Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My amygdala made me do it...

James Atlas writes an engaging piece on a topic that has been the subject of many MindBlog posts: how our supposedly rational 'upstairs' decisions are actually nudged or determined by unconscious or implicit 'downstairs' mechanisms. He doesn't include in his list of recent books Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind", which is beautifully written and one of those few books I actually read through, rather than just reading its reviews. A few clips from the Atlas article:
WHY are we thinking so much about thinking these days?...Jonah Lehrer’s “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” ...Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” ...“Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior,” by Leonard Mlodinow...Kahneman's “Thinking, Fast and Slow” goes to the heart of the matter: How aware are we of the invisible forces of brain chemistry, social cues and temperament that determine how we think and act? Has the concept of free will gone out the window?
These books possess a unifying theme: The choices we make in day-to-day life are prompted by impulses lodged deep within the nervous system. Not only are we not masters of our fate; we are captives of biological determinism. Once we enter the portals of the strange neuronal world known as the brain, we discover that — to put the matter plainly — we have no idea what we’re doing.
The 18th-century philosopher David Hume (much quoted by Mr. Lehrer) didn’t have an M.R.I. scanner at his disposal, but he framed the question in much the same way. His major work, “A Treatise of Human Nature,” explored the ways in which habit, or “custom,” rules our lives. Hume’s experiments with perception — how we respond to colors, distance, numerical sets — prefigure the rigorous science of Professor Kahneman. His intent was to show us “the natural infirmity and unsteadiness both of our imagination and senses.” Consciousness, like philosophy itself, stands on a “weak foundation.”
If Hume seems modern, William James reads like a contemporary. Writing toward the end of the 19th century, James addressed the same question that had concerned Hume — how the unconscious operates as a physical process, not just, as Freud would have it, a mental one. In his now-classic essay, “Habit,” he argued that even our most complex acts are reflexive — “concatenated discharges in the nerve-centres.” ...we can train ourselves to change if we work at it hard enough. Self-awareness sets us free. “The great thing, then, in all education,” writes James, “is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.”
Does this mean we have no “agency,” no capacity to act on our own? Or can autonomy thrive within the prison of self-ignorance? “We have to believe it does,” says Steven Lukes, a professor of sociology at New York University highly admired for his work in moral philosophy. “If we seriously thought that our intentions made no difference to how we behave, we couldn’t go on using the language of ethics. How would we go on living the lives we live?” Or doing what we think is right? “People have free will when they ‘feel’ they have free will,” says Professor Kahneman. “If we didn’t believe in it, we would have no responsibility.”
But of course what one “feels,” as we’ve learned from all these books, could well be — indeed, probably is — an illusion. As Timothy Wilson puts it with haunting simplicity: “We are strangers to ourselves.” Hopefully...Strangers who can learn how to be friends.
The sentiments above are very much in the vein of my "I-Illusion" web lecture.


  1. Interesting post as always.

    However, I had to scratch my head at the paragraph on William James, in particular Haidt's complete and utter misunderstanding of Freud.

    "Writing toward the end of the 19th century, James addressed the same question that had concerned Hume — how the unconscious operates as a physical process, not just, as Freud would have it, a mental one."

    In fact Freud was very much concerned with the physiological aspects of the psyche, how certain pressures actually felt in the body, motivated us to act in such a way so as to relieve those feelings. That's Freud's pleasure principle in a nutshell.

    In fact nearly everything Haidt ascribes to James in that short paragraph could be equally applied to Freudian psychology.


  2. Oh dear, I should have made more clear those clips were not from Haidt but from the Atlas article. I've changed the text to reflect this.

  3. Well, that makes sense. You wouldn't necessarily expect an editor, columnist & literary critic to know much if anything about Freud's actual working theories, particularly since the Freudian "brand" has fallen out of favor in the last 50 years or so, and has just recently started to fall back in.

    Since Atlas is now also a publisher, maybe I should contact him about my proposed dog training book: Sigmund Freud and the Family Dog!