Review of David Eagleman's Incognito

Many years ago I watched a standup comic on television explain that the President of the United States has no more control over the country than the bulldog hood ornament on a Mack Truck has in controlling where the truck goes. He was exaggerating but he had a point.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman has a similar argument about the human brain. Our conscious brain (our "I") is the tiny chrome bulldog, while our non-conscious brain is doing the driving. His highly-readable pop science book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, offers dozens of persuasive examples to support the idea that our conscious brain is at the tip of our behavioral iceberg.

Here's a few questions Eagleman asks in Incognito:

Why can your foot jump halfway to the brake pedal before you become consciously aware of danger ahead? Why do strippers make more money at certain times of month, even while no one is consciously aware of their fertility level? Is there a true Mel Gibson? What do Odysseus and the subprime mortgage meltdown have in common? How is your brain like a conflicted democracy engaged in civil war? Why are people whose name begins with J more likely to marry other people whose name begins with J? Why is it so difficult to keep a secret? Why did Supreme Court Justice William Douglas deny that he was paralyzed?

Eagleman's answer to all of these questions is that the non-conscious brain is made up of many signal processors, honed by eons of evolution, that compete and cooperate with each other to make decisions that eventually make their way to the tip of the cognitive iceberg, where the "I" takes credit.

I think Eagleman is probably right, but I'm also the kind of person who is easily persuaded by attractively presented arguments and Eagleman, who is an accomplished fiction writer (see Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives) is a good story teller, so that has to be figured into my feeling that he's onto something. In any case, this was one of the most entertaining books about the brain that I've read.

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain


An interview with David Eagleman, neuroscientist

David Eagleman: We live in the past…literally

Comic adaptation of David Eagleman story about the afterlife


  1. This fits very nicely with Daniel Khaneman’s work “Thinking, Fast and Slow” as well.

  2. This is a fundamental of zen as it was explained to me. If we had as little control over our bodies as we do our minds we’d be running out into traffic constantly. The purpose of meditation therefore is to gain some control over our mind and our thoughts. Certainly has been my own experience – I cognitively ‘run out into traffic’ a thousand times a day. 

  3. I think Eagleman is probably right, but I’m also the kind of person who is easily persuaded by attractively presented arguments and Eagleman, who is an accomplished fiction writer 

    THANK YOU for saying that. I feel the same way often and I don’t want to admit it.  It makes it hard for me to argue with people because I’m usually trying on their story first to see if I like it. Only if I go in with my “shields up” can I spot flaws and point out logic holes and rhetoric tricks. 

  4. Incognito ergo sum? (I can’t resist adding the Woody Allen here, either: cogito cogito, ergo cogito sum — I think I think, therefore I think I am.)

  5. I saw a thing on TV once that demonstrated how humans in groups will “school” in the same way as fish do (though only in two dimensions, obv.)  As someone who sometimes works within large, drunken crowds, I feel my experience corroborates this.  It would be pretty interesting if it weren’t such a pain in my ass.

    another example:  a bunch of different groups are sitting in the same room in a restaurant.  they arrived separately and don’t know each other.  at their leisure they dine.  afterward, they all chat with their respective groups at their respective tables.  at some random point, a person at one table motivates to leave.  the rest of his table realizes that yes, now is the the time for them to leave as well.  that table stands.  one by one, the rest of the tables who have finished all decide now is the time to go.  this is extraordinary common.  “our conscious brain is at the tip of our behavioral iceberg.”  yes indeed, I’ve been noticing.  I’ve noticed it in myself, even, though usually sometime after the fact.

  6. I can’t help noticing that this sounds like a bunch of fuzzy woo.  It certainly could lead to excuse-making such as “my unconscious made me do it and I wasn’t aware of or in control of my actions.”  We have intelligence and free will to control our own actions and are responsible for them.  Yes, it’s fascinating that we have visceral reactions.  We also have conscious thought.  

