Thursday, December 20, 2012

How many selves does it take to make a person?

In most situations it is simpler and faster to think of the people around you as a single integrated whole. But this is not actually the case. In healthy individuals under normal circumstances there is no reason to "look behind the curtain". But in order to explain people’s behavior it is sometimes necessary to talk about brain functions at a higher resolution. 

The brain is actually a collection of modules that all work in concert. Sometimes, like in the case of trauma to the brain, one module can be damaged with very strange results. Something similar can be seen in the case of drug addicts who want to quit but cant. When a person wants to quit but is having trouble, it becomes obvious that speaking of a single integrated human being doesn't really do the job. 

Imagine if you will, Sally, a smoker who has just quit for the 3rd time. She has a heart condition and really needs to not smoke, but she still craves cigarettes. And while checking her email she sees a party invitation to the house of a smoker, and her first emotional response is fear. She is afraid that if she goes to the party she will start smoking again. 

Now think about how you would talk about her in this situation. What kind of person is she? Is she strong willed? Weak willed? Is her addiction a thing different from her and inside of her? Is it a flaw in her character? How would You explain it?

Because what we have here is a woman who is afraid of what she will want to do that will be bad for her. Talking about her as a single unified agent causes all kinds of trouble and we have a way out.

We don't need to know what parts of the brain are doing what (which is good because I don't) in order to appreciate that referencing the complexity of the brain and its multimodal setup allows for a more subtle and humane description. 

Sally is neither strong willed nor weak willed by the above description. She is an addict who under some circumstances can manage not to smoke, and under other circumstances will smoke. And she knows, from the experience of trying to quit before, which is which. So she is the person who will not smoke at home, and the person who will smoke at a party, and the person who knows the difference. And it is not necessary to form a single version of Sally that takes all of this in at once.

Ordinarily when neuroscience is invoked, it dehumanizes us. Usually when people pull back the curtain it is a dismissive and reductive act, to speak about people as if they were robots. This is not the only way to use neuroscience, it can also be used to be for forgiving and understanding about people. It can be a route to compassion. 


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