David Eagleman is the author of one of my favourite books of the last few years: Sum, which imagines 40 different versions of the after-life. You know how book-reviewers say ‘I couldn’t put it down’, well, Sum is the opposite sort of book. It keeps on sparking reveries in you, that make you put the book down, stare into space, and wonder. He’s also the author of the first ever book written solely for iPad – Why The Net Matters: Six Easy Ways to Avert the Collapse of Civilization. I haven’t read it, not having an iPad, but it looks cool. When he’s not writing futuristic e-books or brilliant fictional imaginings of the afterlife, Eagleman is a respected neuroscientist, and his new book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, is his first to directly investigate what neuroscience tells us about our selves.
Incognito‘s chief thesis is this: “Most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control. The vast jungles of neurons operate their own programs. The conscious you – the I that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning – is the smallest bit of what’s transpiring in your brain. Although we are dependent on the functioning of the brain for our inner lives, it runs its own show. Most of its operations are above the security clearance of the conscious mind. The I simply has no right of entry.”
Eagleman insists that we are not one self, but legion: our brains are made up of “multiple, overlapping experts who weigh in and compete over different choices. As Walt Whitman correctly surmised, we are large, and we harbour multitudes within us. And those multitudes are locked in chronic battle.” He shows us how neuroscientific research over the last three decades has given rise to this view of the self as multiple competing centres which often know little of each other. We meet Phineas Gage, the worker whose pre-frontal cortex was damaged in an accident and who inspired Antonio Damasio’s investigation into the critical role of the pre-frontal cortex in reasoning; we meet Michael Gazzaniga’s spilt-brain patients, and see how their two neural hemispheres operate independently of each other; we meet the dual-processor theory of the mind, which has been popular in cognitive psychology for several decades, which suggests that our minds are separated into competing rational and emotional thinking systems.
The research Eagleman relies on is not particularly new. The idea that our behaviour is mainly unconscious, emotive and automatic has been dominant in neuroscience and social psychology since the 1980s, thanks to books like Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error (1994), and John Bargh’s The New Unconscious (1989). Tom Wolfe used the evidence to draw similar conclusions to Eagleman in an article in Forbes in 1996, called Sorry But Your Soul Just Died. Wolfe wrote: “The conclusion people out beyond the laboratory walls are drawing is: The fix is in! We’re all hardwired! That, and: Don’t blame me! I’m wired wrong!”
Where Eagleman is more interesting and original is in the penultimate chapter, on the implications of neuroscience for the legal and justice systems. He explores the case of Charles Whitman, the decorated soldier and family man, who one day in 1966 climbed the clock-tower at the University of Texas in Austin, and shot 55 people. The night before his rampage, Whitman had written: “ I do not really understand myself these days.” He asked that scientists operate on his brain after his death to find out what was wrong: they did, and discovered he had a brain tumour pressing on his amygdala, a region of the brain that creates emotional judgements. (Actually, Whitman had a history of anti-social behaviour before the tumour, did a lot of amphetamine, and had been court-martialled from the Army, although Eagleman doesn’t mention any of this).
He gives other interesting examples of physical changes in the brain leading to drastic emotional, behavioural and moral changes: a man who, in middle age, abruptly developed a taste for paedophilia. His wife, wondering at this sudden perversion, took him in for a medical examination, which revealed a brain tumour. This was removed and with it went the man’s taste for little girls. But then the paedophilia came back again. Another scan revealed the tumour had returned. Can we hold these people morally accountable for their actions, any more than we can hold a schizophrenic accountable if they kill their family under the influence of psychotic hallucinations? Eagleman seems to think we can’t – and wonders if, as neuroscience develops, we will begin to realize the extent to which all of our behaviour is similarly neuro-conditioned.
What would that mean, for our legal system? He writes: “As far as the legal system sees it, humans are practical reasoners. We use conscious deliberation when deciding how to act. We make our own decisions…This view of the practical reasoner is both intuitive and…deeply problematic….After all, we are driven to be who we are by vast and complex biological networks. We do not come to the table as blank slates, free to take in the world and come to open-ended decisions. In fact, it is not clear how much the conscious you – as opposed to the genetic and neural you – gets to do any deciding at all.”
He quotes Lord Bingham, the UK’s senior law lord: “In the past, the law has tended to base its approach…on a series of rather crude working assumptions: adults of competent mental capacity are free to choose whether they will act in one way or another; they are presumed to act rationally…they are credited with such foresight of the consequences of their actions as reasonable people in their position could ordinarily be expected to have…Whatever the merits or demerits of working assumptions such as these in the ordinary range of cases, it is evident that they do not provide a uniformly accurate guide to human behaviour.”
Eagleman decides that, given the evidence for neuroscientific determinism, the legal system should shift from a blame culture (‘he was at moral fault and should be held accountable’) to biological explanations: “criminals should always be treated as incapable of having acted otherwise.” If someone commits a criminal act, then that “should be taken as evidence of brain abnormality, regardless whether currently measurable problems can be pin-pointed.”
