Last month, I introduced a fun little venture I’m doing called the Dewey Decimal Discovery project. If you missed that post, here’s what it is: I’ll be reading one nonfiction book per month from each of the Dewey Decimal categories. At the end of each month I’ll talk about all the great new info I’ve stuffed into my…
… What’s that called again? My headmush. No, my skulljunk. My greyspaghetti. Dang it, what’s that word?? RIGHT, my brain.
Speaking of brains! February was section 100, which includes one of my most beloved topics: psychology. This topic is my jam. Choosing just one was tough, but I decided on “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” by David Eagleman, Dewey Decimal #153. It’s about all the behind-the-scenes machinations our minds go through without our awareness.
Here are the things I found most interesting in this book:
The brain makes assumptions more than it actually takes in information, based on what it’s used to experiencing. Eagleman demonstrated this with an optical illusion portraying some circles. Because of the way they were shaded, the circles appeared to be spinning. Something about that particular shading alerted the brain’s motion detectors, and even though we know rationally that the circles could not spin, we still see them as spinning. Our brain invents the spinning because that’s what it expects to happen!
Kind of a frightening thought. We’re so accustomed to trusting our senses, forgetting that it’s our brain’s interpretation of those senses that’s truly real. If the brain can simply invent a perception, that’s unnerving, isn’t it? Granted, the brain does follow rules with this, it doesn’t just create things willy-nilly. Unless, of course, something is damaged. But we can be damaged without even knowing it…
Take Anton’s syndrome. I first read about this in one of Oliver Sacks’ books (either “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” or “An Anthropologist on Mars,” I can’t remember which, but both are fantastic) and Eagleman described it here as well. Anton’s syndrome occurs when someone has been blinded by a stroke, but doesn’t know they’re blind. Normal sight works by receiving data from the outside and processing it internally. With Anton’s syndrome, the brain imagines visual data on the inside. People with Anton’s syndrome truly believe they can see, because they CAN. They’re just seeing the wrong things. They’re seeing what their brain is creating for them. Eventually, after enough collisions of shins with tables, the person will eventually realize something’s wrong. UNlike…
Anosognosia: the lack of awareness about an impairment. This is when the part of the brain that recognizes conflicts is impaired, often occurring with paralysis patients – if you try to move but don’t move, this is a conflict. But the damaged brain can’t grasp that, so it fabricates a reality that either ignores that conflict or makes it compatible. The paralysis patient will notice they’re not moving and decide, “Well I didn’t really want to pick up that book anyway.” Or they will insist, “But I am moving. See?” Everyone looks on at the completely motionless person, who truly believes they’re moving, because their brain tells them they are.
This is frightening to me, because these people don’t know they’re brain-damaged. Their reality feels as convincing to them as yours does to you. They believe they can see, or move, just as much as you believe you’re reading a WordPress blog right now. We trust our perceptions to be correct. We trust our reality to be real. But at absolutely any time, it could not be.
Splits between brain hemispheres are a great way of understanding the subconscious, as Eagleman illuminated using an experiment by Gazzaniga and LeDoux. A picture was shown to one side of the split-brain patient, and a different picture shown to the other side. The patient was not consciously aware that the pictures were different – each side served almost as a “mind of its own.” And yet, it was found that somewhere deep, deep down, the sides were still sharing information even though no surface-level knowledge of this could be gleaned. Here’s what happened: One side was shown a chicken claw, the other a snowy landscape. Then, the patient was asked to point to a new picture that was related to what he saw. The hand connected to the side of the brain that saw a claw… reached for the chicken picture. The hand connected to the side of the brain that saw snow… reached for the shovel. Nothing surprising yet, but get this: The side that processes language was the side that saw the chicken, and only the chicken – no awareness of any snow picture. So when asked why he had a hand on the shovel picture (thus, forced to use the side that had language with no conscious knowledge of the snow picture), his brain formulated the only logical reason it could: “You need a shovel to clean up after the chickens.” This happens a lot with split-brain patients. If you show the non-language side of the brain a command to Walk, the person will get up and walk, but they don’t know why. Somehow info got to that part of their brain, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to read the letters that said Walk, but they weren’t aware of it. When asked, using the language side of the brain (the side that did not see the command), they will formulate a reason: “I wanted to stretch my legs.”
There are so many ways to trick the brain. I remember reading in an issue of Psychology Today, and Eagleman states it here too, that if you perform the physical act of a smile, it will help put you in a better mood. The brain infers emotional states from the body. “Oh, if I’m smiling right now, I guess I must be happy. Unleash the endorphins!”
The brain can be altered in not just small ways like that, but big ways too. Eagleman described how a medicine for Parkinson’s turned patients into gamblers, and how a brain tumor turned someone murderous! We tend to think of ourselves as mostly consistent beings. We are who we are and “that’s just who I am.” But a poke or a prod or a pill can change that. If our chemistry can be changed with such ease, then who are we really? If just a little altering can turn us into a different person, can we really trust our identities?
This post is getting long now, so I’ll call it a day. Please leave your thoughts in the comments! And check out David Eagleman, as well as Oliver Sacks. Psychology, man… It’s MIND-blowing.