David Eagleman Explores the Secrets of the Brain in His New Book Incognito

“Eagleman has a talent for testing the untestable, for taking seemingly sophomoric notions and using them to nail down the slippery stuff of consciousness.” —THE NEW YORKER

“A grand new account of the relationship between consciousness and the brain. Incognito is full of dazzling ideas, as it is chockablock with facts and instances.” —THE NEW YORK OBSERVER

Why are people attracted to young mates and not to the elderly? Do blondes really have more fun? Why does a briefly glimpsed person appear more attractive than a person at whom we’ve taken a good look? At this point, you won’t be surprised to find that our sense of beauty is burned deeply (and inaccessibly) into the brain—all with the purpose of accomplishing something biologically useful.

In a study in my laboratory, participants viewed brief flashes of photographs of men and women and rated their attractiveness. In a later round they were asked to rate the same photos they had seen before, but this time with as much time as they wanted to examine the photos. The result? Briefly glimpsed people are more beautiful. In other words, if you catch a glimpse of someone rounding a corner or driving past quickly, your perceptual system will tell you they are more beautiful than you would otherwise judge them to be. Men show this misjudgment effect more strongly than women, presumably because men are more visual in assessing attraction. This “glimpse effect” accords with everyday experience, in which a man catches a brief glimpse of a woman and believes he has just missed a rare beauty; then, when he rushes around the corner, he discovers that he was mistaken. The effect is clear, but the reason behind it is not. Why should the visual system, given just a bit of fleeting information, always err on the side of believing that the woman is more beautiful? In the absence of clear data, why wouldn’t your perceptual system simply strike for the middle and judge the woman to be average, or even below average?

The answer pivots on the demands of reproduction. If you believe a briefly glimpsed unattractive person is beautiful, it requires only a double take to correct the mistake—not much of a cost. On the other hand, if you mistake an attractive mate for an unattractive one, you can say sayonara to a potentially rosy genetic future. So it behooves a perceptual system to serve up the fish tale that a briefly glimpsed person is attractive. As with the other examples, all your conscious brain knows is that you just passed an incredible beauty driving the other way in traffic; you have no access to the neural machinery nor to the evolutionary pressures that manufactured the belief for you.

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Renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman was just on NPR’s Fresh Air discussing his new book Incognito. In this sparkling and provocative new book, Eagleman navigates the depths of the subconscious brain to illuminate surprising mysteries: Why can your foot move halfway to the brake pedal before you become consciously aware of danger ahead? Why do you hear your name being mentioned in a conversation that you didn’t think you were listening to? What do Ulysses and the credit crunch have in common? Why did Thomas Edison electrocute an elephant in 1916? Why are people whose names begin with J more likely to marry other people whose names begin with J? Why is it so difficult to keep a secret? And how is it possible to get angry at yourself—who, exactly, is mad at whom?

Taking in brain damage, plane spotting, dating, drugs, beauty, infidelity, synesthesia, criminal law, artificial intelligence, and visual illusions, Incognito is a thrilling subsurface exploration of the mind and all its contradictions.

A WALL STREET JOURNAL Summer Reads selection and a SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Book Club selection

Take a look at The New Yorker profile on Eagleman, and be sure to check out his tour stops this season.

NOTE: Incognito is also available as an enhanced ebook.

About the author:
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action as well as the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. His scientific research has been published in journals from Science to Nature, and his neuroscience books include Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia (with Richard Cytowic) and the forthcoming Live-Wired. He is also the author of the internationally best-selling book of fiction Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. Follow @davideagleman on Twitter.