What Makes Us Who We Are Is Stunning as Well as HumblingPick the Brain

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The first title’s dual meaning says it all. Meaning #1 is figurative: after reading this piece, some readers may have second thoughts about espousing a profound perspective on how we function; one likely never encountered before. Meaning #2 is quite literal: most of what we think we’ve deliberately and rationally produced of our own conscious reasoning is actually secondhand topping. That’s because most thinking begins in brain structures that entail the unconscious mind—the #2-mind whose functions we’re consciously unaware of and cannot access.

Our conscious mind is where our personal awareness of self, our ‘I/me’ resides. Nearly all of the brain’s conscious activity occurs here, and gets housed in the brain’s prefrontal cortex (PFC); situated just behind our forehead. [Readers are currently utilizing their PFC as they read this article.] Again, our conscious PFC has no access to all original thought that’s taking place in our unconscious mind. And that is exactly where solemn thinking on many life issues that we face first occurs.

Since our language has a love for metaphors—we utter a metaphor about every 20 seconds—they’re the perfect device for explaining how each of us manages to get through the day. As brain metaphors go, however, so far none of the more popular examples captures an accurate depiction of how the human brain really works: computer, executive suite, compact powerhouse, micro-universe, and intellectual sponge. They’re interesting but not spot on. Better-suited would be a metaphor that’s obvious to the core. One whose explanatory depiction incisively gets it right.

Our Unconscious Mind is a Secret Society

            Possessing the lion’s share of the brain’s many structures, the motley ensemble that populate our unconscious mind’s inner workings may aptly be termed a secret society. One whose name we might christen in French, Première Pensées, or in English, First Thoughts. What makes a secret society secret is their penchant for clandestine activities and events, and an introverted style of functioning. They reputedly hold claim to special secrets, truths, knowledge, and practices that are staunchly concealed from the uninitiated outside world. Which is a fairly accurate description of how our unconscious mind also relates to our conscious mind.

We not only get informed piecemeal by its assorted clandestine functions, we also many times get products of its thinking secondhand: unwittingly believing that some fantastic idea we’d just had, or some valuable principle we’d discovered, or coherent explanation we’d just supplied, was the sole product of our own conscious making. But it more likely wasn’t. More likely, indeed, is that our conscious mind now gets to put the finishing touches on what our unconscious mind had originally drafted.

            A combination of cortical and underlying structures that make up our unconscious mind, or First Thoughts, represent an evolution in brain development and complexity that began with fish, then  reptiles, and then mammals. So, rather than retiring old structures to make way for newer ones bearing new capabilities, nature simply sited the new, the neocortex, atop the old reliable structures. Many of the old structures and their functions still rule to some extent, however.

But, given what we have now, our human brain’s unique configuration allows for a more effective division of labor that can accommodate maintaining an equilibrium in the human body’s various systems while also dealing with the complexity of the external environment. To do just that—relate to the outside world—First Thoughts must rely on its multitalented spokesperson and go-between, the PFC, or what I’ve nicknamed, Second Thoughts. Which is my handy moniker for referring to our attention-centric, conscious mind, our self-aware ‘I/me’ personality that each of us possesses.

Excusing the gender bias of referring to our Second Thoughts (conscious mind) as ‘he,’ he can not only experience the outside world as he perceives it, but also access his own mental state at will. This feat is accomplished through the agency of what Second Thoughts refers to as his ‘consciousness filter,’ or C-Filter. It does not, however, give him access to any cerebral activity going on inside First Thoughts; hereafter referred to as FT. Regrettably, that’s a one-way affair: members of that close-knit society know what he’s up to at any moment, but he’s totally in the dark as to their around-the-clock many-sided goings-on.

Thus, Second Thoughts has limited membership in FT’s society. However, he does have certain privileges: he’s given all sorts of information from FT that no one else is privy to. And of course he’s their one-and-only spokesperson; making him more or less a figurehead in his interactions with real life. Take that literally; not meant as figurative, nor is it hyperbole. Many readers won’t have known that their personality plays a much smaller role in life that assumed; and likely may have a hard time reconciling such a notion now that’s been made clear. Our Second Thoughts persona is real, and does have a say (editor-in-chief) in how we relate to our world, but it is far less a role than most of us suspect.

