How hot is a bowl of water? Take three bowls: one of cold water, one of hot water, one of lukewarm water. Soak your left and right hands in the hot and cold water respectively, then plunge them both into the lukewarm. To the left hand it feels cold, to the right hand it feels hot.
I used that thought experiment some months ago to reflect on the “short-cut” brain. It will help us again here as we continue our exploration of neuroscience.
No doubt when your science teacher invited you to try that experiment you were intrigued. But did he tell you that you had experienced a fundamental truth of biological nature? And did he go on to tell you that this truth reverberates through our existence and is intimately concerned with Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven? Probably not. But I shall in time repair the omission.
Indeed our systems are primarily tuned to measure and to react to change. In exploring this truth, I will follow up my promise, in my previous column, to explore why some 95 per cent of our day-to-day mental activity appears to be automatic – or subconscious.
Judging water temperature in a vacuum is hard, but judging it by comparing it with your previous experience is easy. Your left hand compared the lukewarm water with its previous state of hot water; and by comparison it felt cold. Over there my cat lurks lazily until something close within her vision suddenly moves – and she transforms into a primitive feline hunter. The detectors in her retinas light up with the sudden recognition of movement. And that car accident you just avoided today – did you notice that you reacted instantaneously and expertly but without thought, even before you felt that surge of adrenalin?
Nature is clever and efficient. Most of our life is spent in steady state and we scarcely notice the actions and decisions we make. Our physical and psychic reserves are saving themselves for the moment of change. And the major triggers are: danger to life, opportunity for food, and sex. Without instinctive response to these triggers our species would have become extinct millions of years ago – when we had only the primitive brain which still underlies our conscious thought today.
Rather than attempting an exhaustive list of the everyday states of our brains, it is easier to give some examples. If you walk into an unfamiliar room you will without thought survey its length and shape. You will note various objects and be able to assess their size and relative position. In other words you will read it subconsciously with a glance. But a newborn baby cannot do that because it has no experience of such spaces and objects. Your analysis is only possible because of your stored experience.
We can take that further. Within a shared general assessment of that room we may not all see the same things. My friend, perhaps, will notice the chintzy curtains, while I notice the train set on the floor. There are studies which show that our brains may be responding to an object, or a happening, but we will not see it. Our efficient brain only attends to what it decides is relevant to us.
Consider a list of different kinds of people: university students, monks, teachers, mathematicians, poets, policemen. Each of those groupings throws up a stereotype with various characteristics which have been built up either through experience or imagination. Prejudice? Yes, certainly, but a necessary prejudice. It is the start point from which we can compare how the mathematician we meet differs from our expectation.
We store useful routines – which psychologists call schemas. For instance, the “restaurant” schema stores our expectations of being shown to a table, the waiter giving us a menu, and asking for orders etc. It is only variations from this schema which our brains need to notice. For instance we may develop a sub-schema for Japanese meals.
I make no apology for repeating the old story of the Jesuit and Dominican chain smokers. They agreed to ask their respective superiors for a solution to their problem of tobacco starvation while saying daily office. The Dominican failed and the Jesuit succeeded. Why? Because the Dominican asked if he could smoke while he prayed while the Jesuit asked if he could pray while he smoked. Two different comparisons, two different answers.
But this is only the beginning. We could look at habitual attitudes, the influence of early nurture or the effect of genes. Or experimental work that seems to show that our brain decides our actions a fractional second before we do. It will not be a surprise that some neuroscientists speak confidently of free will as an illusion. Since everything can be accounted for through the brain, what need is there for a conscious mind?
So my claim that these issues are intimately concerned with Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven is not exaggerated. What has eschatology to offer us if we are no more than the expression of material evolution, if the moral life has no meaning, and only death has dominion?
We will explore this further in due course. Meanwhile we will have many things to examine. Among them is the famous Phineas Gage, whose meeting with an iron bar gave a kick start to neuroscience.
Meanwhile, let’s discuss this. Your challenging questions or objections will be invaluable.