From time to time, I get into a groove — or a rut, depending on your interest level. This is one of those times.
My reading has taken a definite twist. A month or two ago, I was reading everything that I could find on animal behaviour, and for a while that focus was reflected in what I posted here. Right now, I’m most interested in how we process information and how what’s “out there” is perceived “in here.”
As a result, I’ve either recently finished or am still reading all of these books on subjects related to this “out/in” relationship:
The Believing Brain
Don’t Think of an Elephant!
The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
How Self Comes to Mind
Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
The Tell-Tale Brain
Why People Believe Weird Things
Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind in the Novel
Some, like Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind and Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain, are fairly serious and scientific. Others, like Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant! and Carr’s The Shallows, have pretty obvious political and social agendas. And Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction is a long overdue application of cognitive theory to literary criticism.
It’s a wide-ranging group, but in one way or another, all of these books centre on the idea that there are specific, physical mechanisms in our brains, and that their processes shape our ideas, beliefs, and emotions, which then motivate our behaviour.
Some people find this notion threatening, as if knowing how a DVD is made ruins the experience of watching a movie. If there’s no mystery, they believe, there’s no human dignity. If we know how we do what we do, they fear, we’ll lose our sense of independence, of “free will.”
For some reason, for these people it’s OK to know how the blood circulates, but not how chemical signals animate our brain cells.
Of course, we know the reason — we don’t think of circulating blood as being “us,” but rather as simply a process within our bodies. Our feelings and thoughts, on the other hand, are “who we are.”
And if we are a mélange of electro-chemical relays, where’s the “self”? Where’s the ineffable part that makes us special?
These are questions that come up over and over, which is a good sign that they’re pretty fundamental. Asking is a kind of seeking, and I can’t imagine that there are many people who wouldn’t seek to be important, even central, in the scheme of the cosmos.
But to focus more productively on what’s real rather than on what’s desired, we are left with a working brain, a processor of such complexity and subtlety that to call it merely a “processor” produces a pathetically inadequate image, unworthy of an amalgamation of circuits that have more connections than we can count. And these connections aren’t welded in place; they’re constantly altering themselves, shutting down some pathways, opening others, constructing and demolishing clumps and groups of neurons in a dynamic process so intricate that it beggars our ability to describe it.
And here’s where I am disappointed with the brain science deniers, those who want to preserve the unknowable entity of the “self”: It surpasses my understanding why anyone would want to downgrade the incredible spectacle that is the working brain.
Why, for all the world, would one wish to remain in the metaphysical dark, eyes closed, able only to imagine — and feebly so, at that — the wonders that exist before our eyes, if only we open them?
How much better it is to look, to see, to marvel at the greatest spectacle in our existence!
To declare the “soul” a mystery or the “self” an inviolable entity is to be like someone who travels to the seashore to watch the sunset through closed eyes. He knows that something is happening outside his eyelids, but he’s sensing just a few smudges of lighter and darker gray. He’s in Plato’s cave, by his own choice.
He has no idea what colours are really out there, because he’s afraid that he’ll be disappointed or lose his fantasy image if he looks.
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I’ve already written reviews here of Incognito, The Information, and Self Comes to Mind. (See SELECTED REVIEWS for links.) In postings to come, they’ll serve as background, but I won’t belabour them by repeating myself in any detail.
I’m very interested in Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction, and an article combining The Believing Brain with Shermer’s earlier Why We Believe Weird Things seems warranted. The Shallows is another worthy candidate for a closer look.
So expect to see these books featured here in the coming weeks.