Since Second Thoughts refers to himself as ‘I/me’ hereafter we’ll refer to him as ST. In self-talk, he also refers to himself as ‘I/me.’ Since we cannot know directly what FT are up to, they communicate to him (one way) chiefly through his two  primary senses: hearing-wise, our mental speakerphone, or what’s popularly referred to as our inner voice; and vision-wise, our mental images, or what’s popularly termed, our mind’s eye. This, too, is meant literally, not figuratively; and has been gleaned from articles by philosopher and cognitive scientist, Peter Carruthers.

Returning to FT for a moment: part of any society’s omniscient mystique is their knowledge repository. They accrue all manner of knowledge from the media, from culture (idioms, mores, norms, etc.), from childhood experience, from schooling, from observed cause-effect of physical and other natural laws, and so on. Similarly, FT has been amassing, and continues to amass, its own vast knowledge repository. All this knowledge somehow gets aggregated into a personalized worldview, or as psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman refers to it, our personal model of the world.

As we attempt to reason our way through each day, FT, seemingly at whim, will hand over cursory clues to whatever has been, or is currently vexing us. FT’s pint-sized one-way informal communique takes various forms, often arriving unexpectedly or ‘out of the blue.’ What we infer from one of their paltry messages may be accurate or may not be. In many cases we believe a clue from out-of-the-blue is our own epiphanic discovery and follow it with a snap decision or judgment rashly getting stamped as valid; especially since it’s believed to be our creation. Think of instances when we experience some breakthrough on a trying problem whose solution hasn’t been forthcoming. That’s an example of FT working on it in our unconscious. Then arriving at a solution—in minutes, days, sometimes months or longer—and sending ‘it over to the conscious side.’

This is sufficient foundation for now. The best way to get to know our own particular FT society is to take a look at their remarkable work products. Their think tank-like goings on. Five scenarios are supplied as full-spectrum evidentiary examples. But first, the consciousness filter’s uncanny role needs some explanation.

Consciousness Filter (C-Filter): How FT Communicate with ST

            Despite all the heavy lifting performed by FT, there’s no way of knowing exactly how much abstract thinking is taking place (and on different tracks) at any second. All that FT reveals to us has been greatly condensed into brief messages—a principal agency of the C-Filter. Or more succinctly, suggestions and messaged ideas that come out on our conscious mind’s side. The C-Filter is my term for solutions passing into consciousness by means of the two most-used aforementioned sensory modalities: inner voice messages and mind’s eye visualizations. Solutions themselves are singularly cursory in form: a feeling, hint, impression, impulse, insight/inspiration/vision (all motivational), intention, or intuition.

Spokesperson to the outside world, ‘I/me,’ is then tasked with inferring the full meaning and application of whichever suggestion or idea was received. Further, we need to attach that very meaning to the right context amid all concurrent concerns occupying our mind. Ostensibly, whichever concern occupies our immediate attention.

Scenario #1: On-the-Fly DecisionsDaily, we can confront many types of situations where we’re forced to make snap decisions. Typically, the consequences of a wrong decision aren’t anywhere near life-and-death extremes. So, unbeknownst to us, we act on them as if they were entirely our own. But they’re not. Philosopher Peter Carruthers refers to this shadowy fiction as the illusion of immediacy: a false impression of knowing one’s thoughts directly. Let’s say that I wonder whether I should make a quick stop for a few items at the grocer’s. Or should I drive straight home because peak-hour traffic’s clogging up heavily with every minute that passes? ‘Home’ I hear over the speakerphone in my head, my inner voice quietly advising. And believing that it was I who supplied that thought, I act on it and therefore drive straight home.

