I live with the nonchalance of the witless, clutching at unsupported convictions on matters political, religious, and social, about which we can know nothing except what we interpret from our impaired position behind the curtain, everything mediated by the brain, everything adrift in the cosmos.

This dark edged sentence appeared in a recent email from my friend Andrew. He’s got a way of seeing that comes in strong and stops me short. But always well crafted. He does words so well.

But he isn’t far off from recent findings in neuro research. Evidence is emerging that substantiates his view of brain function that is undaunted by the force field of our personality or impressed in any way with our precious determined will.

From a review of David Eagleman’s new book, Incognito, by Laurence Phelan in the Independent:

When Galileo observed that we are not, in fact, at the centre of our solar system, man’s initial shock at the dethronement gave way to an exponential increase in his awe at the vastness and complexity of the universe.

In Incognito, the neuroscientist David Eagleman argues that something analogous happened in the 20th century. What Freud intuited and neuroscience has confirmed is that the vast majority of your neural activity occurs at levels for which the conscious you, “the ‘I’ that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning”, just doesn’t have security clearance. “The conscious mind is not at the centre of the action in the brain; instead, it is far out on a distant edge, hearing but whispers of the activity …. A mere 400 years after our fall from the centre of the universe, we have experienced the fall from the centre of ourselves.”

Things which seem to come naturally to you, such as instincts, appetites, perceptions, desires and motor functions, seem so, not because they don’t require much brain activity, but because they’re the product of neural sub-routines that run more efficiently when the conscious mind isn’t invited to get involved. A large part of Incognito is dedicated to the ingenious experiments, fascinating behavioural quirks, and bizarre case studies from which we can nevertheless infer what’s going on in there. For example, why can’t you tickle yourself unless you’re schizophrenic; how do Parkinson’s medications cause compulsive gambling; and what’s going on when a patient has Anton’s syndrome (the failure to recognise one’s own blindness), synaesthesia (the condition in which sensory perceptions are blended, such that one might hear a colour), or alien hand syndrome (which is much as it sounds, and disturbingly like a scene in The Evil Dead)?

So where does free will come in? What about creativity, the extraordinary occurrence of genius, or the prescient abilities of psychics? I like living with mysteries, so knowing the definitive neural place of residence for these really unexpected aspects of an individual isn’t what I care about. What concerns me is generic, widespread human behaviors that are unconscious and deadly, like being a species that continually reverts to war and destruction, or cannot grasp the need to preserve the health of the world. Sometimes the only response is to just beam me up Scotty.

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*This may be a dated reference. You might need to have come of age in the 60s and 70s to recognize this reference to legendary routine by the Firesign Theatre. It was great stuff back then and still a reasonable observation.

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