Anyways, what all this brain science talk is good for on the day to dy level? How can learning about my brain mechanics help me better understand myself or why I act the way I do?
In “Mind wide open: Why you are what you think” Steven Jonson embarks on a fascinating trip inside his own brain and shares how the insights helped him see his behaviour from a different angle.
In Jonson’s opinion, brain sciences “…can help us see our interactions with a new clarity, to detect ling-term patterns or split-second instincts that might otherwise go unnoticed, sometimes because they operate below conscious awareness and sometimes because we’re so familiar with them that they’ve become invisible to us”.
It was the “below conscious awareness” stuff that got my attention. We don’t even know how little we know of ourselves or how little we actually decide on the conscious level. The question of free will is hovering on the horizon but I leave it for now…
While reading an account of a terrible accident in Jonson’s house I remembered a rather unsettling episode my friend and I shared about 15 years ago. We were visiting my parents who at the time lived in the Republic of Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Once we decided to we leave town for a long week end and went up to the mountains to relax and cool off. Within the next two days I learnt what drowning in the fast mountain river could feel like (not knowing how to swim), we were close to being traded for a box of vodka by a few local men and on our last night at the hotel…
The nights were hot even in the mountains and we did not bother to shut the balcony door for the night. I remember waking up at the sound of my friend’s scream and trying to turn my head to the side to see what was happening to her only to reaslise that someone is holding me down. I managed to turn my head enough to see a dark figure leaning over her. Only then did I pay attention to my own intruder and to the fact that all this time I too was screaming at the top of my lungs and biting the palm pressing on my mouth! It was as if my brain was operating at least on two levels: one was in panic and worried about my friend imagining her being hurt while the second one was like on an autopilot, working in a methodical manner trying to take me out from danger.
In the morning we found ourselves without voices or wallets, rather shaken but glad to be alive and well, determined to leave the place as soon as we figured out how. Nobody from the hotel management approached us or asked us anything and we decided to keep quiet about the attack. The last thing you would consider doing was to turn to the corrupt hotel managers or the police. Later we heard that a number of other hotel guests had been robbed that night. I guess we were the only ones that woke up.
That particular episode made me suspect that some unknown to me on the conscious level mechanisms were operating me and not the other way around. It appeared that my body knew exactly what to do before I knew it or before I made a decision as to what line of action was appropriate. If I didn’t tell it what to do, who did? Can I really say I am in control if I am not aware of what mechanisms are at work and when?