Thursday, July 16, 2009

The non-Freudian Unconscious - Eureka!

Let's do the old association test. I say "unconscious," and 2:1 you say "Freud." He "discovered" it. So we have gotten used to think in terms of suppressed desires, unknown influences on us, emotions. Which was a great advance.

I remember when I was a freshman in college and I wrote a paper that talked about how we think about ourselves. I said we talk about ourselves as though we are a unity. As though we had a little pea in our brain that is "us." And then the paper stopped. My teacher read it, and my friend David Riggs read it, and they both said, so where is this going? I thought you were going to come to a conclusion, no? But I couldn't. I could pose a problem but couldn't go further. But I'm patient, and I figured it would just be something that I'd have to think about more. If you only write about questions you can answer, you're not writing about much.

Then two years later I was taking the elementary biology course from George Wald. He said that the problem of life would probably be solved in our lifetime (too optimistic - he died, and we're not close enough for me to expect it in my lifetime). What he meant was that we could put inanimate molecules together and add electricity, as from lightening, and get something that was proto-life. As I said, not yet.

But then he said the second big problem was the problem of the brain. This, he said, would take a lot longer. It was just too complex. When I was in medical school I was amazed by brain anatomy - so many differentiated structure, and so little idea of how they worked! We knew some - the inverse humunculus in the cortex that Penfield had traced, the basic functions of the hindbrain, other things. But not that much.

But amazingly, it seems that much more progress is being made in understanding the brain than in creating life. Thank technology. PET scans; functional MRI's. The functional MRI let's us now know what parts of our brain are thinking what.

So, with all that in mind (aha!), here's what happened last night. I was lying in bed around 4 AM, I think, after I had woken up and started obsessing about what I needed to email in the morning about the office, what about the stock market, etc. There is something about thinking in bed at night after I've been asleep that leads to very succinct sentences, very clear. Also very good and clear thoughts. Somehow, the brain is working differently at night after I wake up.

And then I thought, well, I might as well think about the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. I had done it all except the upper left hand corner. There was a 10 letter entry for "publicity push," with the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th letters "blit." I hadn't been able to figure it out. And then it came to me, "blitz." It had to be! So I thought, as I always do, should I get up and write it down, or try to go back to sleep and risk forgetting it (I often forget the perfect sentences I think of). So I got up and wrote it down, and in a minute or two thought of "mediablitz," and that was it.

Now, here's the question - where did that word come from? I had the experience that it was floating somewhere and I had to grab it and say it to myself and tether it. It didn't come from consciously going through alternatives - I had done that earlier, for several days. It just popped up and floated.

The answer is, it came from my right brain, the part of the brain that doesn't go through things sequentially, or consciously. [More specifically, the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG).] So it's - unconscious! But it isn't emotional, it's just a part of the brain that works a little differently and then sometimes gets captured by the conscious part. It's unconscious reasoning. Make room, Dr. Freud.

Jonah Lehrer has written beautifully about this in the New Yorker in an article called "Eureka"- July 28, 2008, page 40 -

Pretty interesting. It's pretty clear that the idea of a little pea that is "us" was indeed only a rhetorical device and a way that we think about ourselves, a heuristic. The same point is made by the famous TED video by the neuroscientist who was conscious as she had a stroke and found her faculties leaving. Or maybe not. Maybe there really is a little place in the brain without which we don't appreciate ourselves the way we do now. Probably so. Probably in the prefrontal cortex somewhere. I guess.

Budd Shenkin

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. I liked the reference to George Wald. I didn't take his course, not being pre-med and all, but did sit in on one of his lectures. We breathed and hummed at the start of the lecture to cleanse out minds. He was great.