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…

Need to know

Brain Science Biology Psychology

At the moment I’m reading the fascinating book about the brain, Incognito – The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. One of the big takeaways for me so far is that the Extended Order, to continue briefly on the post from last week, could be seen as a mirror of our unconscious in the outside world. Our subconscious is a vast network of neurons and memories all stored away and relatively inaccessible to our comparatively limited conscious minds. It’s full of rules and regulations on how the body works, much as the Extender Order controls society with its rules and traditions.

The subconscious, and indeed the Extended Order, is so vast there is no way the conscious mind could ever hope to know all that goes on in there. Indeed, even our explicit memories, those we can access readily, tend to be locked up until we need them. And so the brain operates on a need to know basis. As matters arise in our daily life, so we tap into the stores of memories, both implicit (gut feelings) and explicit (autobiographic) memories.

All the time new contexts and situtions present themselves to us and we seek relevant information depending on what we want to know. Hayek argues that this is why trying to control trade/commerce/economics will always fail, as those put in control of trying to order such enterprises can never hope to know all things in all circumstances.

Always better to defer and decentralise to those that can specialiase in specific situations in specific circumstances in more local settings. Making arbitrary, central decisions that try to cover too many different circumstances will always be doomed to fail.