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            ‘Home’ for mewas an intuitive response, (extracted from FT’s personal model of the world), in the millisecond it took to zip through my C-Filter. Instead of laboring over reasoning through the pros and cons of making that one stop, versus going straight home, the wisdom of those FT-society ‘elders’ (past experience housed in the repository) came through and spared me the wasteful anxiety and unnecessary energy. Although it also needs mentioning, I may not always agree with some emerging, spontaneous idea. I’m sometimes so consciously preoccupied that whatever idea was sent over doesn’t fully register. When that’s the case, weexperience what’s commonly referred to as that ‘nagging feeling’ or ‘lingering doubt’ that something’s not quite right.

Regardless, this messaging arrangement is usually efficient and spot on. We seem to just hear the meaning of whatever idea ‘pops into our head,’ as Carruthers would explain. For example, as quick as readers can say 4+4, theyknow the (FT’s) answer (stored in long-term memory, the hippocampus). If we’re told, ese fi oyu nac scrambunle eseth letrets, FT decodes what’s going on and deciphers them, one word at a time—passing it through the C-filter—as we consciously read them off.

Scenario #2: FT Decides, We Pseudo-Decide – Life confronts each of us with many kinds of environmental stimuli at any given instant. We’re able to focus on only a thin summary of all that’s visibly and audibly populating that instant in time. But FT perceives much, much more and isn’t faint-hearted about sending messages or suggestions through C-filter as impulses, impressions, or intentions for usto decide (secondhand) whether to now act. More often than not, believing that we’ve (ST) had the decisive thought, we accept ideas straightaway; or we may reason through our options and mediate some sort of measured acceptance that also may edit and finalize our actions.

In point of fact, neurologists have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other imaging technology to not only identify which of FT’s underlyingstructures are involved in forming decisions, but also their ‘starting times.’ It turns out that FT members (structures) are busily at work 7-10 seconds before sending over some impulse, intention, impression, etc., to usthat we’re then inclined to affirmatively decide (secondhand). Put another way, research subjects in one study were observed to actually state a conscious decision belatedly, 7-10 seconds after the initial firing of neurons in the affected unconscious site of their brain.

As a function of our conscious PFC (and other parts of the cortex), many neurologists believe we do the following in real-time with intent to execute as action at some future point: declare intentions, make judgments, set goals, and make major decisions; all stored in what’s called our prospective memory system. Yet some proponents of unconscious dominance, are that similarly, FT structures also make major decisions, set goals, make judgments, and declare intentions as fertile thought-products generated by their ever-industrious secretive abstract-thinking processes. That these also get passed over to ST as inferences for us to personally act on; from the research I’ve read, I agree with the latter explanation. If this view is correct, then there are fewer so-called executive functions to be attributed by neurologists as under direct PFC-control.

Neurologists and other researchers have studied how stimuli can prime usto act predictably before (a) we’re even aware of a stimulus, and (b) even when we know the effect that a stimulus is supposed to have. A wide range of subliminal and supraliminal stimulus effects on our behavior have been thoroughly researched: for example, unwitting male subjects being told to select the most attractive women in an assortment of photos. Half of the photos had been shrewdly retouched to give women dilated pupils. As researchers predicted, the retouched photos were consistently rated most attractive.

Yet no male subject commented on noticing larger pupil sizes. The male subjects themselves were totally unaware, then. Yet, programmed by literally hundreds of thousands of generations of ancestral intuitive understanding genetically passed down and stored in their FT’s model of the world, the male subjects intuited dilated female eyes hinted of their sexual excitement; and perhaps more germane to ancestral conduct, readiness.

Another experiment involved music being played daily in a popular wine store. On certain days only German music was played. French music on others. In both instances, researchers witnessed sales increasing significantly for those two countries’ respective wine selections on the same days that their native music served as background entertainment. For decades some advertisers have managed to tap into this frequent sub- and supraliminal prodding of FT’s susceptibilities. Which psychologists mainly refer to as priming. Still another experiment found that, by priming subjects with poignant narratives about aging, many of them exited the experiment walking at a dramatically slower pace than when they’d first entered.

