The Politics of Your Brain: Anarchy in the You, ‘kay?

Posted on March 30, 2015


A Many Brained BeastFor as long as the Western mind has thought about itself, it has thought of its nature in essentially authoritarian and paternalistic terms.

Whether its Plato’s charioteer driving two willful horses or Freud’s ego struggling to contain and direct the family feud between the Id and the Super-Ego, we Westerners tend to think of the mind as a kind of political community where one part of the mind — typically, the conscious mind — controls, dominates, and otherwise rules the unruly aspects of our nature.

Only Nietzsche, as far as I know, ever challenged this authoritarian account of human nature. When he examined the contents of consciousness, he did not see a single conscious mind ruling the roost. Instead, he saw a loose confederacy of minds, with one part of the conscious mind taking credit for the decisions and work of others — not unlike a king or modern day politician. According to Nietzsche, the King of the Mind thinks and feels like he is in charge, but the conviction is a self-serving illusion.

The latest psychological research and neuroscience is much more in line with Nietzsche’s understanding of the mind than the authoritarian model at the core of the western intellectual tradition, and at the core of the model you probably use to make sense of your own day-to-day existence. It is becoming increasingly clear that your conscious mind is not in charge most of the time, and, as Nietzsche suggests, it is most often preoccupied with the task of justifying and accounting for decisions made elsewhere in the brain.

The metaphor that now comes up often when psychologists and neuroscientists discuss the interpretative function of your brain is that of the press secretary in American Presidential politics. He or she is primarily responsible for weaving a narrative that makes sense of the giant multi-headed beast that is the US government, and she has to do it in such a way that it is reasonably plausible for everyone to believe that the President is totally and unequivocally running the show at all times.

Unlike the President’s press secretary, however, who is primarily concerned with knitting the wool of a story to pull over the eyes of the press gallery and the public at large, our internal press secretary is as concerned with pulling the wool over our own eyes as it is concerned with pulling the wool over other people’s eyes. In fact, all the evidence so far indicates, the press secretary in our brain is far better at fooling us than it is at fooling the people around us.

If this seems implausible to you, I am sympathetic to your incredulity. After all, the latest research on our brains flies in the face of one of — if not the — fundamental ideas of the Western intellectual and political tradition — the idea of the autonomous, self-aware, rational agent, who is the king of the castle of his mind. It is such a hard idea to accept and internalize that even a best-selling author and scientist, in a recent book, seems unable to accept and internalize the idea, even when he is explicitly writing about the discoveries of this new research!

Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics, who also happens to host a national science radio show in the United States, writes, in The Future of the Mind, that he thinks the best analogy for the brain, given the new research, is that of a large complex corporation that has a special command center where the CEO makes the final decisions of the brain — even after quoting scientists who indicate in the very quotes he quotes that no one part of the brain is in charge!

For example, Kaku quotes Steven Pinker, a leading psychologist, who writes “the intuitive feeling we have that there’s an executive ‘I’ that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of our muscles, is an illusion [35].” Then, on the very same page, only a few sentences down from the Pinker quote, Kaku writes in bolded text, “Final decisions are made by the CEO in the command centre.” This is exactly the notion that Pinker, as quoted, has described is an illusion. It’s like a written example of cognitive dissonance!

To put the final nail in the coffin of Kaku’s corporate characterization of the mind, here are a few juicy quotes from Michael S. Gazzaniga’s Who’s In Charge? Gazzaniga, it should be noted, is also quoted in the section of the book where Kaku builds the case for his CEO metaphor.

  • “We have thousands, if not millions, of wired-in predilections for various actions and choices. […] The brain has millions of local processors making important decisions. It is a highly specialized system with critical networks distributed throughout the 1,300 grams of tissue. There is no one boss in the brain. You are certainly not the boss of the brain [44].”
  • “It’s a dog-eat-dog world going on in your brain with different systems competing to make it to the surface to win the prize of conscious recognition [66].”
  • “Our subjective awareness arises out of our dominant left hemisphere’s unrelenting quest to explain these bits and pieces that have popped into consciousness. Notice that popped is in the past tense. The interpreter that weaves our story only weaves what makes it into consciousness. Because consciousness is a slow process, whatever has made it to consciousness has already happened. It is a fait accompli [103].”

Gazzaniga is so sure of this new understanding of the brain that he thinks the only question left for us to confront is whether or not we can hold people responsible for their actions now that we know how the brain actually works. Remember, our entire legal tradition is built around the notion that our conscious minds can and should regulate our behavior, and it is becoming increasingly clear that our conscious mind, at best, can only tell a story about decisions that are made elsewhere in the brain, and often for reasons the conscious mind can’t possibly know (For the record, Gazzaniga thinks there is “no scientific reason not to” hold people responsible for their actions, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the account he offers in this book. I will set that discussion aside for another day)!

So, all this is to say, if you are struggling with the notion that no one part of your brain is running the show of your life, and, of all the parts driving your behavior, it’s very rarely your conscious mind, then take solace in the fact that you are in very good company. Even a Professor of Theoretical Physics — who deals with difficult and counter-intuitive ideas in physics all the time — is having a hard time swallowing this particular pill.

And the reason why it is hard to swallow is simple to understand once you accept the facts. The entire edifice of the Western religious, moral, legal, and political tradition is built on a notion of the human self that is demonstrably wrong. To my knowledge, as of yet, no one has systematically assessed whether or not that edifice crumbles or if can stand on our new understanding of the brain.

Exciting days, don’t you think!?

As a first introduction to this conceptual revolution, take a look at Strangers to Ourselves or Who’s In Charge?

I’m also in the process of developing a little online course, which will explore the implications of the research described in these books (and others) from a philosophical perspective.

If you want to be the first to receive what I develop, sign-up to my email list or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.

Posted in: Brains