Monday, June 18, 2012

The 'Secret Lives of the Brain'? Been There, Done That - 20 Years Ago!

Some of the press blurbs about David Eagleman's book: 'Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain' (Pantheon, 2011):

"A fascinating, dynamic look under the hood of the conscious mind".....Brain Pickings.

"A stunning exploration of the 'we' behind the 'I'" - Jonah Lehrer, author of 'How We Decide'

"A thrilling, subsurface exploration of the mind and all its contradictions" - The Courier Journal

"A popularizer of impressive gusto....Eagleman aims grandly to do for the study of the mind what Copernicus did for the study of the stars." - The New York Observer

And on and on....making one wonder, indeed, if Eagleman has somehow discovered the skeleton key of the brain, and human conscious operation.

Well, what's so terrific about the book? It's basically the proposition that the brain (and by extension our consciousness) manifests no single uniform identity but is instead comprised of a "team of rivals"- each competing for prominence and emergence. In a recent MSNBC 'Morning Joe' appearance, Eagleman actually referred to different neuro-subsystems being akin to differing "political parties" - which got the attention of those present.

The problem is that the concept  of multiple, competing  brain 'selves' isn't new. It's just been decked out in new window dressing by Eagleman. This is difficult for some to appreciate, but perhaps only because they don't read as widely as they think they do.

Twenty-one years ago Neuroscientist Robert Ornstein, in his book The Evolution of Consciousness, Prentice-Hall, 1991, used a more complex model - adapting the fact that human behavior is a confluence of the new brain (neocortex) as well as ape-jackal brain (mesocortex) and reptile brain (paleo cortex).
Ornstein associated specific modes of behavior with particular neuronal sub-assemblies to assign relatively distinct units of dominant behavior. He called these sub-units "simpletons".  The operational functioning of a human brain then was essentially the result of the interaction of these sub-assemblies or simpletons, e.g.

{H} = [A] + [P] + [L] + [R] + ........

where [A] = Altruistic, [P] = Playful ,[L] = lustful, [R] = reflective and so on.

A dozen or more such "simpletons" may "inhabit" each human brain - and come to the fore if the correct stimulus appears. Thus, a "hostile-aggressive" simpleton may appear if one is cut off in a lane of traffic, or is chewed out by one's boss. A "lust" simpleton may appear for any number of stimuli-images which I won't bother to detail, but which anyone can imagine! A "caring-loving" simpleton may appear in response to words of endearment, or an affectionate hug from one's spouse, or child. A "comic" simpleton may appear spontaneously - and proceed to play a practical joke, or take a humorous perspective on everything for the time it is "in control".

Ornstein points out that many humans "require time to get their simpletons in place" for particular situations. A father of two young children may need a half hour or more after he arrives home from work to "chill out" to allow his hostile-aggressive simpleton to depart, to make way for the "loving-caring" simpleton that can address his children's needs without yelling at them, criticizing them or swatting them. Far better, as Ornstein indicates, to allow decompression time for a simpleton change, than to invite disaster. Ornstein argues that if a person makes any kind of effort - he or she can identify most of the simpletons at work in their personality, and learn to recognize them - and bring a desired one on when the situation calls for it. (As in the case of the father above).

What does all this tell us about the human brain? First of all, that it's extremely complex. In fact, the brain is not "one" but three: composed of a neocortex (center of abstract thought), a mesocortex, and a paleocortex (wherein emotions, instincts, lust and territoriality reside). The interplay between one or more of these parts - as well as between what Ornstein calls the "thought circuit" and "emotion circuit" can bring a particular simpleton into play. Often changing simpletons - say from "hostile-aggressive" to "caring"-   is not easy, because the thought and emotion circuits are nearly detached from one another (the former localized in the neocortex, the latter in the limbic system-hypothalamus). This lack of "communication" is the cause of endless problems or misunderstandings in human social interactions.

Before Eagleman arrived on the scene with his take on a novel morality arising from competing "brain rivals" - Ornstein was already there. Morality and justice meted out often runs into complications - Ornstein observes- because:

i) The typical human is not one steady persona (identity) but up to a dozen or more living together, with more or less equal power shared.

ii) For a given misdeed or crime, which simpleton (brain sub-system) do you hold accountable? If you hold the whole person accountable you are perhaps assuming more than is warranted by our current brain architecture and its dynamic interplay. After all, why should one's WHOLE self be held accountable because the Lust simpleton briefly got out of control? Or because one's murderous-rage simpleton did?

The answer is that for society to function, as Ornstein notes, it needs to hold the whole person responsible, even if only one part of his collective simpletons was the perpetrator. Sophisticated brain discriminaton, say to parse the origin of specific immoral actions, is simply not at the level needed to identify "responsible brain simpletons". (Though obviously, say in a case of rape, a lust simpleton can be brought under control by chemical castration).

Other conclusions also arise:

i) Humans possess no constant or persistent self, but a gaggle of competing "selves" (simpletons) any one of which can seize control at any given time. Thus, the concept of a fixed personality is a fiction or artificial construction.

ii) For a truly genuine concept of "free will" one therefore needs to look not just at a person's acts, but the interplay at the time for his different selves. In other words, how does the presence of multiple selves within a person alter the concept of free will at its core?

By all means read Eagleman's book if you're so inclined and want to have a readable insight into brain operation. But for deeper insights, try to get hold of Ornstein's book too. After all, he was there first with the concept.....and some quite coherent explanations.

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