The Jubilee

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  • May 2011
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Are we sovereign in our own minds?

Posted by Alex Krainer on May 25, 2011

How do you know anything about anything? How do you know your own self? These questions cut right down to the core of who we are as individuals.

The one means of consciously knowing anything are your thoughts – the almost constant stream of awareness that shapes your self-identity and determines your conduct. Note here that all of your conscious thinking is wrapped in language (try to think a thought – any thought – without it being expressed in words; it’s almost inconceivable).

Your internal monologue also gives you the experience of what being you feels like. It feels like a totally individual, sovereign experience: in your own mind, you perceive your own truths, think your own thoughts, freely craft your free will and choose your conduct. That, anyway is what the experience feels like.

But that feeling is an illusion… in part, at any rate. As it turns out, we are not alone in our minds; our thoughts and actions are easily influenced from without. I’m not talking about good advice a piece of information here: thoughts and desires can quite literally be planted in your mind from the outside without your consent or even awareness. Which would make your free will neither entirely free nor all yours. The most fascinating illustration of this is the Werther Effect.

Part of the mystery lies in the organization of your brain. It consists of two hemispheres, the left one specialized in processing language and analysis of stuff that can be categorized in language. Left hemisphere directs our speech and listens to what it sounds like. Your right hemisphere has some language capability, but is largely nonverbal, uses more visual strategies and tends to draw global conclusions based on the whole visual picture. It is further specialized in processing personal and spatial interrelationships. It is also the seat of your emotions. The two hemispheres talk to each others through the corpus calossum, a thick bundle of nervous tissue that connects them, and they normally produce what we experience as a unified system of attention.

However, when neurosurgeons began to cut the corpus calossum as a way to treat patients with severe epileptic seizures, they found out that the brain’s two hemispheres have two separate attention and action systems where each hemisphere can exercise free will independently. The following two experiments illustrates what this means.

Split-brain studies
Neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry studied split-brain patients using a technique which channeled visual stimuli from one side of space into the corresponding hemisphere on the opposite side of the brain.

In one experiment, some funny slides were shown to a patient’s right hemisphere (by projecting them where only the left eye can see), at which he started laughing. When asked what he was laughing about, he produced a credible explanation, but was obviously unaware of the funny slides that actually triggered the laughter. In another experiment, the command “WALK” was flashed to a patient’s right hemisphere. In response, he promptly got up and started to walk out of the room, but when the experimenter asked him why he just got up, he replied quite sincerely that he wanted to get a Coke.

Although the patient’s left hemisphere could not know what caused the laughter or the decision to walk, it still unhesitantly contrived explanations for the whole person’s behavior. It turns out that left brain’s job description includes generating for its owner a sense of coherence and control regardless of whether or not it has any truth in it.

The disturbing part about all this is that even with intact brains, we have no reason to think that our left brains are any more committed to telling us the truth about ourselves and our actions. Sigmund Freud understood this when he wrote that often our conscious minds do not control how we act, but merely tell us a story about our actions.

A hypnosis experiment
In “Escape From Freedom,” Erich Fromm recounts an experiment where a subject is put under hypnosis. During hypnotic sleep, the therapist suggests to this man that after awaking he will want to read a manuscript which he will believe he has brought with him, that he will seek it and not find it, that he will then believe that another person, Mr. C who is also present, has stolen it, and that he will get very angry at Mr. C. The truth of the situation is that the subject never brought any manuscript and that Mr. C is a person toward whom the subject never had reason to feel any anger.

Fromm describes the situation after the subject awakes from hypnosis:

“…after a short conversation with the therapist, he says, ‘Incidentally, this reminds me of something I have written in my manuscript. I shall read it to you.’ He looks around, does not find it, and then turns to C, suggesting that he may have taken it; getting more and more excited when C repudiates the suggestion, he eventually bursts into open anger and directly accuses C of having stolen the manuscript. He goes even further. He puts forward reasons which should make it plausible that C is the thief. He has heard from others, he says, that C needs the manuscript very badly, that he had good opportunity to take it, and so on. We hear him not only accusing C, but making up numerous ‘rationalizations’ which should make his accusation appear plausible.”

Again, the subject of the experiment seems fully convinced that he is thinking his own thoughts and acting on his own inclinations; only the observers who have witnessed the entire episode are aware that the subject was manipulated during hypnosis into believing what never happened: that he brought some manuscript, and that Mr. C stole it. While his anger also seems to have been planted by the therapist, the subject has clearly injected a narrative of his own: he has supplied the rationalizations about why he just knew C was the culprit, and why he was right to be angry at him.

The split-brain studies and hypnosis experiments both lead us to the same disturbing insight into the way our minds operate. While the mind keeps its owner convinced that he/she is coherent and in control, it is also wide open to outside influence without the owner’s conscious consent or awareness.

The implications of this insight are numerous and far reaching. I’m no longer surprised that a trite advertising that simply says, “Drink Coca Cola” can actually be effective. We can also see how entire nations of reasonably intelligent individuals can be brainwashed into accepting lies as truth and supporting policies that are clearly against their best interest. Finally, they help us understand how supposedly rational beings come together to form herds that enthusiastically produce asset-price bubbles which invariably wipe out much of their wealth.

But does our susceptibility to outside influence doom us (to drink Coca-Cola, support demagogues and war-mongers, and to squander our wealth by investing in herds)? I believe it is possible for us to learn to be rigorous about how we arrive at our truths and why we behave the way we do. The key is to be skeptical about the stories we tell ourselves. Further, we need to actively search for truth, cultivate independence in our thinking, and always seek to balance fear or greed with appropriate discipline and personal courage in discerning truth and doing the right things. As with most worthwhile pursuits, this entails effort. But I prefer the effort – being a dupe really is no way to go through life.

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One Response to “Are we sovereign in our own minds?”

  1. […] Are we sovereign in our own minds? […]

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