Scenario #3: FT Make Life Easier, Except when They Clash with ST, Causing ST to BlunderOne of the privileges the secretive FT society bestows on each of us is relative ease-of-performance with routine tasks. To set this in motion: several structures within our conscious PFC-quarter get involved (the PFC itself, the hippocampus and parietal and anterior cingulate cortexes). When we learn a new behavior and/or skill related to any task, we must first learn its steps. We also learn relevant knowledge and particulars associated with effective performance of said task. Then a handoff is made whereby the new ST-based learning is then assimilated into older established brain structures located deep inside FT grounds, the basal ganglia (BG).

            Once an entire task performance has achieved ‘motor memory,’ it becomes property of the BG. Their forte is identifying any oft-repeated sequence of motor-driven skills and behavior—what’s typically referred to as a routine—and shelving it in-house as their very own habit memory system. Additionally, a structure known as the amygdala (emotions and emotional memory) joins forces with BG in times of stress. Make no mistake: this changeover process amounts to an energy-saving tradeoff. When engaged in any routine, our conscious (PFC) mind is freed up to perform its important executive functions: staying on task, shifting tasks, using a mental scratch-pad known as working memory, reasoning/analysis/logic, and controlling undesirable impulses, are the main roles.

This shared-workload arrangement between the two minds truly does make our lives easier. Therefore, whenever we begin any routine at home or at work, wecan almost do it blindfolded. Which is why people frequently make reference to numerous routines as if being ‘on autopilot.’ That’s habit memory taking command.

During actual performance of any routine, our attention, however, is more or less token at best, when habit memory’s in charge. We can even daydream while we drive the same route to work and back home. Plan our next vacation while tying our shoes, mowing the lawn, throwing a baseball, making a bed. We can walk our favorite paths in the great outdoors while debating in self-talk (PFC) with ourselves. And like most people, we’ve experienced an eerie time or two when we arrived at home or work in our car, but can’t recall the actual drive that got us there. Our (PFC-driven) conscious mind had been preoccupied with other thoughts while habit memory actually navigated the route, via token attention to salient landmark features, where we’ve made the same left or right turn dozens or hundreds of times before.

But there’s a Hatfield-McCoy catch to this shrewdly-concocted arrangement between our unconscious-FT and our conscious-ST: if we get interrupted somehow during FT’s habit memory-dependent performance, now we’re in a real pickle. The interruption per se stirs our conscious attention to take over and handle whatever immediate situation now confronts us. However, once that’s been resolved, our PFC’s prospective memory system hasn’t a clue where FT’s habit memory system had left off. [Recall that ST cannot access the unconscious workings taking place in FT.]

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Compounding the problem for many people: whenever we’re engaged in multitasking, a highly stressful ordeal in itself, or some other high-stress condition, FT’s amygdala structure gets spurred into action. Amygdala being stress-aversive, has a similar suppression effect on prospective memory as the BG, whereby our now-activated prospective memory, once again, has no recollection of where we’d left off.

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In both manufacturing and professional service workplaces, this is one of the root causes of human error associated with the performance of routine tasks. Some notable examples of this dilemma’s adverse repercussions include: a medical procedure’s steps are consequently performed out of order, or a critical step is missed and a patient incurs serious complications. An airline pilot making small talk (ST-engaged) while operating from habit memory as they get ready to land the aircraft, forgets to set his wing flaps, or to lower his landing gear, thus landing perilously. A processing plant worker opens the wrong valve after ending an important (but also distracting) phone call from operations; unable to undo his act, he stands helplessly by, watching an entire tank of a marine fuel become contaminated by a chemical additive that was destined to be emptied elsewhere.

Scenario #4: FT Come Through with that Ever-Elusive Breakthrough when We Need it Most – There apparently are two kinds of breakthroughs: one kind is where an individual or group works methodically for months, or even years, reasoning and analyzing his/her/their way, respectively, through complex elements, super-constructs, and so on. All the while accumulating new knowledge and elemental variations on an ever-mounting mound of advanced knowledge. Eventually, the building blocks they’ve so arduously erected begin to fall into place. Taking form as a novel breakthrough in some important arena of consequence that had thus far eluded human discovery. That’s one kind.

