More and more writers and researchers fall victim to the fascination of the brain and its mysteries. Where do private thoughts end and where does relationship begin? What is time? What happens when we dream?
These are questions that aren’t fully answered, even by modern neuroscience. But lots of thinkers won’t be deterred by that and create their own ideas about the meaning of it all.
The book begins with a sobering fact: “Most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control. The conscious you – the I that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning – is the smallest bit of what’s transpiring in your brain. Although we are dependent on the functioning of the brain for our inner lives, it runs its own show.”
The idea that there is an unconscious mind goes back to Freud and the origins of psychoanalysis. But Eagleman shows us – even without dramatic references to our mother or father – how pervasively unconscious decision making is at work: for example when we feel attracted to someone, buy a book with a certain cover design, or find ourselves unable to resist that piece of cake.
The brain runs mostly on autopilot: it makes us take a step back from a fast approaching car, even though our conscious mind ticks into place seconds later. It makes us turn and seek eye contact when someone intently stares at us from across the room.
We think we have highly original ideas, even though we read about them elsewhere days before, but can’t remember that we did. We think we witnessed a certain event without a doubt, only to realize that our subjective perspective colored it in a way that doesn’t concur to what others saw.
“Almost the entirety of what happens in your mental life is not under your conscious control, and the truth is that it’s better this way”, concludes Eagleman.
He rightfully points out that we are better off trusting our bodies when we learn a new athletic discipline, than relying on our minds to count steps or internalize techniques. Rather than thinking about it, we are well advised to just do it.
The point is, there is more to the brain than what we can consciously perceive. We don’t have the kind of control over our thoughts and feelings we would like to have.
There is more uncertainty and wonder than we’d like to admit.
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Last reviewed: 8 Jun 2013