January 18, 2012


“In each of us there is another whom we do not know.”  (“The Mystery of Expertise” by David Eagleman, “This Week,” 12/2012) Carol Jung’s quote is the way David Eagleman summarizes the theme of his new book “Incognito,” a non-fiction piece that explores the large chasm between the conscious and unconscious mind.

(courtesy: “Wikipedia”)

As I read his narrative, I’m like the neurotic narrator in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground.” I deplore the consequences of modern research and wish the human psyche could remain a mystery. How dreadful to see the workings of our brains laid out like parts of a disassembled computer. And yet, I find myself fascinated by the recent discoveries. Perhaps one day we may learn how to rewire our intellect to think like Mozart, Shakespeare or Madame Curie.  And in a way, there’s some evidence that we can:

          “While many animals are properly called intelligent, humans distinguish themselves in that they are so flexibly intelligent, fashioning their neural circuits to match the task at hand.” (Incognito,” David Eagleman,“The Week”)

Even so, as Eagleman examines the chasm between conscious and unconscious existence, one wonders which part is the driver and which the passenger?  His comments suggest the driver is the latter:

          “To the extent that consciousness is useful, it is useful in small quantities, and for very particular kinds of tasks.” (Eagleman pg. 48)

If he is correct, we are aware on sufferance, allowed to perform functions which are less important than digestion or keeping the heart and the neural circuits functioning. True, given the mind’s flexibility a few have learned to penetrate some of the workings of our inner sanctums. Yogis have tapped into the unconscious state to control blood pressure and breathing rates. But for most of us even these borderline functions are beyond our range. 

It’s eerie to think that much of our existence lives in a somnambulistic state — though I am grateful I needn’t remind myself to breathe in and breathe out every few seconds. Still as we discover the degree of schism in our brains, it does put a new color on the phrase, “while you were sleeping…”