Another example of our mental complexity

Last time, I wrote about the incredible complexity of the human brain — and of the mind that it creates. Here’s another example, but the point I take from this one is more squarely focused on the idea that what we like to call “free will” and “choice” are more elusive — more illusory? — than we often care to think.

What would it be like never to feel fear? There are people who don’t. Not very many of them, but still.

In “The curious lives of the people who feel no fear” (March 2013), another pay-walled article in New Scientist, Christie Aschwanden relates the story of a woman known as “SM,” a woman who has no fear of snakes, heights, or anything else. The direct reason is that she has no amygdala.

“SM” has the extremely rare condition known as Urbach-Wiethe disease, an ailment that in her case destroyed the amygdala structures in both hemispheres of her brain.

The general understanding of the amygdala is that it is the seat of our most primitive, primary emotions: fear, surprise, fight or flight. Without this anatomical structure, there is no fear, no surprise, no flight.

It’s interesting in its own right, the thought that our reactions to things that terrify and go bump in the night are generated by a specific and primitive part of the brain.

But more interesting to me is how the case of SM reinforces the ever-more evident reality that much, no, most, of what “I” feel and do goes on without much input or control from whatever it is that “I” am. Perhaps without any.

We know already, of course, that we have entire, complex, vital body systems that operate by themselves, sending and receiving messages and resources in an exquisite ballet of chemicals without our least knowledge or concern. We are generally aware of the global state of these systems, of course. We have feelings (not emotions, mind) of ease or satisfaction, of disquiet or discomfort. These general body states are how we feel the homeostatic condition of our bodies from one moment to the next.

But we have no detailed information. What’s the precise pH reading of your stomach at the moment? I don’t know what mine is, either. Not only that, but we have no control over the operations of most of our body systems. I can hold my breath and temporarily affect the oxygen level in my blood, but I can’t make my hair grow faster — or at all, in some places.

SM feels no fear. She isn’t unemotional, she’s just not afraid. In fact, she’s reported as feeling excitement and keen interest in situations in which you and I would be scared out of our wits.

Traditionally, we attribute the absence of fear (we often call it being “brave”) or the presence of excitement (we often call it being “adventurous”) to personality traits that are within our control — or should be, if only we had enough will power. “Snap out of it!” … “Why are you shaking?” … “But screw your courage to the sticking place,/And we’ll not fail.”

It appears that it’s not like that. Our bodies are run by automated systems of which we have little consciousness. And our most basic feelings emerge from brain structures that we don’t control, at least, not very often.

So how does all of this relate to free will and choice?

It suggests that there just might be less of either of them than we’ve usually thought, or than we’d prefer to believe.

I know, I know. One anecdotal article reporting a rare condition does not the death of free will make. Of course not.

But it is one more piece of evidence that “I” is not the only captain on the boat.

And I don’t think that “I” is the helsman too often, either.




One thought on “Another example of our mental complexity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s