Tinkering under the hood – Being Human 2012

When I ask neuroscientists to estimate how much we understand of how the brain works, the answers usually range from two to five percent. So I wasn’t surprised that one recurring theme at the Being Human meeting in San Francisco on Saturday was what researchers don’t know about the brain.

This ignorance extends to our own brains. Many of the speakers emphasized what a small fraction of the brain’s activity filters through to conscious awareness. As David Eagleman put it, “The conscious part of you is the smallest part, like a broom closet in a mansion.” Basic functions, like seeing color, feel easy introspectively because they rely on complex assumptions that don’t reach awareness. Knowing about these assumptions doesn’t change our perceptions, but it can challenge the intuitive idea that we perceive reality itself instead of abstract representations of reality. (Of course, that doesn’t mean that reality is all in your head. Sorry, New Agers and Matrix fans.)

Although the thought of not knowing what’s going on in your own mind may be disconcerting, the vast extent of subconscious processing is a feature, not a bug. Attention is a limited resource, so it makes sense to apply it only where it’s helpful. Besides, as several speakers mentioned, a lot of brain functions are too important to be left to our unreliable conscious minds. What if you got caught up in a novel and forgot to breathe? Given the irrepressible human desire to tinker and try to improve things, we could cause considerable mischief if it became possible to get under the hood of our brains and mess around.

Another area where introspection misleads us is the sense of having a unified self. It sounds pompous to refer to yourself in the plural, but the royal “we” may be a more accurate description of an individual than “I,” as Paul Bloom explained beautifully in The Atlantic a few years ago. The notion of arguing with yourself seems to be more than a metaphor.

The influence of culture on the brain is something I’d like to see more neuroscientists studying. Psychologist Hazel Markus spoke about the broad differences between independent and interdependent cultures. The U.S. middle class is an example of the former, in which people think of themselves as individual, unique, influencing others, free, and equal. The working class, in contrast, is an interdependent culture, in which people feel relational, similar, adjusting to others, rooted, and ranked. It occurs to me that a lot of the culture war between liberals and conservatives can be explained by those value differences.

Worldwide, independent cultures are vastly outnumbered by interdependent cultures, but among research subjects the reverse is true. Indeed, almost all neuroscience and psychology has been done on so-called WEIRD people, an acronym for Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic—largely on that most convenient of samples, college sophomores. Beau Lotto pointed out that people from different cultures even experience perceptual illusions differently, suggesting that a lot of what we know about the brain may have limited applicability to most of the world’s population.

The last session focused on meditation and other contemplative practices. Overall, the approach to that topic was refreshingly free of woo, though like Jason Goldman (read his meeting report), I got tired of hearing about all the times that speakers had met His Holiness The Dalai Lama. At the end, Richie Davidson returned to the theme of ignorance, saying that honest scientists must relish uncertainty and approach the brain with humility…which is also good advice for science writers.