David Eagleman 2015. The Brain. The story of you. Edinburgh: Cannongate. 220 pp.

This book about the brain and what we know about how it works was written by the brain of David Eagleman. How far is it possible to get with a method like this? Neither Eagleman, nor anybody else in neuroscience or AI seems to address this question. Would we expect a dog to be able to be able to understand how the dog works? A blue whale? A bee? An orangutan? What makes us think we can pull it off?

Hopefully by writing this out my brain will remember a bit about what it learned about how brains (including itself) remember stuff, including stuff about other brains. Or at least what it thinks it learned.

Nevertheless, even though there isn’t anything original in this book, David Eagleman never pretends otherwise and it is most interesting and well put-together, more so than the documentary series written in parallel with the book. (Mind you, that is just my brain saying so. Would it know?)

The early chapters focus on learning about the brain through pathologies:

  • Social interaction is vital to brain development: hellish social oppressions prove this, as does the incredible fact that synapses are formed in infants at the astronomical rate of two million per second (where this assertion comes from is unsaid). The number of synapses peaks at about age two and are reduced to the “useful” ones as we age.
  • A small tumour in the wrong spot can turn a normal person to murder (perhaps smaller, as yet undetected physical defects are responsible for other social pathologies, turning normal people into politicians, for example? Or taxonomists?).
  • Memories are fallible: the brain will construct false memories to provide a convincing back-plot to a fictional story that someone has been convinced really happened (and, this even works on a researcher studying the very same phenomenon).
  • Brain excercise protects somewhat against degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease (this one widely reported in recent years).
  • Experiments and repairs correcting blindness and other sensory deprivations by supplying alternative stimulation shows that the brain is highly plastic and can quickly learn about the environment regardless of the input. This answers René Descartes’ thought experiment “How do I know I am not a brain in a vat?”. You were, René. We all are. The vat is shaped like a body.
  • By extension, there is huge potential for extending senses as long as an input route to the brain can be established, and as long as the brain gets a chance to learn.

Other stuff well and truly taken on board include that:

  • “Reality” is a shaky concept. Likewise our perception of time.
  • Decisions often result from resolution of opposing “voices” within the mind. (Marvin Minsky made a convincing case for this many years ago, but I didn’t notice him getting the citations he deserves.)

The final chapter on consciousness (an emergent property of large scale processing?), AI, attempts at digital and corporeal immortality, the simulation argument, is all well-trodden ground. But David Eagleman writes about it very well. I think I want to read some of his original literature.

In the same theme but not yet read:

Crick, F., and Koch, C. 2003. A framework for consciousness. Nature Neuroscience 6, 119–126.

Koch, C. 2004. The Quest for Consciousness. Roberts & Company: Englewood, CO.

Pieraccini, R. 2012. The Voice in the Machine. MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Tononi, G. 2012. Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul. Pantheon Books.