Author: David Eagleman
Genre: Popular Science, Neuroscience
I have been fascinated by all the latest advances in the understanding of our brain. How does the 3 pound jelly hold so much computational power, and how does it become the real me? I mean transplant all my other organs – entirely different body and colour and height and heart – but as long as my brain and the memories in it remain intact, I am still the same person.
This book takes our understanding of our brains to the next level. Even within the brain, there is a big distinction between the conscious and the unconscious which behave as two different independent entities. The author’s big question: “How is it possible to get angry at yourself – who, exactly, is mad at whom?” And it becomes more and more intriguing. The first chapter is titled (from Pink Flyod’s famous song) : There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me! The book explains: “The conscious you – the I that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning – is (just) the smallest bit of what’s transpiring in your brain… The brain… (actually) runs its own show.” As Carl Jung also said, “In each of us there is another whom we do not know”. The books main point is that the conscious and the unconscious mind, the rational and the impulsive mind, the part of mind that delays gratification and exercises self control for the greater good versus the part of mind which wants instant pleasure – these are independent and often in conflict. It’s almost like many competing sub agents trying to discuss and then usually, when we are in our full senses, our conscious mind decides which path to go with. But there are instances where consciousness fails to decide. Example, in experiments with rat, if you put in front of it food which also gives electrical shock, the poor rat finds itself struck at a certain distance away from food unable to move anywhere. The conscious brain is moving him away due to shock while the unconscious is moving him to the food due to desire, and at that distance the pull just matches the push!
Eagleman should know. As professor of neuroscience at Stanford and having published articles in top journals like Science and Nature, he has also directed the famous BBC series The Brain. He gives dozens of examples of bizzare behavious by patients with part of their brain compromised, and that throws a lot of light on what that part of the brain does in all of us.
A major controvery: How much responsibility do criminals really have of their behaviour if their physical brain is “distorted”? The book explains the case of Whitman in 1966 who was a genius (IQ 138, 99th percentile) and a good man (Eagle scout, marine). Then suddenly on day started typing, “I do not really understand myself these days… have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts”. He killed his beloved wife and his mother while they were sleeping, and typed again, “I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this… I felt overcome by overwhelming violent impulses”. He then went on a shooting rampage killing 13 and wounding 33 before police officers managed to kill him. Whitman’s body was then taken to the morgue where his brain was examined, and it was only then discovered that he had a tumour which compressed a part of the brain called amygdala, generally involved in emotional regulation. So the big question: “To what extent is someone at fault if his brain is damaged in ways about which he has no choice?”
Eagleman keeps giving similar examples. Of a father who started making sexual advances towards his young step daughter and got into child pornography. He was put in prison where he kept claiming he never did this before but he could no longer restrain himself. Then he started having severe headaches and was sent for a brain scan. Doctors found and removed a massive tumour in his orbitofrontal cortex. His sexual appetite returned to normal. Interestingly for science, after six months, his pedophilic behaviour started returning. His wife took him back to the doctors where they discovered the tumour was regrowing. They again removed it and his behaviour went back to normal. Hence, Eagleman’s emphasis: “When your biology changes, so can your decision making, your appetites, and your desires.” Which then means that “what we regard as our free choice perhaps has limits!”
And lest we start thinking that the people concerned already had “bad instincts”, and the tumour just made this viciousness surface, he gives another example of Mel Gibson, the famous actor who made The Passion of the Christ. Heavily drunk one day, he goes into a tirade against Jews and abuses the police officer. But nothing in his past life, and friend choices, suggest he was even remotely anti-Semite. He suffered a lot for it, with many organizations suing him and daily newspapers talking of how bad he was and he had to apologize multiple times. So was he really an anti-semite and the alcohol made his real nature surface? Eagleman suggests that “alchohol is not a truth serum” and all of us have conficting instincts and desires which our normal brain keeps balancing. Alcohol simply lowers these restraints and reduces the ability of conscious mind to keep our desires at check. And all of us have these hidden dark elements lurking, so we should be careful to judge others.
I have personally experienced this. My coach took a 360 degree feedback from my team and gave me some excellent advice on trying to check some of my unhelpful behavioural tendencies. I readily accepted and publicly committed to change. But month on month, despite my conscious efforts and commitment, in moments of weakness or temptation, I would fall back to the same old behaviour. The drives that cause it – sense of self-identity, insecurities, belief system – are all so deeply rooted in the subconscious that they keep surfacing. And I kept asking myself, “Am I fake, in that I made a commitment and not able to live up to it?” This book – and the concept of “brain as a team of rivals” has just helped me understand the enormity of the challenge, and hopefully with this wisdom, this too shall pass…
Why read the book: If you are curious about the last frontiers science is trying to solve for us, this is for you. Most of us are only cursorily aware of our brain. Books like these also help us in understanding ourselves better since we are, fundamentally, our brains.