You think you know why you do the things you do, right? Well, neuroscience suggests you’re wrong. Your explanations for why you’re attracted to the people you like, why you chose the career you did, why you’re timid in some situations and your irrational fear of water melons – well, they’re all bullshit.
Let me explain.
The subject of the experiments is a pleasant boy, fifteen years old. He is undergoing a series of psychological tests, working in a mobile unit parked outside his house. He is talkative and curious and amiable, and if you met him casually you would not suspect that he is quite different from you and me.
The researcher, a neuroscientist, has an optical device that makes it possible to flash visual messages in such a way that the message reaches only one hemisphere of the brain.
The two halves of the boy’s brain have been forever separated from one another. He is an epileptic, and has undergone what the doctors call “full callosal surgery” to relieve the violent seizures that were once a regular part of his life – a brutal procedure and yet apparently effective. The seizures have abated, and the boy seems to have the same personality and the same abilities as he had before – but his left brain literally does not know what his right brain is thinking, and vice versa.
The researcher flashes the command, “Walk.” to the boy’s right brain. The boy accommodatingly pushes his chair back and starts to leave the testing area. The researcher asks why he is doing this.
This is a verbal inquiry, and therefore is processed by the verbally dominant left hemisphere – the one that didn’t get the command and doesn’t know why the boy is getting up. But an answer is provided, a perfectly good reason: “Going into my house to get a Coke.” It’s a perfectly good reason, but quite unrelated to the reason that prompted the action.
Michael Gazzaniga, the researcher in the above experiment and one of the pioneers in cognitive neuroscience, sees the human mind as a many-sided “modular” organ with several relatively independent functioning units. A key player in this system is the unit he calls the “left brain interpreter module.” It is the talker, the explainer, the maker of narrative meaning – the storyteller. It performs a function that answers one of the human organism’s deepest needs – the need for coherent explanations of causes and effects, for orientation in a world of sequential events, and it appears quite capable of creating good stories on skimpy resources. It will use any material available to fill in the blanks whenever a little imagination is necessary to make a story hold together.
– From Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be by Walter Truet Anderson
The truth is, your conscious mind makes up most of what it “knows” based on very limited information.
The Mind As A Meaning Machine
There’s no doubt that our conscious minds have an unrelenting drive to know why; to have an explanation for everything that goes on in world.
Have you ever been around a four or five year old? “Mommy, why is the sky blue?” “Because there’s water in the sky” “Mommy, why is there water in the sky?” “Because it evaporates from the earth.” “Mommy, why does water evaporate from the earth?” and so on until Mommy finally answers in exasperation, “Because that’s just the way it is!”
The four year old’s incessant questioning is a sign that her conscious mind, and her need for reasons, are in full developmental swing.
As the anecdote about the boy in the mobile research unit shows, when we don’t have enough information to arrive at a well-founded explanation, our mind doesn’t hesitate to come up with a reason anyway, and hold onto that reason with conviction.
Our mind will do this to explain everything, but when it comes to understanding our own motivations and behaviors, our minds have even more conviction with even less valid information.
The article Your Mind Is A Simpleton shows that the conscious mind only has very limited processing power compared to the whole brain. Then the article Unconscious Memories explains how most of what we “know” never makes it to conscious awareness.
There’s one additional problem the mind has in explaining our own behaviors, and that relates to the development sequence of the brain.
Our conscious memories are formed by the hippocampus taking items from short-term memory and committing them to long-term memories stored in the temporal lobes. But this ability to form long-term hippocampal memories is not developed until we about two years old.
Think about it for a moment. What is your earliest childhood memory? Go back as far as you can to the very, very first thing you remember. What is that memory? How old were you?
You most definitely do not remember being born. You don’t remember how your parents treated you in your first months of life. You don’t remember any traumatic injuries or major infections you had in the first year of your life. You don’t even remember the time your mom left you and a watermelon in a shopping cart at the grocery store parking lot and drove off without you. There you were wailing your lungs out at the watermelon, scared for your life, and yet you have no conscious memory of the event.
All the formative events of the first two years of your life happened before you were able to form conscious long-term memories.
However, all those early formative events were most definitely registered in your brain and were stored as part of your unconscious memories. That irrational fear of watermelons that you have – your conscious mind has made up the explanation that it’s because your cousin threw one at you when you were five. But no, it is actually because you and that watermelon were left all alone in the empty parking lot.
Now, I know. Most likely your mom never left you in a parking lot with a watermelon. But you get the point. Things happened to us when we were very young that had a huge impact on our emotional makeup – now that we’re older, we have absolutely no recollection of them. Therefore we cannot rationally explain why we feel the way we do about certain things because we don’t remember the early events that are driving our behaviors.
But our conscious mind is hell bent on coming up with some explanation.
So it does the best it can. It comes up with the most plausible explanation it can given the limited information it has. Even though they’re mostly fabricated, our rationalizations have the feel of 100% certainty.
How Does This Tie Into Personal Development?
Combine the limited processing power of the mind, the fact that most of your memories are unconscious and the fact that influential life events happened before you could even form conscious memories, and there’s only one rational conclusion: most of your explanations for why you are the way you are bullshit.
I don’t mean this to be derogatory. It’s true for everyone. I actually intend it to be freeing.
All the explanations and mental machinations you go through trying to explain why you are the way you are; why you do the things you do; what you should do to change… all those exhausting mental gymnastics that lead nowhere. You can give them up. Or at least know that as real as they seem, they may not provide an accurate map of your own reality.
What if there were a way to tap into your unconscious memories and body-centered wisdom that would lead to more accurate explanations?
In fact, this is possible. Moreover, with a more accurate map of your internal reality, you can be much more effective in pursing your personal development. I’ll get into exactly how to do this later in this series on the Neuroscience Of Body-Psyche.
In the meantime, make sure you click on one of the Stay Connected social media links in the right hand column to see new articles in this series as I publish them. If you have any questions or comments, post them below. I promise to respond.
We may all be full of shit, but there is hope for humanity!