Incognito – Eagleman


Incognito is what you get when Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman, and Free Will by Sam Harris, have book sex.

Incognito by David Eagleman is a much more comprehensive and arguably better version of Sam Harris' Free Will. They were published around the same time but this one seems to have slipped under the radar.

If you don't understand the free will conundrum, then this is the perfect book to start. It also goes deeper into the tangible effects this could have on our punishment system.

Really great read 👌


  • Talking about the blind spots in our eyes do to the hole where our nerves leave the eye socket; I don’t think that the brain “invents” what is actually there, rather it does not experience it. Similarly to how we do not experience past our peripheral vision, we do not experience the missing circle. If it were black, that would be an experience. No experience is no experience at all.
  • It’s more like a black hole of experience. The sense of space that we feel in our vision just gets closed up around that hole.
  • We create mental model of the external world and spot check incoming information against it. Patients with Anon’s Syndrome confirm this as they don’t think they are blind because the internal model is constantly being created, it just isn’t based in spot checked information from the world.
  • I imagine that chicken sexting could be replicated as efficiently by a deep neural network as by “professionals” trained by “trial and error”. I guess this just lends more of an argument that deep neural networks are intelligent in the same way that we are intelligent.
  • He talks about things getting burnt into consciousness and hence we become less conscious of them happening (habit). I wonder weather they are being operated by different “zombie routines” or whether the same neural pathways are being activated but self-consciousness is less integrated with them through attention? Could attention influence which pathways that self-consciousness integrates with? Could it be that as we integrate information into higher-level concepts that they become more efficient and hence we "experience" them "less".
  • He talks about the ceo self a lot. I need to revisit the latest on this versus modules of the mind competing for conscious control.
  • Through brain damaged patients we get a glimpse at brains where certain modules are no longer active and hence can infer the effects of the other still active modules.
  • Incognito is what you get when Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahlman, and Free Will by Sam Harris, have book sex.
  • "Does a computer program have free will?" If the program is self-influencing, that is to say it's own internal processing modifies it's future state, then at a certain point we would consider it free. Take this example. If I a programmer create a program that can learn (integrate information so as to influence it's future behaviour) and then after operating for some time it kills someone. Who is responsible? I believe the computer program operated out of free will, so is "guilty", and I (the creator) am responsible for creating a "free" system capable of killing. The degree to which I am responsible for the murder seems to be the duration and conditions of which the program was created. The cool thing here is that if you believe that I AM guilty, then the parents of all murderers are guilty for creating a "free" system that killed. If I am NOT guilty, then what stops me from creating a "self learning" killing machine and setting it loose on the streets?
  • My current definition of freewill seems to be: a self-influencing system. The degree to which the system's processing influences it's future state is the degree to which it is "free". Ping-pong balls falling are not free, as "they" have no control over their direction. Self-flying drones are freer, in that they determine more of their future state. Humans being the freest systems known in that our processing has a huge impact on our outputs.
  • In the world of determinism, criminality still exists. When people break the law they break the law. However, how they are treated after is what changes.
  • In the case of prefrontal workouts, this is strengthening the internal fluence of the system upon itself. This is increasing our freeness.
  • The following consequence of this is that freer brains (more self influencing) (arguably more intelligent) are more wrong in committing crimes. Hence a man murdered in deeply meditated, rational murder is worse than in a flurry of passions. This actually already seems to be the case.
  • The more modifiable behaviour is, is a correlation of how internally-influencing it is.
  • Our genes(nature) predispose us to certain conditions which our environment (nurture) then realises or doesn’t.
  • Emergence is describing properties of a complex system.
  • He argues that reductionism is dangerous in that it evaluates a system of high-level concepts in terms of low-level concepts; it tries to explain (find meaning) with less meaningful concepts, which is impossible as to do so would require you to recreate more complex concepts again.
  • You cant understand what it's like to have some senses that you don't have (the smell of a bloodhound) because these are experiences that our outside your umwelt.


"In one study on efficiency, researchers used brain imaging while people learned how to play the video game Tetris. The subjects’ brains were highly active, burning energy at a massive scale while the neural networks searched for the underlying structures and strategies of the game. By the time the subjects became experts at the game, after a week or so, their brains consumed very little energy while playing. It’s not that the player became better despite the brain being quieter; the player became better because the brain was quieter. In these players, the skills of Tetris has been burned down into the circuitry of the system, such that there were now specialized and efficient programs to deal with it."

