(Who’s In Charge?)
If I have always been prone to curiosity then perhaps it’s inevitable that these days, post-crash, I’m especially curious about how my brain behaves. What follows is me exploring and explaining my thoughts – both to me and to you.
Let’s begin with my starting point, which is simple enough: if for whatever reason you think your brain’s behaviour is changing, that has to bring up the question – who’s in charge of that change?
I say it has to because we all like to think we are rational, intelligent beings. That’s our default. And we are beings in the control of – above all else – our brains.
Yes, there may be any number of influences at play in your life – cultural, historical, social, and so on. But they are all influences upon you and how you behave. And your behaviour is controlled by your brain. Thus, the bottom line is that, in effect, you are your brain.
If you don’t accept that … then what? I think it would mean that in one way or another you’re instead accepting that how you behave is out of your control. And if you accept that, then what does that make you?
And that is my ‘background thinking’ as I sit down to write about my changing dreams. If you like, what’s going on in the dark behind your eyes?
My recent dreams have changed. To the extent that I remember them at all, I’d say that my remembered dreams are now more frequent and are quite different in their content. As with most – if not all – dreams, their fundamental role is to wake me. Nothing’s changed in that regard. But lately they – the dreams – are contriving to do so in a less alarmist way.
I can’t say I was beset by nightmares before. (Fortunately, properly horrible dreams have been rare throughout my life.) But while up until recently a dream would have included something ‘bad’ enough to wake me, of late the quality of the ‘bad’ element has been moderated.
Once a dream would need to feature something that I had a history of strongly not liking, in order to prompt an action on my part. Now though, the ‘feature’ things that these calls to action are built upon are less dramatic. My brain feels able to wake me more gently, as it were.
And that is odd.
It is suggesting that my brain now believes it can wake me up with just a nudge rather than a prod. If that is the case, what’s the basis for it? How can my brain have arrived at that decision?
To pause and pick apart that last paragraph, what’s more that’s saying there are two players in that scenario – ‘my brain’ and ‘me’. But thinking about that, none of us are actively, consciously managing what our brain is doing. After all, who could be this ‘manager’, and where would this ‘manager’ be, somehow existing outside of your brain so it can manage it?
That ‘management issue’ aside, just ‘who’ or what is my brain exactly, if it’s independent of ‘me’, and able to act as judge, jury and – as it were – executioner? Because that’s what it is doing, as it judges I can be woken with a nudge now, assesses and agrees with that judgement (i.e. acts as the jury), and then goes ahead and wakes me (acting as executioner). Whatever it is, it certainly seems this thing that is ‘my brain’ has all the control.
I’m aware I’ve tried to grapple with dreams and the brain before – all I can say is that it’s a topic that remains food for thought.
I wondered, before, about how your dreaming brain can seemingly make up narratives and ‘facts’ that you, when awake, have no knowledge about. Thinking about that aspect now, maybe that’s less strange than it might appear. After all, none of us can consciously recall everything you’ve seen, read, heard, thought or experienced. And it is all of that, combined, that is the potential raw material from which all our thoughts (not just dreams) can be created.
If you think of that raw material as potential ingredients, how they’re actually combined is a different issue. How your brain makes the combinations – if you like, the recipes – must be open to change over time. Your brain might gain more potential ‘ingredients’ to add to the mix. Your brain might gain some recipe-making experience too.
I’ve long thought that learning throughout life is a good thing – for people, for brains! However, the issue of how your brain goes about actually making recipes might not be inherently positive. Two aspects come to mind. Firstly, what influences that overall recipe-making process? Secondly, why does your brain respond to those influences in the way that it does?
And then, as I try to grapple with why the brain does what it does, another issue comes barging in.
I’ve read that recent neuroscience can measure brain activity to the millisecond now. And, in a nutshell, that shows that the non-conscious (as opposed to unconscious) part of your brain is active before the conscious part is engaged. Yes, I’m simplifying, but the upshot is that your brain is stimulated into wanting to do something before you’re consciously aware of what the stimulation might be.
So, with this neuroscience in mind, what then is the real role and nature of ‘your brain’ in relation to the conscious ‘you’?
I suppose it depends on what the subject, or target, of the stimulation your brain is responding to actually is.
There’s a fair part of conscious human life that you can categorise under the heading of ‘rational’. All our intricate, extensive and nuanced communication skills and our ability to calculate incredibly complex things are, of course, crucial to all our lives. And to add a crucial third ingredient to the mix – we, humans, can and do create records of all that we do, and these records can be passed on, from generation to generation, culture to culture.
