Back in 1995, I spent a semester at Northwestern University as a guest lecturer. One weekend, I drove across Illinois to play poker at a riverboat casino in Iowa. There, killing time in a motel room, I wrote the essay you’ll find below.
THE BOSS OF THE BRAIN
Friends accuse me of sourcing information far too cavalierly. They say I don’t really bother learning anything completely, just enough of a concept to twist it and mold it and somehow make it my own. I cop to this. I even go a step further, using bogus bibliographies to make up sources rather than going to the trouble of actually finding them. And yes it’s true, do prefer to do research in my mind as opposed to a library. And when I grasp information, I grasp it lightly, absorbing only enough to get me going on thoughts of my own. Call me a dilettante; I prefer the term “synthesist.”
For example, just now, here in this motel in Dubuque, Iowa (where, for reasons far too arcane to go into here, I was “guest of the day,”) I caught a psychology program on the local PBS station. Had the Spice Channel been free, it might have been a far different story. As it was, I caught a snippet of a presentation on how the brain is organized. Since a snippet is all I caught, I’m a little short on detail, but I gather that this model has the brain divided into various resource centers which are swapped into and out of consciousness as needed, much the way computer programs are swapped in and out of random access memory.
Was this the presentation of a valid theory? Speculation? Or pure metaphorical nonsense? I have no idea, but it doesn’t matter. A theory like this needn’t be the slightest bit true to be worthy of contemplation, not to me.
I’ll try anything on for size.
And then I’ll make it my own.
I start by assuming that there’s such a thing as master consciousness, the “I” of the brain. To extend the computer metaphor to my own liking, I declare that the I is not the central processing unit of the computer but rather the person selecting which program to run when. The end user, if you will.
You wake up in the morning. Your teeth are all mungy. The sense-resource sends this message to your brain’s central clearing house. The I then invokes various physical programs… “get up…” “go to the bathroom…” etc., slotting them into the working part of the brain as necessary. This makes sense on the face of it. Why retain in an active file on how to brush your teeth at any moment other than the actual time you need it?
So there’s a whole class of information we might label “how-to programs.” How to ride a bus, how to shake a hand, how to type or bounce a soccer ball off your head or catch a frisbee or feed a dog or start an arson fire. We don’t use them except when we need them. But obviously there’s more to the brain than how to do things. There are also memories, available upon demand, but only on demand. In a moment I’m going to ask you to recall something. Until the instant that you see the words, you won’t have the picture in your mind; however, once you read the words, you can’t help but have the picture in your mind. Ready? Here we go.
Think of your first kiss.
Boom, there it is.
I’m in seventh grade, playing spin-the-bottle in Sue Coon’s father’s den. Her father has a gun rack, and I look at it as I kiss her. The irony is not lost on me.
Seems to me that the brain is a good-news bad-news situation. The good news is that there’s all this information (maybe all the information we’ve ever encountered) stored inside, but it stays inside unless we have the proper triggers. Would you have thought of your first kiss just now if I hadn’t brought it up? I wouldn’t. I’m doing my damndest not to think of the Spice Channel.
Okay, there’s how-to programming, and there’s memory programming, and hey look, the two swap files. My how-to file on how to rewire a lamp, for example, contains memory of the time I tried to do the job without unplugging the lamp first. Ouch!
Now it seems that this loose coalition of brain resources is nested: memories within how-tos and… feelings within memories.
When I thought of Sue Coon just now and that fabulous first kiss, the memory came attached to a warm, fuzzy feeling. A whole slew of feelings, actually: fondness for the girl; regret that I have no idea where on the planet she might be now; a sense of loss at the years gone by; a certain smug satisfaction in knowing so much more now; plus hints and fragments of other feelings that flesh out the memory like chocolate hops or cumin round out the taste of a microbrewed beer.
So here’s the “feelings” center of the brain, a rowdy, wild-west region that doesn’t respond to the conscious control of the I, but introduces itself unbidden. You see someone attractive walking down the street, you say “woo doll!” The I may have no intention of saying “woo doll!” It just spills out. And if the I’s spouse is walking with the I, the I would be well served to keep this particular “woo doll!” to I’tself.
Do you like football? Can’t stand the sport myself. Too much sense memory of getting clobbered into mush in neighborhood sandlot games. But lots of people like football, and they cheer when their team scores. Does that cheer come consciously bidden? Does the I send an instruction to the cheering section of the brain? I don’t know. Like I said, I only caught a snippet of the show.
So let’s fudge the question. Let’s say that feelings come to us both bidden and unbidden. If I look out the window now, I see a bright sunny day. I feel regret that I’m not out there enjoying the day. But I feel satisfaction that I’m in here writing. Which of these feelings is consciously controlled? Either? Neither? Both? And how do they relate to the I of the brain? Are those thoughts “me?” Or are they just “part of me?” And if they’re “part of me” who is the whole me, and where is he to be found?
