26 January 2013

How much are we truly aware of?

Not so much, according to David Eagleman's "Incognito", which describes how much flies under our conscious radar.  Overall I thought this book was quite good, a better introduction to these topics than several others I've read.

I won't write up too much about it, but there were a few points that I found new and worth noting.  First was this:  "Throughout the brain there is as much feedback as feed-forward" (p. 46).  This is described in reference to the visual system, with an example that the act of imagining a scene will cause the low-level visual system to light up with activity.  In this sense we create our visual world internally, and influence the processing of signals that come in via our eyes.  But I think the general principle is extremely important, that mental acts can cause all sorts of brain activity, and very likely "re-wire" neurons.

The other area that Eagleman is especially interested in has to do with personal responsibility and the legal system.  He argues that the quest to find blame is less useful than taking a more forward-oriented approach - will a person be likely to continue to be a danger to society, or is that a low likelihood.  He argues that there are all sorts of reasons why a person might have acted in a certain way, from contextual cues to biological reasons (for example a brain lesion could have eroded certain mental functions), but if the context is unlikely to recur, or the biological problem has been cured, then future behavior is unlikely to repeat the crime.  Obviously this then ties into drug addiction and our 'war on drugs' which has created such a large prison population.

Eagleman is apparently working on his next book on neuroplasticity, and I look forward to it.

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