This is the book that started me on a fascination with the science of the subconscious mind. In it, Eagleman explains that our subconscious mind has a much bigger role than our consciousness lets us believe. We feel that the conscious mind is in charge of the whole enchilada of our mental being, but in reality the conscious is often late to the party while still managing to weave a narrative about how it saved the day. The conscious has an important role, but one much more limited than it seems, but because consciousness Is the frame through which we are aware the world, it’s easy to miss how much the subconscious handles.
The book is organized into seven chapters. The first chapter sets up the notion that the mind is like an iceberg, the subconscious is the more massive portion that lies below the waterline, and the conscious is the peak that lies above.
The second chapter explores the interface of the senses and the mind. We think that our sensory experience of the world is like looking through a spyglass, but it’s much more a secondary rendering—subject to editing and corruption. Eagleman discusses many illusions that serve to show us that our sensory experience is not as true as we feel it to be.
Chapter three investigates why it is that in some cases the more we think about a task the worse we do with it, and how biases show up even among those who swear they don’t have a racist notion in their body. A number of interesting cases, such as chicken sexing, are used to convey where our conscious mind is of no use to us. Anyone who’s practiced a martial art is aware that sometimes thinking is death.
The fourth chapter explains concepts like instinct and our perception of beauty and attractiveness. It’s entitled, “The Kind of Thoughts That Are Thinkable,” and that gives some insight into the theme.
The next chapter covers one of the most important ideas of the book, that our brains are not all on one page on any given idea. This is one thing that our conscious mind dupes us into believing, that we have a certain belief and that we are uniformly of that view. In fact, our reasoning and emotional systems often have quite different perspectives on a matter. As I mentioned earlier the people who think they don’t have a racist notion in their body. In one sense, they are correct in that they can reason that it’s illogical to think of people differently based on skin color, but such a person still often shows a marked bias when asked to make associations that are made more quickly when they are not at odds for the subconscious.
Chapter 6 gets into the policy ramifications of what has been discussed to this point. If decisions aren’t a product of the conscious mind, then are we right to send people to prison for crimes that they didn’t consciously decide to commit and couldn’t have consciously overruled? The case of Charles Whitman who took up a sniper position in the University of Texas clock tower in 1966 takes center stage in this discussion. Whitman suffered a great change of behavior that was posthumously (by autopsy) linked to the development of a tumor. Eagleman proposes that the traditional question of blameworthiness is the wrong one.
The last chapter reflects upon what it means to be a human person in light of a mind arising from material activity. A central idea is the self as an emergent property rather than the “thing” we feel it to be.
The book presents many monochrome graphics of various types to support the text. It’s also annotated and has a substantial bibliographic section.
I’d recommend this book for anyone interested the nature of the subconscious mind. Eagleman uses interesting cases to demonstrate his points. This makes it quite readable while conveying some challenging ideas.