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Your Brain: A User’s Guide

• December 22, 2010 • 5:00 AM

New books “Self Comes to Mind” and “On Second Thought” examine the origins of consciousness, and the unconscious pulls that influence our behavior.

In light of recent research into the workings of the mind, personal responsibility is threatening to become a casualty of science, and free will is looking like a frighteningly fragile construct. Our carefully considered decisions often turn out to be rationalizations for conclusions we have already come to on an unconscious, emotion driven level.

Renowned brain researcher Antonio Damasio and veteran science writer Wray Herbert each address this accountability issue in their newly published books, and both come to the same conclusion: We’re not off the hook. Herbert insists “we are capable of catching ourselves in the act” of being driven by instinctual impulses that are harmful to ourselves or others, while Damasio decries “our insufficient education of unconscious processes.”

It’s clearly time to revise the curriculum — at the college level and, arguably, far earlier — to include a mandatory exploration of how our minds operate. Any introductory course in the subject would impart a basic understanding of how our mental, emotional and physical selves interact and why some thoughts and feelings rise to consciousness while others do not. Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind and Herbert’s On Second Thought would make excellent, highly readable texts for such a course.

Damasio, director of the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute, uses his book to lay out a framework for how and why consciousness developed in humans. His central argument, based in evolutionary biology, is that “a brain exists for managing life inside a body.” Mind, body and emotions are intricately interconnected in a way that keeps the organism functioning efficiently; to use Damasio’s bumper-sticker summation, “Body and brain bond.”

January-February 2011 Miller-McCune “The defining aspect of our emotional feelings is the conscious readout of our bodily states,” he writes. If that sounds familiar, think back to William James, who wrote in 1884 that bodily sensations lead directly to emotional states. Damasio explains that James — who, to be fair, lived a century before the invention of fMRI brain scans — was mistaken in his belief the mind is bypassed in this process: We now know that some measure of appraisal takes place between sensation and emotion. Nevertheless, his basic notion of a “body loop mechanism of feeling” rings absolutely true today.

“Can there be consciousness without feelings?” Damasio asks. “The answer is no.” Sorry, Monsieur Descartes: We feel, therefore we are, and these emotional responses are biologically based. The creation of consciousness remains “a ceaseless source of awe,” but its origins are clear enough: It evolved because it enhanced our survival prospects. When we’re cold, the unconscious mind promotes our physical well-being by triggering a shiver; the conscious mind builds a structure and then closes the door.

Self Comes to Mind is often an exhilarating read. Not unlike Carl Sagan, Damasio is clearly excited by the findings he describes, and the thrill of discovery shines through his fine, clear prose. (His many music metaphors are both colorful and helpful in aiding our understanding.) He becomes a bit hesitant when discussing the unconscious mind, which by definition is hard to probe, but he acknowledges the role it plays in everything from racial prejudice to failed diets and believes that lawyers, judges, legislators, policymakers and educators all need to acquaint themselves with the current research on how unconscious thought affects our behavior.

One enjoyable way to make such acquaintance is to read On Second Thought. Herbert, a former chief editor of Psychology Today who now blogs for the Association for Psychological Science, has compiled a fascinating summary of recent studies on unconscious drives and the behaviors they evoke. (I wrote about several experiments he mentions for this magazine and its website.) His organizing topic is heuristics, which he defines as “cognitive rules of thumb, hard-wired mental shortcuts that everyone uses every day in routine decision making and judgment.” Confirming James’ wisdom yet again, many such heuristic responses are based in our body’s everyday experiences.

Take the concept of momentum. In the physical world, it’s quite real, and because we feel that reality in our bones — or, more accurately, our neurons — we apply it liberally, to political campaigns, sports teams, you name it. Win three hands at poker, and you’ll probably feel you’re on a streak — a belief that can cost you dearly when the odds inevitably catch up with you.

That cautionary tale reflects Herbert’s overarching theme: The use of heuristics is inevitable (given the way our brains evolved), essential (if our mind didn’t operate on autopilot much of the time, we’d never make it through the day) and dangerous (such as when we think in terms of stereotypes as a way of conserving mental energy). As Shankar Vedantam, another excellent writer on this topic, recently observed, it’s perfectly understandable from an evolutionary perspective that we would conflate Muslims with terrorists. But that evolutionary basis doesn’t make racism OK.

Herbert covers a lot of ground, and his once-over-lightly approach works better in some cases than others. His quick examinations of how deep-seated emotions inform various systems of morality, and the way repressed fears of death feed aggressive impulses don’t do justice to those very important topics (although if they point readers to the writing of Jonathan Haidt and Ernest Becker, they’ll have done a real service).

Herbert’s at his best when explaining phenomena such as the “anchor heuristic” — the tendency for puzzled people to make an educated (or uneducated) guess about a subject, and then move outward from that spot in search of the actual answer. “A person’s original anchor exerts a kind of cognitive drag on the mind as it tries to adjust,” he writes. Our refusal to believe we could have been that far off initially makes it harder for us to find, or accept, the truth.

So how do we counteract these deeply embedded dysfunctional impulses? Herbert’s one-word answer is “thoughtfulness.” “We can do this,” he insists. “We are capable of detecting what our automatic brain wants to do and either affirming or trumping that impulse.” Those fatalistic ancient Greeks would presumably disagree, but Damasio is fully on board: He views our capacity for “flexible self-reflection” as “the next momentous event” in human evolution.

Damasio concludes his volume by introducing the lovely concept of “sociocultural homeostasis.” He argues that, just as the various parts of the brain and nervous system work together to ensure optimal operation of the body, humanity has evolved in ways that keep societies operating harmoniously. He points to the development of religion and the arts, both of which use storytelling to help spread wisdom.

He may be a tad idealistic. If the climate scientists are right, we’re endangering the environment that sustains us, and our ingrained mental patterns — including the heuristic that limits our sense of danger to immediate, palpable threats, allowing us to ignore slowly developing crises — are failing to prompt needed action. On this, as on so many other subjects, it’s time to hit the override switch. Damasio and Herbert helpfully show us where it’s located and how to activate it.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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