Persons all the way down: On viewing the scientific conception of the self from the inside out

by Yohan J. John

1280px-Infinite_regress_of_homunculusRidiculing the intellectual backwardness of our forebears is a popular pastime. How silly our ancestors were! They thought the earth was flat! They believed in dragons and fairies! And even when they started to emerge from humanity's childhood, they came up with ideas like phlogiston! And luminiferous aether! Among neuroscientists, one of the most well-known cautionary tales is that of phrenology: the 19th century “science” that claimed to be able to peer into your soul by measuring bumps and dents on your head. The idea was that these hills and valleys were signs of size differences in areas dedicated to mental faculties such as “amativeness”, “concentrativeness”, “aquisitiveness”, “wit” and “conscientiousness”. So a bump near your zone of “amativeness” would mean that your brain has allocated additional resources towards the pursuit of love and sex. It all sounds quaint and Victorian — I imagine steampunk authors have taken the idea and run with it.

But if we strip away the old-fashioned terminology, how different is the concept of a brain area for “wit” from the concept of a “cognitive area” in the brain? How different is the idea of a center of “amativeness” from the idea that oxytocin is a love molecule? And is the idea that conscientiousness is baked into the brain any different from the idea that morality or altruism is baked into the genome?

1895-Dictionary-PhrenologThere is a kind of implicit metaphysics underlying the idea of a “brain area for X”, a “neurotransmitter for Y” and a “gene for Z” — we might call it the neo-phrenology of the self. For every psychological state, however complex, the neo-phrenologist assumes that there must be some equivalent entity at the level of brain region, or chemical, or gene. Taken together, these equivalent entities seem to add up to a homunculus: a little person sitting in a theatre of experience (typically located somewhere in the prefrontal cortex). Seeing is the projection of a movie onto the screen of the theatre. Hearing is the playing of sound from the theatre's speakers. If this doesn't sound so bad, imagine explaining how a car turns by saying that the steering wheel is made up of “steering cells”. Perhaps we should be more charitable, and see this way of thinking as a reincarnation of the Upanishadic idea that the Supreme Self is the eye of the eye and the mind of the mind. [1]

The homunculus picture can also be discerned in the idea of the genome as a “blueprint” for the organism. Before modern genetics arose at the turn of the 20th century, some scientists (the “preformationists”) proposed that the sperm contained a miniature version of the future organism. Modern scientists laugh at this causal passing-of-the-buck, but conceptually, a miniature person is not really that different from a miniature blueprint of a person. [2]

It might seem unfair to paint all attempts to bridge psychology and biology with the broad brush of “phrenology” (or “preformationism”, or “homuncularism”). After all, don't our new conceptions of mind, brain and body receive a stamp of approval from Science-with-a-capital-S? Not really. If you scratch under the surface of pretty much any claim about the relationship between mind and brain, you will find complexity, mystery, dispute, and error. One reason may be this: the entities we identify as being the “carriers” of some high-level phenomenon like love, intelligence or anger also seem to be involved in wholly unrelated things. For example, dopamine is not solely correlated with rewards and pleasure. It is also linked with novelty, with salience, and even with negative experiences. The brain doesn't necessarily conform to our discrete psychological categories, however “natural” they might seem.

1024px-Blind_monks_examining_an_elephantSadly, the pop science world hasn't quite figured out how to present mystery and uncertainty as fascinating things in themselves. Scientists don't know exactly how mental experience arises in the brain, but along the way we've acquired a sense of the intricate beauty of neural processes. We're the blind men who are starting to share notes and speculate about how big and weirdly shaped the elephant might be. I guess a state of informed bafflement doesn't generate clicks or sell T-shirts, so the modern conception of the self routinely falls back into neo-phrenology mode. Perhaps for many people it is better to have some narrative for how the self works, even if it is full of plot holes.

Inside_Out_(2015_film)_posterIn the Pixar film Inside Out, emotions are represented as little people running a control room in the head. I definitely enjoyed the movie, but I imagine it irritated plenty of thoughtful viewers. A reasonable number of people must have walked out of the theatre wondering how on earth a personification of Joy could possibly feel sad. Or whether the emotions themselves have control rooms in their fuzzy little heads. We're supposed to laugh at the primitive notion that the universe rests on “turtles all the way down”, but sometimes it seems as if we lap up the idea that the self consists of persons all the way down.

1024px-PSM_V10_D562_The_hindoo_earthThe selfish gene idea, even if taken as little more than a colorful metaphor, also conjures up a version of the “persons all the way down” idea — while also, unhelpfully, destabilizing the idea that the organism is an integral whole in the first place, by conceptualizing it as a mere vehicle for genes. If we explain genetics by resorting to a psychological-sounding concept like selfishness, we are in effect hinting that the control rooms in every cell in our body are run by tiny persons engaged in battles that have little or nothing to do with us. (At least the emotions in Inside Out seem concerned with the holistic well-being of the person whose levers they are pulling.)

