Tag Archives: david eagleman

Book Review: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman

Title: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain
Author: David Eagleman
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1847679383
Genre: Non-Fiction
PP: 272 pages
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

An unremarkable looking man is walking by a bakery, looks through the window, breaks it with his fist, and grabs a chocolate éclair. As the offending hand draws the stolen éclair towards the horrified man’s mouth, his other hand grabs the arm with the éclair grasping hand and tries to force it back. It’s a ridiculous scenario, a man fighting with himself on a public sidewalk, one arm struggling with the other as the poor man screams at the offending hand over which he seems to have no control. Something out of a Jim Carey movie? Perhaps. It could also be an actual manifestation of alien hand syndrome, a side effect of split brain surgery in which one hand has a mind of its own. Alien hand syndrome is one of many brain conditions detailed by David Eagleman in his heady book about the brain, Incognito.

This writer has no science or medical background yet even he could understand (mostly) Eagleman’s text about our most current understanding of the human brain, a marvel of the universe that has begrudgingly revealed some its secrets to investigators and kept hidden so many more.

Incognito is a book of answers and a book of questions. We learn that 15% of women have four color receptors, not three like the rest of us. These tetra chromatic women actually see colors that others can’t. Then again because of the variations in our individual brains, reality can be subjective. When we look at something red, are we seeing the same thing? Are our perceptions of size, color, and light universally the same? According to Eagleman our brain constructs our reality. We may think that we’ve just had a brilliant inspiration, but our subconscious had already come to the realization minutes before sharing it with our conscious mind.

I did enjoy reading Incognito and found it understandable and for the most part well paced. Eagleman introduces his chapter topic immediately, develops and elaborates it and then reviews it at chapter’s end while making connections to what has come before. He then foreshadows the next chapter’s topic while connecting it to the preceding topic.

The author presents some interesting and intriguing questions about the culpability of those with brain disorders or chemical imbalances. We are not all equal – our judgment influenced by experiences, toxins, or drug use by self or by one’s mother. A latter chapter about determining criminals’ punishment based on what we know about that person’ brain and degree of culpability becomes tedious at times and more about the criminal justice system than the brain.

A person interested in the workings of the brain should enjoy this book. Eagelman concludes that the brain is a perplexing masterpiece still full of mystery and magic for those seeking to unlock its secrets.


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

The late medical student-turned-author Michael Crichton captured the attention of millions with blockbuster novels and movie adaptations that fused science and science fiction to raise some jarring, yet thought provoking issues. Now comes David Eagleman, a young neuroscientist, to do the same, but in a more spiritually lofty and truly innovative way.

It would be easy to describe “Sum” as a breezy work, as it is comprised of 40 two-to-three page flights of fancy on what we might expect in the Afterlife. This slim volume can be read hurriedly, with a minimum of effort and several chuckles or knowing smiles, then placed on the bookshelf. To do so would be an injustice to Eagleman’s superior imagination and to the underlying questions that he poses for us.

By examining what a Higher Power may have waiting for us, “Sum” does much more than amuse and entertain. By having us ponder the fate that may await us, we are given the opportunity to take just a moment or two to consider what we have done with our lives and what we can yet do with them. That point is immediately driven home in the first of Eagleman’s 40 tales, in which the Afterlife consists of 18 days staring into the refrigerator, 51 days deciding what to wear, three months doing laundry – and 14 minutes experiencing pure joy.

If God is within us physically, the author asks, is he also in us spiritually? If we evolve and mature in our lives, what is the progression? Would we really, truly like to understand our stages of growth, or would we be repelled? Would we genuinely want to know what others thought of us on earth, or would we be content with the surface flattery and half-truths that pass so many times for constructive criticism or helpful friendship? If we want to leave a positive legacy on earth after we pass, does it matter what form that might take? Would we be happy struggling and growing as we did in human form, but doing so by literally becoming part of the earth? Would our threshold for boredom be pushed to the limit if we had the opportunity to be surrounded by a tried-and-true circle of friends and loved ones? Or might we find that confining, longing for the additional relationships that we never took the time to cultivate in our waking lives, terra firma?

“Sum” asks these and many other questions in sublime fashion, offering spiritual warmth, humor and an enveloping sense of Possibility to those willing to be just a little less doctrinaire and a bit more curious. Ending with a Benjamin Button-like moment, it challenges us to awaken from whatever inertia, ennui or pettiness we may fall prey to and embrace new ways of living. There must be at least 40 of them. If we are open to the possibilities of the Afterlife, can we not also be open to the possibilities of living?

