You can’t understand your brain unless you break it. Without brain damage, you are incapable of acquiring any insight into how your mind works, because your brain is sublimely designed to trick you into thinking you have a clue.
Your memories are fiction.
Robert Burton describes an experiment in his book On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You Are Not, which everyone with a strong opinion should read. Immediately after the Challenger explosion in 1986, the psychologist Ulric Neisser asked 106 students to describe in writing where they were when they heard, who they were with, how they felt, what their first thoughts were. Two-and-a-half years later, the same students were assembled and asked to answer the same question in writing. The new descriptions were compared with the originals. They didn’t match. People had changed facts about where they were, who they were with, what they felt, what they thought. When confronted with the original essays, people were so attached to their new memories they had trouble believing their old ones. In fact, most refused to revise their memories to match the originals written at the time. What struck Burton was the response of one student: “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”
I saw the movie Casablanca in high school. One particular scene was so vividly corny it was emblazoned on my memory. I often recited the saccharine scene in my mind and chuckled to myself over the next two decades. I saw the flick for a second time in my thirties, and waited eagerly for that sissyboy scene. When it came, I thought I was seeing an alternative scene! The characters said different things and were standing in different parts of the room. Plus I had to grab for a box of tissues. How could my memories so drastically overwrite what I actually saw? And how could Rick let their love die like that?
Now here’s the weird part: Today, I don’t remember the scene that moved me in my thirties. I still remember the scene I laughed at as a teen.
You’re so clueless about your own experience, you’ve already re-written the paragraph you just read. Close your eyes and sum up what was just said. Done? Now when you re-read it, you’ll find you don’t remember the words, but only your impression of what was said. Once you say it, you replace your vague impression with your act of verbalizing it. Associate Professor of Cognitive Psychology Jonathan Schooler calls the effect “verbal overshadowing.””
How much time do you spend verbalizing? Every time you talk, you destroy the memory of what you’re talking about.
Your memories can be selectively erased.
Famous experiments by neuroscientist Karim Nader demonstrated that each time you remember something, you demolish the old memory and recreate a new one.
In order to store a memory, a protein structure needs to form in the brain. When rats are given a drug that disrupts this protein formation while they’re trying to form a memory, the rats are unable to learn. Now here’s the weird part. Once a rat becomes an expert at some knowledge — like knowing that a certain sound precedes a shock — and researchers inject the drug while he’s trying to recall the memory, the memory is erased permanently. The rat returns to the same state of ignorance he was in before he ever learned. No other memories are harmed by the drug, only the memories the rat is trying to form or recall. That means the protein that encodes the memory is being rebuilt every time the rat accesses the memory.
The drug, anisomycin, has been used to selectively erase the memories of humans tormented by post-traumatic stress disorder. If the patient takes the drug while being asked to recall the traumatic memory, the memory dims. Some of the remembered events take different pathways through the hippocampus and reach consciousness, but the emotional intensity associated with amygdale is toned down, becoming hazy and painless.
Remembering is an act of creation. This led to Yadin Dudai, professor at the Weizmann Institute and author of Memory from A to Z: Keywords, Concepts, and Beyond to arrive at the paradoxical conclusion that the most perfect memory “is the one that exists in a patient with amnesia.”
Remember that person who pissed you off in high school? It never happened. You made that event up. Don’t bother writing your memoir, because there’s no such thing as a memoir. Fiction is stuff you know you’re making up, and memoir is stuff you don’t know you’re making up.
Hey, dumbass. You can’t even figure out what already happened in your own life. How are you going to figure out what’s going to happen in the future for everybody?
The Feeling of Knowing is Separable from Knowing.
The feeling of knowing is exactly that, a sensation.
Dr. Burton demonstrates that the experience of knowing occurs independently from the “logical steps” you think you take to arrive at a conclusion. In fact they arise from different regions of the brain.
Burton hypothesizes that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is an inability to experience this feeling of knowing. No matter how much the patient proves to himself that his hands are clean, the car door is locked, he won’t forget his keys, he just can’t believe it. He can know that something is true; he just can’t feel that it’s true. Other patients with brain lesions experience similar disconnections between knowing and feeling they know, such as being convinced that a table has been stolen and replaced with an exact replica, or that mother has been kidnapped and replaced with an identical imposter. They look at familiar things and don’t feel that they are right.
Just as precise knowledge can come without any feeling of knowing, the feeling of knowing can come without any precise knowledge at all. Burton analyzed the transcripts of people experiencing mystical revelations: “It’s all so clear! Everything makes sense!” — who are always unable to speak in specifics. Religious ecstasy suffuses a person with a pervasive sense of knowing all, utterly and completely, despite having no particular insight to attach the feeling to. Mystical revelation is indescribable precisely because there is nothing to relate it to but “allness” or “the universe.” Some epileptics in the initial stages of their seizures describe the same transcendent ecstasy. You can have the experience, too. When a scientist administers an electrical zap to your temporal lobe, you will use the language of prophets.
