Our conflicted selves

May 7, 2012 | By | Reply More

At Edge.org, Neuroscientist David Eagleman points out some of the many ways human animals are conflicted. According to Eagleman, “The elegance of the brain lies in its inelegance.”   This conflictedness is one of the main ways that the brain is not like a desktop computer, which is programmed to follow the code given to it, without internal conflict. Computers don’t struggle over whether to eat cake:

The deep and beautiful trick of the brain is more interesting: it possesses multiple, overlapping ways of dealing with the world. It is a machine built of conflicting parts. It is a representative democracy that functions by competition among parties who all believe they know the right way to solve the problem. As a result, we can get mad at ourselves, argue with ourselves, curse at ourselves and contract with ourselves. We can feel conflicted. These sorts of neural battles lie behind marital infidelity, relapses into addiction, cheating on diets, breaking of New Year’s resolutions—all situations in which some parts of a person want one thing and other parts another.

Eagleman then takes a look under the hood. Memory, for instance, comes in two flavors. Most everyday memories are consolidated by the hippocampus. Emotion-laden memory, though, is stored “along an independent, secondary memory track” that have a unique quality to them; the amygdala is in charge of those. These two types of memory are so different that Eagleman declares that “unity of memory is an illusion.”

There are also two versions of decision-making.

[S]ome are fast, automatic and below the surface of conscious awareness; others are slow, cognitive, and conscious. And there’s no reason to assume there are only two systems; there may well be a spectrum.

This division of decision-making into two basic types comports with Daniel Kahneman’s bifurcation in his most recent book, Thinking: Fast and Slow.

What other conflicts are there in the brain? Eagleman notes that even “basic sensory functions” like the detection of motion are determined in the brain by “neural democracy,” thanks to the existence of several distinct neural mechanisms. The two hemispheres of the brain, left and right, compete. We know this from the famous split brain experiments.

There are other internal conflicts I could add.  We are all subject to massive conflicts of interest.  Who wins when we are conflicted?  Me or society?  Present me or future me? My appetite or my intellect?  The part of me that wants to take chances or the me that prefers to stay the course?   Somehow, despite all of our inner conflicts many of us get along well enough . . .

Note: Eagleman’s short article was his response to the 2012 Annual Question of Edge.org: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?


Category: Neuroscience, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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