            The other kind is more frequent and spontaneous, and is less threat to longevity. For some it comes daily, although not necessarily earthshattering in its arrival. It is the Aha! or Eureka! moment. Neurologists—aka the Lewis & Clark explorers of brain topography—have mapped the areas of the brain that are affected when we experience a sudden flash of insight, or an idea sparking, or a shift-in-perspective that shoots across our brow in a paralyzing thunderbolt of instant recognition.

            Such occasions we’ve all encountered to some degree. Imagine researchers administering EEG (electroencephalogram) and fMRI to us during an occasion where we’re clearly stuck on some problem whose solution has thus far eluded us. But even so we’re determined to break through it. Again, we’ve all been there. Thankfully, most of us don’t let it get us down, because retaining a good mood makes us be more receptive if FT should suddenly spritz a streak or two of ideas across our bow (i.e., C-Filter). When our Eureka! does come, neurologists are likely to observe a flare-up of gamma activity in our right hemisphere: this sudden burst of neurons, all binding together, signifies a new neural network pathway’s being chemically paved just then. In a word, ourethereal breakthrough has physically just touched down.

            But what’s really stunning, an fMRI will reveal that the breakthrough arrives a few seconds before we’re consciously aware that we’ve just broken through; just had our eye-opening insight. Also noteworthy, those same scientists would also observe slower (alpha) activity in ourright visual cortex, where neurons are intentionally being suppressed to cut down on distraction normally caused by external visual cues in the environment. [The example given in one research account compared it with closing our eyes when we’re trying hard to think of an answer to some perplexing question being put to us.] Additionally, other researchers have found that participants in their studies got the Aha! message as much as seven or eight seconds prior to reporting they’d just then got the solution to whatever problem had been put to them in the experiment. Demonstrating, once again, how our unconscious (FT) mind is faster off the mark than our conscious (PFC et al) mind.

            Paraphrasing one researcher’s conclusion: FT clearly possess the foreknowledge of whether we’ll solve a problem analytically (PFC), or through a sudden burst of insight (FT originated and passed over). The cherry-on-top of this appetizing finding is that FT know this as much as seven or eight seconds before weconsciously will. Scenario #5 expands on this principle.

Scenario #5: With FT in Command, Many of Our Solutions Predate Our Own Knowledge, Words, and ActionsFT have many visible and hidden capabilities. With brain and brain stem (i.e., Central Nervous System, or CNS), plus an extensive system of connecting nerve pathways (Peripheral NS) united, FT regulates our many bodily functions, enabling our conscious mind [ST] to deal with higher-order stuff. As examples: circulation, digestion, respiration, and the metabolic processes are regulars on FT’s To-Do minute-by-minute list. In addition to the simple act of breathing, there’re such automatic movements as reflexes, swallowing, laughing, sneezing, and so on, that are involuntary, needing no conscious attention whatsoever.

As previously stated, we’re even supplied with on-the-fly inferences and answers to the reasoning of our own inner speech and visual images. In brief, all those C-Filter cleared messages and suggestions reveal FT thought products that were, in effect, preconceived and prefabricated for us.

            Take speech, for example. Another of our (ST’s)special privileges is the efferent copy. Motor signals from the CNS to ourperipheral body parts are called an efference. Efference, or efferent, means ‘carried away.’ When a copy of that signal is made, it’s called an efference copy; which is an estimate of the sensory consequences (sensations) we’d normally experience when speaking aloud. Speech acts do, in fact, produce sensory consequences: as wesay our words, FT directs all the relevant facial, vocal cords, and other muscles required to form and express our words, using an innate set of motor instructions. But when we revert to inner speech, we won’t be experiencing the same sensory consequences because our actual motor movements are of course suppressed. So FT supplies uswith an efferent copy of those same motor instructions. We seem to hear the meaning of words uttered in our inner thought-speech, but absent of any finite motor movement taking place.

            Another example from the research: when we shake our head, we’re spared the experience of the world shaking frantically to and fro. It’s been said that the visual cues reaching our brain might get just such a panicky portrayal as visually-imagined. But because FT knows what we’re up to even before we do, FT sends an efferent copy of the head-shaking motion commands to our conscious ST side. So, we’re never at any risk ofperceiving our world suddenly quaking in reckless fury. Our senses feed back to us only the head shaking movements.