    1. Far as I can see, nobody’s denying we have conscious thought, nor claiming that the subconscious can be blamed. You may be tilting at a straw windmill.
      And on an individual level, conscious thought has greater sway over you than the subconscious. You are far more likely to marry someone who is right for you in other ways, than because they have the same first letter as you.
      But, en masse, visceral and subconscious reactions become statistically noticeable; so, more Janes, Jeans and Johns interrmarry than you’d expect if the distribution were purely random.
      That’s not saying “we are incapable of deciding for ourselves who to marry”, nor “If you name your child with a J name, then they’ll marry another”. Just that “factors we are unaware of have a small influence in our decision making, which can be detected in large populations”.

      1. Well, the whole concept of “blame” is problematic and (in western society) it’s often tied up with dangerous and counterproductive notions of retributive justice. 

        The notion of “blame” is at best an inherently-imperfect approximation of causal chains necessitated by 1) our social and moral nature and 2) our obviously-limited and subjective perspective on the universe.

    2. we have … free will


      A troublesome concept called “causality” throws a spanner in this suggestion. Even if strict or “hard” determinism isn’t true (i.e. if the Copenhagen Interpretation is correct), there’s no evidence to suggest that probabilistic causation isn’t true, and that’s just as incompatible with free will as strict determinism.

      Of course this all hinges on what you mean by “free will”. If “free will” simply means that we must sometimes place blame and take accountability for things despite never knowing all extenuating factors, then yes, “free will” jibes with the world around us. But that’s not what most people mean by free will. They generally mean something like “I could have chosen differently than I did” or “person_x is the root and final cause of behavior_y”, etc, which is all kinds of wrong.

      1. This is sort of going off topic, but I can never understand why people want to define “free will” like this or why you think it’s “what most people mean” by free will.

        I personally am willing to entertain the idea that the universe may be strictly deterministic despite our best quantum mechanical models and I certainly believe at least in probabilistic causation.  However, in either case I think both “I have free will” and “I could have chosen differently than I did” should be considered uncontroversial phrases, expressing easily understood truths.

        The ultimate chains of determinism or causation of significant events in the universe takes place at levels of complexity so far beyond our access that shorthand like free will is necessary to talk meaningfully about our actions and lives.  Things in the universe cohere, wave functions collapse, or whatever, and eventually there are a finite set of options I might choose for what clothes to wear today, for example.  Sure, at some ultimate level and in some torturously literalistic set of definitions maybe I was “trapped” into my choice of outfit by the probability parameters set forth at the beginning of the expansion of the big bang, but to insist that it therefore doesn’t make sense to say “I made a choice” is ridiculously pedantic.

        Saying that we can’t talk about “free will” because the universe is deterministic is like complaining that we should never use abstractions like “me” and “you” when we all know there is no “me” and “you”, just sets of subatomic particles interacting.

        This kind of denial of free will always just sounds to me like non-appreciation of the complexity of reality.  It sounds like you are trying to insist that the universe runs just like a clock and we’re just like cogs.  But it doesn’t and we’re not.  It and us are way the fuck bigger and more mysterious.  Enough so that new qualities have emerged in the universe and in us that make clock metaphors and a focus on the theoretical fundamental determinism (if it exists) stupid and small minded.  And it makes sense to call one of these new qualities “free will”.

        1. This is sort of going off topic, but I can never understand why people want to define “free will” like this

          1) because semiotics is fascinating, and because what people say and mean is obviously very important.

          2) because philosophical and ethical emphasis on causation highlights the value of skepticism, rehabilitative justice and rational, critical thinking, and (if taken introspectively) it forces contemplation about the meaningfulness of e.g. pride, shame, hate, love, etc.

          3) because neuroscience on the topic (fairly well-compiled entry with plenty of criticisms of my position) has:

          a) cast much doubt on libertarian, dualistic or otherwise magical conceptions of free will,

          b) demonstrated the manipulability of perceived will, and

          c) indicated the inaccuracy of our own recollected experience of agency.

          Why do I think some people define free will as I said they did? Because they do. Are you familiar with the US Justice System, or with retributive justice in general? These systems depend on the notion that causal bucks stop at the minds of individual human beings.

