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Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain - David Eagleman Incognito started out strong as a generalist's introduction to recent advances in the study of cognition. The author's enthusiasm for his subject was contagious, and he wrote with a great balance between explaining the subject and illustrating points with interesting case studies. Near the end of the book the author's thesis veered from general interest in cognition, to a passionate case for altering the criminal justice system. The end of the book really went wild, becoming more and more off tone and off topic from earlier chapters.

Eagleman explored the justice system by making an interesting case for punishment based on reformability instead of culpability. He began with extreme examples of brain damaged criminals physically incapable of controlling their violent behavior, and stated that it was cruel to punish such criminals, as they were not able to change their own behavior in response to the punishment. So far, so good.

Then my skin began to crawl as Eagleman extended the definition of brain damage to include criminals who had genetic tendencies toward depression, had suffered lead poisoning as children, or were raised in abusive households. The goosebumps did not come from the idea of a society in which crime goes unpunished- Eagleman was careful to state he intended to contain and/or behaviorally recondition all offenders to protect the general populace. I was creeped out by the broad definition of brain damage (nearly any history of physical or emotional trauma of significance qualifies you as brain damaged by Eagleman's definition). And if a criminal is identified as brain damaged, the idea of their correctional reconditioning was also creepy and ill-defined. The lobotomy as correctional reconditioning, Eagleman concluded, was no longer a socially acceptable form of reconditioning. That leaves correctional therapists with drugs and other shadowy brain reprogramming techniques to reshape criminal brains. Yikes.

Further, Eagleman hopefully anticipated a future when brain scans are used during sentencing to help determine the extent of a criminal's brain damage. Based on the scan, the criminal would be diverted to either punishment, correctional behavioral reconditioning, or indefinite containment. Eagleman claimed that taking the human element out of sentencing, and replacing it with science, would take the cruelty out of the justice system and make it more efficient. I think his hope for the future looks like a nightmare scenario rife with potential for abuse. The best biometric scans of the future will provide a stream of information that will be interpreted by human brain scientists, or by programs written by human brain scientists. That means the human element would still be alive and well, rife with prejudice, corruption, self-interest, and pressure from exigency (hmm, these results could go either way, but our reconditioning facility is overcrowded...). And the worst part would be, the justice system and our whole society would be pretending that we were perfectly impartial, purely scientific. Giving human foibles the face of absolute, impartial legitimacy is a dangerous, frightening, and downright threatening vision of a future criminal justice system.

And to end this book with a truly crazy bang, Eagleman knocked Occam's Razor, and made some pretty broad claims about science in general that I don't have the scientific background to agree with or dispute. But the remarks seemed quite off topic and out of keeping with the rest of the the book.