Personal favorites include the clever, witty “Narcissus,” the surreal “The Cast,” the ultimate careful-what-you-wish-for “Descent of Species,” the entirely delicious “Graveyard of the Gods” and the take-a-good-look-at-yourselves “Absence,” the warm and wry “Seed,” and the ethereal, poetic “Search” (so beautiful it was almost enough to make me actually long for the immortality he describes). Some of the stories are dark, some hilarious, and a number of them have ironic twists, but they all share a common thread: all are brilliantly written and challenge you not only to think outside the box, but to kick the box aside entirely and go leaping joyously into the pleasures of exploring the unknown.

The fact that the stories address the afterlife is incidental; what each story really does is hold up a mirror for humanity to peer into, allowing us to consider ourselves, and the many-faceted aspects of human nature, from funny, new, often startling and always insightful angles. Chances are you’ve never read anything like this book, as there’s simply nothing out there like it, at least nothing I’ve ever stumbled across. And I agree with the sentiments of the other reviewers–once you’ve read it, you’ll want to share it with as many people as possible and read it over again yourself.

It’s enough of a struggle to come up with an idea that pushes the boundaries of the expected, something that is challenging, entertaining and remarkable. Even more difficult, though, is to then execute that idea with the brilliance it demands. David Eagleman has done exactly that, though: dreamed up the astonishing, then demonstrated the depth of talent needed to make it come alive on the page. He has said that writing this book was simply his way of shining a flashlight around the possibility space; here’s hoping that he goes on wielding that flashlight for many years to come so that we can continue to take a look along with him. SUM is a truly stellar effort from a very remarkable writer.

“Sum” just may go down as the 21st Century’s answer to Dante’s centuries-old imaginings. I’m guessing David Eagleman’s got a lot more locked inside him, just waiting to burst forth.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives; Eagleman, David; Vintage; $13.00

Top 10 Reads of 2010

So here is my personal favourite list of Top 10 Reads of 2010.  Here goes:

1. Castle by J.Robert Lennon: I loved this book. I mean, I loved it! The story was taut. It was not all over the place. It maintained the sense of mystery and thrill that a book like this deserves and at the same time did what few writers manage to – get a grip on the landscape and create it into a living and breathing character. I am all for this one and cannot recommend it highly.

2. The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov: Though I found the book to be a little boring in the middle, I have to admit I loved it. There is no way I could not. Here we have Nabokov’s last book (can we call it that?) with his original writing on cards which were well etched into the book. Brilliant design and even better story.

3. Quarantine by Rahul Mehta: Hands down for this collection of queer short stories written by an Indian living abroad. Not because I am gay, but because he did a terrific job of writing such crisp and well-defined stories, though they had absurd ends and yet this one remains to be re-read.

4. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver: Highly accoladed and well-deserved for all the awards it won, Kingsolver did it again. It takes a lot to write a fictional tale and spin with historical characters – to breathe life into them – about what they will say or do given the situation. I bow to The Lacuna. The writing was lucid and emotional in too many parts to be described here.

5. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell: A masterpiece of titanic proportions. A saga (of sorts) set in 18th century Japan. A nation closed to the idea of international trade and confined to its customs and traditions, and who better to write it for us than Mr. Mitchell himself. I was enthralled by it and it held me captive for 3 days and nights at a stretch.

6. The Pleasure Seekers by Tishani Doshi: And from the moment I started reading this book, I could not put it down. The tale of the Patels had me eating out of Ms. Doshi’s hands and I wanted more of it. I just cannot wait for another of her books to come out. An under-rated writer for sure. Please read this one.

7. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: This has to feature on my list for sure. Dysfunctional family. Midwestern American State and all the action that takes place. How could I have not enjoyed this one? I loved it to the core. A Must must read for everyone.

8. The Difficulty of Being Good by Gurcharan Das: A brilliant meditation on how the Mahabharata still affects us in this modern world. How truth, karma and dharma play their roles in the corporate and personal life. Gurcharan Das has done a brilliant job with this one. And I for sure am a sucker for mythology anyday.

9. Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller: If there is one biography I would urge anyone to read, it would be this one. Most people only assume about Ayn Rand and that is because no one knew her. Anne C Heller does a marvellous job with this iconic biography. Read more to find out more about Ayn Rand.

10. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman: Last but not the least it had to be this book. With the way it is written to what is being written about, I fell in love with this book from the word “Go”. A book to ponder over for sure.

So this is my Top 10 reads for the year and I know it will only get better in 2011. Bring it on!!