Inner Check, Inner Dash

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) and Paul Elmer More (1864-1937) were American literary scholars, famous in their day for arguing that Socrates, the Buddha, Samuel Johnson, and a wide array of other sages throughout the history of the world had conceived of the freedom of the will as the ability to defy one’s impulses.  Babbitt and More gave this conception a variety of names; perhaps the most familiar of these names is “the inner check.”

The other day, I picked up a copy of the August 2012 issue of Scientific American magazine while I was waiting for the pharmacist to fill a prescription.  Lo and behold, a column by Michael Shermer described neurological study conducted in 2007 by Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard.  Doctors Brass and Haggard found support for an hypothesis that will sound familiar to students of Babbitt and More.  As Mr Shermer puts it:

[I]f we define free will as the power to do otherwise, the choice to veto one impulse over another is free won’t. Free won’t is veto power over innumerable neural impulses tempting us to act in one way, such that our decision to act in another way is a real choice. I could have had the steak—and I have—but by engaging in certain self-control techniques that remind me of other competing impulses, I vetoed one set of selections for another.

Support for this hypothesis may be found in a 2007 study in the Journal of Neuroscience by neuroscientists Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard, who employed a task… in which subjects could veto their initial decision to press a button at the last moment. The scientists discovered a specific brain area called the left dorsal frontomedian cortex that becomes activated during such intentional inhibitions of an action: “Our results suggest that the human brain network for intentional action includes a control structure for self-initiated inhibition or withholding of intended actions.” That’s free won’t.

If this is true, then Babbitt and More’s works take on a new interest.  If such a control structure exists in the human brain network, it wouldn’t necessarily be the case that humans would be consciously aware of it.  There are any number of facts about the operation of our brains that no one ever seems to have guessed until quite recent scientific findings pointed to them.  So, if Babbitt and More were right and a great many distinguished intellectuals operating in many times and cultures conceived of moral agency as a matter of “self-initiated inhibition or withholding of intended actions,” it would be reasonable to ask whether this conception is evidence that the process Doctors Brass and Haggard detected in the left dorsal frontomedian cortex is perceptible to the person who owns the brain in which it occurs.

The same issue included a couple of other interesting notes on psychological and neurological topics.  A bit by Ferris Jabr discusses Professors George Mandler and Lia Kvavilashvili, who have been studying a phenomenon they call “mind-pops.”  A mind-pop is a fragments of memory which suddenly appears in one’s conscious mind for no apparent reason.  Most mind-pops are very slight experiences; the example in the column is a person washing dishes who suddenly thinks of the word “orangutan.”  That’s the sort of thing a person might forget seconds after it occurred.  Trivial as an individual mind-pop might be, perhaps as a class of experiences they may point to significant aspects of mental functioning.  Professors Kvavilashvili and Mandler:

propose that mind pops are often explained by a kind of long-term priming. Priming describes one way that memory behaves: every new piece of information changes how the mind later responds to related information. “Most of the information we encounter on a daily basis activates certain representations in the mind,” Kvavilashvili explains. “If you go past a fish-and-chips shop, not only the concept of fish may get activated but lots of things related to fish, and they may stay activated for a certain amount of time—for hours or even days. Later on, other things in the environment may trigger these already active concepts, which have the feeling of coming out of nowhere.” This phenomenon can boost creativity because, she says, “if many different concepts remain activated in your mind, you can make connections more efficiently than if activation disappears right away.”

The same researchers also suspect that mind-pops have a connection to a variety of mental illnesses and emotional disorders, so it isn’t all so cheerful as that paragraph may suggest.

Morten Kringelbach and Kent Berridge, in a feature article titled “New Pleasure Circuit Found in the Brain,” describe a study conducted in the 1950s that involved electrical stimulation of certain areas of the brain.  Subjects expressed a strong desire that the stimulation should continue.  From that desire, researchers concluded that the areas in question were producing pleasure.  However, more recent work suggests that these are in fact areas that produce, not pleasure, but desire.  Indeed, none of the patients in the original study actually said that they enjoyed the stimulation, they simply said that they wanted more of it.  Researchers were jumping to an unwarranted conclusion when they interpreted that desire as a sign of pleasure.  The actual process by which the brain produces pleasure is rather more complicated than those researchers, and the “pleasure-center” model of the brain that grew out of their work, might lead one to assume.

A summer sadness

I just spent a few minutes doing various online searches involving the terms “dehydration” and “self-awareness.”  I don’t know anything about medicine or psychology, but I’m pretty sure one of the symptoms of dehydration is a loss of emotional self-awareness.  I was thinking about that this morning; yesterday was a hot, humid day, and I was strangely moody.  Some friends stopped over at our house; I’m always happy when they come, and always miss them when they go, but yesterday I was overjoyed to see them, so much so that I became annoyingly silly, and unreasonably sad when they left, so much so that I had to take a nap.  Neither of these reactions was so far out of the ordinary as to cause a problem; after a few moments of annoyingness, I was able to dial my silliness back, and after my nap, I was no longer sad.  After drinking water and eating fresh fruit, I was fine.

As I reflected on this minor episode, it struck me that my exaggerated emotional responses may have been the result of a loss of self-awareness.  Usually, when our friends showed up, at some level of my mind I would have had a thought like “I’m happy because they are here”; when they left, I would have had some thought like “I’m sad because they are going.”  In my dehydrated condition, that level of my mind seemed to have closed up shop.  If I had been asked why I was happy at one time and sad at the other, I don’t suppose it would have been difficult for me to explain it in terms of our friends’ arrival and departure, but that knowledge didn’t seem to connect with the feelings or to give them the shading that emotions usually have.

Among the most famous lines of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous “Ode to a Skylark” are these:

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Shelley thinks that this marks us as inferior to the skylark, who feels the “clear keen joyance” of one emotion at a time.  Thinking of my summer sadnesses, I disagree.  Drained by heat and squeezed dry by the humidity of the North American interior, I’ve often experienced a loss of self-awareness and a severely simplified emotional life while dehydrated.  The highs can be intoxicating.  I use the word “intoxicating” advisedly;  of course, alcohol consumption brings both dehydration and low self-awareness.

A recent installment of Unwinder’s Tall Comics deals with a similar point: