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Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain


Neurology isn’t a particular favorite of mine as I mentioned in my review of Emotional Intelligence. Honestly I feel a bit like it’s trying to dissect a live cow. Sure you can come to know all of the parts but there’s an emergence that happens when you put the pieces together that leads to unexpected things like mooing. Besides, it seems like carving up a live cow would hurt. However, Incognito is a wonderful journey through how the brain works that doesn’t center on neurology (though Eagleman is a neurologist). Incognito centers on understanding what’s happening inside of our own heads – without our knowledge.


Optical Delusions

The difference between a hallucination and our vision is simply that our vision is grounded to external stimulus. When I watched A Beautiful Mind I was intrigued by the idea that Nash was seeing (and interacting) with people that weren’t there. I couldn’t imagine how he could see people who weren’t there. (I mentioned more about this in my review of Change or Die.)Even more intriguing to me was that he ultimately solved that these hallucinations weren’t real by working them out logically. I wondered how could a brain create such vivid images and them not be real. The problem with this is that our brains are doing this for all of us – all of the time. I don’t mean that we’re all hallucinating. Instead, I mean that the images that we see in our minds aren’t at all what we’re taking in in the form of sensory input.

There are plenty of examples of optical illusions that trick the brain into seeing depth, in seeing pictures that don’t exist, in seeing motion where there is none. Escher’s work with varied perspectives is still a favorite of mine. So it’s not a complete diversion for me to think that our eyes shouldn’t always be trusted. In the age of digital photos and Photoshop we’ve learned that others can trick us with photos. However, what most of us don’t realize is that our brains are tricking ourselves anyway.

One of the creepy things from the book was the blind spot in each eye originally discovered by Mariotte. If I told you that you had a blind spot in each eye – you might initially deny it. How can you have a blind spot in each eye? You can “see” an entire field around you. However, there is a spot where the optic nerve passes through the optic disc where there are no photoreceptors and as a result we can’t see. However, our brain is constantly compensating for the blind spot – and when we have both eyes open the blind spot isn’t in the same position so our brains use the visual data from one eye instead of both.

What happens when you close one eye is even weirder. If there is a background pattern present where the blind spot is our brain doesn’t fill the blind spot with white or black or some other neutral color. It generates a matching background pattern to fill the blind spot. So you’re not seeing the pattern but in order to make the blind spot blend in it creates a fake pattern. So we don’t see reality. We don’t see truth. We see what our brains want to tell our conscious is out there.

Tip of the Iceberg

Our consciousness, what we believe is our “us-ness” is a relatively small construction in the brain. Most of the things that are going on in our bodies are completely outside of conscious control. Most of us can concentrate on our breathing and change our breathing rate. However, most of us don’t have the ability to directly change how we digest food. This is a good thing. I can’t imagine how we might muck up our digestion if we had direct control of it. In fact even without direct control of our digestion we find that there are many gastrointestinal issues that are caused by our mental state. In Change or Die shared a fact – dating back to 1955 – that 80% of our health care costs are consumed by five behavioral issues. Our behavioral issues are generally how our pains and psychological dysfunction surface. (See The Rise of Superman for more on bubbling pains.)

A long time ago I was sick in the hospital with a fever due to a kidney infection. I was really bored. My mother said something about being able to keep my temperature down so I could eat solid food. Somewhere in the fog I remembered this. I managed to figure out how to control my pulse so that I could push it into my fingertips and so that I could reduce my heart rate. I also learned that I could change my skin so that I got goosebumps. I call them “parlor tricks.” They’re not useful for much other than freaking people out. However, there’s a limit to how much I can control things even if I stay focused. I can’t sustain either of these over time. Eventually my subconscious kicks in and pulls me back to a normal state.

That’s one more example of why I love the rider-elephant-path model so much. (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for more.) When the rider gets tired the elephant takes over. It’s the elephant that rules. It just looks like our rational rider is in control. It also demonstrates why we recognize that we have our conscious – and our subconscious. We can’t connect with our subconscious. We have to look for signs (above the water) which give away the subconscious’ position. For instance, a change in our heart rate or our breathing. That’s something the conscious can monitor to see that the subconscious is agitated about something.

Like an iceberg what we see about our mental processing is only the tip of the iceberg – or as Eagleman says the headline of a news story that’s already happened. There’s a phenomenon called What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI) where we believe only what we can see. We believe that if we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on WYSIATI.)

Children believe that when mommy leaves the room she’s gone forever. They develop object permanence and suddenly they can accept that mommy is just away for a time. This happens by the time the child is two (See object permanence for more.) Despite this relatively early psychological development we still struggle to believe in things that we can’t see and touch. Whether it’s the challenges of a heliocentric view of the solar system or the idea of germs when things are beyond our ability to see we tend to not believe them or resist them. (See Choice TheoryThinking, Fast and SlowSources of PowerBeyond BoundariesChange or Die, and Who Am I? for more on confirmation bias.) The simple fact of the matter is that we grasp the abstract through means of the concrete. (See Pervasive Information Architecture and The Art of Explanation for more on how we grasp abstract concepts.)

