In Episode Two, we heard a tape that I made 22 years ago--a prior version of myself--talking about the problems I was having with my insights into evolution, and how those reflected upon my own behavior. After the tape, I talked about how a few months later I had stopped smoking dope and suffered what a friend said was a nervous breakdown, although it wasn’t officially, authoritatively, confirmed that that’s what happened, but let’s say I had a major disruption in the organization of my reality. I have spent the 22 years since then trying to reconstruct a newer, more competent version of myself; a more efficient, a more reality-based version of myself, with greater or less success. In fact there’ve been several stages in this development.
My progress along the way was guided at first by Alcoholics Anonymous, and later I got into reading... The first major reading I did was in Advaita Vedanta. I suppose that’s the official designation; it was.. actually I was reading a book by Jean Klein, or a book that was edited by Emma Edwards, based on the teachings of Jean Klein. Next I got into reading Chuang Tzu, a Chinese guy, that lived about the time of the Buddha, 450 B.C.E. or so, and later on into other Buddhist writings, and finally ending up with a lot of Zen. That’s what I had the most affinity with.
Along with my reading in the various flavors of Zen, I got back into reading about the brain. That was the decade of the brain, in the 90’s, when all this was happening. So what I found was that the things people were learning about the brain had a lot of similarities, I thought, to the understandings or the insights that the Eastern religions had gained. It seemed to me they were talking, in large measure, about the same thing, or that the Eastern religions were talking about the workings of the brain in a way that could be interpreted to be consistent with Western writings about the science of the brain, and how the brain works. So I spent a lot of time comparing and attempting to reconcile those two points of view. It was very challenging.
Challenging Points of View
One of my favorite books was written and published in that period by Richard Restak, called, “The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own.” To give you an idea, if you don’t have one already, of the difficulty of trying to understand how it is that our concept--our experience of ourself--derives from the brain; it’s a very tricky, involved, intricate subject, because, after all, we’re studying the brain, and that’s where we live. That is what makes us and our experience, and so, trying to tease out how our experience of ourselves and of the world emerges from this organ is a very tricky process. It’s one that I think I have been fortunate in that the particular life that I lived allowed me to get to certain insights that are very difficult for someone who has, say, had a career in science, and who has been successful. I mean somebody who writes a book--the books that I’ve read in particular have gained some notoriety--so to get that level of accomplishment in a discipline inevitably involves a lot of identification with the discipline, and the points of view, and yourself as a participant in all this. Whereas a person like myself, who is really sort of on the outside looking in, and who has had a variety of experience that a lot of these academic or medical folks haven’t had... I have a certain lack of a public identity--attachment to a public identity--I’m a little freer to experiment, I think.
But at any rate... So I’ll read to you a short bit from, “The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own,” by Richard Restak. I really owe this guy a lot for the insights that he’s gained, and the insights I was able to gain from his work, and so I don’t want my emphasis on his confusion to undermine the contribution that he’s made, or the stature, really, of his work. But here’s the paragraph:
“My experience with temporal lobe epileptics has raised a haunting personal question: How many of my own habits and propensities are determined for me by my brain? To what extent am I anything other than my brain? Is there any way of separating the brain from the person who just asked that question? My way of coping has been to fashion a simple mantra I repeat silently from time to time: My brain and I are one. My brain and I are one.”(p.13)
So how satisfying that sort of mantra might be to you is, of course, dependent on your own life experience, but it seemed to me that it was a rather inadequate answer to the question, and I really haven’t found anything in his work since then--I haven’t read all his books--but I haven’t found anything in the more recent ones that indicates that he came to any better resolution of the issue of, just who am I relative to my brain?
Now another guy that has delved into the question from a slightly different angle, in fact, well... I think probably Restak has referred to him at one time or another in his writings, but... Michael Gazzaniga is a brain guy, and this particular book, “The Mind’s Past,” which, I never have really fathomed the title of it, but he’s confronting the same issue, and he comes up with an answer that’s satisfying to him, but I think I can use this particular passage as a point of departure for talking about his difficulties and where I think they arise. On page 22:
“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?”
On the next page he... I’ll pick up that idea, sort of:
“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?”
His answer, in the end, 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, as I mentioned in Episode Two, that we have this illusion of being in control, but I think this particular passage gives us a way to see a way out of this difficulty that so many people have had in trying to figure how the mind relates to the brain. Rather than the mind, I would prefer to say, how our sense of ourself, how our conscious sense of ourself emerges from the brain, and in what sense it exists.
Light Emerging In the Visual Sense
So in the example he gives us about waking up in the middle of the night: as he puts it, there are two entities involved--our mind is trying to control our brain. Let me reframe the whole issue:
Many people have pointed out that what we think about, what we’re thinking about at one time or another is the result of a sort of a competition between different neural networks in the brain. The example I’ve used before, and I think it’s perhaps one of the easiest to see, is the case where you stand on the scale in the morning and you 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... I’ve gotta stop biting my nails, gotta quit smoking... There’s some sort of issue that we feel we need to deal with, and yet for some reason... while, 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 do something about. But at the time we’re sitting down to eat, there’s something else that takes over; and actually 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 that it’s something we do in the morning or whenever we do it, 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 various possible things we could be thinking ends up being--the winner of the competition is--the thought that we need to lose weight.
Now, 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--neural networks--about what’s most important at the moment, and depending on our history and the whole record of our lifetime of association with food, what network comes to the fore at that point is (laughs) is usually more to do with what tastes good to us, and the wonderful feeling we get when we are satiated, and that has a tendency to dominate our thinking at the moment.
So the point here is that as we go through the day, and as our brain reacts to the environment--different circumstances--different neural networks come into play, and become the dominant networks in that particular environment with the result that our behavior in one particular environment is at odds with our behavior in another particular environment, and we have difficulty when we’re in the one mode--when we’re standing on the scale--understanding why it is that this other mode dominates when we sit down to the table. Well, that is what happens as we go through the day: when we leave the area of the bathroom scale, we’re in a different environment, and different thoughts come to mind. 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 Restak, and Gazzaniga, and everybody else has with this whole 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 environment--each change of circumstances--that brings forth a different set of memories, a different 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 has been to say, “What environment am I in at the moment? What is relevant to this environment? What is it important for me to focus on?” Of course I’m anthropomorph...(laughs)... I’m anthropomorphizing my own brain. Most of this juggling of what’s important goes on behind the scenes.
Responding to the Environment
So to have a concept of our self that is in keeping with the reality of the brain, what we have to keep in mind 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, and what really, if you think about it... Because we are social creatures, and because we have ongoing relationships with other human beings, we have to somehow reconcile all those different personalities. There is this necessity, this social necessity, to unify all the various aspects of ourselves, and to present ourselves in a way that makes us predictable to a certain extent in society, in our social situations, because it’s necessary--for things to work smoothly--that there be some consistency, and that consistency--that necessity for consistency--has a tendency to overshadow all the variety within ourselves, and to overshadow that variety even in our own minds, in our own estimation of ourselves, so that you find people saying things like, “I’m so angry with myself.” Now what they’re really saying is the configuration of neural networks that’s active at the moment is angry with the behavior of the 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. The same problem, you see, when people deal with these habits or these things that they want to change about themselves: I know I’ve got to stop smoking; it’s bad for my health, and I just can’t seem to stop, and I know I need to lose weight, and all these things are problems, and really symptoms, of not seeing the diversity within ourselves.
To give you an example of how seeing this diversity 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. To give you a hypothetical 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. I subscribe to a number of these. 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; and so, in a way, 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 know, you subscribe to a health magazine that has pictures of these healthy 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, when one sits down to eat, there’s a little nagging presence in the back of the mind, 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--the whole point of this was that--in that way one can put to use the knowledge that 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 these 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’s thinking about are more important than going to sleep. And 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 is in charge of whatever the priorities are of these disturbing thoughts is coming to the fore. It’s winning the competition at that moment of what is important in the brain, and this competition is the product of all the various things that the brain is aware of at any one time or another, and concerned with, prompted by the environment. You know, the bills that have to be paid with not enough money, or whatever is is that one’s thinking about--the relationship that’s gone sour--and the part of the brain that deals with those issues is in the ascendency. It has... (laughs) It’s getting reinforcement from other parts of the brain. It’s like a committee meeting, sort of, in that there are different factions in the committee 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 competition between the need for sleep and the need to deal with these issues.
Foreground and Background
Believe it or not, all this talk about neural networks has been leading up to a subject that I mentioned in Episode Two, when I spoke about the difference between what some people call left brain and right brain thinking. The part of our brain that deals with language is, in most of us, on the left side of the brain. That is where we spend most of our time, again because we are social creatures, and one of the most important things that we do is communicate with other human beings. We tell them about ourselves, and our point of view, and our skills, and all the things--you name it--everything that you talk about with people every day. Your brain spends a lot of time when there’s no one around, or in quiet moments, rehearsing these conversations--if you hadn’t noticed: going over conversations we’ve had in the past, and ways that we might have improved our presentation of ourselves, and the issues involved, anticipating conversations in the future. So we spend a lot of time, consciously, in the left brain, in the language processing area of the brain, so that is what we’re aware of, mostly. That is what our experience of the world is in large part made up of. Even when there’s no one around and we’re just looking out at the landscape, we often find ourselves thinking of how we would describe this landscape to a friend, or whatever our particular proclivities are. It usually involves... or whatever our environment is... we usually find ourselves interpreting that, and interpreting our experience of that in terms of our image of ourselves, our idea of ourselves, and how we’re going to present this experience and this picture of ourselves to our fellow human beings.
So we spend a lot of time in the language processing part--being aware of the language processing part. The end result of all this socially mandated verbal processing is that our experience of the world is largely filtered through the categories that we use to describe things, that we are given by language to describe things. We are always seeing the world in terms that we can use to talk about it with our fellow human beings, and this gets to be our dominant perception of the world, and what the world is like, and what we are like--it's all filtered and focused, and really, it's as if we had blinders on and only saw the world through this language-mediated framework.
Because we’re social creatures, and because we’re so involved in the social aspects of who we are in our lives. It’s difficult to get any perspective on who we are outside that, because we are so involved in it, and so absorbed in it, and so, in a way, deceived by the need to present ourselves as unified beings.
So, to get back to Restak’s mantra: “The brain and I are one.” It’s not true. The brain and I are not one. My sense of myself as a person exists in a particular part of the brain, and you can erase that part of the brain, or disable it in some way, and I will cease to exist as a person, although I can still be a more or less biologically functional human being. The person--as a configuration of memories, and values, and desires--will disappear. This is what we see happening with people who have Alzheimer's, and people who have various kinds of strokes or brain injuries. The person resides in a particular part of the brain. The perception of the person; the idea of myself as a person, exists in a particular part of the brain, and so, I--my sense of myself--is not the brain, it’s an outgrowth of the brain. It is a function of the brain. It’s a product of the working of the brain, but it is not in charge of the brain. It presents itself as being in charge of the brain because of the social necessities.
Perhaps the most apt analogy is that I am the PR guy for the brain. I am the result of the brain’s understanding of itself and of the world, and of the various sets of priorities that have evolved in response to the environment, and society, and its own biology. I am how it presents itself to the world, and so in a way, I can see myself--not as the controller--but as a product of the brain’s understanding, and its social representative.
Not only am I how my brain presents itself, but I am who my brain thinks it is, and of course that changes as it goes through the day, and as it learns new things about itself. Its idea of who it is changes, and I change. The way it represents itself changes. The way it represents itself to itself, and the way it represents itself to the world.
Once my brain saw how much time and energy it was expending on PR, and how its experience of the world was dominated by that perspective, it began to get some ideas about maybe branching out, and exploring the alternatives. Perhaps it didn’t need to spend quite so much time on PR, and perhaps there were other things it could do. There might, in fact, be more to life than this particular perspective, and indeed, there is incredibly more to life. It is so much fun once you realize that you don’t have to spend all your time being a PR guy, and looking at the world from that point of view. And the things there are to do otherwise... Perhaps next time we’ll get into those.