By Syed Akbar
Incognito – The secret lives of the brain
By David Eagleman
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
If our brain were simple enough to be understood, we would not be smart enough to
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