Saturday, July 9, 2011

the brain: alien processes running under the hood (part i)


"In the same way that the cosmos is larger than we ever imagined, we ourselves are something greater than we had intuited by introspection."

In his recent book Incognito - The secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman looks under the hood of the brain and exposes its alien circuitry. The revealed insights have a distinct constructivist and postmodern taste (more on these issues from the philosophy of science on my science blog here), perhaps surprising coming from a scientist describing experiments.


The brain is "the most complex material we've discovered in the universe."

It is "an alien kind of computational material."

"The machinery is utterly alien to us, and yet, somehow, it is us." "Almost the entirety of your inner universe is foreign to you."

"Humans distinguish themselves in that they are so flexibly intelligent."

"When the brain finds a task it needs to solve, it rewires its own circuitry until it can accomplish the task with maximum efficiency."


"Our brain runs mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs that runs below it."

"The conscious mind is not at the center of the action in the brain; instead it is far out on a distant edge, hearing but whispers of the activity."

"The unexpected part of the news is that the conscious you is the smallest bit-player in the brain."

"Almost all of our actions are run by alien subroutines, also known as zombie systems."

"We are constantly fabricating and telling stories about the alien processes running under the hood."

"Fabrication of stories is one of the key businesses in which our brain engages."

"Consciousness seems to be about setting goals for what should be burned into the circuitry, and it does little beyond that."


"You're not perceiving what's out there. You're perceiving whatever your brain tells you."

"We do not see with our eyes but rather with our brains."

"Waking perception is something like dreaming with a little more commitment to what's in front of you."

"What we call normal perception does not really differ from hallucinations, except that the latter are not anchored by external input."

"You're perceptual world always lags behind the real world."

"What you are able to experience is completely limited by your biology."

"Our brains sample just a small bit of the surrounding physical world."

This is all why we would never "stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense."

"Instead of reality being passively recorded by the brain, it is actively constructed by it."

"There are thoughts you cannot think."

"Consider that you probably would not want to discover the alien subroutines that lurk under your own frontal cortex."

"The exact levels of dozens of neurotransmitters are critical for who you believe yourself to be."


"Just because you believe something to be true, just because you know it's true, that doesn't mean it is true."

"Deeply held beliefs about logic, economics, ethics, emotions, beauty, social interaction, love, and the rest of your vast mental landscape" are all products of the biologically evolved "hardwiring" in the brain.

"Each individual believes his way is reality."

"Minds seek patterns." "They are driven to 'patternicity' - the attempt to find structure in meaningless data."


"The drives you take for granted depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption."

"The behavior of the patient cannot be be separated from his biology."

"Our choices are inseparably married to the tiniest details of our machinery."

"So we see that the invisibly small molecules we call narcotics, neurotransmitters, hormones, viruses, and genes can place their little hands on the steering wheel of our behavior."

"So in our current understanding of science, we can't find the physical gap in which to slip free will - the uncaused causer."

"After centuries of debate, free will remains an open, valid, and relevant scientific problem."


"Many 'pathogens' can influence how you turn out; these include substance abuse by a mother during pregnancy, maternal stress, and low birth weight. As a child grows, neglect, physical abuse, and head injury can cause problems in mental development. Once a child is grown, substance abuse and exposure to a variety of toxins can damage the brain, modify intelligence, aggression, and decision-making abilities."

"How you turn out depends on where you've been."

"When modern brain science is laid out carefully, it is difficult to justify how our legal system can continue to function without it."

"Blameworthiness is the wrong question to ask." "The concept and word to replace blameworthiness is modifiability, a forward-looking term that asks, What can we do from here?"


The brain is best understood as "two separate realms of conscious awareness."

"The origin of consciousness, argues Julian Jaynes, resulted from the ability of the two hemispheres 'to sit down at the table together and work out their differences'."

"Amazingly, as long as the surgery is performed on a child before he is about eight years old, the child is fine." The mentioned surgery is called a hemispherectomy, in which an entire half of the brain is removed, to treat Rasmussen's encephalitis. "He can do anything that a child with two hemispheres can do."


"Do human minds interact with the stuff of the universe?" "What is it about observation?". I.e. the measurement problem in quantum physics.

"Why did artificial intelligence become stuck?" "If we hope to invent robots that think, our challenge is not simply to devise a subagent to cleverly solve each problem but instead to ceaselessly reinvent subagents, each with overlapping solutions, and then to pit them against one another."


Nils said...

Are these direct quotes from the book?

jbg said...

yep, up to the typos;-)

jbg said...

eagleman on the colbert report: