I wrote a post a while back about six persistent brain myths that has some overlapping relevance to this one.
5.) A person is a unitary actor (the spherical cow of social sciences.) When I was a graduate student studying International Relations, a popular theoretical assumption was that nations were “unitary actors.” This meant that no matter how schizophrenic a government (and a nation’s civic institutions) might appear, they ultimately always pursued a national interest via a solitary hand. Like physicists assuming spherical cows, this makes life easier — even if it bears little resemblance to reality.
The full extent of the folly of the rational unitary actor assumption became apparent when I discovered that an individual isn’t even a unitary actor systematically pursuing its best interest. An individual is a collection of impulses, thoughts, feelings, etc. that seems like its under the command of a central authority only because that “central authority” [our conscious mind housed in our Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC)] is really good at forming post-hoc rationalizations and making up stories that let us feel unitary. The reader may think I’m just talking about some slim segment of the population with a multiple personality disorder, but no. I’m talking about anyone who has ever agonized over whether or not they should have an ice cream treat or take the healthy route. At the end of an internal battle that ends with the levers of action being operated by parts of your nervous system beyond your conscious control, you walk away with your conscious mind building a nice story that explains how it chose to either treat its taste buds or take it easy on its pancreas by keeping insulin production stable.
To consider how the conscious and subconscious mind can be on two entirely different pages on a subject, we’re going to veer into controversial and provocative territory. [So be warned, and if you’re sensitive about sexuality and particularly coercive sexual fantasy, you may want to skip down to the next paragraph.] Across a series of studies, an average of 40% of subjects (generally, or maybe exclusively women) admitted they’d had a fantasy about being raped. Many readers will react with incredulity, perhaps suggesting that there must be something wrong with such a person. However, obviously numbers like that aren’t describing a lunatic fringe. The next response one might here is, “Why doesn’t a person with a rape fantasy know how horrible and decidedly unsexy rape is?” If you’re following my gist, you know the answer is that said person knows very well. Consciously, she is aware that rape is violent and horrific, and moreover she probably even knows that it’s about commanding power rather than sexual desire for the rapist. This knowledge doesn’t undermine the fantasy [unless, perhaps, she really forces herself to think about it intensely] because the arousal is driven by a more visceral part of the mind that FEELS that the act is about the rapist being overwhelmed with sexual attraction even though the person KNOWS that that’s not the case.
[Note: I do realize that it might theoretically be possible that a much more complex collection consisting of many individuals and organizations might behave in a more unitary fashion than an individual. That is, even though a nation his made up of many non-unitary actors, perhaps the nature of the game forces it to behave in a unitary fashion. I don’t buy it. I’ve been reading a great example in a biography by Ingrid Carlberg about Raoul Wallenberg where both the Soviets (who had Wallenberg in custody but wouldn’t admit it) and the Swedes (who didn’t know whether Wallenberg was alive and sent mixed signals) were befuddled by varying actors sending mixed messages and collectively behaving ineffectively. It’s hard to come away thinking that Stalin and his Ministers had a rational and unified decision process. Instead, it seems like a perfect storm of incompetency and incorrect assumptions resulted in an outcome that wasn’t ideal for any of the parties.]
4.) Everyone can be hypnotized via instant induction and then commanded to do anything that’s asked of them. Hypnosis is among the most misunderstood activities around. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that hypnosis is a favorite device in movies and fiction, and people draw information from these fictitious sources. The “Now You See Me” movies (see above) offer many such displays of a person being instantaneously hypnotized against his will even when the person is an expert himself, and made to do things against his interests. Misconception also flowers when people hear real or fictitious accounts of Cold War programs like America’s MK Ultra or the Soviet’s psychotronics. The lesson to be taken away from those expensive and morally-dubious programs is that it may be possible to break a person’s mind, but you can’t force someone to do something they abhor while programming them to forget all about it afterwards.
Another reason for the misunderstanding, is that there’s a disreputable group of stage hypnotists and others who love to spread these ideas because it’s more intriguing if people think they can do it to anyone at any time than if they understand that their subjects have been carefully selected to be among the more readily prone to achieve trance states and to be responsive to suggestion. It’s true that most people are hypnotizable and will respond to suggestions to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do (as long as it’s not something that they don’t want to do.) But highly hypnotizable individuals are only about 15% of the population, and there’s another 15% at the other end that are virtually impossible to hypnotize. The video below has more detail on the science.
3.) One has no access to one’s subconscious mind. The conscious mind is like the loudmouthed drunk who swears he invented the potato chip bag clip, the envelope-wetting sponge, and Velcro. That is, it’s hard to hear over the din of incessant yapping, and since the conscious mind claims credit for everything, it’s easy to be fooled that there’s nothing else to listen to in the mind. However, if you can knock the drunk out, you start to become aware of what the subconscious has to say. Those who don’t meditate may be aware of subconscious imagery as they are falling to sleep (the hypnogogic state), as they are waking up (the hypnopompic state), or sometimes even during dreams (i.e. so-called lucid dreams or dream yoga.) Those who do meditate will be well aware of images that spontaneously form and fade in the meditative mind, and which can give rise to conscious thoughts if left unchecked.
2.) Memory is a recording of life events. I’ve been reading Julia Shaw’s “The Memory Illusion” recently. It’s a fascinating look at false memories. There are many famous cases of false memory, but what is most interesting is Shaw’s success in planting false memories of criminal activity. “Planting” isn’t the best term to describe this. It’s more about getting the subject to visualize events such that they create the false memory. While I stand by what I said about the myths of hypnosis, there have been a number of cases of false memories being implanted while an individual was in a hypnotic trance, and so one shouldn’t disregard the power of hypnosis altogether. The fact of the matter is that what we remember isn’t the occurrence of the event itself, but the last remembrance of said event. This means that there’s a great deal of room for memory degradation over time, and for a false transcript of events to form in the mind.
1.) Emotions get in the way of good decision making. I just posted a review of Antonio Damasio’s book “Decartes’ Error,” which examines this subject in great detail. Damasio found that patients who had damage to parts of the brain responsible for emotion often became victims of paralysis by analysis. That is, without emotion to give them a kick, they can’t make decisions. Reason doesn’t always provide a clear answer because the world is filled with uncertainty. When there’s not enough information, we still need to make decisions, and this is accomplished by emotional “gut instincts.”
Octavio Paz was a Mexican author, poet, and diplomat who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990. (By separating “author” and “poet” I mean that he wrote in a variety of forms, and he is as famous for his essays as for his poetry.) His poetry reflects not only Mexican culture and sentiments but it also displays an infusion of the flavor of places he was posted or visited – e.g. there are many references to India and Hinduism as Paz was the Mexican Ambassador to India in the 1960’s. That variety is the spice of life is a sentiment Paz seems to have embraced. The poems included present examples of both short and long form, as well as prose poems and free verse. There is even concrete (visual) poetry in which the words are formed into an evocative shape. Also, as hinted at, there’s a mix of Eastern and Western worldview in these poems.
There are a number of different “Selected Poems of Octavio Paz” collections available. The details of the version I read are ISBN: 0140422463, first published in 1979 by Penguin Books and edited by Charles Tomlinson. The various collections tend to share many of Paz’s “greatest hits” and so the reason I mention the publishing details isn’t because you’re likely to get an entirely different selection of poems, but rather the features and translation skill may vary from one edition to the next. Most notably, the paperback edition I read is a bilingual edition (Spanish and English.) That didn’t do much for me as I’m not a Spanish speaker, though I do have an interest in the sound of poetry. While I can’t speak to the trueness of translation, I found the Tomlinson text to be evocative and effective.
The edition mentioned includes 56 poems drawn from five different poetry collections, ranging from the late 1940s to 1976. (Paz died in 1998.) Paz’s early collections favor prose poems and he moves more into free verse and short form poems later.
I enjoyed this collection. I was particularly enamored of Paz’s presentation of surrealist imagery and his questioning of reality. I would highly recommend poetry readers take in some of Paz’s work.
I’ve joked that there must be a law requiring any author writing a book on neuroscience for a popular audience to tell the story of Phineas Gage. This book is no exception. Its first couple chapters explore the case of Gage in detail. For those who don’t read much on this subject, Phineas Gage was a foreman for a construction company. By all accounts he was a reliable and solid individual, respected by his employees, trusted by his employer, and beloved by his family. Then one day a four-foot tamping rod was blown through his skull – literally, in one side and out the other. One might think that having a chunk of brain skewered out by a steel rod on a gunpowder-fueled ride through the skull would leave one – at best — a glassy-eyed, drooling, catatonic lump. Surely, a steel rod would wreak more havoc than the narrow needle used in lobotomies? However, what makes Gage’s story fascinating is that the injury resulted in no readily apparent disruption in cognitive function. Gage could still speak fluidly. He retained his memories. He could do math at the same level as before. However, this isn’t to say that the hole through his brain left him unchanged. The even temperament that made him an ideal employee and that endeared him to friends and family was gone. Gage became angry and unreliable.
So what is the relevance of the Gage story to Damasio’s book? Quite a lot, actually. Damasio’s book is about emotion, its influence on decision-making, and how bodily states create emotion. In parts two and three of this three-part book, after introducing the reader to the role of the brain in emotion via the cases of those with selective brain damage, Damasio lays out an argument for what he calls the “Somatic Marker Hypothesis” which says that bodily states are what create the sensations that we associate with emotion. The title-referenced error made by Descartes will be apparent to those familiar with Cartesian dualism. Descartes believed there was a dualism between mind and body – i.e. that there was this physical stuff that got us about from place to place, but there were these intangible thoughts and feelings that were matter-independent that were the makings of mind and which were really you (i.e. you think, therefore you are.) Damasio believes that you cannot separate what it feels like to be you from the body and all its hormones, neurotransmitters, vital statistics, neuronal firing, etc.
The book consists of eleven chapters divided into three parts. In the first part, the author lays out not only the case of Gage, but other examples of individuals who had injury or illness in the brain that disrupted emotion and its influence on decision-making. We learn that an unemotional being isn’t like Spock, but instead is paralyzed by indecision. It turns out that it’s emotion that give us a kick, particularly when he have no sound basis on which to make a rational judgement. The second part draws the connection between body and our emotional self, culminating in a description of the Somatic Marker Hypothesis. The final part describes how the Somatic Marker Hypothesis could be tested and where this line of study seems to be going. The book is annotated and has a bibliography as one would expect of a scholarly work – even one written for a popular audience. The book has a few graphics – graphs, charts, and diagrams, but not very many and of a clear and simple nature.
I’d highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the working of the mind. It’s a thought-provoking look at what it means to be an emotional being and challenges our preconceptions about feelings.
Taken in May of 2018 near Lusaka, Zambia.
tight warren of streets, alleys, and stupa-laden courtyards
— a junky’s labyrinth
low portals force a bow to the ever-watching Buddha
how’s someone, hot-wired and strung out —
slipping the sacred geometries —
kink their way through this dusty burg
without clocking a noggin on bricks
— blocks of brown, dried blood brown
how do lost self-medicating masses find themselves
where it’s so easy to be lost
Taken on May 4, 2018 in Patan (Lalitpur.)
Taken in April of 2018 in Nepal.
Remarkable how well mountains can blend with cloud and sky. Machapuchre (“Fishtail”) Mountain becomes almost invisible.