In other words, we don’t believe it if we can’t see it – or relate it to something we know. So how do we conceptualize our subconscious? Neurologists are trying to figure out the pieces and how they work. However, in truth the real emergent properties of our subconsciousness are a mystery. The fact that we would call them emergent means that we don’t understand how they come to be from the parts that we understand. Is it any wonder then that we have such a small awareness of our sub consciousness and how large it is? We can’t see it and we don’t have any reference model for it.

So how large is our subconsciousness? Is it the 90% of our brain that we don’t “use?” Or is it simply seven times the amount of our consciousness like an iceberg is?

Lessons from Knowledge Management

Over the years I’ve done a fair amount of research, work, and presenting on knowledge management. At the core of the knowledge management discipline is the challenge of extracting and cataloging knowledge. There’s the explicit information that we have written down or at least can write down. However, there’s also tacit knowledge that is difficult to capture and transfer. From riding a bike to flying a plane, it’s hard to help others understand how to do it – without them actually doing it. In my review of The New Edge in Knowledge, I spoke about the pioneers of the knowledge management movement Michael Polanyi and Ikujiro Nonaka and how their views of tacit knowledge differed from “we know more than we can tell” to “unarticulated knowledge awaiting transfer.” Inherent in this conflict is the conflict of the conscious awareness. Polanyi knew that there were things that were unknowable to our conscious mind. Take for instance, chicken sexing – that is the practice of determining the sex of a chick very quickly not sending pictures of chicks via text messages.

Incognito speaks about the Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School in Japan which can teach people how to quickly and accurately assess the sex of a chick so that the males and females can be handled differently. The problem is that no one can figure out exactly how it’s done. They can’t tell you how you can know that a chick is one sex or another – except through trial and error. There’s no manual. There’s no computer based training. You have to do it to get good at it – and have feedback about your performance.

If we were in command of all of our faculties then we’d be able to articulate what makes us know a chick is one sex or the other. However, as we learned in The Paradox of Choice even trying to access that information can muck with our perceptions like the students given art posters and being asked to write about their choices. Patients with severed corpus callosum wouldn’t rationalize answers when they couldn’t explain their behavior. In experiments where patients were shown something in their right eye causing them to take action and were asked to describe it they made up stories – since language comes from the left hemisphere of the brain. In other words, our brains are in part a rationalization engine, trying to make sense of the world that we operate in – even when it doesn’t make sense.

We’re more than just our consciousness. As Kahneman asserts in Thinking, Fast and Slow, our System 1 (subconscious) tells System 2 (consciousness) what to believe. Our conscious mind doesn’t check what the subconscious passes along – not that it could if it wanted to.

The Brain and ASICs

Our brains, unlike the brains of other animals or even mammals, are uniquely suited towards optimization. We may learn something through conscious processing but quickly our goal is to get that knowledge worked into our subconscious so that we don’t even have to think about it. Consider how much concentration it took the first time you rode a bike, drove a car, or perhaps flew a plane. It took all you could do just to keep up with the task at hand.

However, after years of driving most people barely remember what route they took to work much less the number of stoplights that they hit that were red. We stopped processing driving as a conscious activity. Instead it’s a relatively subconscious or unconscious activity.

We transition our learning from conscious to subconscious. Once we have a good pattern for handling something it’s handed off to the subconscious for execution. If we have really good patterns they’ll get burned all the way down into our DNA – over the course of generations. That’s the uniqueness of humanity. We leverage our relatively slow, power hungry, and error prone consciousness to learn how to build programs that our subconscious can run.

Our brain is an energy hog. It consumes about 2% of our total body weight but also consumes roughly 20% of the energy in the body. It’s a great place to start if you’re looking to cut down on the energy use of the body. In fact, leaving the glucose (energy) expensive frontal lobe engaged all the time is incredibly draining. The idea of converting the patterns discovered by our general purpose computation engine our consciousness into patterns that can be run by our sub consciousness is so useful.

This is much like how in the computer industry we’ll often leverage general purpose computers to do a task until we know the best way to do it then we’ll create something like an Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC). These are literally hard wired circuits designed to do a task extremely efficiently. While you can use a general purpose CPU to accomplish the same task it will require more power to do so.

We’ve found in our development of processing capacity that it’s advantageous to create solutions that require less energy and so it is for our brain. However, we also need flexibility

Optimization and Flexibility

The problem with ASICs is that they’re inflexible. Once the ASIC is burned it does the one thing very well but it doesn’t do other things well. In evolutionary terms this is bad. As conditions adapt we need to be able to adapt with them. Having an efficient program for hunting wooly mammoth is great until they become extinct or they’re driven away from your hunting areas. It’s important to be able to adapt our programming – even programming that’s been embedded into our DNA when the environmental conditions change and it’s appropriate to learn new programs.

That is one of the reasons that having the frontal lobe is still necessary. It needs to learn new programs and devise new solutions to problems that occur in the environment that never occurred before or that there’s not a program available for.

Going Incognito

You may not be able to peer deeply into your own thinking but perhaps you can go Incognito on a journey of trying to find out more.