You & Your Brain

February 17, 2012

Press your thumb to the bridge of your nose. Now draw it slowly over the crown of your head to about where you might have a ponytail. That area under your skull is where "you" are. Research suggests that region houses the web of neurons that holding our narrative identities.

Neuroscientist Julian Keenan takes Anne Strainchamps on a tour of our selves, thinking about our selves, thinking about our selves thinking about our selves, thinking about one another thinking about ourselves...




I wish Anne Strainchamps had pushed back a little on Julian Keenan's know-it-all scientific storytelling.

When Keenan says "the self gets involved after the decision has been made" he is arbitrarily splitting off one part of the person (the frontal lobe) and asserting that it alone is the self. But my self is my whole person, including the "reptilian" parts that he dismisses so casually. My whole self makes a decision. Keenan thinks that this disproves free will because part of me (my frontal lobe?) is influenced by another part of me (the rest of my brain). Is this really so worrying or surprising? It would have been useful to get Keenan to define the "free will" that he is claiming to have disproven. I think it would turn out to be different from the free will that we really care about.

As for rationalization and story-telling, we don't need neuroscience to tell us that the reasons people give for their decisions are often incomplete or made-up, or than memory is not terribly reliable. We all know that people are driven by unconscious feelings and tendencies. This isn't some radical new insight.

I wish neuroscientists (and the journalists interviewing them) would talk about the actual content of the research, which sounds pretty interesting, and not jump straight to overblown philosophical interpretations.

.. in that the presentation of "self" as a simplistic frontal lobe phenomenon that only relates to a particular kind of conscious self-awareness of our actions... That seems rather limited. The tour he gave was not all that thorough--but instead was like showing someone the living entranceway and the living room and then declaring "Well, you've seen it all! Time to go.. no don't worry about that smell of cooking food.. it's nothing.. "

Furthermore--and this is a pet peeve of mine--the talk about "free will" is always done in such a naive way. The experiments that Julian refers to really don't give much insight into any kind of grounded or real "free will" (equating to the idea of personal agency rather than determinism ). Instead, they merely show that when people are given very clear, distinct choices to make (press this button or that button depending on a certain stimulus, I believe)--that certain neurons fire in a part of the brain that isn't immediately apparent to the conscious awareness.

This does not show that "no decision was made by the individual"--but rather that conscious awareness of the neural activity involved in making decision making demonstrates a lag...

And really--this makes sense if you think about it... Even in computers--when you ask a computer to make a calculation and display the result to the screen--there is a measurable lag between the calculation and its projection onto the screen despite the fact that computers are optimized for such an acitivity and that they don't involve any real thinking--but rather are just calculating devices following one set of rules.

Overall--it's this kind of reductionist thinking that really irks me with a lot of neuroscientists, but more in their admirers who tend to run with the scientists more limited and circumscribed findings... It's not that they are finding bad data--it's that their interpretations are often rather simplistic and not particularly well critically examined. It would serve them better to be more careful here..

For me the song "Row, row, row your boat" has always been a way for me to understand my life. This interview reinforced my belief that "life is but a dream".

I was also reminded of a theory Brian Greene discussed in his Nova special "Fabric of the Cosmos". Greene summed it up as follows:
"space within a black hole plays by same rules as space outside a black hole or anywhere else. So if an object inside a black hole can be described by information on the black hole's surface, then it might be that everything in the universe, from galaxies and stars, to you and me, even space itself, is just a projection of information stored on some distant two-dimensional surface that surrounds us. In other words, what we experience as reality may be something like a hologram."

this radio spot was very thought provoking. I also thought of how life is only an illusion just as the great philosophers, Buddha, Lao Tsu, and at times things said on fabric of the cosmos reflect. I also thought about the extremely funny movie "Tropic Thunder" when Robert Downey says "l'm the dude playing the dude..."

Yes, I remember that program. Great connection of the two concepts!

ubmitted by Felix Chau, MD (not verified) on Sun, 02/26/2012 - 7:18pm
The dialog was interesting but superficial... showing the limits of what neuroscience and psychology and the scientific method can tell us about HOW our bodies work but cannot answer deeper questions like WHY we exist. It was a very bogus, "unscientific" argument to say that we have no free will because of a science experiment about brain activation after skeletal muscle activity in grabbing a cup. Multiple hypotheses should have been generated: our sensitivity of how we detect neuronal activity may not be accurate enough, the "distribution" of our self within our corporate bodies and brains is more complex and mysterious than we thought, the mind and brain and body and self relationship needs to be understood better. There was no evidence to suggest free will was absent. Scientists who make claims like "there is no free will" are straying into creating a religion of science as the only way of understanding truth and reality.... essentially "scientific fundamentalism" that is not really science at all. For deeper understandings in this dialog on the mystery self, other people should have been interviewed besides the scientist and Buddhist convert - Catholic theologians and monks, perhaps someone like Fr. Thomas Keating. Consider the reality of "original sin" as the explanation for distorting the stories of ourselves and the possibility of the redemption of self by God - the origin of truth and reality - in whose image we are made. The inner capacity for self contemplation (self, reflection of self by self, and the dialog of self and self reflection) was perceived by St. Augustine as one piece of evidence suggesting we are made in the image of God who is love and is an interplay of unity and diversity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Don't create a new religion out of science.... it is unscientific to do so! Felix Chau, MD

I happened to hear this broadcast on the way home along the freeway, whereas I found it rather disturbing and self-hating. It was almost hard to believe that anyone could come to such conclusions with lacking authenticity. I couldn't help but think that Keenan has some kind of personal, existential dilemma that he projecting into his world views. It disturbs me that he has fashioned such an eloquent dissertation to cover for his own hopelessness and despair, seemingly asking others to share that point of view in a chasm of self delusion.