How-to, memories, feelings… now we’ve stumbled on ideas. I understand that some people think in pictures, but I personally think in words. When I’m having an idea, when I’m “formulating a thought,” that thought takes shape as a sentence, or a sentence fragment, or a word. So some part of my brain is constantly processing language. I formulate the thought, “Have another cup of coffee,” as exactly those words. But I don’t formulate the thought, “Drink from the cup,” as words. I just do that. Somewhere along the line between thought and action, the linguistic instruction breaks down. Where? Don’t ask me. I’m making this shit up as I go along.
I seem mostly to think in words when I’m contemplating the future. “I’ll drive downtown this afternoon and pick up a video. After that I’ll stop at the store and get some food for dinner.” If I don’t formulate these thoughts as words, I simply don’t have them. There’s no picture in my brain of the future except a picture painted of words.
But there are no words attached to the past. Those events all come to me as pictures. The shock of Sue Coon’s lips. The shock of that plugged-in lamp. Think about how your memories come to you. Same as mine? Different? What can we draw from that?
I’m playing with you a little bit here. The thing I really want you to notice is the immense gap separating your memories from the part of your brain that contemplates them. And the huge gap between your linguistic formulation of ideas and the “receiver” that takes that information in. And the overwhelming chasm between your bidden or unbidden feelings and the person who ends up suffering from or thriving under that torrent of emotion. We are many separate people.
What if the brain isn’t loadable programs and an end user? What if it’s more like a royal court. There’s lots of room in that metaphor for lots of advisors, all sorts. Let’s see…
There’s a practical advisor. It tells you to brush your teeth or eat when you’re hungry or run for the bus.
There’s a spiritual advisor. It tells you to believe in God or not to believe in God. It formulates your morality and ethics. It points you to the lucky slot machine.
There’s a historian, the archivist who tends to your memories and makes them available on demand. Fittingly, as this archivist gets older, s/he tends to become more doddering, less reliable. Once I was “guest of the day” at the Comfort Inn in Dubuque. Now why was that again?
There’s the prime minister, planning your day, carrying out orders in your name. S/he goes to work, does a job, picks up Chinese food on the way home. Sometimes your servant is your master; you really didn’t want all that fatty food, did you?
There’s the royal consort, urging you to reproduce.
There’s the queen mother or father, reading ancient edicts from the past. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, you miserable loser. Go sit on your throne till you figure out what you’ve done wrong!”
Maybe there’s a rogue minister with an agenda all his/her own. This minister feeds your habits, keeps them functioning in you. Maybe you’d like to displace this minister. Maybe you’d like to behead this minister. But this is a sinister minister, tricky and insidious, using misdirection and subterfuge to keep you drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes, smoking crack, watching the Spice Channel, whatever.
Is there a wizard in your royal court? Is there magic in your mind? Do creative gifts come unbidden? Do you wish you could give the wizard more power — or use more effectively the power the wizard has?
Maybe if we allied the wizard with the historian we could start to get a sense of the patterns of our personal magic. We might see, for example, that we got more “magic,” more raw creativity when we wrote in the morning than in the afternoon. The historian and the wizard compare notes, pass on their findings to the prime minister who sends a suggestion to the monarch: Write in the morning; you do a better job of it then.
Maybe all the ministers communicate with one another, deal and strategize with one another. Suppose your queen mother relentlessly presented you with a picture of yourself as a fat, ineffectual child. She might go to the rogue minister and say, “Make that monarch eat, make that monarch binge; together we can keep that fat, ineffectual, vision of weakness alive.
Maybe they compete. The royal consort and the spiritual advisor are locked in a raging debate. The consort insists that there is no meaning to life but children; it’s the job of the species to reproduce, full stop. The spiritual advisor says no, if we reproduce it’s God’s will. If we don’t, that’s God’s will too.
So what you’re saying is that if I never find love it’s God’s will and I should just accept that? Speaking as the monarch, I find that argument bogus.
But if I’m a weak monarch, or anyway relatively weaker than my spiritual advisor, I buy the argument and I act accordingly. I accept that it’s God’s will for me not to be loved.
But what if… what if… what if the queen mother is secretly in cahoots with the spiritual advisor? What if the queen mother (who wants to keep me weak) is putting words in the spiritual advisor’s mouth? Am I a smart enough monarch to see through all the intrigues and machinations of my court?
Do I have enough awareness?
The monarch is the one who acts. All this information comes into the brain, but there in the brain someone or something sorts the information and makes a judgment, executes a plan. That’s the monarch. That’s the person in charge.
Are you a powerful monarch or a weak one? Do you listen to your advisors, weigh their input and then make a decision in the best interest of the body (politic)? Or are you reflexive, self-indulgent? Do you let your baseness boss you around? Do you yield to old arguments out of habit, precedent?
“I have not, therefore I must not.”
Alternatively, do you rebel against old voices just because you recognize them as old?
“I never have, therefore I will.”
Or do you get trapped between voices unable to decide?
“I have not, but I must, so I will (if I can.)”
