When traveling long distances, jumping saves dolphins energy, because there’s less friction in the air than in the water below. It also seems to be an efficient way to move rapidly and breathe at the same time…These cetacean acrobatics are a fruitful metaphor for what happens when we think. What most of us still call ‘our conscious thoughts’ are really like dolphins in our mind, jumping briefly out of the ocean of our unconscious for a short period before they submerge themselves once again. This ‘dolphin model of cognition’ helps us to understand the limits of our awareness.
One of the most exciting recent research fields in neuroscience and experimental psychology is mind-wandering – the study of spontaneous or task-unrelated thoughts….Much of the time we like to describe some foundational ‘self’ as the initiator or cause of our actions, but this is a pervasive myth. In fact, we only resemble something like this for about a third of our conscious lifetime. ..As far as our inner life is concerned, the science of mind-wandering implies that we’re only rarely autonomous persons.
As the dolphin story hints, human beings are not Cartesian egos capable of complete self-determination. Nor are we primitive, robotic automata. Instead, our conscious inner life seems to be about the management of spontaneously emerging mental behaviour. Most of what populates our awareness unfolds automatically, just like a heartbeat or autoimmune response, but it can still be guided to a greater or lesser degree.
We ought to probe how our organism turns different sub-personal events into thoughts or states that appear to belong to ‘us’ as a whole, and how we can learn to control them more effectively and efficiently. This capacity creates what I call mental autonomy, and I believe it is the neglected ethical responsibility of government and society to help citizens cultivate it.
The mind wanders more frequently than most of us think – several hundred times a day and up to 50 per cent of our waking life, in fact…The wandering mind is like a monkey, swinging from branch to branch across an inner emotional landscape. It will flee from unpleasant perceptions and feelings, and try to reach a state that feels better. If the present moment is unattractive or boring, then of course it’s more pleasant to be planning the next holiday or drifting away into a romantic fantasy.
A multitude of empirical studies show that areas of our brain responsible for the wandering mind overlap to a large extent with the so-called default-mode network (DMN). This is a large network in our brain that typically becomes active during periods of rest, when attention is directed to the inside.
My view is that the mind-wandering network and the DMN basically serve to keep our sense of self stable and in good shape. Like an automatic maintenance program, they constantly generate new stories, weaving back and forth between different time-horizons, each micro-narrative contributing to the illusion that we are actually the same person over time. Like nocturnal dreaming, mind-wandering also appears to be a process by which our brain and body consolidate our long-term memory and stabilise specific parts of what I call the ‘self-model’.
At its most basic, this self-model is based on an internal model of the body, including affective and emotional states, and grounded in inner-body perceptions such as gut feelings, heartbeat, breath, hunger or thirst. On another, higher layer, the self-model reflects a person’s relationships to other people, ethical and cultural norms, and sense of self-worth. But in order to create a robust connection between the social and biological levels, the self-model fosters the illusion of transtemporal identity – the belief that we are a whole and persisting entity based on the narrative our brain tells itself about ‘our’ past, present and future. (I think that it was exactly the impression of transtemporal identity that turned into one of the central factors in the emergence of large human societies, which rely on the understanding that it is I who will be punished or rewarded in the future. Only as long as we believe in our own continuing identity does it make sense for us to treat our fellow human beings fairly, for the consequences of our actions will, in the end, always concern us.)
But don’t lose sight of the fact that all this modelling is just a convenient trick our organism plays on itself to enhance its chances of survival. We must not forget that the phenomenal realm (how we subjectively experience ourselves) is only a small part of the neurobiological one (the reality of the creatures we actually are). There’s no little person in our head, only a set of dynamical, self-organising processes at play behind the scenes. Yet it seems like these processes often function by creating self-fulfilling prophecies; in other words, we have an identity because we convince ourselves we have one. Humans have evolved to be a bit like method actors, who need to really imagine and believe they are a particular character in order to perform effectively on stage. But just as there is no ‘real’ character, there’s also no such thing as ‘a self’, and probably nothing like an immortal soul either.
…one of the main functions of the self-model is how it lets our biological organism predict, and thereby control, the sensory consequences of our actions. That produces what’s called our sense of agency. ..when I close my fingers around the stem of a wineglass or feel the rough surface of a tennis ball in my hand, I infer that I must be an agent who is capable of originating, controlling and owning all these events.
..just like a method actor can’t focus on the fact that she’s acting, our biological organism is usually unable to experience our self-model as a model. Instead, we tend to identify with its content, just as the actor identifies with the character. The more we achieve a high degree of predictability over our behaviour, the more tempting it is to say: this is me, and I did this. We tell ourselves a brilliant and parsimonious causal story, even if it’s false from the third-person perspective of science. Empirically speaking, the self-as-agent is just a useful fiction or hypothesis, a neurocomputational artefact of our evolved self-model.
On the level of the brain, this process is a truly amazing affair, and a major achievement of evolution. But if we look at the resulting conscious experience from the outside, and on the level of the whole person, the brain’s mini-narrative also appears as a misrepresentation, slightly complacent, a bit grandiose, and ultimately delusional. Agency on the level of thought is really a ‘surface’ phenomenon, produced by the fact that the underwater, unconscious causal precursors are simply unknown to us. Even if we sometimes reach what resembles the rationalist ideal, we probably do so only sporadically, and the notion of controlled, effortful thinking is probably a very bad model of conscious thought in general. Our conscious mental activity is usually an unbidden, unintentional form of behaviour. Yet somehow the tourist on the prow begins to experience herself as an omnipotent magician, making dolphins come into existence out of the blue, and jump at her command.