First of all, why does he even begin to assume that the "self" is really just that. I don't think that it should take a genius to realize that the self is really a composite of shared experiences with the people you love, or even those that you hate. Why is it that Keenan has chosen to believe that the "self" is an illusion, as opposed to the idea of isolation. What is isolation... what are its boundaries? Are the boundaries of isolation hard or soft, fixed or transcendental? These are concepts that Keenan doesn't even seem to consider.
Next, why does Keenan also seperate the lie from the truth and then sorrow from happiness. He incites philosophy and spituality, but in my own realizations, these things are not truly seperate but actually interdependent, harmonious and part "two sides of the same coin." This is realized in both "western" and "eastern" methodology, that is if anyone really thinks that way in terms of separation and isolation in this very post-modern world. It's one world! Not east and west, or north and south, developed and less developed. Such are merely artificial constructs for what Keenan and perhaps others cannot grasp, comprehend or cope. So, I believe he's come to a rather wrong concussion that masks for his own shortcomings and insecurity.
I could really care less if the memories are painful, seemingly mythological or defenses. The focus and pursuit of happiness should be more concerned on the process of becoming, not our some sticky predicament or despair. It's the transcendence, between the lie and the truth, but more so beyond the assumption. It's the leap of faith, it's risk we take when we make a jump over the great divide and then quite making it. So, I encourage Keenan to do just that.
I invite him to live life with just a bit more faith, abandoning the constructs of science, it's artificial influencers and ways of knowing. Did he even consider those biases, when he talked about his magnificent "magnetic stimulator?" Was this his idea of "pure" and uninhibited thought. Really?!
More disturbing than all that, is his narcism, attacking the history of consciousness, rather than affirming it and finding catharsis. How much of his life has been running away from the problem, instead of facing it?

Indeed, we must face the face! If we abandon consciousness, that is the real scary scenario. We are not alone, we are bound by our adversity, as much as we are by our triumph. So, take a look at the man in the mirror, its time to make that change... Peace starts within! Your relationship with others starts with yourself, as much how you see yourself in the world.

RE: "I don't think that it should take a genius to realize that the self is really a composite of shared experiences...."
Do you know anything about Keene's research? Did you investigate his word, or even google him? Are you a PhD, or are you just basing this 'opinion' on your own experiences?
It is widely accepted the we do distort the truth about ourselves. Others have made this same claim that people with depression see reality more closely to what it is.
So while I applaud your questions, it is still up to you to answer them for your "self".

The frontal lobe and the pre-motor lobe are closely alligned in the brain. The pre-motor lobe goes first because it essentially is a sensory guided plan. The first fraction of a second of this plan doesn't have any risk because your arm will probably not hit anything in the first fraction of a second.

The free-will comes into play because our plan is a sensory guided plan. It is not a micro-managed sensor by sensor by sensor plan. When we grab a cup, we do not know which finger will touch the cup first. Our plan is to let any finger touch the cup first.

The frontal lobe is very skilled at determining our self. It is aware or "self-aware" of our perceptions, conceptions and actions. It has the knowledge to solve any question about our self from those perceptions, conceptions or actions.

I don't think we need to have a tautology to understand self-awareness. We only need the context of the type of self-awareness we are discussing.

It is strange that Keenan invokes scientific authority for his claim that facing up to reality and the terms of existence fosters depression, and on the flipside, that psychological well being is enhanced by self-inflating deceptions and escapism. What makes the position a strange one for a scientist to commend is that science, by definition, develops methods and instrumentation for studying real world structures and events so that we can perceive more clearly--understand--why they occur. In other words, science looks to the world to explain the world. That has proven more adaptive and practical than non-science which looks to out-of-this-world "realities"--God, metaphysics--to account for what is given to experience. Persons who have a romantic view of reality are in this respect analogous to scientists--they suppose that life redeems life, that is, that what the world affords to experience is pleasant enough--provided we take the trouble to look and explore what's available--to make the work of surviving from day to day, enduring loss and pain along the way, worth the effort.
Keenan's preference for fantasies over reality reflects the nonscientific biases of mainstream psychology. Better, I think, if you want to develop an appetite and affection for truth, to read our strong poets and steer clear of way too heady neuroscience (at least of the kind that Keenan is selling).

Author of above comment--forgot to include my name when I wrote it.

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