Trying to understand how it is that our experience of our self derives from the brain is an involved, intricate subject, because, after all, that’s where we live. The brain is what makes us and our experience, and trying to tease out how our experience of our selves and of the world emerges from this organ is a very tricky business.
Michael Gazzaniga is a brain guy, and in his book, “The Mind’s Past,” he confronts this issue. He comes up with an answer that’s satisfying to him but not to me. I can use the following passages as a point of departure for talking about his and most people’s difficulties with this subject and where I think they arise.
Our mind has an absurdly hard time when it tries to control our automatic brain. Remember the night you woke up at 3 A.M., full of worry about this and that? Such concerns always look black in the middle of the night. Remember how you tried to put them aside and get back to sleep? Remember how bad you were at it? (p. 22)
Nowhere is the issue of ourselves and our brain more apparent than when we see how ineffectual the mind is at trying to control the brain. In those terms, the conscious self is like a harried playground monitor, a hapless entity charged with the responsibility of keeping track of multitudinous brain impulses running in all directions at once. And yet the mind is the brain, too. What’s going on?(p. 23)
After spending the book talking about what we know about how the brain works and how we know it, his answer in the end was to rejoice that we have the illusion of being in control.
In the example he gives of waking up in the middle of the night, he describes it as if there are two entities involved—our mind is trying to control our brain. Let me reframe the situation:
Many people have pointed out that what we’re thinking about at one time or another is the result of a sort of competition between different neural networks in the brain. (Several years after he wrote this book, Gazzaniga took this position himself.) The example I’ve used before is the case where you stand on the scale in the morning and look at your weight and you think, “I’ve got to lose some weight,” or whatever your issue is. Everyone has, at one time or another, some sort of issue: I’ve gotta stop biting my nails, gotta quit smoking.
At the time we’re standing on the scale, it seems like it’s a very important thing, and it’s something we really need to work on, but at the time we’re sitting down to eat, there’s something else that takes over. The reality of the brain is that there is a neural network that is active when we’re standing on the scale that is brought to the fore by the fact that we are standing on the scale, and because we’re standing on the scale, the appropriate thing to think, the most important thing to think, the outcome of the competition between all the possible things we could be thinking, is the thought that we need to lose weight.
When we’re sitting down to dinner, we’re in a different environment. We’re being stimulated by different things, and there is, again, a competition between various networks in the brain about what’s most important at the moment. Depending on our history with food, the network that comes to the fore at that point usually has more to do with what tastes good to us, and the wonderful feeling we get when we are satiated, and that network has a tendency to dominate our thinking at the moment.
So the point is that as we go through the day, and as our brain reacts to different circumstances, different neural networks come into play and become the dominant network in that particular environment, with the result that our behavior in one environment is at odds with our behavior in another. We have difficulty when we’re in one mode—when we’re standing on the scale—understanding why it is that this other mode dominates when we sit down to eat.
When we leave the area of the bathroom scale, we’re in a different environment, and different thoughts come to mind. When we’re getting dressed we’re thinking about what we have to do for the day—our list of to-do items—or what we’re going to do at work, or whatever.
The problem that Gazzaniga and everyone else has with this issue is that we have a feeling of unity, that we are the same person in all those circumstances, and we don’t recognize that, in a sense, there’s a different person operating in each change of circumstances that brings forth its own set of memories, its own set of associations, so that who we are varies through the day, since all of those things can’t be active at once.
The brain’s way of coping with reality is to ask, figuratively, “What environment am I in at the moment? What is relevant to this environment? What is important for me to focus on?” Most of this juggling of what’s important goes on behind the scenes.
So to have a concept of our self that is in keeping with the reality of the brain, what we have to realize is that we are not one person. We are a variety people. We are a whole set of personalities that arise as we go through the day, and what Gazzaniga points out is that we have to somehow reconcile all those different personalities. There is the social necessity of unifying all the various aspects of ourselves, and presenting ourselves in a way that makes us predictable to a certain extent in social situations.
For society to work smoothly, there must be some consistency, and that necessity for consistency has a tendency to overshadow all the variety within our selves, so that people say things like, “I’m so angry with myself.” What they’re really saying is that the configuration of neural networks that’s active at the moment is angry with the behavior of a set of neural networks that was active at a previous time, and that did something that is now causing regrettable consequences for the set of neural networks that is in the foreground at the moment.
To give an example of how seeing this diversity, this multiplicity of selves, can be helpful, take the weight issue. The network that is active when you’re on the scales needs to find a way to reinforce itself so that in the circumstances where it’s really important to be in the forefront, it will be. A possible scenario—this wouldn’t work for everyone—but when you’re away from the table, when you’re not about to eat something, subscribe to a health newsletter. I subscribe to several: the Berkeley Wellness Letter, Consumer Reports on Health, Harvard Women’s Health Watch. They come in the mail, I leave them lying around, and they all say the same things: smoking is bad for you; being overweight is not healthy; you need to eat fruits and vegetables. So the set of neural networks that’s active on the scale takes advantage of the absence of the glutton to subscribe to various things, and to put props in the environment that reinforce the idea of doing whatever it is: getting to the gym, or whatever. You subscribe to a health magazine that has pictures of these happy people on the front that are physically fit, and you leave them lying around, and you read the articles, even, and you tell yourself, this is what I want to be. You stand in front of the mirror naked—this is what I do—I look at my body and I say, “Is this the way I want my body to look?”
So I reinforce that set of neural networks that thinks it’s important to lose weight, and ideally, then, what happens is that when one sits down to eat there’s a little nagging network on the edge of consciousness, and sometimes it gets brought to the fore—and it can get brought to the fore more and more frequently—that says, “I should have a salad, maybe, with low fat dressing;” that makes healthier choices. Or choose the dish with all the vegetables in it. Have some fruit with your whole grain cereal in the morning.
In that way you can put to use the knowledge you have that different neural networks are operating at different times of day, in different environments.
So to get back to Michael Gazzaniga’s example of 3 A.M. in the morning, struggling with these thoughts, trying to get back to sleep. It’s not that the mind is struggling with the automatic brain, as he puts it, to quiet the thoughts that are keeping one awake. It’s that there’s a neural net that is concerned with sleep and rest that is struggling with another neural net that thinks that these things that one is thinking about are more important than sleeping. So what we experience in consciousness is, at one moment, the neural network that is in favor of sleep comes to the fore and says, “I’ve got to stop thinking about this stuff,” and the next moment, the neural network that involves the disturbing thoughts is coming to the fore—it’s winning the competition at that moment of what is important in the brain.
This competition is going on among all the things that the brain is aware of at any one time, prompted by the environment: The bills that have to be paid with not enough money, or the relationship that’s gone sour—whatever it is that one’s thinking about—and the part of the brain that deals with those issues is in ascendency. It’s getting reinforcement from other parts of the brain. It’s like a committee meeting in that there are different factions in the brain that say, “Oh, this is the thing that we have to deal with,” and another faction says, “Oh no, this is the thing we have to deal with.” We don’t really see all the behind the scenes negotiations; what we see is what emerges in the foreground, and it ends up being this alternation between the need for sleep and the need to deal with these issues.
If our brain is deluded, thinking that we have a single self, then it doesn’t have the information about its own workings that could make it more effective in managing the organism.
Consider yourself informed, at least partially. There’s much to be learned.