Our susceptibility to the intoxicating feeling of knowing is why humans everywhere are afflicted with what Burton calls “an epidemic of certainty.” Attend your next H+ Summit, see if you see any symptoms manifested, and wait to catch the exultant virus.
Reason is Never the Reason
Do you aspire to be a rational person? Careful what you wish for.
A man who had a tiny tumor cut out of the cortex near the frontal lobe of his brain seemed fine at first. He passed all intelligence tests and retained all faculties. But once released to daily life, he was paralyzed by an inability to make the simplest decision. Sitting at his office desk, he spent twenty minutes deciding whether to use a black pen or blue pen, carefully thinking through every implications of each option. Family and friends reported that the subject became the most hyper-rational man who could talk endlessly through the details of scheduling conflicts, listing the pluses and minuses of every possibility, unable to settle on a decision. Cognitively normal people who listened could always see his every reasonable point. Nothing he said about any particular consideration was irrational. But as Antonio Damasio, a guy accustomed to dealing with cognitively weird people, said, “You wanted to bang your fist on the table and say, Just make a decision already!”
It turns out the theologian Jean Buridan’s medieval “proof” of free will is mistaken. He claimed that a hungry ass equidistant between two bales of hay would freeze forever if it didn’t have free will, because both choices are equally valid. (Buridan’s ass is like Newton’s apple: Untrue folk analogies are the vehicles in which memes travel.)
I’ve never been an ass equidistant between two equally large bales of hay, but I have been an asshole equidistant between two equally large pieces of ass, and I promise you I did not freeze. It takes very little thought to act in such circumstances. In fact, the less you think, the easier action is.
It looks like the brain has an automatic timer, a wound spring pushing an emotional impulse to choose. We didn’t evolve to know the world, but to make the most statistically efficient decision given limited data and time. Without impulse to close the deal, no decision is possible with pure reason. With enough thought, every possibility can be made to appear equally valid. Reason is a tool to serve impulse, not the thing that provokes decision. You can reason your way to any conclusion you want. Wanting is the key.
Neurosis may be a poorly developed impulse to over-ride maddening rationality. You may notice stupid people don’t suffer from neurosis. It’s only guys like Woody Allen who drive you crazy rethinking every consideration. Something has to override analysis paralysis, and it ain’t more analysis.
In our leaders we admire the virtue of decisiveness, an ability to “act from the gut,” unperturbed by egghead considerations. But, of course, a leader’s confidence is not based on knowing the cascading domino effects of his decisions. Leaders act decisively with moral clarity in a state of ignorance. That’s why we follow them. Their lack of doubt is infectious.
Did you want to believe in a scientifically supported possibility for negligible senescence before you discovered leaders who believe it?
Why did that answer just pop into your brain? Why should answers “pop” into your brain at all?
You don’t know why you just thought that.
Neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry found that people with a severed corpus collosum, the thumb-thick bridge between the left and right hemispheres of our brains, act with two different wills, each with roughly half our higher capacities, operating independently in the same skull, without consulting the other before they make a decision. True story: The left hand takes a shirt off the rack, and the right hand grabs it and puts it back. The left hand gets so frustrated, it tries to strangle the person like Steve Martin in The Man With Two Brains.
The left hemisphere is in charge of language. The right hemisphere is in charge of visual imagery. When you flash an image of a spoon to the eye that corresponds to the right hemisphere, the patient with a cut corpus callosum will say he sees nothing. When asked to grab the object using the hand that corresponds to the right hemisphere, the patient will grab the spoon they just said they couldn’t see, yet still be unable to say what they are holding.
When Sperry flashed “WALK” to the right hemisphere in charge of visual representation, the patient got up and walked across the room. When asked why he did that, he (the left hemisphere, in charge of language) said, “To get a Coke.” Imagine Sperry’s astonishment at that moment, knowing the real reason why that person walked across the room. The language hemisphere spontaneously contrived a reason, yet the person who owned the brain had no notion of this.
The left hemisphere was shown a chicken and the right hemisphere was shown a snowfall. When Sperry asked the patient to choose a picture that goes with what they see, the hand controlled by the left hemisphere picked a claw, and the hand controlled by the right hemisphere picked a shovel. Interesting. Both hemispheres can independently and simultaneously pick an image that goes with what they saw.
Then Sperry asked (the left hemisphere, in charge of language) why he chose a claw and a shovel. He responded without hesitation, “Oh, that’s simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.”
If each hemisphere can spontaneously fabricate a meaning for every action, you’ve got to wonder how other more subtle parts of our brains are spin-doctoring reasons why other subtle parts of our brain are doing things. If quick-witted lies pass between the two big parts of your brain, why shouldn’t they go on among the little parts?
Why did you choose that for breakfast this morning? Why are you still dating that jerk? Why can’t you stick to your diet? Why are you considered the most reliable source as to the “reasons” you do you things? Nothing told you to get a Coke. You chose to get a Coke. Right?
