The Gap

Face Faces Dialogue Talk Psyche

There’s something that’s been bugging me for a few weeks now, and only this afternoon as my family and I watched the Red Arrows roar about over the English Channel, did it really strike me what it was.

In Incognito , David Eagleman goes to great lengths to show that the subconscious is a mass of unknowable stuff, but it’s mostly rules and regulatory stuff, that we don’t need to know because it’s either pre-programmed into our DNA (breathing, learning etc.) or we’ve taught ourselves by repetition (driving a car, playing a musical instrument etc.)

What is singularly lacking in Incognito is any discussion about creativity. Who or what are ‘the little men downstairs’ that Stephen King writes of, that generate complex stories apparently from thin air? I don’t know how many times I’ve sat down to write a blog post with absolutely no idea what I’m going to write, and yet fifteen minutes later I’m busy finding an appropriate image for something that appeared as if by magic from my finger-tips. And what about those ah-hah moments (for me, usually in the shower) when an idea manifests itself so fully and completely that there’s no way I could have thought it up instantaneously? But yet I did.

There must be some kind of computational machinery in there too, something that is working at is own pace, quite often, and doesn’t always deliver when we’d like it to, but there nonetheless.

I recently found some old notes; I’m not sure why I’d even written them down, but I suspect it was some time last year when I was reading about and doing a lot of meditation. The notes were mostly trivial waffle around Big Data, but I did ask two pertinent questions: 1) Does the subconscious have rules? (Thanks to Incognito we have the answer to that one), and 2) Does creativity come from the gap between the word and the non-word, the conscious and unconscious?

I have no idea about that one, but somehow it feels right. We spend too much time in our conscious minds, and meditation does allow you to learn to move away into a more balanced state of conscious/sub-consciousness. Is the gap between them bridgeable? And at what point does an idea developed in a system that doesn’t deal with language, make the leap to one that we can formulate in words? It’s all a bit of a mystery that definitely requires more exploration.


Orangutan Mother Animal Mammal

Going back to David Eagleman’s Incognito for a moment, one of the key things that stuck out for me was a finding he refers to by the nineteenth-century psychologist William James, who was the first to get suspicious of the idea that humans were somehow better than other animals because we had fewer instincts. He felt this to be completely wrong, and instead suggested that we are more intelligent and neurologically flexible than other animals because we possess more instincts than they do.

Eagleman makes much of the idea that the ‘conscious’ part of the brain is just a small fraction of the whole brain, and that the rest of the unconscious is, in the large part, made up of these pre-programmed instincts, almost like computer routines, that have been so hard-coded into us, that in a lot of cases that they are in our DNA and we are born with them. These instincts are tools in our toolbox, and as we have the most tools, we became the most adaptable creatures.

Now, for fans of Hayek, this ties in with his ideas of the Extended Order, but it doesn’t sit too well with them. He saw the Extended Order as coming from somewhere between instinct and reason. The problem is, his appreciation of neuroscience was based on what we knew in the 60’s and 70’s, which means that he may have been a bit off the mark. But the fact that we know so much more about the functioning of the brain and the subconscious now doesn’t mean we have to write off his ideas. Instead, I would say that what he understood to be meant by instinct was perhaps a bit too simplistic, perhaps nothing more than ‘gut reactions’ or ‘basic instincts’, and that it is this huge array of more complex instincts that drive the Extended Order.

This is reinforced when you consider the way our brains are very much programmed to be social, even to the point where solutions to complex puzzles we humans would normally struggle with can be easily solved when they are presented in a social context. We are wired from the ground up to be social, and it is this that drives the Extended Order – the traditions and politics and religions and laws and everything else that we create around us to keep society civil.

And for the most part, we have no idea these instincts are there. Which raises some interesting questions…

I believe

Street Sign Note Direction

Robert Tombs made an interesting argument yesterday on the difference between Leavers and Remainers. I’m not sure I entirely agree with the logic, but I do agree with the conclusions that on the whole, Remainers seem to come from a position of pessimism, while Leavers are naturally optimistic.

Tombs argues that the Remainers are irrational, and have an unhealthy fixation on their gut instinct that drives them to denigrate Britain’s ability to survive outside of the EU, and a logical consequence of this is to look down on the plebs of Britain, imagining themselves not British, but part of the greater European Empire. In contrast, Leavers must be rational optimists.

I would argue that the pessimism vs. optimism argument holds true, although the rationalism vs. irrationalism does not.

We are all ‘rational’ creatures, but what we ‘think’ about various subjects is down to our subsconsious (see Why Do I love You?). As our subconscious does not deal with language, emotions bubble up from our subconscious, mostly filtered through the right brain before the logical left brain can start to make sense of them.

Those opinions espoused by the subconscious are driven by our unconscious biases which have been shaped over the years by the countless stories we’ve been told and we repeat to ourselves. We try to make sense of these emotions with our logical, rational mind, and usually fail (or at the very best manage to stop ourselves saying anything too politically incorrect or embarrassing). Unless the debate is blindingly obvious, (and Brexit is not), rationalising anything usually ends up in us trying to grapple with things our brains can’t really deal with, so we just end up going with what we feel is right.

As the debate for Brexit was, from a rational perspective, fairly balanced (you could comfortably argue for or against), the final decision comes down to our unconscious biases. Thus, the general attitude towards Brexit of Leavers, from what I’ve seen, is one of optimism and belief in the country; that of Remainers, one of pessimism and a lack of faith in the country and its people. It is this issue of faith that is, I think, the real dividing line between Leave and Remain. It’s down to whether you believe we can or we can’t.

I personally choose the optimistic outlook every time. I believe that we are all intelligent, clever people (and not so dissimilar as those obsessed with class or of a liberal authoritarian bent would like to believe). We may express this in many different ways, which to me just makes the whole thing more wonderful. Time and again, we are the embodiment of proof that when we work together the result is much, much greater that the constituent parts.