There's good reason to think we are zombies. I'm OK with that.
Ah, the stories we tell ourselves. About our self. Likely on planet Earth only we humans do this. Somehow our brains have evolved the capacity to conjure up stories featuring our favorite subject, Me, that often, if not usually, are far from the truth.
I've started reading a compelling book, “Selfie,” by Will Storr. Subtitle: “How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us."
In a chapter called The Tribal Self, Storr tells the tale of a gangster guy, John, in Great Britain who did despicable things, including beating someone badly outside of a London nightclub, as mentioned in the passage from the book that I've shared below.
Yet John managed to rationalize his behavior as not only being acceptable, but even exemplary, since he was standing up for the members of his "tribe." Which is what we all do, since culture has a much greater influence on us than we assume, given that, like fish, we swim in a cultural sea that is normally almost entirely invisible to us, since it both surrounds us and, to a large extent, is us.
Below is a passage from that chapter that I really liked. Storr speaks here about subjects that I've read about in many other books about modern neuroscience, yet rarely, if ever, expressed so clearly and passionately.
The passage starts off with a mention of our brain's "interpreter."
This isn't a language translator. Rather, it is, as Storr puts it, "...your internal monologue, the chatty voice that narrates it all, interpreting everything that's happening to you, discussing it with you, making theories about it, never shutting up."
This being a blog, where I write about stuff and other people comment on what I've written (or, as often happens, comment on something else entirely), there's a heck of a lot of interpreting going on. So read on to learn what modern neuroscience and psychology have to say about the stories we tell ourselves.
(The bad news is, we're zombies! And the good news is, we're zombies!)
Will Storr writes:
The disconcerting truth is that we all have interpreters narrating our lives, and they’re all just guessing. We all confabulate, all the time. We’re moving around the world, doing things and feeling things and saying things, for myriad unconscious reasons, whilst a specific part of the brain constantly strives to create a makes-sense narrative of what we’re up to and why.
But the voice has no direct access to the real reasons we do anything. It doesn’t really know why we feel the things we feel and why we do the things we do. It’s making it up.
Since these experiments [with split-brain patients], study after study has demonstrated ordinary, everyday confabulation in non-split-brain participants. My favourite involves people who were shown two photos of the opposite sex and asked to choose which they were most attracted to. The photos were then placed face down and, with a magician’s sleight of hand, switched.
The photos were then shown again, now in the wrong positions. Incredibly, only 17 per cent of of participants noticed that they’d been switched. Those that didn’t notice were asked to give a detailed explanation as to why they’d found this person more attractive, as opposed to the other one. They merely confabulated away, listing all the reasons, even though they were actually describing the wrong person.
Our brains invent stories like this because they want to make us feel like we’re in control of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. The guesses the interpreter makes might be right. But they might just as easily be wrong.
‘When we set out to explain our actions, they are all post-hoc explanations using post-hoc observations with no access to nonconscious processing,’ writes Gazzaniga. Any inconvenient facts that don’t fit with the interpreter’s story are ignored or suppressed. ‘That “you” that you’re so proud of is a story woven together by your interpreter module to account for as much of your behaviour as it can incorporate, and it denies and rationalizes the rest.’
All this means that ‘listening to people’s explanations for their actions is interesting but often a waste of time.'
If this is correct, it leads us toward an uneasy conclusion,. Imagine, for a moment, that a human works like this: you’re a zombie, just behaving automatically, sometimes chaotically, and the only reason you think you’re in control of your behaviour is that you have a dishonest voice in your head that tells you that you are.
When you do something, like decide who you fancy, or beat someone nearly to death outside a London nightclub, your little voice tells you those acts were the result of conscious decisions made by you, and then lists all the reasons you were right — but actually you’re like a zombie, with no free will, being fooled into believing you have the ability to make conscious choices by your lying little voice.
Wouldn’t that be odd?
Well, yes. It’s also widely believed to be true. The disconcerting fact is that what we do in the world is, depending on which academic you believe, either largely or wholly controlled by our unconscious.
‘If you devote your time to thinking about what the brain, hormones, genes, evolution, childhood, foetal environment and so on have to do with behaviour, as I do,’ writes the professor of biology, neuroscience and neurosurgery Robert Sapolsky, ‘it seems simply impossible to think there is free will.’
Most of those who argue that we do have free will believe its power to be limited, marginal or conditional. The illusion that we have it in the way we think we do is perhaps the most important and most devious job of the self.
Well, I find it to be strangely comforting to know that, no matter how the world appears to me, the stories I have in my head about my life, my beliefs, my behavior, my sense of right and wrong, my conception of my place in the grand cosmic scheme of things — all those stories really aren’t under my conscious control, but have popped out of the dark recesses of my unconscious, accompanied by a falsehood that feels good, but almost certainly isn’t true: “You are the author of these stories, via your own free will.”
Being a zombie strikes me as a pretty damn good thing, actually.
It means that who I am, deep down, is very different from whom I appear to be to myself. Since I love mysteries, this leaves me with a primal, albeit probably unanswerable, question:
Who am I, when I’m not busy embracing stories about myself that my unconscious conjures up, which I mistakenly assume to be my own conscious creation?”