Every spring the Festival of Ideas in Bristol brings some of the finest thinkers and writers to our fair city. Last week it was Sam Harris. The week before it was another neuroscientist, David Eagleman who came to talk about his new book, “Incognito.” David works in Austin, Texas and is one of the most talented and yet, humble young writers around. His first book, “Sum” was an international best-seller that attracted praise from all corners, including Stephen Fry and über creative maestro, Brian Eno, who set the ideas of Sum to music that played in concerts in Sydney – you don’t get much cooler than that.
Incognito is brilliant. It’s basically about how we are our brains and that the majority of the mechanisms of the mind are unconscious. So nothing too new really but delivered with wonderful examples from the implicit learning of Chinese chicken sexers to Charles Whitman and the tumor in his brain that may have contributed to him shooting dead 14 innocent bystanders from the University of Texas’s tower building at Austin. What I did find incredibly interesting and novel is David’s discussion of culpability and why we are asking the wrong questions when we are dealing with the brain basis of criminality.
David is a master of the delivery and I will be pinching many of his examples. Actually, I did not know that he was publishing Incognito when I heard him speak about Charles Whitman at the SciFoo meeting last July. I had already written about this same case in my new book but I guess that’s the way good stories travel. At least I am not mentioning Phineas Gage – especially after I had read a paper by Malcolm Macmillan claiming that the reports of his change of character following the tamping iron incident were greatly exaggerated.
Anyway, I read “Incognito” in one sitting and can thoroughly recommend it. I snapped this picture of David before his talk, when a complete stranger came up and put her arm around him for the photograph. They are very friendly out here in Bristol – almost like Texans!