          Your last paragraph seems to be an argument against fatalism. I don’t espouse fatalism. Do you take credit for the Big Bang? Do you take credit for the formation of the Sun and planets? What about the rise of life? What about your genes or birthplace? What about the symbols you are currently viewing which constitute your running experience of consciousness? Do you feel me there, in your mind?

          Ultimately it’s just a beautiful philosophical position I’ve arrived at. My experience of “being” is itself an emergent flower of entropy. This experience is the downstream (i.e. always after-the-fact) result of a bunch of physiological processes of which I am unaware.

          But to go back to your fears of fatalism: outside of contexts such as these, I don’t accost people and say, “YOU DIDN’T CHOOSE THAT! YOUR CONSCIOUS CONCEPTION OF CHOICE IS AN ILLUSION!” I do think this conception is an illusion, of course, but (contrary to what you seem to think) I don’t think illusions or fictions are useless. Far bloody from it! I just think it’s incredibly neat to consider that our feeling of agency is illusory. When I think such things, I become more detached from the present moment, and I more closely scrutinize the past and more deliberately envision the future, and I hate people less, and I love friends and family more, and…

          Whatever floats your boat, false_azure! If you want to think of “choices” as meaningfully-final hard-cast links in a big web-like chain… that’s fine! I just ultimately don’t think things can be so neatly encapsulated, despite the obvious social utility of trying to do so (e.g. locking up people who we can’t rehabilitate is good, feeling pride despite knowing you are just a tiny part of a great big mystery can be good, loving and feeling compassion for other creatures you cannot ever fully comprehend is good, etc).

          1. I agree with all your assertions in your points 1, 2, and 3a ~ 3c, but I don’t concede that they are good reasons for defining free will in the way that you seem to want to define it.

            Our world views seem largely in harmony.  We seem to reach similar end points on important ethical issues — I’m also against punishment and retributive justice and I would probably agree that the foundations of the US justice system are unsound although I don’t know as much about them as I maybe should.  I’m definitely not “libertarian, dualistic, or otherwise magical”.  =D  We’re both not fatalists.  So that’s good.  But we don’t agree on free will definitions.

            Let’s take a step back and actually define free will explicitly.

            You seem to want to call free will: “the ability people have to make certain decisions and take certain actions unconstrained by external factors outside their rational thinking”.  This is a clean, ultimate, “the mind is somehow metaphysically insulated from causality” version of free will.  I more or less agree that this metaphysically pure free will doesn’t exist in the universe, probably.  But I think that’s an academic, unimportant point, or anyway a subtle cosmological question best left for consideration by far-future physicists.  Not really relevant to present day practical ethics or law.

            I want to call free will: “the factors that go into making a decision that we identify as being components of our rational, thinking mind”.  This is a murky, metaphysically uncommitted version of free will that opens up the whole can of worms of further having to define “components of our rational, thinking mind”.  Nevertheless, it is a way more meaningful and useful definition because it doesn’t immediately let us off the hook for locating the end points of a lot of decision making in regions we identify with as “self” and that we feel personal responsibility for.  It keeps personal identity and rationality tied up in the conversation, as they should be.  And I don’t think these rational, thinking mind components should just be considered a useful illusion or fiction — I think they are real things.  They should be accorded prime grade reality status in our ontologies so that we take them seriously.

            The beginning of the free will neuroscience Wikipedia page you linked to cites a Daniel Dennett interview where he stakes out my position better than I can do.  (Free will part starts at 24 minutes in.)  I’ll pretty much let him speak for me (although his statement that chimpanzees don’t have reasons for what they do is totally bizarre and ominous).  Basically, in the same way you can make something “living” out of parts that are not living, in the same way you can make something “conscious” out of parts that are not conscious, you can make something “free” out of parts that are not free.  My free will is an emergent property of my conscious thought.

            Our other disagreement is about what “most people mean” by free will.  I admit I don’t have the data to answer that… I can’t really guess whether your definition or mine would be more popular in a survey.  So maybe you’re right on that one.  But to whatever extent possible I want to encourage and advocate and popularize my definition, because I think it’s more ethically, legally, and philosophically provocative and useful.