  • Conceptualisation? When high level concepts have been created they increase efficiency

"Your brain is remarkably good at maintaining the glue of the union, even in the face of thoroughly inconsistent data."

  • Our brains are great at finding meaning in the meaningless.

"From an evolutionary point of view, the purpose of consciousness seems to be this: an animal composed of a giant collection of zombie systems would be energy efficient but cognitively inflexible. It would have economical programs for doing particular, simple tasks, but it wouldn’t have rapid ways of switching between programs or setting goals to become expert in novel and unexpected tasks. In the animal kingdom, most animals do certain things very well (say, prying seeds from the inside of a pine cone), while only a few species (such as humans) have the flexibility to dynamically develop new software."

  • Your definition of consciousness seems to be really self-consciousness only. We consciously experience our emotions, yet they are not "dynamically creating new software."

"The rivalry is there, but the bird has no capacity to arbitrate in the service of smooth cooperation. Similarly, if a female stickleback trespasses onto a male’s territory, the male will display attack behavior and courtship behavior simultaneously, which is no way to win over a lady. The poor male stickleback appears to be simply a bundled collection of zombie programs triggered by simple lock-and-key inputs (Trespass! Female!), and the subroutines have not found any method of arbitration between them. This seems to me to suggest that the herring gull and the stickleback are not particularly conscious."

  • By this measure I am not conscious either as sometimes I can't make up my mind which results in conflicting actions.

"Would it be correct to say that Alex was “fundamentally” a pedophile, merely socialized to resist his impulses? Perhaps, but before we assign labels, consider that you probably would not want to discover the alien subroutines that lurk under your own frontal cortex."

  • The fear of yourself.

"So when it comes to thinking about blameworthiness, the first difficulty to consider is that people do not choose their own developmental path."

  • This makes me grateful for my current circumstance but also scared of how easy it is to fall off the glass ridge-line.

"So in our current understanding of science, we can’t find the physical gap in which to slip free will—the uncaused causer—because there seems to be no part of the machinery that does not follow in a causal relationship from the other parts. Everything stated here is predicated on what we know at this moment in history, which will certainly look crude a millennium from now; however, at this point, no one can see a clear way around the problem of a nonphysical entity (free will) interacting with a physical entity (the stuff of the brain)."

  • The core confusion of free will. It is not a soul which operates outside the bounds of the brain. Free will is the systems ability to influence itself. Free will is integration; is consciousness.