The PBS psychologist had a nice little theory, graphically presenting benign, helpful little packets of information flowing to and from the conscious center of the brain. Need to know what 2 + 2 equals? We’re here to help, master. Want to remember what your first college roommate looked like? We have that information at hand. Don’t know how to cross the street? Just open this file labeled “Street, Look Both Ways Before Crossing.”
That’s a pleasant sorting system, but it assumes that the parts of the brain are all in service of the whole. Not sure you can trust that assumption. To take an unfortunate and unpleasant example, a heroin addict’s whole brain is in service to the one part generating the instruction, “Get more heroin.” Other parts… “kick,” or “get a job,” or “find God”… they’re just voices in the storm.
And even you and I who challenge ourselves to find higher consciousness have hidden alliances at work in our brains. No one is perfect, obviously, and one way to think about how we’re not perfect is to imagine how parts of our brains might be more interested in serving themselves than in serving their leader, the I.
I love doughnuts. But I have high cholesterol, and have been persuaded (by the royal physician?) that eating those doughnuts is bad for me. I have a standing royal decree in my brain: Don’t Eat Doughnuts. Does that mean I never eat doughnuts?
I ate a doughnut this morning.
Some part of my brain (The court baker? The court jester?) overrode that standing command, overruled the king.
Hey, one doughnut’s not going to kill me, right? That’s the argument they used.
But in the name of closing the gap between who I am and who I want to be, I’d like to keep control over those doughnuts. I want my rulings to stick.
How can I contemplate my mind? How can I see clearly the thing I want to see when the thing doing the viewing and the thing being viewed are one in the same? It’s like the ocean asking what’s water? The answer is at once self-evident and inconceivable.
Yet we try. We struggle. We want better performance from our brains, so we seek systems for understanding them. PBS psychologists give us a glimpse of the fragmentary nature of the thing, and suggest that the part in control, the “I” of the brain, is just one small home page in a vast world wide web.
To that I add the metaphor of the royal court because it allows me to externalize my thinking. It lets me see the players in my brain as representations of archetypes of the outside world. I only do this to make it easier for me to understand what’s going on in there. (I don’t imagine literal royal robes.) If I have to go play poker now because the court jester insists that it’s time to be amused, at least I know why I’m going. That is, I know “a” why I’m going.
For a system as vast and vexing as the human mind, no metaphor can serve in the end. That would be like the ocean, contemplating what’s water, saying, “Well okay, the ocean is like a puddle, only bigger.” Yes it’s true, but is it useful?
Only if the ocean can look in the puddle and see some reflection of itself. And only if the ocean can turn that information into action.
Do you suffer writer’s block? Do you wish you wrote more hours of the day than you do? Put the problem to your royal court. See who takes what kind of stand on the issue.
Your historian may hold you back by point out your dismal track record; you’ve never been the kind of writer you want to be. What makes you think you’ll get there now?
Your royal consort may be against the whole idea: “If you follow your dreams, where does that leave love?”
That nasty rogue might just want to subvert your effort for no other reason than s/he can. “I’ll show you who has the power in this brain.”
And maybe, deep down in the dungeon of the castle, there’s an ex-advisor who’s long since fallen out of favor. This advisor was a sad and pathetic creature who used to whisper “I’m no good. I don’t deserve.” You locked this advisor in chains in the basement. You put bars on the door and reinforced the walls. You order the royal musicians to play pretty music in your head so that you don’t have to hear this advisor’s plaintive wail.
You’re convinced that you’ve silenced that voice.
But how can you be sure? Maybe the rogue is sneaking down food (doughnuts!) Maybe every time you fail to live up to your expectations as a writer (or artist or athlete or crosser-of-the-street) you’re actually doing it because your advisors are conspiring to keep that little voice of failure alive in your head. How will you deal with that?
Take off the chains, that’s a start. Bring that advisor back into the royal court where you can at least keep an eye on him/her. Listen to that voice, acknowledge it… and then consciously, proactively refuse to yield.
You can’t say no to a voice you can’t hear.
So listen to all your voices. Seek consensus if it suits you, but remember who’s boss. There is only one listener in your head; the rest are just talkers. Let the listener be the decision-maker too, and you’ll end up doing what’s in your best interest.
As an exercise, should you so choose, visit the royal court inside your head and give names to your advisors. Jot them down. Don’t be afraid to paste labels from the real world: Some of the most powerful voices in our heads are our parents’, our friends’, our lovers’. Other voices come from our own expectations of ourselves. For instance, I have one advisor whose job is to do nothing but remind me that I’m supposed to be famous one day. No matter how many times I tell myself that that voice is invalid, old programming, the voice remains. So I acknowledge it. I list it and I listen to it, but I don’t give in.
And if you’re a writer, don’t forget that the characters you create all have their royal courts too. Keep this in mind and your characters will naturally become more interesting and colorful. We imagine that our characters are monolithic wholes, but they’re not, no more than we ourselves are. Everyone, real or imagined, is a coalition, and sometimes the coalition can get very shaky indeed.
Or what passes for a library these days, i.e. a bookstore.