Of course, we still need to protect society from people with messed up neural circuitry. That’s why Eagleman suggests a ‘forward-looking legal system’ that asks “how is a person likely to behave in the future”. When sentencing a person, a judge should be able to look at the person’s bio-file: their background, their environment, their DNA, and their brain-imaging, and that should let the judge know with reasonable certainty the chances of the person committing another crime. If they are at very high risk, biologically, then they need a longer sentence.
As so often, this vision of the future seems to have been anticipated by the genius, Philip K. Dick, particularly in his short story, Minority Report, which imagines a justice system called ‘Precrime’, in which pre-cog psychics predict crimes before they happen, and the ‘criminal’ is captured and locked away, before they have the chance to commit the crime. Of course, the system can sometimes go wrong, but on the whole it works and has managed to rid society almost entirely of crime – at the cost of free will, but that’s a small price to pay for a crime-less society. The precriminals might complain that they are being condemned for a probability, but as Tom Wolfe wrote: “Science is a court from which there is no appeal.”
But what do we do with the criminals, or precriminals, once we have locked them away? Our prisons would be, even more than they are today, vast security-hospitals for the mentally unsound, housing ever-greater numbers of the biologically unfit as our knowledge of neural illness expands. Would they simply fester inside their whole lives, condemned for the crimes they will probably commit? Or could we simply alter their brains through surgery and chemistry, like the states of Florida and California, who chemically castrate sex criminals who offend twice?
Eagleman offers a more liberal solution, which he calls the ‘pre-frontal workout’. Most criminals commit crimes, he suggests, because they are not very good at suppressing their automatic limbic impulses with their pre-frontal cortices. They have not learnt to regulate their emotions, inhibit their impulses, and control themselves. But perhaps they could learn, with the help of brain-scanning technology. Using brain scans, criminals could see when they are successfully resisting the neural impulse to, say, have a cigarette, or kill someone – all they have to do is train themselves to develop this faculty of impulse-control, and they might be able to be released back into society.
It’s at this point that I wondered how determinist exactly Eagleman’s vision of human nature is. By suggesting that humans can consciously train themselves to control their impulses, isn’t he saying that we do, in fact, have free will, and therefore can be held accountable for our actions?
It also strikes me that his vision of the psyche owes a great deal to ancient philosophy, and could be enriched by greater direct engagement with it. He doesn’t mention the fact that his central metaphor – of human nature being a riotous society of competing impulses engaged in civil war – comes from Plato’s Republic, the most famous work of philosophy in western culture. This is a curious omission, because I’m sure Eagleman has read it. Plato also suggested that human identity is, in its untrained form, a riot of competing selves, or a household without a ruler as he put it. He invented the dual processor theory of the psyche, the idea that we have rational and impulsive centres competing in our brain, and this dual processor theory was later developed by Aristotle, the Stoics, Diogenes – and by Gurdjieff in the 20th century, who seems to have anticipated so much of modern neuroscience. Eagleman notes that our psyche seems full of conflicting impulses – the Greeks noted exactly the same phenomenon. ‘We mean to turn right, but instead we turn left. So it is with the psyche‘, as Aristotle wrote in the Nichomachean Ethics.
The Greek philosophers did not claim that humans are born free, rational, moral and self-aware creatures. Exactly the opposite. They said that humans, in their raw form, are unconscious, unaware, automatic, impulsive, and ruled almost entirely by their unexamined assumptions and unresisted appetites. We ‘sleepwalk through life’, as Socrates put it.
However, the Greeks believed that we can perhaps become more free, more rational, more moral and more self-aware through philosophical training – or askesis, as they called it. We can learn to track ourselves, so we become more aware of how our unconscious, automatic selves typically behave. We can learn to scrutinize our beliefs and hold them up to rational enquiry. We can practice impulse control, and strengthen it through practice.
When we do this, we strengthen what the Greeks called our ‘ruling faculty’. We go from being a society in a state of civil war, to a society with a relatively functioning executive faculty. Eagleman seems to agree with this – he calls consciousness a ‘CEO’, who only intervenes occasionally in our behaviour, to set long-term conscious goals and to adjudicate between competing impulses. What he calls the CEO, the Greeks called the ‘director’, the ‘governor’, the ‘steersman’.
Most humans have the capacity to develop this ruling faculty within us, through practice and training. We can develop our reason, and try to live more rational and morally coherent lives. It is possible that our brains become so biologically sick that this faculty is disabled. That will happen to a lot of us, when we get senile dementia. But it is actually more resilient than you might think, if you train it – and there’s evidence that training your brain can help you resist dementia, and stay conscious and free for longer than you would have without cognitive training.
