September 9, 2012

Can You Even Follow Your Nose?

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Do you ever find yourself doing something over and over again for no apparent reason?

Freshman year I found myself in a weird loop. Friday we would go out, I would pretend to enjoy it (when in fact I often didn’t), other people would express a similar sentiment to mine, but then we would do it all over again the next week. Why?

I don’t know.

But, I think one of the most interesting insights into this baffling tendency comes from a response to a question posted on Reddit. The question was posed to a hypothetical computer program and asked “what’s it like being made of code” — to which the long and extended response of the program begins: “My understanding of the human condition is that you are constantly in conflict with your own limitations and the nebulous causes thereto. You wonder why you can’t be happier or more successful or spend more time reading or learning. You do this, I gather, because your motivations are mysterious even to yourselves.”


I never even took the time to realize, but yes; my motivations are, to a halting degree, mysterious even to myself.

The evidence is overwhelming. And fascinating.

For example, it would appear that our motivations to interact with our parents are something we consciously regulate. Well, that might not entirely be the case. A study published last year in Psychological Science found that, during times of peak fertility in their ovulatory cycle, women call their fathers (but not mothers) less and speak to them for shorter amounts of time (Lieberman, Pillsworth & Haselton 2011). The researchers understand these results through an evolutionary framework — finding them to be consistent with an unconscious mental mechanism for avoiding inbreeding. There are perhaps alternate explanations, but whatever the explanation for this phenomenon, it doesn’t manifest itself consciously, yet it undoubtedly alters our behavior in a significant way.

Or what about the motivation to have children? This is seemingly one of life’s most significant decisions. And our motivation in this case appears to follow from the premise that having children is a near-requisite step on the path to leading an emotionally fulfilling life. The evidence however is not so clear. Parents, it has been shown, incur “less frequent positive emotions,” “more frequent negative emotions,” “greater depression” and “lower marital satisfaction” (Eibach & Mock 2011). Why then do we choose to have children?

Economists too have speculated about our mysterious motivations. Thomas Schelling, famous for his work on game theory (which in fact won him a Nobel Prize), asks very eloquently: “How should we conceptualize this rational consumer whom all of us know and who some of us are … who eats a high calorie lunch knowing that he will regret it, does regret it, cannot understand how he lost control, resolves to compensate with a low calorie dinner, eats a high calorie dinner knowing he will regret it, and does regret it; who sits glued to the TV knowing that again tomorrow he’ll wake early in a cold sweat unprepared for that morning meeting on which so much of his career depends; who spoils the trip to Disneyland by losing his temper when his children do what he knew they were going to do when he resolved not to lose his temper when they did it? People behave sometimes as if they had two selves.”

All of this — failing to exercise self-control after we repeatedly plan to, raising children who appear to make us feel worse, calling your dad less during certain times in your ovulatory cycle (without ever realizing it) and going out when you and many others don’t want to — raises the question: Who’s in charge?

Is anyone even in charge?

Probably not in the way you think. Here’s the simple reasoning that absolutely demolished my thereto un-questioned intuitive theory of consciousness. It came from neuroscientist Christof Koch on an episode of Radiolab.

First, let’s talk about a cosmological fable, known and told in many forms in myriad cultures, about how the earth (apparently) stays in its place. The earth is said, in these myths, to rest on the back of a giant turtle. Well then, you might ask, what does that turtle stand on? Another turtle? And that turtle? You see the problem.

Well, consciousness appears to be a world-bearing turtle. The intuition, Koch says, is that consciousness is something like having a little man in a white lab coat sitting in a control room in your mind, centrally making all your decisions. But if this were the case, how does that little man in the control room make his decisions? Is there another little man in his head? And in his head? The same problem emerges. We regress, infinitely. We haven’t come up with a solution; we just pushed it back a step.

The point of the episode was that, like ant colonies or a marketplace, an apparent intentional order can emerge without any central authority leading the charge, simply from many individual units acting together. Why then, they suggested, couldn’t this also be the case with our billions of individual neurons and our conscious selves?

It very well might be and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe it is. So, before going out every weekend, deciding not to call your parents, withdrawing from a person because they just give you a “bad feeling” or really before doing just about anything, you could ask: Wait, why am I even doing this? You might be surprised to find that you have no idea.

Sebastian Deri is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at [email protected] Thought Crimes appears alternate Mondays this semester. 

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Original Author: Sebastian Deri