Friday, July 22, 2011

Constructing a Narrative

We recently read a fascinating book titled Incognito, written by neuroscientist David Eagleman (who also wrote the terrific little book Sum). In short, the book is about consciousness, and the remarkably minor a role it plays in our brain's activities. Incognito refers to all the action that goes on underneath, of which we are neither aware nor able to consciously influence. The whole book is well worth a read, but there was one part in particular that resonated with us--the concept that what we see as "reality" is nothing more than a carefully constructed narrative presented to our conscious mind by the inaccessible parts of the brain.

To illustrate, Eagleman recounts the story of an illuminating experiment. To give you context, one area that has interested brain researchers for some time has been the fact that while our brain processes things as different speeds (sound faster than vision, for example), we are not consciously aware of this. Thus, when we see a batter hit the ball (assuming we are at close enough range), while we perceive the sight and sound simultaneously, the sound is actually available several milliseconds ahead of the visual. In essence, our brain "holds" the sound so it can present the two events together, thus constructing what it views as the most consistent narrative of reality.

So far, so good. Well, what Eagleman did was to set up an ingenious experiment to trick the brain, and in so doing expose this little ruse for what it is--simply another illusion presented as "reality." In the experiment, when subjects pressed a button a flash of light immediately appeared. At some point, the experimenters introduced a small lag effect, so the dot appeared a tenth of a second after pushing the button. However, after a few times the brain "learned" the delay, and the events once again appeared simultaneous. Then, the experimenters once again made them simultaneous, which caused the subjects to perceive the flash of light before pressing the button.

At first, this may seem a small issue--after all, who cares if our brains delay things by a tenth of a second here or there to make things more comprehensible? But this is only the tip of the iceberg (again, read the book...). Eagleman also talks of people who go blind but still fervently insist they can see, those who have mixed up senses (eg, they "experience" colors as tastes ), and an individual who developed a sudden and inexplicable interest in child porn that turned out to be due to a brain tumor (when they removed the tumor his interest went away; when he became interested again a couple of years later, it turned out they had missed some of the tumor).

The bottom line is that, for as solid as the "I" feels, and as much as we want to believe we are experiencing what is "truly" out there, such beliefs are nothing more than convenient fictions; lies, in fact, made vastly more believable since we tell them to ourselves.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Life is a gamble

We have been trying to learn Spanish and to this end our profesora sometimes has us read bits of Spanish poetry or pithy sayings to keep things interesting. We’ve warmed up to the Spanish philosophers of the anti-scholastic tradition, who seem to have some absurd elements in their worldview.

They resisted the urge of their northern neighbors to rationalize and explain everything. They tended to view the world as chaotic, unpredictable and unreliable. As author Deborah Bennett put it:

“Their position runs roughly as follows: Nature and we humans conspired in creating a difficult and largely intractable environment. Spanish philosophy has tended to keep reason in its place. It inclines to see reality, or at any rate that part of it that constitute the setting for human life, as chaotic, incoherent, pervaded by disorder. Life is precarious…. In all our doings and undertakings, we humans give hostages to fortune.”

They advised that people be flexible and prepared to play many roles. In fact, Spanish literature offers up the model of el picaro, a sort of chameleon, “a person who manages to attune himself to the requirements of moment.”

Versatility, adaptability and an inclination to eschew grand plans…. These were parcels of the Spanish anti-scholastics. And we find they ring true with the absurd man and inspire absurd thoughts.

Of course, these Spaniards weren’t really absurd, because they had all kinds of maxims about what’s important and what isn’t and essentially were moralists of a certain stripe. (See Balthazar Gracian, for instance). But they had a good premise.

This desire to check reason and keep it in its place is particularly practical. Often we find people (including ourselves) trying to rationalize different actions and things. Why do I like this and not that? Why did I do that and not this?

We’ve found it helpful to check such thinking. This compulsion to constantly explain oneself is something that we find anti-absurd. First, it reinforces the ideas that you are important, which you are not. (Nor is anybody else!) Second, it reinforces the illusion of a unique self that is seemingly in control of what’s going on, which it isn’t. And third, who cares! Really, life is absurd, to be lived in the moment, with no regrets, accepting what card comes from the deck with equanimity.

In fact, Gracian favored comparing life to card games, where chance played a big role. He said, “In this life, fate mixes the cards as she likes, without consulting our wishes in the matter. And we have no choice but to play the hand she deals to us.”

True. But we can choose to play the hand in an absurd manner – with adaptability, flexibility and indifference as to the outcome of the bets!