  • "No one watered this seed for four hundred years, until the polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) proposed that the mind is a melding of accessible and inaccessible parts. As a young man, Leibniz composed three hundred Latin hexameters in one morning. He then went on to invent calculus, the binary number system, several new schools of philosophy, political theories, geological hypotheses, the basis of information technology, an equation for kinetic energy, and the first seeds of the idea for software and hardware separation.4 With all of these ideas pouring out of him, he began to suspect—like Maxwell and Blake and Goethe—that there were perhaps deeper, inaccessible caverns inside him."
  • "When the dot disappears, you do not perceive a hole of whiteness or blackness in its place; instead your brain invents a patch of the background pattern."
  • "Thomas Graham Brown showed that the program for moving the muscles for walking is built into the machinery of the spinal cord.38 He severed the sensory nerves from a cat’s legs and demonstrated that the cat could walk on a treadmill perfectly well. This indicated that the program for walking was internally generated in the spinal cord and that sensory feedback from the legs was used only to modulate the program—when, say, the cat stepped on a slippery surface and needed to stay upright. The deep secret of the brain is that not only the spinal cord but the entire central nervous system works this way: internally generated activity is modulated by sensory input."
  • "Those with Anton’s syndrome are not pretending they are not blind; they truly believe they are not blind. Their verbal reports, while inaccurate, are not lies. Instead, they are experiencing what they take to be vision, but it is all internally generated."
  • "“I cannot grasp all that I am” —Augustine"
  • "And this is how the professionals taught the student sexers. The master would stand over the apprentice and watch. The students would pick up a chick, examine its rear, and toss it into one bin or the other. The master would give feedback: yes or no. After weeks on end of this activity, the student’s brain was trained up to masterful—albeit unconscious—levels."
  • "Consider patients with anterograde amnesia, who cannot consciously recall new experiences in their lives. If you spend an afternoon trying to teach them the video game Tetris, they will tell you the next day that they have no recollection of the experience, that they have never seen this video game before, and, most likely, that they have no idea who you are, either. But if you look at their performance on the game the next day, you’ll find that they have improved exactly as much as nonamnesiacs.6 Implicitly their brains have learned the game—the knowledge is simply not accessible to their consciousness."
  • "As E. M. Forster quipped: “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?” But"
  • "The results can be troubling. The reaction times of subjects are faster when the pairings have a strong association unconsciously.8 For example, if overweight people are linked with a negative association in the subject’s unconscious, then the subject reacts faster to a photo of an overweight person when the response is linked to the same button as a negative word."
  • "But why? It’s not about the letters, exactly—instead it’s about the fact that those mates somehow remind their spouses of themselves. People tend to love reflections of themselves in others. Psychologists interpret this as an unconscious self-love, or perhaps a comfort level with things that are familiar —and they term this implicit egotism."
  • "The magnetic power of unconscious self-love goes beyond what and whom you prefer. Incredibly, it can subtly influence where you live and what you do, as well. Psychologist Brett Pelham and his colleagues plumbed public records and found that people with birthdays on February 2 (2/2) are disproportionately likely to move to cities with a reference to the number two in their names, such as Twin Lakes, Wisconsin. People born on 3/3 are statistically overrepresented in places like Three Forks, Montana, as are people born on 6/6 in places like Six Mile, South Carolina, and so on for all the birthdays and cities the authors could find. Consider how amazing that is: associations with the numbers in people’s arbitrary birth dates can be influential enough to sway their residential choices, however slightly. Again, it’s unconscious."
  • "The illusion-of-truth effect highlights the potential danger for people who are repeatedly exposed to the same religious edicts or political slogans."
  • "Nothing is inherently tasty or repulsive—it depends on your needs. Deliciousness is simply an index of usefulness."
  • "Blaise Pascal noted with awe that “man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”"
  • "So von Uexküll introduced a new concept: the part that you are able to see is known as the umwelt (the environment, or surrounding world), and the bigger reality (if there is such a thing) is known as the umgebung. Each organism has its own umwelt, which it presumably assumes to be the entire objective reality “out there.”"
  • "Prepackaged software can circumvent the explosion of possibilities that a blank-slate brain would immediately run up against. A system that begins with a blank slate would be unable to learn all the complex rules of the world with only the impoverished input that babies receive.15 It would have to try everything, and it would fail. We know this, if for no other reason, than from the long history of failure of artificial neural networks that start off knowledge-free and attempt to learn the rules of the world."
  • "“In general, we’re least aware of what our minds do best.” —Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind"
