Building a better self: Using cognitive hacking to modify your fuck-ups…

Over the last 18 months, I’ve written a fair bit on the concept of self, and the various issues with being human that get in the way of our mental wellbeing. Today, I’d like to revisit that theme, tying together a few of the various ideas into a sort of ‘self-awareness’ template. At least, that’s the plan…


Let’s start with the notion of self. I wrote about it here, but I want to revisit this concept because it’s such a difficult one for most humans to get their heads around. Put simply: you don’t exist (nor do I). Our notion of self is an illusion, possibly an evolutionary adaptation to help us interact with others, or possibly just the consequence of a complex brain. Nevertheless, the integrated person that you feel yourself to be doesn’t actually exist. You’re not the consistent, stable, unified ‘you’ who sits at the control centre of your mind. You don’t actually get to make any of the decisions you think you do (like what to eat for breakfast, or whether to continue reading this blog). All of this stuff happens without your input, but it feels like you’re in the driving seat.

Let’s explore this a bit further. What you think of as ‘you’ is actually a self-illusion. Each of us is really the end product of a series of highly connected/networked individual modules, each largely unaware of the others. That is, if there is a ‘you’ it’s the result of complex interactions between these modules resulting in an experience that feels like you exist and are in charge. In other words, the experience of consciousness and self is the result of the complexity generated by the network, rather than by the action of specific neurons – suggesting that consciousness exists as an expression of complexity, rather than as a functional brain system (like vision). The result of this network activity is an experience of existing, of being able to perceive external and internal events, to think, to feel, to decide and to act. All of these events happen, of course, but the idea that there is a central you (like a person sitting in the command module of your mid) is false.

The illusion becomes apparent when we measure what’s going on in the brain. A classic illustration of the illusion of self has been demonstrated by measuring the actions of the motor control strip. When, for example, I feel that I am choosing to type these words, the part of my brain that controls my fingers (the part of my motor control regions that are devoted to my fingers) fires before the part of my brain that houses conscious decision-making. In other words, the part of me that thinks it’s in charge isn’t actually sending the messages to my fingers to make them type – something else is – it just feels like I’m the one making the decision. And, in fact, that’s all that self is: the story we tell ourselves to convince ourselves we’re in charge even though we (whatever that is) are not.

A much more important illustration of this illusion is our response to feelings. As I’ve mentioned several times before (see here for example), what we call emotion (at least the primary emotions like fear, anger, anxiety and disgust) is just activity within the limbic system. When the limbic system responds to perceived danger, it ‘warns’ us with a particularly strong, unpleasant ‘feeling’. Let me reiterate: these ‘feelings’ are simply warning signals based on activity in a part of the brain that evolved to keep us safe by scanning for danger and telling us when it ‘thinks’ it’s found it. (Here’s the important bit). Because, however, we feel like we’re an integrated ‘self’, instead of interpreting this message from another brain module for what it is (there might be danger, respond appropriately), we ‘feel’ an emotion and then either make up a reason for why we chose to feel that way (e.g., “I’ve been slighted”, “my boss doesn’t appreciate my work”), or a story for why our feeling is justified (e.g., “because that person cut me off in traffic”, or “because my wife didn’t give me a compliment”, or “because I’m running late to work”). None of these ‘reasons’ are real, they just help to convince us that we’re actually in charge. And of course, this happens for pretty much any internal event – anything that you assume about why you’re feeling something is just your illusory self making up a story about what’s going on and then believing it.

Another way of looking at this is to imagine that everything that happens inside your brain is going on in a sealed black box. You have no way of knowing what’s going on inside the box, but you can see the output, so you start to make up stories about how that output is generated. After a while, you forget that the black box exists, and, instead, rely on your stories to explain what you see. You treat the stories, no matter how fantastic or fallacious they might be, as absolute truth and refuse to believe anything that contradicts their message. Welcome to the human condition.

Taking this idea to its conclusion, the primary danger of the self illusion is that we actually take ourselves seriously and believe the bullshit that our minds create to explain our internal events. So instead of acknowledging that when, for example, we feel angry, it’s just the result of activation of a module in our brain that evolved to keep us from being eaten by predators (and is now somewhat outmoded), we believe that our ‘resultant’ anger is justified (or, worse, righteous), and use it to justify our responses. In other words, we treat the illusion as if it were real, and allow it to guide our actions.

