Being aware of one’s own brain

Friedrich_Hayek

By and large, our most important organ is transparent to us. We can feel our heart racing after we run, or lungs on fire from holding our breath too long. We see, hear, feel things at our fingertips, taste… We even feel our stomachs growl. But all of those are functions of our brain functioning, which we generally don’t notice or think about.

We feel emotions, but we’re not aware of the hormones in our brain that cause them. Who has ever said, “I feel a little heavy on the dopamine today”?

This is fascinating, because to the best of our knowledge our brain is everything and the only thing that makes us who we are. The synapses firing, invisible to our own perception, are who we are. We don’t see or feel our brain- we are our brain.

Everything you are is contained in a three-pound mass between your ears.

Traumatic brain injuries bear this out, not just in cognitive function or physical ability, but personality. In 1848 railroad foreman Phineas Gage was injured in an explosion that drive a metal rail through his skull. He suffered no physical impairment aside from losing vision in his left eye, but his personality changed drastically.

The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires…. Previous to his injury, though untrained in schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.” (Harlow, 1868, pp.339-340)

The amount of psychology in my degree program has been an unexpected delight. Learning so much about the quirks and oddities of brain function, like the blind spot of the human eye, of which we go through life unaware has been fascinating and done more to expand my understanding of people than anything else.

I seem to remember a passage in my psych 101 textbook that encapsulated the thought perfectly, but after hours of flipping through its pages I still can’t find it. Perhaps I imagined it? Maybe it’s an invented memory?

If you’ve never watched Brain Games, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It does an amazing job of highlighting just how fallible our perception of reality can be. One of the main reasons I strive to be an empiricist, fact-check everything, and only believe what is verifiable is because I’m aware easily we are otherwise fooled.

And I never saw that shift in epistemology coming.

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