  • "Interestingly, strippers on birth control did not show any clear peak in performance, and earned only a monthly average of $37 per hour (versus an average of $53 per hour for strippers not on birth control). Presumably they earned less because the pill leads to hormonal changes (and cues) indicative of early pregnancy, and the dancers were thus less interesting to Casanovas in the gentlemen’s clubs."
  • "More importantly, it drives home the point that the beauty of the maiden (or man) is neurally preordained. We have no conscious access to the programs, and can tease them out only with careful studies."
  • "Related to the issue of parental bonding is that of staying faithful to one’s partner. Common sense would tell us that monogamy is a decision based on moral character, right? But this leads to the question of what constitutes “character” in the first place. Could this, too, be guided by mechanisms below the radar of consciousness? Consider the prairie vole. These little creatures dig through shallow underground runways and stay active all year. But unlike other voles and other mammals more generally, prairie voles remain monogamous. They form life-long pair bonds in which they nest together, huddle up, groom, and raise the pups as a team. Why do they show this behavior of committed affiliation while their close cousins are more wanton? The answer pivots on hormones. When a male vole repeatedly mates with a female, a hormone called vasopressin is released in his brain. The vasopressin binds to receptors in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, and the binding mediates a pleasurable feeling that becomes associated with that female. This locks in the monogamy, which is known as pair-bonding. If you block this hormone, the pair-bonding goes away. Amazingly, when researchers crank up the levels of vasopressin with genetic techniques, they can shift polygamous species to monogamous behavior.38 Does vasopressin matter for human relationships? In 2008, a research team at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden examined the gene for the vasopressin receptor in 552 men in long-term heterosexual relationships.39 The researchers found that a section of the gene called RS3 334 can come in variable numbers: a man might carry no copies of this section, one copy, or two copies. The more copies, the weaker the effect that vasopressin in the bloodstream would have in the brain. The results were surprising in their simplicity. The number of copies correlated with the men’s pair-bonding behavior. Men with more copies of RS3 334 scored worse on measures of pair-bonding—including measures of the strength of their relationships, perceived marital problems, and marital quality as perceived by their spouses. Those with two copies were more likely to be unmarried, and if they were married, they were more likely to have marital troubles. This is not to say that choices and environment don’t matter—they do. But it is to say that we come into the world with different dispositions. Some men may be genetically inclined to have and hold a single partner, while some may not. In the near future, young women who stay current with the scientific literature may demand genetic tests of their boyfriends to assess how likely they are to make faithful husbands."
  • "and divorce. It didn’t take them long to notice that when people fall in love, there’s a period of up to three years during which the zeal and infatuation ride at a peak. The internal signals in the body and brain are literally a love drug. And then it begins to decline. From this perspective, we are preprogrammed to lose interest in a sexual partner after the time required to raise a child has passed—which is, on average, about four years.40 The psychologist Helen Fisher suggests that we are programmed the same way as foxes, who pair-bond for a breeding season, stick around just long enough to raise the offspring, and then split. By researching divorce in nearly sixty countries, Fisher has found that divorce peaks at about four years into a marriage, consistent with her hypothesis.41 In her view, the internally generated love drug is simply an efficient mechanism to get men and women to stick together long enough to increase the survival likelihood of their young. Two parents are better than one for survival purposes, and the way to provide that safety is to coax them into staying together."
  • "The unexpected part of the news is that the conscious you is the smallest bit-player in the brain. It is something like a young monarch who inherits the throne and takes credit for the glory of the country—without ever being aware of the millions of workers who keep the place running."
  • "In the 1960s, one political thinker suggested that the button to launch a nuclear war should be implanted in the chest of the President’s closest friend. That way, should the President want to make the decision to annihilate millions of people on the other side of the globe, he would first have to physically harm his friend, ripping open his chest to get to the button."
  • "The ancient Greeks had an analogy for life that captured this wisdom: you are a charioteer, and your chariot is pulled by two thunderous horses, the white horse of reason and the black horse of passion. The white horse is always trying to tug you off one side of the road, and the black horse tries to pull you off the other side. Your job is to hold on to them tightly, keeping them in check so you can continue down the middle of the road."
  • "Similarly, Germans use a fanciful expression for a person trying to delay gratification: he must overcome his innerer schweinehund—which translates, sometimes to the puzzlement of English speakers, as “inner pigdog.”"
  • "Freely made decisions that bind you in the future are what philosophers call a Ulysses contract.25"