          2. Thanks for the chat.

            I’ve read Dennett on the subject and disagree with him. To be clear, I’d rather abandon the “free” part of the phrase than redefine what “free will” means, because 1) no definition of “free will” is even marginally coherent, and 2) “free” inevitably leads to gross conceptual errors.

            I reject your (and Dennett’s) ad hoc admixture of consciousness and free will. They’re both nebulous concepts; swirling them together does not paint a clearer or more persuasive picture of anything. You’ve simply blown the fog of free will from its erstwhile roots in Euphemism Town down the road to the Minds are Mysteries Carnival. The claim that “free will” is is an emergent property of minds presupposes that “free will” exists, but nobody has been able to define it in meaningful terms, let alone indicate its existence. The concept of consciousness is troublesome enough without another layer of fluff smeared over it.


            Again, if we abandon the semiotic quagmire of “freedom” when discussing human will, then in issues of justice emphasis can be placed more heavily on chains of evidence, extenuating circumstances, and history in general (and “I’m just a product of causality, doin’ what comes naturally” will be no more a cogent defense of dangerous outlier behavior than it ever was). When in prosecutorial endeavors we inevitably reach the limits of time, energy, technology, etc, we’ll view e.g. judge’s sentences less as complete, politically-binding finalities and more as localized, imperfect measures taken due to the demands of ordered societies.


            Diverging a bit, I think fatalism-fears are red herrings. The suggestion seems to be that, if people realized that the very experience of deliberating is an ex post facto reconstruction of physiological events over which conscious minds exert no control, they’ll just do nothing and waste away because the apparent pointlessness of life will seem overwhelming. I don’t buy it. Nietzsche, Sartre, et al. already mindfucked us and yet still we thrive! If we’re good at anything, it’s dealing with cognitive dissonance.

            I don’t think people need amorphous notions of free will (however defined) to feel a sense of purpose, and the experience of choice-making does not suddenly disappear merely because one conceives of it as illusory. Whenever one leaves the mode of contemplative, detached reasoning and re-enters the stream of normal living (working, eating, interacting, etc) everything seems as it always did. And again, if in our more dispassionate, logical moments we think in terms of “wills” instead of “free wills”, then we can jettison all the ancient, crufty bits of justice systems and keep whatever’s good (e.g. the threat of punishment may well work and be an ethical imperative in some (not all) scenarios, some people will still need to be segregated from society because we don’t know how to help them, etc).

            The illusory nature of “freedom” in the will is easy to explicate: ask yourself, “When is it that my choices are most free? When do I feel the greatest sense of agency?” Then simply notice that anything you can think of didn’t occur to you because of a freedom of any kind — it simply arose in your mind, and you noticed. In so many words, you can do what you will, but you can never will what you will! There’s no freedom in that at all; your mind is just an (inaccurate) recollection of things that’ve already occurred! Furthermore, the scenario or choice you considered, whatever it was, was necessarily the product of a long history of events over which, again, your consciousness exercised no control.

            This notion that the denial of self (which implicitly arises from rejecting free will) is dangerous or counterproductive is usually expressed by Westerners with little awareness of Asian culture. There are huge, ancient, thriving philosophies built upon the idea that shoring up notions of finite, discrete “selves” is counterproductive and dangerous. I think the idea of discrete selves is useful and meaningful in some situations, but I don’t think conceiving of selves as “free” is necessary or useful, and I don’t buy into the added notion that human minds would dissolve into feckless solipsistic torpor if they lost their precious freedom-notions.


            Most compatibilists suggest that “free will” is simply decision-making given the constraints of reality. This is silly: constraints show freedom to be nonexistent, so “free” is inappropriate. If all our decisions are bound by causality and if the subjective experience of making decisions is an often-inaccurate and always-incomplete account of history arising from uncontrolled physiological processes, there is no “freedom” inherent in the will; there is only the will. In so many words, reality is uniformly coercive of wills. An old-money millionare whose whole life is a leisure activity has exactly as much “freedom” as a pauper in a third-world country, despite the fact that the former will subjectively experience a greater sense of agency.

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