            A final point about this scenario: memorized speeches and teleprompter-fed scripts aside, to whom do we personally attribute reams of well-spoken, even eloquent, discourses we’ve been fortunate enough to deliver? The wrong answer would be ‘me.’ The mystique continues: when we’ve researched and deliberated over some subject for a period of time, a prodigious amount of it gets stored in our personalmodel of the world’s repository. Devoid of our solicitation, FT nonetheless gets to work, crafting some form of exposition: a safe bet would be long before first blush of readiness on our part to get actionable with delivering a speech.

But then, like a ticker tape machine feeding out its taped stock trading information, FT feeds usthe meanings (through the C-Filter) which we then interpret and (hopefully) translate into coherent phrases, a few words at a time, as we deliver our speech. For those who’re still not convinced: every second, the body sends about 11 million bits of information to the brain, which isn’t so daunting because it’s performing about 10 quadrillion calculations in the same amount of time.

Compare that with the conscious mind, which is roughly equipped to handle about 50 bits of information per second. Also consider that working memory—short-term, temporarily-accessible information stored in ST at any given moment—only lasts 20-30 seconds; 60 at maximum. Hence, the contention that our speech is unconsciously prefabricated becomes hard to dispute.

In Addition to Spokesperson, Our (i.e., ST’s) Other Primary Role:  Attention

            Under a no-nonsense governance by our PFC-led conscious mind, as responsible individuals we are foremost in charge of managing our attention: of how effectively we use our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin to supply and interpret all sensory experience linking us with the outside (and our inner) world. I’m emphasizing the senses because, strictly speaking, abstract thoughts such as judgments, decisions, values, goals, and intentions are amodal creations—created in sections of the brain other than the PFC and apart from any sensory modality. They’re sole creations of FT’s unconscious abstract thinking processes.

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            Our conscious ‘I/me’ is principally in charge of perceptual events: perceiving in the form of hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, or smelling that something what something is/is not. That’s our job. Even our episodes of remembering can be linked to sensory experiences that come to attention through inner speech or from being imagistic in format. And, again, these are ourinferences of what we sense in our recollections: our very own self-interpreted, self-directed mind-readings. Thus, ourattentional world is forever anchored to some sensory modality.

As FT-society’s spokesperson and tacit figurehead for all behavior that’s visible to the public eye, wemaintain FT’s goals—edited by us and expressed as our own—and also expectations, and so on. And we ostensibly set our own attentional priorities and specifically what should have attentional relevance. Relevance for us comes from two directions: top-down and bottom-up. Top-down attention refers to ourpersonal concerns, which are tied to what the neurophilosopher, Carruthers, refers to as prior knowledge, willful plans, and current goals claimed as our own. Thus if something came into our foreground focus that was related to a personal goal, odds favor our attention being hooked in the blink of an eye.

Bottom-up attention refers to background external environmental cues that land on ourradar as salient because, as Carruthers also suggests, they’re either somehow innately important or possess some previously-learned emotional significance. With a quick nudge from FT, wewould, for instance, jump at the sight of the proverbial snake in the grass; we’d do likewise if a passing car suddenly backfired. Or, for sure, our head would incrementally zero in on the source who’s calling out our name inside a food hall at the local shopping mall.

Having Second Thoughts?

Put mildly, it’s mind-dazing how, as the complex biologically-engineered organic apparatuses that we are, that the intangible cog we know as ‘ego’ can be so unwilling and obtuse to accept its lesser role in setting our life trajectory. That our consciousness-nested personality all too often overplays its lesser role, and in so doing, adversely alters our life trajectory in untold ways.

