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Apr
17th
Sun
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David Eagleman on the conscious mind

"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. (…)

Consciousness was needed in order to manage an increasing number of complex and competing neural sub-populations. This explains our impulse for coherent narratives, and why we’re able to argue with ourselves, or talk ourselves into something.”

David Eagleman's Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain reviewed by Laurence Phelan in The Independent, 17 April 2011.

“Who can blame you for thinking you deserve the credit? The brain works its machinations in secret, conjuring ideas like tremendous magic. It does not allow its colossal operating system to be probed by conscious cognition. The brain runs its show incognito.”

David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, Pantheon Books, 2011.
“Ours is an incredible story. As far as anyone can tell, we’re the only system on the planet so complex that we’ve thrown ourselves headlong into the game of deciphering our own programming language. Imagine that your desktop computer began to control its own peripheral devices, removed its own cover and pointed its webcam at its own circuitry. That’s us.

And what we’ve discovered by peering under the hood ranks among the most significant intellectual developments of our species: the recognition that the innumerable facets of our behavior, thoughts, and experience are inseparably yoked to a vast, wet, chemical-electrical network called the nervous system. The machinery is utterly alien to us, and yet, somehow, it is us. (…)

Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision making. And most of the time it’s not. Whether we’re talking about dilated eyes, jealousy, attraction, the love of fatty foods, or the great idea you had last week, consciousness is the smallest player in the operations of the brain. (…) Most of what we do and think and feel is not under conscious control. Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it. (…)

The brain is a complex system, but that doesn’t mean it’s incomprehensible. Our neural circuits were carved by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species’ evolutionary history. Your brain is carved by evolutionary pressures just as your spleen and eyes are. And so is your consciousness. Consciousness developed because it was advantageous, but advantageous only in limited amounts. Our conscious minds are limited representations of the activity in our heads. Consciousness is the lowest man on the totem pole in the power structure of the brain. Most of what we do and think and feel is not under conscious control. (…)

Your conscious mind is [like] newspaper. Your brain is buzzing with activity around the clock, and, just like the nation, almost everything transpires locally: small groups are constantly making decisions and sending out messages to other groups. Out of these local interactions emerge larger coalitions. By the time you read a mental headline, the important action has already transpired, the deals are done. You have surprisingly little access to what happened behind the scenes. Entire political movements gain ground-up support and become unstoppable movements before you ever catch wind of them as a feeling or intuition or thought that strikes you. You’re the last one on the chain of command to hear the information.

However, you’re an odd kind of newspaper reader, reading the headline and taking credit for the idea as though you thought of it first. You intuitively say, “I just thought of something,” when in fact your brain is doing enormous amounts of work before the moment of genius strikes. When an idea is served up from behind the scenes, the neural circuitry has been working on the problems for hours or days or years, consolidating information and trying out new combinations. But you merely take credit without further wonderment at the vast, hidden political machinery behind the scenes. (…)

Almost the entirety of what happens in your mental life is not under your conscious control. The truth is that it’s better this way. Consciousness can take all the credit it wants, but it is best left at the sidelines for most of the decision-making that cranks along in your brain. When it meddles in details it doesn’t understand, the operation runs less effectively. Once you start thinking about where your fingers are jumping on the piano keyboard, you can no longer pull off the piece.

To demonstrate the interference of consciousness as a party trick, hand a friend two dry erase markers – one in each hand – and ask him to sign his name with his right hand at the same time that he’s signing it backward (mirror reversed) with his left hand. He will quickly discover that there is only one way he can do it: by not thinking about it. By excluding conscious interference, his hands can do the complex mirror movements with no problem—but if he thinks about his actions, the job gets quickly tangled in a bramble of stuttering strokes. (…)

So consciousness is best left uninvited from most of the parties. When it does get included, it’s usually the last one to hear the information.”

See also:

David Eagleman on how we constructs reality, time perception, and The Secret Lives of the Brain
David Eagleman on Being Yourselves, lecture at Conway Hall, London, 10 April 2011.
Your brain creates your sense of self, incognito, CultureLab, Apr 19, 2011.
☞ David Eagleman, Your Brain Knows a Lot More Than You Realize, DISCOVER Magazine, Oct 27, 2011
Antonio Damasio on consciousness
☞ David Eagleman, Henry Markram, Will We Ever Understand the Brain?, California Academy of Sciences San Francisco, CA, Fora.tv video, 11.02.2011
☞ Consciousness tag on Lapidarium
David Eagleman, neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, Pantheon Books, 2011, p.6, 12. (Illustration source)