minds floating about separate from the body as the need for a human frame becomes less of a necessity. Who knows?

Regardless, as much complexity as there is buried in the circuitry of our human consciousness, one quote rings true that has withstood the test of time. And that is “The mind is a terrible thing to waste”.


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