The self might not be a Cartesian agent that causes thought or action, but perhaps there are other ways for the organism as a whole to shape what happens in its mental life. We can’t get off the ship, let alone summon dolphins from nowhere, but perhaps we can choose where to look.
We’re familiar with the idea of autonomy over our actions in the outer realm, such as when we control our bodily movements…however, there are not only bodily actions, but also mental ones… actively re-directing attention to your breath in meditation, deliberately paying attention to a person’s face in front of you, trying to retrieve visual images from your memory, logical thinking, or engaging in mental calculation. Note that deliberately not acting is as important here as acting. The defining feature of autonomy in both the inner and outer realms is veto control, the power to inhibit, suspend or terminate ongoing actions. A specific layer of the self-model is of central importance here. I call it the ‘epistemic agent model’ – the bit that allows us to have the feeling ‘I am a knowing self; I know that I know.’ This is the true origin of our first-person perspective. It’s created by predictions about what the organism can and will know in the future, and helps us to continuously improve our model of reality.
Now we can see mind-wandering for what it really is: a transient loss of mental autonomy, via the loss of the epistemic-agent model. A daydream just happens to you – there is ownership, but no control over the event. It is not something you do, but something in which you ‘lose yourself’. You have forgotten a specific kind of self-knowledge, the ability to terminate a train of thought and to choose what it is you want to know. You might daydream about being a knowing self, but right now you have lost all awareness of your own power to put an end to the process.
Meditation research is poised to make major contributions to mental autonomy. Mindfulness practice can sometimes lead to a crystal-clear and silent mind that is not clouded by thoughts at all, the pure conscious experience of mental autonomy as such that arises without actually exerting control. In long-term practitioners, this can result from the cultivation of a kind of inner non-acting that includes noticing, gently letting go, and resting in an open, effortless state of choiceless awareness. However, in the beginning, meditation clearly involves making decisions, as subjects develop meta-awareness, alongside an awareness of their capacity for attentional control. This can be seen as a systematic form of ‘experience sampling’.
Whether this sort of cognition really requires a robust notion of selfhood, as most Western philosophers would argue, would be disputed in many Eastern traditions. Here the highest level of mental autonomy is often seen as a form of impersonal witnessing or (in the words of the Indian-born philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti) ‘observing without an observer’ (though even this pure form of global meta-awareness still contains the implicit knowledge that the organism could act if necessary). There seems to be a middle way: perhaps mental autonomy can actually be experienced as such, in a non-agentive way, as a mere capacity. The notion of ‘mental autonomy’ could therefore be a deep point of contact where Eastern and Western philosophy discover common conceptual ground.
It’s important to remember that neuroscience isn’t the only piece of the puzzle. Culture plays its part, too…Accountability and ethical responsibility might actually be implemented in the human brain from above, via early social interactions between children and adults. If we tell children at an early age that they are fully responsible for their own actions, and if we accordingly punish and reward them, then this assumption will get built into their conscious self-model...The human adult’s conscious model of the ‘self’ might therefore be an enculturated post-hoc confabulation, at least in part – a causal-inference illusion that’s become part of how we model our own sociocultural niche, ultimately based on how we’ve internalised social interactions and ingrained language games.
…the mind-wandering network does not, I believe, actually produce thoughts. It also is not conscious – the person as a whole is. Rather, it creates what I would describe as cognitive affordances, opportunities for inner action. In the theory of psychology developed by J J Gibson, what we perceive in our environment aren’t simply objects, but possible actions: this is something I could sit on, this is something I could put into my mouth, and so on. Cognitive affordances are possible mental actions, and they are not perceived with our sensory organs but they are available for introspection.
Cognitive affordances are actually precursors of thoughts, or proto-thoughts, that call out ‘Think me!’ or ‘Don’t miss me – I am the last of my kind!’ Our inner landscape is full of these possibilities, which we must constantly navigate. What mind-wandering does is create a fluid and highly dynamic task-domain.
One central function of mind-wandering, then, could be to provide us with an internal environment of competing affordances, accompanied by possible mental actions, which have the potential to become an extended process of controlling the content of your own mind. This inner landscape could even be below our conscious awareness, but it is out of this that the epistemic-agent model emerges, like any other conscious experience, seemingly selecting what she wants to know and what she wants to ignore…true autonomy is about different levels of context-sensitivity and supple self-control.
What is clear by now is that our societies lack systematic and institutionalised ways of enhancing citizens’ mental autonomy. This is a neglected duty of care on the part of governments. There can be no politically mature citizens without a sufficient degree of mental autonomy, but society as a whole does not act to protect or increase it. Yet, it might be the most precious resource of all. In the end, and in the face of serious existential risks posed by environmental degradation and advanced capitalism, we must understand that citizens’ collective level of mental autonomy will be the decisive factor.
It was William James, the father of American psychology, who said in 1892: ‘And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. […] And education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’ We can finally see more clearly what meditation is really about: over the centuries, the main goal has always been a sustained enhancement of one’s mental autonomy.
Mental autonomy brings together the core ideas of both Eastern and Western philosophy. It helps us see the value of both secularised spiritual practice and of rigorous, rational thought. There seem to be two complementary ways to understand the dolphins in our own mind: one, from the point of view of a truly hard-nosed, scientifically minded tourist on the prow of the boat; and two, from the perspective of the wide-open sky, silently looking down from above at the tourist and the dolphins porpoising in the ocean.