Wednesday, March 26, 2014

In Defense of Reason

Anyone reading this blog knows that I am fascinated by the “defense lawyer” model of consciousness.  This is the model that attributes 95% of what we perceive, decide, and do is largely governed by unconscious and semi-conscious processes.  The 5% that is conscious acts more like a defense lawyer than a manager or executive function.  It doesn’t control what we do; but rather it examines what we do, comes up with the best possible justification for why these actions make sense and how they fit with our model of who we are. 

But this analogy only goes so far and a recent article in The Atlantic is an incredibly insightful editorial on why.  Paul Bloom calls to task the researchers who try to absolve everything bad we do because it is not “our” fault – it is the fault of that unconscious other person lurking inside.  How can you prosecute someone for a crime who only did it because his genetics caused the underdevelopment of his neural circuitry? How can you blame someone for overeating when they are at the mercy of an evolutionary adaptation that draws us to sugar?

He makes two arguments.  One I agree with wholeheartedly.  The unconscious parts of your brain are still “you.”  If those are the parts that led you to commit a crime, it is still “you” who is to blame.  If the purpose of our justice system is rehabilitation then prison might not be the best solution, but whatever the punishment is, it is still “you” who should get it. 

The second one I think is more ambiguous.  He astutely notes that a statistically significant impulse towards sugar is not The Manchurian Candidate or Total Recall level mind control.  Even if you feel the need for the chocolate cake after dinner, doesn’t mean you can’t exert some willpower and resist the urge.  But where I differ from Paul on this part is that the willpower muscle is also largely governed by unconscious processes.  First, a lot of our behavior is triggered and largely completed before our conscious attention even notices.  And second, the processes for directing attention, inhibiting the unconscious response, and then executing a different response are also largely governed by unconscious processes, even as they seem totally under our conscious control.  We still don’t know enough about exactly how the neural processes and interactions play out to know for sure, but we at least know that there really is no such thing as a purely consciously directed action.  That would require direct links from the default network to the muscles.  Instead, the DN tell the FPCN (executive control) to inhibit the salience network (unconscious response) and to activate the DAN (response control), which then is linked to the muscles.  And none of these other areas are conscious so they can get waylaid in process. 

But even in this second discussion, all of these networks are the same person.  So no matter what you do, it is still “you” doing it.  The way to use these insights is in design.  We can design environments, products, workplaces, marketing, public service announcements, health care systems, etc to maximize the user experience and/or the benefits to society.  But to get back to Paul Bloom’s main message, we shouldn’t be using them to excuse bad behavior.