  • "For instance, under normal circumstances, your memories of daily events are consolidated (that is, “cemented in”) by an area of the brain called the hippocampus. But during frightening situations—such as a car accident or a robbery—another area, the amygdala, also lays down memories along an independent, secondary memory track.30 Amygdala memories have a different quality to them: they are difficult to erase and they can pop back up in “flashbulb” fashion—as commonly described by rape victims and war veterans."
  • "The chicken/shovel experiment led Gazzaniga and LeDoux to conclude that the left hemisphere acts as an “interpreter,” watching the actions and behaviors of the body and assigning a coherent narrative to these events. And the left hemisphere works this way even in normal, intact brains. Hidden programs drive actions, and the left hemisphere makes justifications."
  • "Gazzaniga put it, “These findings all suggest that the interpretive mechanism of the left hemisphere is always hard at work, seeking the meaning of events. It is constantly looking for order and reason, even when there is none—which leads it continually to make mistakes.”"
  • "To demonstrate patternicity, researchers in Canada showed subjects a light that flashed on and off randomly and asked them to choose which of two buttons to press, and when, in order to make the blinking more regular. The subjects tried out different patterns of button pressing, and eventually the light began to blink regularly. They had succeeded! Now the researchers asked them how they’d done it. The subjects overlaid a narrative interpretation about what they’d done, but the fact is that their button pressing was wholly unrelated to the behavior of the light: the blinking would have drifted toward regularity irrespective of what they were doing."
  • "A popular model in the neuroscience literature suggests that dream plots are stitched together from essentially random activity: discharges of neural populations in the midbrain."
  • "All of this is consistent with a finding we learned two chapters ago: when people play a new video game for the first time, their brains are alive with activity. They are burning energy like crazy. As they get better at the game, less and less brain activity is involved. They have become more energy efficient."
  • "Playing a simple video game becomes as unconscious a process as driving a car, producing speech, or performing the complex finger movements required for tying a shoelace. These become hidden subroutines, written in an undeciphered programming language of proteins and neurochemicals, and there they lurk—for decades sometimes—until they are next called upon."
  • "I propose that a useful index of consciousness is the capacity to successfully mediate conflicting zombie systems."
  • "“the act of not discussing or confiding the event with another may be more damaging than having experienced the event per se.”"
  • "If we hope to invent robots that think, our challenge is not simply to devise a subagent to cleverly solve each problem but instead to ceaselessly reinvent subagents, each with overlapping solutions, and then to pit them against one another. Overlapping factions offer protection against degradation (think of cognitive reserve) as well as clever problem solving by unexpected approaches."
  • "you are made up of an entire parliament of pieces and parts and subsystems. Beyond a collection of local expert systems, we are collections of overlapping, ceaselessly reinvented mechanisms, a group of competing factions. The conscious mind fabricates stories to explain the sometimes inexplicable dynamics of the subsystems inside the brain. It can be disquieting to consider the extent to which all of our actions are driven by hardwired systems, doing what they do best, while we overlay stories about our choices."
  • "team-of-rivals brain can naturally harbor both racist and nonracist feelings. Alcohol is not a truth serum. Instead, it tends to tip the battle toward the short-term, unreflective faction—which has no more or less claim than any other faction to be the “true” one."
  • "The lesson is clear: a slight change in the balance of brain chemistry can cause large changes in behavior. The behavior of the patient cannot be separated from his biology. If we like to believe that people make free choices about their behavior (as in, “I don’t gamble because I’m strong-willed”), cases like Alex the pedophile, the frontotemporal shoplifters, and the gambling Parkinson’s patients may encourage us to examine our views more carefully. Perhaps not everyone is equally “free” to make socially appropriate choices."
  • "When it comes to nature and nurture, the important point is that you choose neither one. We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint and born into a world of circumstances about which we have no choice in our most formative years. The complex interactions of genes and environment means that the citizens of our society possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision making. These are not free-will choices of the citizens; these are the hands of cards we’re dealt."
  • "Other thinkers trying to save free will have looked to chaos theory, pointing out that the brain is so vastly complex that there is no way, in practice, to determine its next moves. While this is certainly true, it doesn’t meaningfully address the free-will problem, because the systems studied in chaos theory are still deterministic: one step leads inevitably to the next. It is very difficult to predict where chaotic systems are going, but each state of the system is causally related to the previous state. It is important to stress the difference between a system being unpredictable and it being free."
