By David Eagleman
Pantheon, $26.95, 290 pages

How culpable are we for our actions? In this impressive, spacious book, Eagleman makes a bold claim: not very. Here is his rather uncontroversial main point: “You are not consciously aware of the vast majority of your brain’s ongoing activities, nor would you want to be – it would interfere with the brain’s well-oiled processes.” The book makes its case to the reader with jargon-less explanations of brain science. Some of his narratives are fascinating (it is possible to see with the tongue), and his analogies convincing (consciousness as a kind of taped-delay television show; the brain is like a representative democracy). But, so what? Like the other recent spate of books attempting to explain cognitive science to a lay reader, Incognito still can never explain what consciousness is, really, nor where it comes from. His argument ultimately stumbles back into, in large part, something more or less already accepted: the machinery of our brains, hot-wired through eons of evolutionary selection (nature) plays out in social context (nurture). Eagleman presents this, though, with such a winning, gee-whiz enthusiasm that readers can embrace his assessment that “In the case of the dethronement of the conscious mind, we gain better inroads to understand human behavior.” Even if that behavior is barely in our control.

Reviewed by Neil Liss