Jim Fleming: Are you driving right now? If not, just think a second here to do a little exercise with me. Okay. 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 pony tail. That area under your skull is where you are. Well, at least, that’s what the brain scientists think. That’s also where the “you”who knows you're you lives. But, how does it all work? Julian Keenan studies the neuroscience of the self, Anne Strainchamps spoke with him.
Anne Strainchamps: This age old question, “How do you know you're you?”is a hard question to ask who’s the “I” asking the question.
Julian Keenan: Right. That’s one of the first complicated questions here. In science, we call it the “Cartesian Theater,”the idea that there's someone inside my head looking at someone inside my head who’s looking at someone inside my head and you keep going in that circle. Immediately, from that problem, we jump to a new problem which is once I figure out that I may, how do I know that you're you.
Strainchamps: Self-awareness is painful a lot of the time. I mean, some people are obviously more self-conscious than others, but almost all of us have had the experience. You get up, you get dressed in the morning, you look at yourself in the mirror and you think, “Oh, I wish I were in better shape.”Or, you have to give a talk in front of a lot of people and you feel like you're just going to die of self-consciousness. Why is our self awareness painful a lot of the time?
Keenan: Yes. This is a great question, Anne, and it's the one I love to talk about. I think it's because I'm an evolutionist that I'm so negative. The negative aspects of the self are clear. I don’t think as I'm speaking here today, my cat is ruminating about a [xx] she’s had in the past and she's planning for the future, certainly not to the extent that I'm able to do it. The resentments that build, we go back in the past and we play out what we should have said, we go into the future and we say, “I'm going to say this.”When you don’t say that, then you have another chance to go in the back in the past and hate yourself. So, clearly having yourself can be a curse, and what we look at is how the self helps create the deceptive world and how it winds up leading to a lot of self-deception.
Strainchamps: How do you mean? So, having a sense of self means sort of inexplicably that we're lying to ourselves?
Keenan: I think so. I went into this pretty naive, and I think most people think this way, that the self is a wonderful to have, at least to art and music and just tremendous things like jazz and abstractionism and great literature. However, on the other side, psychological studies began to come out, a number of interesting findings were being published. One was the strength of false memories and how many of our memories are, in fact, not real memories. Then another sort of line of research was coming out showing how often people deceive, not only to others, but to themselves. So, we think that one of the key components of the self is molding reality not so that it's real but so that it's palatable.
Strainchamps: Wow! So, my sense of self is really kind of a story or even a lie, that I tell myself in order to kind of ease my progress through life?
Keenan: And it gets worse. I don’t know if you want to hear the “and it gets worse”part.
Strainchamps: Yes. Come on. Go ahead.
Keenan: But there's a whole line of research that then shows that one of the things the self maybe doing is leading you to believe you have free will when you have no free will. For example, a series of elegant experiments from the ‘80s by someone named Labette [sp] began to demonstrate that when we reach for an object, so right now I'm reaching for a cup, the arm moves first and then the frontal lobe gets involved, then the self gets involved after the decision is made. What the self does is thinks that it made the decision but the arm was moving before the self even knew that the arm was moving. So, there's this idea that free will is an illusion and your sense of self helps to create that illusion that you have free will.
Strainchamps: Wait. You mean, the body moves first and then the brain catches up? But then, why does the body moved? Why did you reach for the cup?
Keenan: What we think is that there's these areas of the brain that get involved, that are reptilian old parts of the brain, they’ve been around for a long time. They're very reflexive and they're just tied into some very basic motor systems. They get engaged and then your arm moves in about two seconds later than your frontal lobe gets involved and says, “Oh, yes, I meant to move it.”
Strainchamps: What does that say about higher orders of decisions that we make? You know, “I'm going to invest in this stock”or “I'm going to take the job.”
Keenan: Or, “I'm going to marry this person.”
Keenan: We're looking at that right now. Right now, we have the study plan. We're having people make a decision of two very benign objects, two different coffee cups, two different garbage cans, two different blades of grass. What we think is that we can influence which direction they go in by a single one of their hemispheres. After they make this decision, they'll come up with a perfectly rational explanation for why they’ve decided it.
Strainchamps: How do you bias somebody’s hemispheres?