In a Brain World article about Eureka experiences, author Lauren Migliori references Steven Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From) who defines a good idea as a “network of cells exploring the adjacent possible of connections that they can make in your mind.” More succinctly: a new idea launches an instant huddle of neurons that band together to create a new neural pathway. Given life, this new idea may presumably be in proximity with similar already founded ideas: seeing if (and how) old and new might then link, and what that might engender, if merged. And for those networks that were found to be tried-and-true, they rely on the brain’s own flirtations with chemistry to communicate action throughout one’s body by means of tiny excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters: i.e., chemically-wired ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches lined up and down those pathways, quietly clacking away, and before long, whatever action we intended to take, we take.

Discovery of relativity, nuclear fusion, stepping onto the moon, stem cells, gene editing: every human brain that was directly involved in each of those triumphs was running on about 12 watts of power when it contributed its next idea. And here’s the wrinkle: due to a fluke of nature and the innate wisdom of natural selection, by design our species is forever destined to remain developmentally stunted. We are deliberate works-in-progress. Unfinished biological specimens. When put up against other primates, we’re said to mature much later, more slowly, and even then, incompletely. We have neoteny in our genes—where our growth is slowed down to the point that we retain juvenile features long into and throughout adulthood.

Most people know about common apes v. humans comparisons. That, for example, humans possess a flatter and hairless face, smaller lower and upper jaws, smaller teeth, an upright stance, and so on. But it’s the protracted development of the brain’s cortex and its connections with subcortical targets, scientists say, that really sets us apart. Allows us to achieve higher intelligence. It’s presumed that a late development of certain nerve cells, coupled with brain plasticity, are what enable us to acquire complex behaviors.

Moreover, we’re favored with cognitive flexibility—ability to switch our attention and thinking between tasks when demands or rules dictate. Relatedly, we’re also able to shift attention from, say, a less helpful line of thinking to one much more helpful. All this is possible due to a stunning array of neural circuits pinging off an indefinable number of connections in a continuous spree to repeatedly load onto our nervous system new ideas, capabilities, and adaptations. Even solve novel problems, since we’re also singularly gifted with fluid intelligence.

Standing in the same humbling spot as my readers, it’s collectively understood that we don’t pull those self-determining trajectory strings as often as we’d initially thought. We don’t call the signals or run the show that everyone calls ‘life,’ to the self-aggrandizing extent we’d presupposed from early childhood on. Yet while the FT secret society takes the unassuming lead more often than not—prepping us for action seven-to-eight seconds beforehand—at least there’s small comfort in knowing that we can always be circumspect in what we at first assume we’re to believe, feel, decide, or carry forward as willful action.

We do possess analytical and reasoning power. We do edit our own thoughts and behavior when a proposition doesn’t quite suit us. We prudently need to accept that, what we normally believe is the direct product of our conscious cognitive reasoning, likely isn’t; not literally. Instead, we’re usually getting it ‘second hand.’ Knowing that our high-volume activity, 24/7 brain, is trying to be as efficient as it needs to be, given the demands that our body and the environment put on it. And that our conscious personality not only comes to grips with it, but also learns how to excel at putting our own mediational tweaks to it.

By ‘mediation’ is meant that we willfully intervene with FT’s thought products sent over, and reach a fair understanding on ‘what we think we think’ (metacognition). Whether it originally stems from our unconscious mind or not. We have conscious mental processes—analysis, reasoning, and logic—to afford us the capacity of reaching some personally acceptable resolution. It may not be exclusively of our conscious construction, but at least we’ve supplied input enough to acknowledge a degree of personal ownership in it.

 I offer a final reframe that hopefully suits the temperament of many: like it or not, as we’ve come to understand that we’ve already surrendered the driver’s seat in an ongoing production of ‘Who’s in the Driver’s Seat of My Personal Destiny,’ we’ve also come to learn that we’ve acquired a General, but hardly silent, Partner: one who’s already well-versed in personal and world matters as they relate to each of us. So, life’s next apparent challenge put before each of us is to fathom how best to make this newfound partnership that’s been involuntarily struck, function compatibly with optimal complementarity.


Benjamin Ruark is a former Learning & Development, Continuous Quality Improvement consultant in the US & UK. Since retiring, he’s devoted his time as an essayist on numerous social and psychological issues of interest.


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