Friday, 24 August 2012

Why do apples, eggs, and potatoes taste good? Do genes make a person criminal? And why do babies look cute?

By Syed Akbar

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Incognito – The secret lives of the brain
By David Eagleman
Canongate Books
290 pages
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Why do apples, eggs, and potatoes taste good? Do genes make a person criminal? And why do 
babies look cute? The answer lies in the brain, says neuroscientist Dr David Eagleman.

A baby looks cute not because it has natural cuteness, but because the brain commands us 
to see it that way. Apples, eggs and potatoes taste good, because the brain feels them to 
be so. What if the brain does not tell us that the baby is cute or apples do not taste 
good. If a baby does not look cute, the parents would not bring it up, and ultimately 
there will be no offspring and thus a species will become extinct. As for apples, if they 
do not taste good, we will starve and slowly die.

It is the magical power of the brain that not only keeps the world running, but also 
makes us a distinct species with unparallel tactics of survival. The brain, he says is 
the most wondrous thing “we have discovered in the universe, and it is us”. Dr Eagleman 
takes us through the most complicated functioning of the brain, unravelling its 
mysteries, in the most simplest of language. The book explains in detail the hidden power 
of the brain, the magical powers of its functioning and its wonderful manifestations in 
the form of thought and action.

“The brain works its machinations in secret, conjuring ideas like tremendous magic. It 
does not allow in colossal operating system to be probed by conscious cognition. The 
brain runs its show incognito,” argues Dr Eagleman, who heads the Laboratory for 
Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston.

Coming to apples, eggs and potatoes, Dr Eagleman says they taste good for us not because 
the shapes of their molecules are inherently wonderful, but because they are perfect 
little packages of sugars and proteins: energy dollars you can store in your bank. 
Because these foods are useful, we are engineered to find them tasty.

“Nothing is inherently tasty or repulsive – it depends on your needs. Deliciousness is 
simply an index of usefulness. Our evolutionary goals navigate and structure our 
thoughts” he clarifies.

Almost the entirety of what happen in your mental life is not under your conscious 
control, and the truth is that it is better that way. Consciousness can take all the 
credit it wants, but it is best left at the sidelines for most of the decision-making 
that cranks along in your brain. When it middles in details it does not understand, the 
operation runs less effectively. Once you begin deliberating, abut where your fingers are 
jumping on the piano keyboard, you can no longer pull off the piece.

Why are people attracted to young mates and not to the elderly? Why does a briefly 
glimpsed person appear more attractive than a person at whom we have taken a good look? 
Our sense of beauty is burned deeply (and inaccessibly) into the brain – all with the 
purpose of accomplishing something biologically useful. A woman’s preference can change 
depending on the time of month: women prefer masculine-looking men when they are 
ovulating, but when not ovulating they prefer softer features – which presumably flag 
more social and caring behaviour.

Dr Eagleman points out large eyes and round faces of babies look cute to us not because 
they posses a natural “cuteness” but because of the evolutionary importance of adults 
taking care of babies.

If you think genes do not matter for how people behave, you are mistaken. If you are a 
carrier of a particular set of genes, your probability of committing a violent crime goes 
up by 882 per cent. |If you carry the genes, you are eight times more likely to commit 
aggravated assault, 10 times more likely to commit murders, 13 times more likely to 
commit armed robbery, and 44 times more likely to commit sexual assault.

According to Dr Eagleman, about one-half of the human population carries these genes, 
while the other half does not, making the first half much more dangerous indeed. The 
overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes, as do 98.4 per cent of these are on 
death row.

If our brain were simple enough to be understood, we would not be smart enough to 
understand them.

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