In "Consciousness Explained", philosopher Daniel C. Dennett proposed a Multiple Drafts Model for human consciousness. The drafts were assemblages of information derived from however the brain stores memory information. The retrieval and use process was only partially outlined by Dennett and some have said he only "explained away" consciousness. Cornelia Fine has done some assemblage of her own, retrieving a wealth of cognitive science and behaviour studies to formulate some new ideas about how the human mind works. In a light, almost breezy style, she presents some fascinating insights. Whether "conscious" of it or not, her analysis validates Dennett's original premise. Ideas reside in the mind to be picked over and drawn upon when required. Who does the selecting?
The brain, she says, is a powerful organ. So powerful that, as the title states, it has "a mind of its own". There are patterns in the brain which lie either hidden or dormant, emerging sometimes when prompted by events, or remaining obscure even while driving our behaviour. While she can't "place" these elements in the brain, they can be demonstrated through a variety of testing procedures or by examination of people suffering various forms of brain trauma. Her chapter titles depict the factors as "Vain Brain", "Deluded Brain", "Immoral Brain", "Bigoted Brain" and others. Each of these chapters describes how the brain manifests these conditions and, in some cases, where the trait originated. That many of these conditions can be formed in childhood and remain fixed in place even when countered by later information is little short of frightening. It's not quite confirmation of "the blank slate", but uncomfortably close. The brain, once matured, is amazingly resistant to later challenges.
Fine correctly opens the book with "The Vain Brain", since it is ourselves that concern us most. Even though the human species evolved to live group-oriented lives, our brains are overwhelmingly concerned with the individual they inhabit. We form opinions about ourselves, which become firmly entrenched even when there is good reason to modify that ego-centrism. When we succeed in any social competition, it seems only "natural", but when we fail, we rationalise the defeat in many ways. This attitude is carried through in domestic relations, work environments or any other social circumstance. Nearly every social interaction arises from each of us "negotiating from a position of strength". Yet, in "The Weak-willed Brain", we learn that we also provide ourselves with any excuse for failing to carry through on our intentions. Goal-seeking requires massive amounts of mental resources to achieve success, and the brain, which already consumes a fifth of our body's resources just to tick over, is easily wearied.
The author's sources in producing this book are many and varied. Brain injuries, whether externally caused or as the result of stroke or other lesion, have provided the basis for many insights on behaviour. Thankfully, she doesn't trot out poor old Phineas Gage again, as so many others have done. Other victims of brain trauma are presented, which some experienced readers will recognise from other sources. The main support for her classifications relies on numerous clinical or academic experiments. As she stresses often, many of these lie on or over the border of ethical limits. Participants have been shocked - electrically and emotionally - and results carefully tabulated. Fine is rightly concerned about the long-term effects on some volunteers, as were the more aware experimenters. Given what Fine reveals about the persistence of memory and its impact on "conscious" activity, her concern is well-founded. Yet, even those questionable experiments have demonstrated that much of what we believe is our personal expression of will is a false concept. We cannot dismiss the findings of such research because the data was achieved in a dodgy manner. As Fine explains, we mustn't assume we have full control of our own minds. The brain is "unscrupulous" and "unreliable" and we trust it at our peril. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
** with apologies to Steven Pinker
on April 1, 2007
I like an informative book that also entertains with lively and humorous anecdotes. Fine delivers on both accounts. We all know that others are whacky with their self-serving philosophies and explanations, but Fine shows us with a variety of humorous stories how we ourselves participate in our own delusion; that we indeed see the world the way it really is. Fine personalizes many of her accounts by using her family as illustrations. This makes our own delusion-making processes acceptable. She also leads us to a conflicting insight: While we can, with meticulous attention to our own thinking, become aware of our own delusional and self-serving understanding of ourselves and the world, this automatic process that takes place almost totally outside our conscious awareness, won't let is in on the process entirely. Hence, A Mind of Its Own. Fun and informative.