Do such anthropomorphic metaphors really help us understand anything? Does it really illuminate when we say that happiness occurs when the happiness area (or network or state or fuzzy person) of the brain is activated? Perhaps one day this line of thinking will help doctors and psychologists treat mental disorders more effectively. But the power to manipulate nature doesn't really rely on personification-driven narrative. In fact we can think of the march of science in terms of disenchantment: the process of exorcising the spirits and demons that used to haunt our explanations. This process has been wildly successful in dealing with inorganic matter, but it seems to founder on the fungus-covered rock of biology. Scientists themselves routinely fall prey to the “double-subject fallacy” — the idea that the brain or a part of it is a separate agent from the person it belongs to. Instead of removing autonomous agents from our explanations of biological phenomena, we seem to be proliferating them!

Science and technology might not need personality-driven narratives, but perhaps the wider culture still does. [3] As religious narratives lose their power to trigger the suspension of disbelief, psychology has stepped in to fill a story-shaped hole in the soul. At the dawn of the 21th century it seems as if half-baked neuroscientific and genetic narratives are replacing the earlier Freudian psychodrama of id, ego, and superego. I see a risk in following this trajectory to its conclusion. A cocktail of individualism, “psychologism” and neo-phrenology might fundamentally change people's attitudes towards the external world, and towards each other. People and things might come to be seen simply as means to achieve psychological ends. [4]

People often ask neuroscientists (in forums such as Quora) about self-improvement: “How can I improve my brain?” “How can I use more than 10% of my brain?” “Which apps will improve my prefrontal cortex?” “Which foods will boost dopamine?” [5] The answers I offer are often along the following lines: “We don't really know how to improve the brain 'directly', or even what 'improvement' means in general. It's safe to assume that any neuroscience-related consumer product is basically snake oil. Dabbling with neurochemicals might have unintended consequences. The more practical question is this: what is it you want a 'better' brain for? What would you do with it? The science is very fuzzy, but we are reasonably confident that activities traditionally considered healthy and beneficial are… healthy and beneficial. Read. Exercise. Eat right. Learn to play a musical instrument. Learn a second language. Value all kinds of social relationships. Travel. Seek out new experiences. Get involved in a cause. And don't get too stressed out if you haven't checked off these items from your list. “

It seems as if quite a few people want short-cuts via neuroscience. This is understandable when it comes to psychiatric disorders or crippling pain. But when it comes to self-improvement, what does it mean to take a short-cut? What does it mean to want to make your internal homunculi happy? What does it mean to want to turn on a switch that makes you 'smart''? For now these are largely academic questions, because the neuroscientific short-cuts aren't quite there yet. For the most part, the external universe remains the key that unlocks our selves. In any case, it may be that for many of us nothing located inside us is amenable to repair or optimization. [6]

Perhaps one day the scientists and bioengineers and neuro-hackers will find real short-cuts to psychological bliss. If our individualistic psyche-centric culture invents real neurotechnology, we may be tempted to cut ourselves off from the unpredictable bother of the external world. We may sleepwalk into a Matrix-like future, cocooning ourselves in personalized virtual reality bubbles. Avoiding such dubious comforts might require playing with the idea that a significant dimension of the self lies outside our heads and even our bodies, and becomes manifest only in the dynamic social and ecological networks that we are embedded in.



[1] Perhaps the self is a fractal. Or a strange loop.

[2] The similarity between preformation and genetic blueprints is pointed out by Richard Lewontin in his excellent lecture “Gene, Organism and Environment”, which you can watch on YouTube.

[3] We might say that the social world depends on “narrativium“, the fictional element described in The Science of Discworld — a clever and funny pop science book series by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. They write that “Narrativium is powerful stuff. We have always had a drive to paint stories on to the Universe. When humans first looked at the stars, which are great flaming suns an unimaginable distance away, they saw in amongst them giant bulls, dragons, and local heroes. This human trait doesn't affect what the rules say — not much, anyway — but it does determine which rules we are willing to contemplate in the first place. Moreover, the rules of the universe have to be able to produce everything that we humans observe, which introduce a kind of narrative imperative into science, too. Humans think in stories…”

[4] Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight movies sometimes seem to be saying that the entire city of Gotham and its people exist solely for the purpose of resolving Batman's inner conflicts.

[5] The idea that we use only 10% of the brain is a zombie concept that refuses to die.

[6] What I've written suggests a connection between the “persons-all-the-way-down” narrative and the opposite idea — that the self is a mindless and relatively narrative-free machine that can be “souped up” like a car. Perhaps instrumental conceptions of other people reflects back, so we see our 'internal selves' as tools too. Perhaps we need to think more about what Norbert Weiner called the human use of human beings.