Those three elements – communication, calculation, records – are our core rational skills. We have to learn these – we are not born with them. And they set us apart from all other animals. (Which is not to overlook the skills and abilities, innate or learned, which other animals have but which humans don’t possess.) If we are faced with a problem for which we don’t have prior knowledge, then our brain can be engaged in working it out, calling on those core skills as necessary and appropriate.
But that’s our ‘rational brain’ as it were – which is just a part of the whole. How about the non-conscious part – the part that neuroscience is now able to show is engaged first in any overall thought process?
Obviously enough, the non-conscious brain is not actively using the core rational skills because of their very nature – they need active, conscious, learned abilities and consequent deeds. What we’re left with, if you like what’s at work that’s distinct from our rational skills, are our emotions. And our emotions are rooted in the deep-seated ‘animal’ in us; in our native – some would say natural – basic selves; in the most fundamental stage of our evolution.
What that in turn means is that it’s our emotional stimuli that one way or another are actually dictating a great deal of our concious thought. After all, don’t forget that our emotions come first in our overall mental processes. If you like, our brain tells us to act on the basis of what we feel at this deep, basic emotional level.
If you assess yourself with the idea that this emotional aspect is at the root of how you live your life, then the conflicts that are in all of us make more sense:
- your brain prompts you to act because of its deep-seated, no-need-for-speech feelings – its emotions;
- stimulated by those emotions, your brain prompts your body to do physical things accordingly and your conscious rational mind to think things accordingly;
- and your conscious rational mind then might get involved, trying to make sense of the emotional prompts your brain is sending to your body and conscious mind, and trying to control what you actually do and think – as best it can. But this control is not something that’s guaranteed to happen. Emotions are able to overrule everything – from being too tired to think to being blindly in love; to red mists of anger to overwhelming sadness.
Yes, you can question what constitutes an emotion, and where genes, instincts or hormones fit into the picture. But I suspect that’s collectively a fairly pointless debate. If you bring all non-rational behaviour under one broad umbrella and call it emotion, that will encompass all the non-rational things humans experience and are influenced by – all the motivations, all the ‘drivers’ as they’re sometimes called.
Our emotions are fundamentally simple, universal and unchanging. They include the capacity to love and to care, to be generous, to be social beings, to co-operate and be far-sighted. To be happy, to be surprised. And they also include the capacity to be greedy, selfish, corrupt, cruel and short-sighted. To be angry, to be sad and to be fearful.
There’s any amount of nuance and tweaking that can be undertaken with any of them, but in essence that’s the range of emotions we’re all living with.
So here we are – emotional creatures that, sometimes, try to apply rational thoughts and systems to better manage how we feel. And for the first time in our existence, we know with greater clarity and a proven certainty unlike we’ve ever had before that our emotional selves rule us. And with that knowledge we can work to design new social-cultural-rational systems to provide us all with a better ‘management tool kit’.
And yes, that includes managing our dreams.
(Who’s In Charge? Reprise)
That’s all a long way from my start point, from noticing that my dreams have changed. That’s a good thing. As someone else said (and as I’ve repeated before), a benefit of writing is finding out what you think.
It is surprising to realise that we’re not as rational as we like to think. That our brains are doing their own thing, leaving us to try to control what it’s ‘asking’ for as best we can.
Mind you, if you pause for a moment, it becomes clearer than you might have first thought that this sort-of-split between ‘your brain’ and ‘you’ exists. We have a lot of words and attitudes to day-to-day life which show we are, to some extent, happy with what are really emotional instincts. There are a lot underlying phrases such as ‘it’s only natural that…’, ‘it’s understandable that …’, ‘it’s my gut instinct that …’, and similar.
As ever, this is not an end point. What to focus on in the light of all these thoughts is not immediately clear though.
I’m aware that I’ve not returned to the issues I raised earlier surrounding why the brain does what it does with the raw material it has (all you’ve seen, read, heard, thought and experienced). Why does it pick what it does out of that raw material to put in to your dreams? Why does what it picks cause the results that it does?
And turning to emotions, I wonder perhaps I should be looking at how anyone’s personal, rational resolve to manage an emotion is created, strengthened or weakened. And there’s the question, too, of how emotions can themselves be manipulated by third parties. That’s all for another time.
As for now? How does all this relate to better understanding how I am right now, the person who nearly died eight years ago?
And in answer to that question, I’m not unhappy with all of the above. It’s relevant. It sheds light on a significant aspect of me, my life and as I am now. But its implications for the future are … what? Murky? Far-reaching? Difficult? As I write, I don’t know. Ultimately, all of the thoughts above are just that – just thoughts. Thoughts are cheap. Creating appropriate deeds on the basis of them is another issue entirely.