David Eagleman has a thought experiment for you. Try this: Close your eyes, grip an imaginary steering wheel, and go through the motions of a lane change. Imagine that you are driving in the left lane and you would like to move over to the right lane.
Before reading on, try it. Imagine the actions you would take. David will give you 100 points if you get it right.
If you’re like me, you probably turned the steering wheel right for a bit, then straightened the wheel out to continue moving forward, too easy, right? Well, we both just ended up in the ditch. The correct motion for changing lanes is banking the wheel to the right, then back through center, and continuing to turn the wheel just as far to the left before straightening out.
How could most people fail to correctly remember an action that we all perform countless times? Because “we”, our conscious minds that we think of as “us”, are not as in control of our brains as “we” think “we” are, asserts Mr. Eagleman in his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.
Observing the learned instincts of Soldiers, I have often wondered how much our sub-conscious, or implicit memory, matters to our brain. Post-Traumatic Stress in Soldiers is seen as a disconnect between implicit memory and conscious, explicit, thought. The implicit reactions that a Soldier’s mind develops in combat to keep that Soldier alive make perfect sense when that Soldier is in combat, but when he or she goes home and their implicit instincts surface at inappropriate times, their conscious-self freaks out, “Why am I scanning the road for IEDs when I am back home?” The explicit and implicit “yous” are conflicting, generating even more stress.
What we view as sentience is just the boiling froth on the kettle that is our brain, our sub-conscious handles the majority of the processing tasks in our head, everything from muscle coordination to revolutionary theories of physics. When an idea “pops” into your head (think Einstein’s “Eureka”), your implicit-self has already done the majority of the dirty work for you, then conscious “you” takes credit for the idea and comments about how very smart “you” are. Yet, the truth may be that we overestimate not only the control we have over physical reality, but our very minds. I mean how well could I accurately describe the actions of my fingers as I type the following quote while reading it and letting my fingers fly.
On December 31, 1974, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was debilitated by a stroke that paralyzed his left side and confined him to a wheelchair. But Justice Douglas demanded to be checked out of the hospital on the grounds that he was fine. He declared that reports of his paralysis were ‘a myth.’ When reporters expressed skepticism, he invited them to join him for a hike, a move interpreted as absurd. He even claimed to be kicking football field goals with his paralyzed leg. As a result of this apparently delusional behavior, Douglas was dismissed from his seat on the Supreme Court.
What Douglas experienced is called anosognosia. The term describes a total lack of awareness about an impairment. It’s not that ‘Justice Douglas’ was lying-his brain actually believed that he could move just fine. But shouldn’t the contradicting evidence alert those with anosognosia to a problem? It turns out that alerting the systems to contradictions relies on particular brain regions, especially one called the anterior cingulate cortex. Because of these conflict-monitoring regions, incompatible ideas will result in one side or another’s winning: The brain either constructs a story that makes them compatible or ignores one side of the debate. In special circumstances of brain damage, this arbitration system can be damaged, and then conflict can cause no trouble to the conscious mind.
Furthermore, studies with post-incident amnesia reveal that implicit and explicit memories are completely separate. Sit down with an anterograde amnesiac and spend the day teaching them how to play Angry Birds. Come back the next day and they will swear not to remember you or playing Angry Birds but, once they start playing that person will play skillfully with the learned experience of the previous day.
After finishing Incognito, I find myself pondering how much our biases truly are created without any conscious effort as our ago old instincts work to develop our minds inside the social context in which we exitst and what an effort it takes to break those biases when exposed to conflicting data, it is by definition, unnatural. I came away with a useful understanding of the workings of the irrational mind and the knowledge that we all are, in a way, a slave to the primitive reptilian brain that hides beneath our mighty neo-cortexes.
Now of course, both my minds are stumped as to what to read next. As my college biology teacher says, “People are just differential processing computers with instincts and personalities.”