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5/15/12

Are we governed by unconscious processes?: David Eagleman and Raymond Tallis

 First point, then counterpoint.

POINT. As much as we like to think about the body and mind living separate existences, the mental is not separable from the physical. The brain is utterly alien to us, and yet our personalities, hopes, fears and aspirations all depend on the integrity of this biological tissue. How do we know this? Because when the brain changes, we change.
Our personality, decision-making, risk-aversion, the capacity to see colours or name animals – all these can change, in very specific ways, when the brain is altered by tumours, strokes, drugs, disease or trauma. For example, take the vast, unconscious, automated processes that run under the hood of conscious awareness. We have discovered that the large majority of the brain's activity takes place at this low level: the conscious part – the "me" that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning – is only a tiny bit of the operations. This understanding has given us a better understanding of the complex multiplicity that makes a person. A person is not a single entity of a single mind: a human is built of several parts, all of which compete to steer the ship of state. As a consequence, people are nuanced, complicated, contradictory. We act in ways that are sometimes difficult to detect by simple introspection. To know ourselves increasingly requires careful studies of the neural substrate of which we are composed.

COUNTERPOINT. Of course brain activity is automated and, as you say, runs "under the hood of conscious awareness", but this doesn't mean that we are automatons or that we are largely unconscious of the reasons we do things. Yes, of course, everything about us, from the simplest sensation to the most elaborately constructed sense of self, requires a brain in some kind of working order. Remove your brain and bang goes your IQ.

It does not follow that our brains are pretty well the whole story of us, nor that the best way to understand ourselves is to stare at "the neural substrate of which we are composed". More
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