An up-to-date examination of what used to be called the mind-body problem.
Eagleman (Neuroscience/Baylor Coll. of Medicine; Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, 2009) makes the point that our sense of ourselves as coherent, free-standing personalities is at odds with the most basic findings about the workings of the human brain, an organ so complex that an objective description of it sounds hyperbolic. Instinct, unconscious impulses, automatic systems, emotion and a dozen other forces, most of which we aren’t even aware of, affect every thought and action. The book is full of startling examples; split-brain research, for example, shows how the two halves of a mind can be completely at odds, with neither being aware of what the other experiences. Nor are those of us with “whole” brains and a complete set of senses necessarily experiencing the world “as it really is.” For example, other animals experience a different part of the visual spectrum, or can detect sounds and odors we have no awareness of. A significant segment of the population—about 15 percent of women—sees colors the rest of us can’t. Our brains work differently when learning a skill and after it’s become second nature – it’s one thing to drive to a new place, another to drive a familiar route, and our brains work much harder doing the former than the latter, when we can go on “automatic pilot.” There are lessons to be learned from various mental disorders, as well. Victims of strokes affecting certain parts of the brain may claim that they are operating at full capacity when they are clearly not; one former Supreme Court justice was forced to retire after displaying these symptoms. Eagleman has a wealth of such observations, backed up with case studies, bits of pop culture, literary references and historic examples.
A book that will leave you looking at yourself—and the world—differently.