  • "The question of free will matters quite a bit when we turn to culpability. When a criminal stands in front of the judge’s bench having recently committed a crime, the legal system wants to know whether he is blameworthy. After all, whether he is fundamentally responsible for his actions navigates the way we punish. You might punish your child if she writes with a crayon on the wall, but you wouldn’t punish her if she did the same thing while sleepwalking. But why not? She’s the same child with the same brain in both cases, isn’t she? The difference lies in your intuitions about free will: in one case she has it, in the other she doesn’t. In one she’s choosing to act mischievously, in the other she’s an unconscious automaton. You assign culpability in the first case and not in the second."
  • "The heart of the problem is that it no longer makes sense to ask, “To what extent was it his biology and to what extent was it him?” The question no longer makes sense because we now understand those to be the same thing. There is no meaningful distinction between his biology and his decision making. They are inseparable."
  • "So culpability appears to be the wrong question to ask. Here’s the right question: What do we do, moving forward, with an accused criminal?"
  • "The history of a brain in front of the judge’s bench can be very complex—all we ultimately want to know is how a person is likely to behave in the future."
  • "For the pedophile, we cannot hope to control whether he is attracted to children. As long as he never acts on it, that may be the best we can hope for as a society that respects individual rights and freedom of thought."
  • "We cannot restrict what people think; nor should a legal system hope to set that as its goal. Social policy can only hope to prevent impulsive thoughts from tipping into behavior until they are reflected upon by a healthy neurodemocracy."
  • "Although real-time feedback involves cutting-edge technology, that should not distract from the simplicity of the goal: to enhance a person’s capacity for long-term decision making. The goal is to give more control to the neural populations that care about long-term consequences. To inhibit impulsivity. To encourage reflection."
  • "Unlike a lobotomy, which sometimes leaves the patient with only an infantile mentality, this approach opens an opportunity for a willing person to help himself. Instead of a government mandating a psychosurgery, here a government can offer a helping hand to better self-reflection and socialization. This approach leaves the brain intact—no drugs or surgery—and leverages the natural mechanisms of brain plasticity to help the brain help itself. It’s a tune-up rather than a product recall."
  • "In other words, assumptions can be provably wrong and still have utility."
  • "As neuroscience improves, we will have a better ability to understand people along a spectrum, rather than in crude, binary categories. And this will allow us to tailor sentencing and rehabilitation for the individual rather than maintain the pretense that all brains respond to the same incentives and deserve the same punishments."
  • "The idea would be to punish only when the behavior is modifiable. She cannot modify her behavior in the case of sleepwalking, and therefore punishment would be cruel and fruitless."
  • "The biggest battle I have to fight is the misperception that an improved biological understanding of people’s behaviors and internal differences means we will forgive criminals and no longer take them off the streets. That’s incorrect. Biological explanation will not exculpate criminals. Brain science will improve the legal system, not impede its function."
  • "Consider, for example, that all known serial murderers were abused as children.39 Does this make them less blameworthy? Who cares? It’s the wrong question to ask. The knowledge that they were abused encourages us to prevent child abuse, but it does nothing to change the way we deal with the particular serial murderer standing in front of the bench."
  • "The concept and word to replace blameworthiness is modifiability, a forward-looking term that asks, What can we do from here? Is rehabilitation available? If so, great. If not, will the punishment of a prison sentence modify future behavior? If so, send him to prison. If punishment won’t help, then take the person under state control for the purposes of incapacitation, not retribution."
  • "All this adds up to something of a strange notion of a self. Because of inaccessible fluctuations in our biological soup, some days we find ourselves more irritable, humorous, well spoken, calm, energized, or clear-thinking. Our internal life and external actions are steered by biological cocktails to which we have neither immediate access nor direct acquaintance."
  • "Although it’s impossible to retrospectively diagnose with certainty, her typical reports, increasing religiosity, and ongoing voices are certainly consistent with temporal lobe epilepsy. When brain activity is kindled in the right spot, people hear voices. If a physician prescribes an anti-epileptic medication, the seizures go away and the voices disappear. Our reality depends on what our biology is up to."
  • "the rabies virus. After a bite from one mammal to another, this tiny bullet-shaped virus climbs its way up the nerves and into the temporal lobe of the brain. There it ingratiates itself into the local neurons, and by changing the local patterns of activity it induces the infected host to aggression, rage, and a propensity to bite. The virus also moves into the salivary glands, and in this way it is passed on through the bite to the next host."
  • "The fact that we didn’t learn what we thought we might is not a criticism of the Human Genome Project; it had to be done as a first step. But it is to acknowledge that successive levels of reduction are doomed to tell us very little about the questions important to humans."
  • "What does your passport have to do with schizophrenia? It turns out that the social stress of being an immigrant to a new country is one of the critical factors in developing schizophrenia."
  • "But even these generalizations don’t tell the whole story, because within a single immigrant group (say, Koreans in America), those who feel worse about their ethnic differences from the majority are more likely to become psychotic. Those who are proud and comfortable with their heritage are mentally safer."
