Thursday, May 29, 2014

You are a city

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, neuroscience, surveys

When we say, "I am of two minds about it," we are speaking more truly than we imagine. It might be more accurate to say we are of two dozen minds about any subject, and perhaps more. In Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, David Eagleman likens our mental life to a Parliament. Like many a parliament, including republican sorts of governments, the activity behind the scenes, that we so casually designate "the unconscious", is a jostling for position and advantage among competing views in which, typically, the loudest "voice" wins. We are like Lincoln's cabinet, a team of rivals.

We all have the experience. We are uncertain, often to the point of insecurity, about just what we want. We crave that second piece of chocolate cake even as we dread the number the scale will show; we hunger to get closer to "that special someone" even as we furtively plan ways to keep from getting caught by a spouse or "partner"; we may subscribe to this and that and the other magazine or cable movie plan, and then suffer buyer's remorse when the bills come. We make deals with ourselves, but who is making a deal with whom?

Are we truly conscious actors? The author tells us that, whatever we may call "myself", we do not so much control our actions and thoughts as receive a headline summary of the more important thoughts and of actions already decided upon. An unsettling experiment by Benjamin Libet, 50 years ago, reveals this principle. People were connected to a kind of EEG machine and asked to do the following: from time to time, to lift a finger. While doing so, they were to watch a high-resolution timer (like a stop watch) and report when they had actually decided to lift the finger. They all reported that their decision came about a quarter second before the finger actually moved. The EEG machine, however, noted that a distinct shift in electrical activity in the brain happened a full second earlier. "Something in there" made the decision, which "the conscious mind" became aware of about a second later, and the finger lifted only after that, by another quarter second. Who or what made the decision? If we say we exercise our free will, where is it located? Eagleman states that "Who?" is the wrong question, and that "free will" is not the answer anyway.

We all feel that there is an "I" which makes decisions, conducts our thought life, and controls our behavior. So far, no experiment has been able to tease out this "I" from a large collection of competing constituencies. We all know, at least a little, that unconscious brain mechanisms take care of breathing, heart rate, digestion, peristalsis in our bowels, endocrine hormone "squirts", and even the details of walking, reaching and nearly all bodily actions. While it is possible to consciously regulate our breathing, whether as part of a Yoga exercise or for laMaze birthing, to control every breath even for a full minute will wear us out. The "hardware breath control" does a fine job and is best left alone most of the time. Imagine that you could not properly assimilate your food unless you deliberately turned on and off acid production, bile secretion, churning of the stomach and later the intestines, and literally thousands of other events that need to be properly times and coordinated. What a great method of weight loss! By the time you figured it out, you'd be worn to a frazzle and in danger of starving to death, while your anus excreted chewed but otherwise barely modified stuff you'd eaten. Heck, we rarely even take care of the chewing; if it didn't run mostly on autopilot, we'd be bolting our food like wolves.

I was once asked by a very young friend why I didn't have an iPad or spend much time listening to music. I said, "I listen to music to learn it. The rest of the time, I have a sound track going in my head all the time." With a moment's reflection, it is easy to realize that, while I may not multitask so well in a conscious way, a lot is going on, even of things that impinge on my awareness. As I write, a scanner is making copies of old 35mm slides, and the various sounds it makes clue me in to when I need to do something like swap out a set; I have a favorite song running in the background of my head, "Sounds of Silence"; seemingly stray thoughts come and go as I write, such as the next time I'll volunteer at a certain museum or what we might make for lunch in a little while. According to Eagleman, much of this is "headlines", highlights of what is going on inside, the reports by various internal agents of their activities.

Years ago typing took lots of thought. Not any more; I type upwards of 50wpm. I think about what I want to say and the words appear on the screen. The fingers "know" what to do. Before that I learned a succession of instruments: ukulele, banjo and guitar. I went through a transition, and I help my music students make the same transition, from playing the instrument to playing the music. Not everyone types or plays music, but very nearly all of us walk, climb stairs, and perhaps run or jog, without thinking of the hundreds of muscles that coordinate together to do it. This illustrates the interaction of conscious and unconscious in the other direction. Learning takes effort, but the goal is for the learned skill to become effortless. We use a lot of brain power to learn a skill, but once it is, so to speak, "burned into a circuit", MRI scans show that the skill is performed without making much of a dent in our mental activity.

My uncle was a doctor named Stucky, and his father was also a doctor. The older Dr. Stucky had the skill of augenblick, or eye-blink diagnosis. From the time a patient entered the room until asking a first question, the doctor observed, and usually knew the diagnosis before the question was asked. This was the fruit of many hours of learning and observation, plus a certain talent for close "observation of trifles", as Sherlock Holmes might term it.

So what is really going on inside us? Are we some kind of quantum computer? It is certain that we don't work like our desktop computers, nor even like the supercomputer Watson. They follow a chain or web of evidence to produce a single "answer". In the real world there is no one "right answer" in most cases. When Martha Washington asked, "Does this skirt make me look fat?", I suspect the man who'd said, when he was a boy, "I cannot tell a lie", told a lie. Or, perhaps he was diplomatically silent; or maybe he had the skill to deflect the question. Martha was, after all, somewhat fat, skirt or no skirt. A lot would depend on his knowledge of Martha's temperament…that is, if he had been paying attention all those years.

We are composed of conflicting parts, and the results of their wrestling matches bubble up to us as "our" thoughts and "our"decisions. Who is the "I"? Maybe we really are just meat machines. Or maybe there really is a Soul in the Catholic sense, but to say that simply kicks the can down the road: Where is the volition in the Soul to be found? Is there something in our cortex that can be the "I"? Reptiles have no cortex, yet their behavior is more complex than we can figure out. At the end, the author quotes an old jest, "If our brains were simple enough to be understood, we wouldn't be smart enough to understand them."

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