As Carl Jung put it, “In each of us there is another whom we do not know.” Pink Floyd sang, ‘There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.” David Eagleman in his book Incognito writes, “Almost the entirety of what happens in your mental life is not under your conscious control.”
He suggests that consciousness exists to distribute control over automated subroutines in the brain which he calls zombie or alien systems. Zombie systems include everything from “producing speech to picking up a mug of coffee.” Some are instinctual and some are learned, but all are highly automated routines physically embedded in the brain and largely inaccessible to the conscious mind. “When the brain finds a task it needs to solve, it rewires its own circuitry until it can accomplish the task with maximum efficiency. The task becomes burned into the machinery.” Over time, this automation yields speed and efficiency both of which are evolutionarily selected for survival.
He tells of a study on the use of energy in which researchers used brain imaging to observe people learning to play the video game Tetris.
The subjects brains were highly active, burning energy at a massive scale while the neural networks searched for the underlying structures and strategies of the game. By the time the subjects became experts at the game, after a week or so, their brains consumed very little energy while playing. It’s not that the player became better despite the brain being quieter; the player became better because the brain was quieter. In these players, the skills of Tetris has been burned down into the circuitry of the system, such that there were now specialized and efficient programs to deal with.
The trick of burning tasks into the circuitry is fundamental to how brains operate: they change the circuit board of their machinery to mold themselves to their mission. This allows a difficult task that could be accomplished only clumsily to be achieved with rapidity and efficiency. In the logic of the brain, if you don’t have the right tool for the the job, create it.
He likens one’s consciousness to the CEO of a company setting the higher level direction, making decisions when conflicting subroutines are involved, and assigning new tasks. As long as the zombie subroutines are running smoothly and everything goes as expected, the CEO does not need to be consulted. The CEO becomes involved when events in the world violate expectations and, only then, does consciousness becomes engaged. If the zombie systems have the capability to cover whatever is happening, they do. Only when they cannot handle something, you become consciously aware of it, and the CEO jumps into action.
I just got an iPhone. It is really proving challenging and funstrating (frustrating + fun) to learn to use the little keyboard and all of the other new and improved gadgetry and applications. My teenage kids make it seem so easy. The CEO is working over time and is confused…for now. I look forward to the zombies taking over.
The picture is of my boys in full zombie mode courtesy of the new iPhone….. 🙂