  • "The monkeys with the short form ended up as the aggressive type when they were raised with their peers, but did much better when they were raised with their mothers. For those with the long form of the gene, the rearing environment did not seem to matter much; they were well adjusted in either case. There are at least two ways to interpret these results. The first is that the long allele is a “good gene” that confers resilience against a bad childhood environment (lower left corner of the table below). The second is that a good mothering relationship somehow gives resiliency for those monkeys who would otherwise turn out to be bad seeds (upper right corner). These two interpretations are not exclusive, and they both boil down to the same important lesson: a combination of genetics and environment matters for the final outcome."
  • "Reductionism is misleading for two reasons. First, as we have just seen, the unfathomable complexity of gene–environment interactions puts us a long way from understanding how any individual—with her lifetime of experiences, conversations, abuses, joys, ingested foods, recreational drugs, prescribed medications, pesticides, educational experience, and so on—will develop. It’s simply too complex and will presumably remain so. Second, even while it’s true that we are tied to our molecules and proteins and neurons—as strokes and hormones and drugs and microorganisms indisputably tell us—it does not logically follow that humans are best described only as pieces and parts. The extreme reductionist idea that we are no more than the cells of which we are composed is a nonstarter for anyone trying to understand human behavior. Just because a system is made of pieces and parts, and just because those pieces and parts are critical to the working of the system, that does not mean that the pieces and parts are the correct level of description."
  • "A meaningful theory of human biology cannot be reduced to chemistry and physics, but instead must be understood in its own vocabulary of evolution, competition, reward, desire, reputation, avarice, friendship, trust, hunger, and so on—in the same way that traffic flow will be understood not in the vocabulary of screws and spark plugs, but instead in terms of speed limits, rush hours, road rage, and people wanting to get home to their families as soon as possible when their workday is over."
  • "As an example, I’ll mention what I’ll call the “radio theory” of brains. Imagine that you are a Kalahari Bushman and that you stumble upon a transistor radio in the sand. You might pick it up, twiddle the knobs, and suddenly, to your surprise, hear voices streaming out of this strange little box. If you’re curious and scientifically minded, you might try to understand what is going on. You might pry off the back cover to discover a little nest of wires. Now let’s say you begin a careful, scientific study of what causes the voices. You notice that each time you pull out the green wire, the voices stop. When you put the wire back on its contact, the voices begin again. The same goes for the red wire. Yanking out the black wire causes the voices to get garbled, and removing the yellow wire reduces the volume to a whisper. You step carefully through all the combinations, and you come to a clear conclusion: the voices depend entirely on the integrity of the circuitry. Change the circuitry and you damage the voices. Proud of your new discoveries, you devote your life to developing a science of the way in which certain configurations of wires create the existence of magical voices. At some point, a young person asks you how some simple loops of electrical signals can engender music and conversations, and you admit that you don’t know—but you insist that your science is about to crack that problem at any moment. Your conclusions are limited by the fact that you know absolutely nothing about radio waves and, more generally, electromagnetic radiation. The fact that there are structures in distant cities called radio towers—which send signals by perturbing invisible waves that travel at the speed of light—is so foreign to you that you could not even dream it up. You can’t taste radio waves, you can’t see them, you can’t smell them, and you don’t yet have any pressing reason to be creative enough to fantasize about them. And if you did dream of invisible radio waves that carry voices, who could you convince of your hypothesis? You have no technology to demonstrate the existence of the waves, and everyone justifiably points out that the onus is on you to convince them. So you would become a radio materialist. You would conclude that somehow the right configuration of wires engenders classical music and intelligent conversation. You would not realize that you’re missing an enormous piece of the puzzle. I’m not asserting that the brain is like a radio—that is, that we’re receptacles picking up signals from elsewhere, and that our neural circuitry needs to be in place to do so—but I am pointing out that it could be true. There is nothing in our current science that rules this out. Knowing as little as we do at this point in history, we must retain concepts like this in the large filing cabinet of ideas that we cannot yet rule in favor of or against. So even though few working scientists will design experiments around eccentric hypotheses, ideas always need to be proposed and nurtured as possibilities until evidence weighs in one way or another."
  • "The complexity of the system we are is so vast as to be indistinguishable from Clarke’s magical technology. As the quip goes: If our brains were simple enough to be understood, we wouldn’t be smart enough to understand them."


Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on

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