Future Feelings: Part 2

Mental modules and the concepts of self and "not-self."

This is the second part of an ongoing series. Read part one.

Many of our feelings serve us well. They're designed to keep us moving toward things that are good for us.

It's a good thing that I feel enough fear to be cautious when I see a snake that’s not carrying its venom status card. It's a good thing that I maintain a reasonable awareness of snakes when I'm in an environment where I've seen snakes before. These things help me stay alive, which is what I was programmed to do.

It's a good thing that offending people makes me feel bad. This helps me stay in good social standing, which increases my chances of reproducing, which is also what I was programmed to do.

That doesn't necessarily mean that I want to have children, or even that I want to stay alive. It just means that my feelings were designed to move me in those directions.

Also, these feelings are only good for me to a point. If seeing a snake outside my house on 2.1% of the days I've lived in it drives me to move somewhere snake-less—Iceland, say—this would be an overcorrection. And if feeling bad about possibly offending someone, say, 10 years ago keeps me up at night, I'd say this is bad for me.

But it would be reductive to say that we're only that—that we're only these goofy conscious beasts reacting only to our most primal good- and bad-feeling stimuli.

We're certainly all born pretty goofy and beast-like. But we quickly start to develop our own thoughts and ideas about ourselves and our surroundings, largely, some have argued convincingly, through imitation, which I will get to in a later post.

So where do those thoughts and ideas come from? Do we bring them about? Do we decide to think something? Or do thoughts just appear to us? And if they just appear to us, where do they come from? And in either case, who the f*ck are we? Are we a singular thing calling the shots from behind our eyes, a la the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz?

There's good reason to believe that we're not.

From a different chapter in Robert Wright's Why Buddhism Is True, this one titled "Your CEO Is MIA," he asks, "if the conscious mind isn’t in control, what is in control?" He then looks at some experiments that have been done to test the notion that there is, in fact, a conscious "self" in control.

Among the most dramatic are the famous “split-brain” experiments. These were done with people whose left and right brain hemispheres had been separated via surgery that severed the bundle of fibers connecting them. (Typically, the purpose of the surgery was to control seizures in cases of severe epilepsy.) It turns out that this surgery has little effect on behavior; under normal circumstances, people with split brains act normally. But back in the 1960s the neuroscientists Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga devised clever experiments that led split-brain patients to behave strangely.

The key was to confine information to a single hemisphere by presenting it to only half of the patient’s visual field. If, for example, a word is presented only to the left visual field, which is processed by the right hemisphere, it won’t enter the left hemisphere at all, since the hemispheres have been surgically separated.

It’s the left hemisphere that, in most people, controls language. Sure enough, patients whose right hemisphere is exposed to, say, the word nut report no awareness of this input. Yet their left hand—which is controlled by the right hemisphere—will, if allowed to rummage through a box containing various objects, choose a nut.

That finding alone could make you start questioning traditional notions of the conscious “self.” Now consider this one: when the left hemisphere is asked to explain behavior initiated by the right hemisphere, it tries to generate a plausible story. If you send the command “Walk” to the right hemisphere of these patients, they will get up and walk. But if you ask them where they’re going, the answer will come from the left hemisphere, which wasn’t privy to the command. And this hemisphere will come up with what, from its point of view, is a reasonable answer. One man replied, plausibly enough, that he was going to get a soda. And the person who comes up with the improvised explanation—or, at least, the person’s left hemisphere, the part of the person that’s doing the talking—seems to believe the story.

He goes on to look at other experiments and consider their implications. He then writes in summary:

In short, from natural selection’s point of view, it’s good for you to tell a coherent story about yourself, to depict yourself as a rational, self-aware actor. So whenever your actual motivations aren’t accessible to the part of your brain that communicates with the world, it would make sense for that part of your brain to generate stories about your motivation.

And this is not necessarily a bad thing. That is to say, coherence is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be helpful and desirable. It's just that it can also be deceptive and misleading. So again, where do our thoughts come from, and who or what the f*ck are we in all of this?

If the conscious self isn’t a CEO, directing all the behavior it thinks it’s directing, how does behavior get directed? How do decisions get made?

An increasingly common answer within the field of psychology, especially evolutionary psychology, is that the mind is “modular.” In this view, your mind is composed of lots of specialized modules—modules for sizing up situations and reacting to them—and it’s the interplay among these modules that shapes your behavior. And much of this interplay happens without conscious awareness on your part.

Wright then gets into why he thinks the word "modules" is a bit misleading. To summarize: the modules are not literally separate physical compartments in our brains, there may be some interaction and overlap among modules, and the modules do not operate in a hierarchy; rather, they work together and compete to form what Michael Gazzaniga from the split-brain experiment detailed above calls "a free-for-all, self-organizing system.”

Okay then. So if this is at all accurate, and our actions are in fact driven in large part by these modular engines, what's fueling the engines? Wright devotes an entire chapter to this. But most notably for our exploration here, he lands on the notion that our modules are (or at least appear to be) activated by our feelings.

Feelings aren’t just little parts of the thing you had thought of as the self; they are closer to its core; they are doing what you had thought “you” were doing: calling the shots. It’s feelings that “decide” which module will be in charge for the time being, and it’s modules that then decide what you’ll actually do during that time. In this light, it becomes a bit clearer why losing attachment to feelings could help you reach a point where there seems to be no self.

And a few paragraphs later:

Observing feelings without attachment is the way you keep modules from seizing control of your consciousness. Easier said than done, I know.

The idea that there is no self, a Buddhist concept called anatta, or "not-self," is one that Wright explores at length in Why Buddhism Is True. The book, after all, looks at Buddhism and mindfulness through a scientific lens and focuses chiefly on Buddhist "ideas that fall squarely within modern psychology and philosophy."

I'm not going to get into the idea of "not-self" in much detail here, though. In part because I can barely grasp it, let alone explain it. And in part because there's some debate and confusion around what's even really meant by having no self. (For example: Is the claim that it can seem to be the case that there is no self, or that it literally is the case?) But, Buddhism aside, it might for our purposes here suffice to understand "not-self" as meaning that you are not your feelings or your thoughts. You are not their sum. You are not their creator. You are not their captain, and they are not yours, not unless you allow them to be. "You" are something more like a conscious observer. What are you observing? Well, consciousness, whatever appears in it. In other words, "you" are conscious, and "you" are observing consciousness, but that doesn't mean that consciousness or its contents are "you." And since thoughts and feelings are among the contents of consciousness, it again begs our nagging question: Who the f*ck are we?

I won't pretend to know the answer. But I think the claim that we are not just receptacles of whatever thoughts and feelings arise in us, that we are not beholden to them or obliged to follow or become them, is a strong and liberating one.

Who and what and why we will be hinges on our understanding of who and what and why we are, at least as long as we’re here as humans in these goofy and miraculous designs.

So I’m going to keep moving into the weeds of all that in part three. And I hope you’ll join me.


  • Update: Due to an oversight on my part, the fifth paragraph in this post was added after the email version was sent.

  • Future Feelings: Part 1: What are all these feelings even for?

  • Why Buddhism Is True | by Robert Wright