Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman.

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. This is probably one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read. It is not only beautifully written and well-organized but it really teaches something. This book is about the evolutionary psychology of consciousness. The author explains with many examples how our physiology has evolved from a primitive reptilian mind to a sophisticated interconnected system of mental functions to eventually produce behaviour according to different environments. In other words, consciousness is an emergent property of our brain and environment.

Our mind works not so much as a production line where an initial input stimulus goes into a single process to lead to a final output thought or idea, but more like an assembly of a multitude of a huge number of mental subprocesses that battle among them for control, and these subprocesses are often opposing and overlapping to each other. This is why is hard for us to make decisions. Inside our mind there is a multitude of “selves” each one pushing their way to take control over our behaviour. Each of these selves comes up with their own way of solving problems. Moreover, because our mind is a complex system, it is common that there is not necessarily one better way to solve a determined task or problem. And what happens is that the mind takes different approaches to deal with the same situation.

Another interesting point this book makes is about the conscious mind –the “I” within us. This conscious mind appears to be like the CEO of our mental life that makes the vision and long term planning for us to succeed. The amazing part is that our brain is totally able to learn and make decisions without the participation of the conscious mind. And what this means is that the unconscious mind is a powerful actor within us that learns to do sophisticated tasks quicker than the conscious mind does. And this is where the secret talent of virtuous musicians and skilled athletes comes from: they practice a determined task for years until a new skill is craved deep into their brains. The complex task becomes automatic. Our conscious mind plays only a small part in our total neural function.

Often these mental processes force us to make decisions about the short and long term, and because our evolutionary  past was not optimized to think about the distant future, consequently long term planning is one the hardest tasks to make. In this regard, the author describes the Ulysses’ contract as a useful tool to make decisions in the long term. Essentially, difficult decisions in the distant future have to be done now with a clear rational mind.

Reading this book really helps to understand that our mind is an extremely complex  machine operated by a team of rivals with the sole  purpose of success and survival.

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