I should probably point out at this stage that, although it’s true that ‘we’ don’t initiate motor control events (like typing), we do appear to be able to ‘choose’ certain actions. We can, for instance, inhibit certain actions (like a violent response to limbic system activation), by activating opposing brain processes. For example, the experience of compassion is the result of activation of areas in the left prefrontal cortex which, in turn, suppresses limbic activation, reducing the propensity for violence. In other words our ‘voluntary’ actions might be the result of modifying the network in order to activate alternate modules in the presence of particular inputs and outputs. Perhaps this is what maturity or wisdom actually is…

Here’s the next important bit. The parts of you (the various brain modules) that make up your illusory self, were all programmed by a series of accidents. Some of it was the result of evolutionary adaptations (survival systems) and some of it was environmental exposure. And a lot of that environmental exposure was mediated by your genetic predispositions for response to environmental factors. In other words, hardly any of it was engineered by ‘you’. You didn’t get to choose your genetics, your parents, their parenting style, your early environment, your early diet, your education, your peers, your socio-economics. Summed up, everything that you are is the result of the programming that occurred based on these (and many other variables) – you didn’t get a say. The decisions, preferences, tastes, desires and behaviours that you express on a day-to-day basis are not yours. They are simply the product of your programming – so much so that, with enough data gathering to model your actions, your choices are extremely predictable (see my last post here). But, of course, you believe that you’re in charge – the self-illusion again. Given that we didn’t get to choose any of this stuff, it’s not surprising that the self we end up with (illusory or not) is pretty screwed up. And yet, remarkably, we treat our own selves as gospel, and trust ourselves implicitly. Again, no wonder we constantly make poor decisions and act ineffectively.

Now, here’s the tricky part. I’ve said that the self doesn’t really exist, and that pretty much all of our actions are the result of the preprogrammed actions of separate brain modules, working in a giant network. This suggests that, in fact, we don’t have any free will, and that everything is predetermined. But I’m not convinced of this. As I mentioned above, I think that the ‘self’ part of us – the part that observes and makes up stories about what it can do, can actually be useful because it might be able to modify the way the system acts. The self is good at two things. First, it can observe (i.e., pay attention). This is useful, because, once we denude ourselves of the idea that we’re in charge and understand the mechanisms of the system, we are actually quite good at observing what’s going on. This means that we can identify when different modules activate and the resultant output (e.g., fear, pain, anxiety, joy). Second, we can use this information effectively to modify the network. Instead of indulging in BS stories about why these modules activated, and then taking action that perpetuates the BS (e.g., shouting at someone because we believe that they made us angry) and sustaining a particular output, we can modify the system by acknowledging the information, and then making decisions or taking actions that are independent of these ‘feelings’. In other words, when we choose to take action, we are influencing the system by accessing the network and modifying the result by activating or suppressing activity in a given module.

I used the word ‘hacking’ in the title, and we’re finally there. If the ‘self’ is useful for anything (apart from a lovely sense of deluded self-worth) it’s as a cognitive hacking platform. By learning to be aware of the activity in different modules in our brain, we can do two really important things: (1) stop assuming that the outputs from these modules are ‘us’ (i.e., ‘you’ don’t feel angry, a part of your brain that sends warning signals to enhance survival has been activated) and, (2) activate alternate systems by hacking the usual process. Compassionate action, for example, happen as the result of suppression of limbic system activity in combination with left prefrontal cortex activation. This, in turn, is extremely difficult in instances of stress, or perceived pressure, so we need to train the system to react differently when exposed to perceived danger. Meditation is one documented way of modifying this circuit. With enough practice we can modify the system so that it pays less attention to the output of the limbic system, reducing the likelihood of a fight or flight response, and improving blood flow and resource allocation to the prefrontal cortex, allowing activation of the system that controls compassionate action.

Put this all together, and you get an alternate concept of self. Instead of self as a direct controller that chooses our actions (the illusion), we get a limited observer that can interpret information more effectively and then, with enough training, can direct certain systems to activate in opposition to the default settings. This is the ultimate human state – using our big brains to actually self-regulate at a macro level – choosing our behaviours based on correct interpretation rather than made up crap. This suggests that we need to spend some time coming up with alternatives to our accidental self. Which actions are, in your opinion, really important, and which are just the result of evolution and accident?

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