You’re the Worst Judge of Yourself
Hey numbnuts, cognitive science demonstrates that you’re not bright enough to realize what a clusterfuck your life is, because you’re wired to tell yourself a coherent story after the fact. Microsecond by microsecond, your neocortex spins a story that says: “I meant to do that.” Your conscious mind thinks its Sherlock Holmes, but really it’s Maxwell Smart, tripping through life and weaving coherent excuses to maintain the illusion of control.
Take a look at your life, for instance, dipshit. How much did you completely screw up and blame on others, and how much of the good stuff did you stumble into randomly, then take credit for as if you planned it all along?
More so than you think. Clever experiments with memory recall show how we cast narratives back to justify what happened. We think our lives have meaning to the extent we are able to look back and pick and chose the events that draw a coherent narrative, then we unconsciously alter all those events to confirm what we want to believe about ourselves.
When it comes to our self-assessments, we are all susceptible to the Lake Wobegon Phenomenon: When quizzed, most people rate themselves as smarter, more attractive, more optimistic, better leaders, and less biased than average. Even if you beat the average in one of these domains, the chances of you beating the average in all five domains is slim. Chances are, you’re below average in more than one of these domains. How do I know this? I’m smarter, more charming, a better leader, and less biased than most people.
I had a chance to talk to the class bully from my high school, who told me about how good life had been to him. I decided not to mention this was the first nonviolent encounter we ever had. He brought up a mentally handicapped guy who got beaten even worse than me and boasted that nobody messed with that kid when he was around. I stared politely into his face amazed at what a deluded sense he had of himself. I remembered him as relentlessly, inexhaustibly evil. For an instant I wondered if I should question my sense of myself as a mature, faultless victim whose rapier witticisms should have provoked applause rather than pounding, but then I thought better of it.
The mind has a mind of its own. But even that’s not in charge.
Your Arm Makes you Think you Control It
Have you clicked away from this article yet? Why not? Because it’s not up to you. You can’t even choose when you click your mouse.
In a famous experiment, Benjamin Libet stuck people’s heads into an electroencephalogram and their arms into an electromyogram, then asked them to move their finger whenever they chose. Libet found that motor activity in the brain began a quarter second before the subject became conscious of choosing to move his finger. Here’s the sequence: First, motor activity in brain. Quarter second later, patient consciously decides to move. Quarter second later, patient moves. Conscious choice does not cause motor activity. Motor activity causes conscious choice.
Did you just say… Bullshit! Where did that come from? A spontaneous reaction is not reasoned.
Reason is the act of justifying a spontaneous reaction. Reason rushes into the milliseconds after you instinctively react. Next time you make a snap judgment, ask yourself how much reasoning your can fit into the space of a snap.
Hey dingbat. Thoughts are spontaneous. Reason is torturous. The impulse to believe sets up the maze. Then reason finds a path through, convinced it’s the only path available, unaware the same brain made the maze. Crucial to your ability to conclude is a preconscious elimination of alternatives. Everything you think you know is a con your brain plays on your conscious mind. Including how you feel about the guy writing this.
You Don’t Know Why You Like or Dislike People
How confident are you of your assessment of my personality? Do I seem like a prick, or a raconteur you’d like to have for dinner? It depends less on your objective judgment than whether you’re holding a warm drink.
Researchers asked people to participate in a study where they rate a written portrayal of personality. Just before half the subjects sat down, the researcher said, “Could you hold this for a sec?” Half the subjects held the warm cup for about one second before they sat down. The other half were never asked to hold the cup. Then they were asked to read a description of a person. Then they were asked,
“How do you feel about this guy? Rate him on a scale from one to ten.”
The people who held the coffee for a second rated the described guy on average 20% higher than those who didn’t.
Those of you who are drinking coffee, or maybe those who just did somebody a small favor, probably like me more than those who aren’t and didn’t. The rest of you can go fuck yourselves. (I’m not holding anything warm at the moment. Wait a second, my dog just moved onto my lap. I apologize for what I just wrote. Can’t we all just get along?)
Next time somebody makes an impression on you, ask yourself if your reaction is based on your judgment or your digestion.
The Sack of Meat our Dreams Drag Around
Many transhumanists tell me triumphantly that human nature has been left behind. So why are they bothering to tell me? All humans everywhere care what other people think, spontaneously react when their values are challenged, argue with tribemates about what’s true. See the comment button below? Why doesn’t your cat find this button irresistible? Why can’t you choose to be more like your cat? Turn off your mind, go sit in the sunbeam, give not a shit, and be content.
Hey, you’re still reading. How long did you consider the option to stop chasing opinion and contributing your own? Why does your cat’s brain gravitate naturally toward the Buddhadom you must discipline yourself to achieve? It’s that damn human nature again. It won’t go away, not even the part that desires to transcend it, a particularly unique feature of Homo Confabulus.
If we can deny our own stubborn human nature, we can block out any information that contradicts what the author Tamim Ansary calls “the fruitless longing for transcendence” that drives much delusion.
Joe Quirk is the author of Exult, an epic myth about hang gliding and grief, and It’s Not You, It’s Biology: The Science of Love, Sex, and Relationships, a humorous science book translated into 17 languages.