Keenan: Well, we have this wonderful machine known as a trans-cranial magnetic stimulator. So creating the bias isn't the magic, we've known about that for a long time. It's once people have that bias in their brain, well, they realize that they have it, and we're pretty sure that they won't, that they’ll come up with any other explanation like, like that garbage can because it was grayer, or some sort of irrational explanation. If this extreme view is true, then we think that a lot of our higher order decisions may come from pretty old parts of the brain, and we only rationalize them later.
Strainchamps: So there's this secondary aspect to self awareness that you said. Can you explain the theory of mind?
Keenan: Sure. The idea is that I have these thoughts, therefore, when I look across a room and I see another human being, I think that they have the same thoughts that I have. So I can think about what you're thinking about, I can think about what you're thinking about my thinking, and you can think about what I'm thinking about what you're thinking about my thinking. We can go back and forth with this like cognitive gymnastics where we get into each other’s minds. If we can think about my thoughts and my wife’s thoughts, it makes for a much richer social interaction than if I'm only thinking about my thoughts, which does happen on occasion. So, the idea is that having self awareness leads to the awareness of others which then allows for complex social interactions. Really leads for a much richer life, particularly a much fuller social life.
Strainchamps: Do these two things, myself awareness and my awareness of you, do these things reinforce each other? Have anything to do with each other?
Keenan: Absolutely. So, the way I see myself, in part, comes through your eyes. So, if I know everybody in the room is thinking that I just played the worst guitar solo in the world, then I start to think I'm a very bad guitar player. So clearly, how I think about what you're thinking about me will influence, ultimately, how I think about me.
Strainchamps: Are you saying we use other people as mirrors?
Keenan: Absolutely. But it's also one of the greatest training tools. I mean, that’s how we work with our kids. I tried to build up my daughter’s self confidence by telling her that she's the best hockey player in the world. Hopefully, she'll start to believe it and then that will improve her performance.
Strainchamps: I just keep thinking that you're saying is that much of our experience of life and of the world and even of ourselves is a lie.
Keenan: Yes. And you can either be depressed about it or just go for the ride. A lot of these remain still to be confirmed or replicated, but a lot of the indications are that we are living in a deceptive world, at best, perhaps a false world in its most extreme.
Strainchamps: What I'm trying to figure out what the consequences are of everything you’ve laid out. We have no free will, we're basically lying ourselves through life. What do you do with those insights? Should you just sit back and enjoy the dream or should we all be meditating very hard and trying to lose our sense of self?
Keenan: I'm going to go with the form, or I think a lot of self deceptions goes a long way, that giving yourself positive affirmations in the mirror, whether you believe them or not, would probably be the route I would suggest taking. You know, surrounding yourself with people who, even though you know they're lying to you, as long as you're saying good things, that’s probably a healthy way to go. The alternative scares me. We used to think people with clinical depression didn’t see the world realistically, they saw it in an overly negative light. Well, it turns out, they're seeing it quite realistically and it's you and I who were seeing it in an overly rosy light, we're the ones not in reality. So, the suggestion is that reality is a somewhat scary place to be.
Strainchamps: So the purpose of therapy is to learn to be better at lying.
Keenan: Absolutely. It clearly puts into question this idea of deception is morality, “Thou shalt not lie.” Well, then thou shalt be depressed.
Strainchamps: Do you ever wonder who would be if we didn’t have any self awareness?
Keenan: I wonder that about the chimpanzees, because clearly there are signs that they have some self awareness. Maybe the Buddhists are around to something that when you go on top of the mountain for 20 years, you lose that sense of self. Maybe there's some serenity there. There’d better be after 20 years, there’d better be something at the end.
Strainchamps: I think we do all have that feeling that we wish we could escape ourselves.
Keenan: Yes. I'm sure Anheuser-Busch is very appreciative of that attitude. I think that’s why we have drugs and alcohol, and it's a way to get out of ourselves, that inner voice of those introspective moments that are kind of painful.
Strainchamps: Julian, this has been enlightening. Thank you so much.
Keenan: Well, I'm glad we're still laughing. Thank you so much.
Strainchamps: I think that’s all we can do.
Keenan: That is all we can do. Thank you so much.