Another great writer on neuroscience, Jonah Lehrer, wrote recently: “We can dramatically improve our self-control and impulse regulation, if only we practice. Consider a 1999 study by the psychologists Mark Muraven, Roy Baumeister and Diane Tice. The researchers asked a group of students to improve their posture for two weeks. Instead of slouching, they were told to focus on sitting up straight. Interestingly, these students showed a marked improvement on subsequent measures of self-control, at least when compared to a group that didn’t work on their posture. Why? Because they practiced a little self-control, just like those kids trying not to display their tics. And practice makes perfect.” So neuroscience is returning to the Greeks’ belief that we can develop self-awareness, self-control, moral choice and, yes, virtue, through askesis.
Eagleman oversells the biological model of psychotherapy, and undersells the cognitive model. He undersells the extent to which we can become aware of our biology, and can consciously manage it – not through drugs, but through rational self-government. For example, Eagleman makes a lot of the success of SSRIs and other pharmaceutical treatments of depression. But SSRIs turned out to be only as successful as placebos in the treatment of depression. By contrast, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has shown greater success in treating depression, social anxiety and other emotional disorders. And CBT is based on ancient Greek philosophy, and its assumption that we can consciously choose what we believe and how we act.
This issue is quite close to my heart, because as a teenager I suffered from serious depression and social anxiety after doing too many drugs. And I saw many of my friends go off the rails through drug use as well, including one of my best friends becoming a schizophrenic after the heavy use of cannabis and LSD. For several years, I was plagued by panic attacks, depression and anxiety, and I was terrified that I had simply messed up my neuro-chemical personality (my ‘self’) through the chemicals I had ingested, and that the only solution was to take anti-depressants for the rest of my life. And I found that depressing: it seemed to rob me of any control over my self, and meant I had to outsource my wellbeing to pharmaceutical companies.
After several years, I came across CBT, and through it ancient Greek philosophy, and discovered there the idea that what was causing my emotional suffering was my beliefs and judgements, over which I could exert my conscious and free control. Specifically, I held core beliefs like ‘I must be liked by people, and if I am not, it is my fault’. Gradually, I learnt to be more aware of these toxic beliefs and how they were leading to my negative emotions of despair, anxiety and paranoia. And I learnt to question these beliefs, to hold them up to rational enquiry, and to think differently. And as I practiced this askesis, my negative emotions gradually transformed. That made me feel more in control, more autonomous, and happier.
If you had taken a brain scan of my brain in the worst of my depression, I’m sure you would have seen that my brain activity looked a lot like other depressed or traumatized people – and you could have used that to argue that my illness was physically determined and out of my control. And if you took a brain scan of my brain now, I think you would see that it looks relatively healthy. So what happened? Well, I changed it. Other things helped: my culture, the internet, the fact I could research my illness, discover CBT, and find a local CBT support group for social anxiety, the fact I have a loving family. But you still can’t get away from that weak, flickering and fragile thing called consciousness, which enabled me to choose to think differently to my automatic programming.
And my story is far from unique. There’s a lot of neuroscientific evidence that shows how people who successfully practice CBT change the neural activity in their brain. That is what is apparently unique about humans: we can know ourselves, and we can change ourselves. And because we have that capacity – we can be held responsible for our actions.
I’m not saying that my social anxiety and depression was my ‘fault’, that I was being vicious or self-indulgent. Of course not. No one really wishes to suffer. But my thoughts and beliefs were under my control, and therefore my emotional suffering was my responsibility. And when I learnt to take responsibility for my beliefs, I gradually retained a sense of control and emotional equanimity. I certainly don’t believe all mental illnesses are subject to this sort of rational philosophical therapy. But many of them are – even psychotic disorders (see this post for one story of how someone managed their psychotic hallucinations using their reason).
From the point of view of criminal rehabilitation, the success of CBT offers the hopeful prospect that inmates can be trained and educated to be more self-aware, to understand better how their emotions are under their control and are their responsibility (rather than the world’s fault), and to control their impulses, just as Eagleman suggests. And in fact, this is already happening, through prison rehab programmes like CALM in the UK, which trains people to control their anger using rational techniques of self-management that originate in Greek philosophy (and which don’t require expensive brain-scanning equipment, which is always a boon in this age of austerity).
The most interesting work in psychology at the moment, it seems to me, is exploring not how human identity is unconscious, automatic and outside of our control. That work was done in the 1980s and 1990s, and nothing particularly new has been added to it in the last few years. No – the more interesting work is looking at consciousness, what it is, what it does, and how we can develop it. How can we increase our self-knowledge? How can technology help us to track ourselves and know ourselves? How can we develop our self-control through training? How can we increase our agency, our autonomy, our freedom, our humanity?
And the big question these lesser questions are leading to: what is consciousness? What is it made of? Can we gain more of it through training? Can we become more free? Can we develop ourselves until we fulfill our potential, and become not mere automatons, but humans? I know Eagleman also considers such questions, and he remains one of our best hopes for interesting responses in the future.