I went looking for the mind. I got lost.
“I swear officer, it’s my car.”
The other night I had a dream. The details are a little hazy but I remember at one point being arrested by a policeman. It was one of those dreams where you can’t control the car, the brakes don’t work, and we ended up slamming through the glass walls of shopping centre.
I was outraged. Why am I getting arrested? It was an accident. I’m the victim here.
And then I think maybe he’s still got a grudge against me from my wilder days, when I ran with a wilder crew.
“I swear. It’s my car. Check the glove box.”
Anyway, he’s got one of my arms pinned behind my back and it’s really uncomfortable. Like painful.
So painful that I wake up…
… to find that I’m sleeping on my own arm!
So now my arm’s asleep and I’m awake. And while I’m laying there, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the blood to painfully trickle back in to my arm, I’m thinking, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.
Like that dream where my shoes were too tight and I woke up and found that the sheets had been tucked in extra tight and were crimping my toes.
Or the telephone ringing just before waking.. or that dream where I was trying to have a meeting and someone was using an industrial vacuum in the meeting room. And then I wake up and find my wife is snoring.
(Just kidding babe. It was probably me.)
But I feel like this pattern has played out a few times before. While I’m asleep, something happens to my physical body, and my dreams construct a story to make sense of the physical experience.
I also know that I do this in the real world.
For example, if I have a coffee and my adrenals fire off, then I’m convinced that I’m having a great time doing whatever I’m doing. Checking emails. Whee.
Or if I haven’t been sleeping so well, or I’m a bit sick, or a bit hungover, suddenly I’m surrounded by jerk-offs. And I’m not the one being unreasonable, they started it.
I used to know a woman who would always carry a muesli bar around for her partner. He’d start to get cranky and she’d offer it to him. He’d say he wasn’t hungry, and she’d say, sure, of course, but have it any way.
He’d eat it and suddenly become much more enjoyable to be around.
Anyways, the causality flows the opposite way to the way we’d expect.
We think that outside world events create our moods.
But often our moods create outside world events – or at least the meaning we attach to them; the way we interpret them.
What else is part of this puzzle?
Oh yeah, a little while ago some scientists hooked people up to an EEG (reads brain activity), and wanted to identify which parts of the brain were responsible for decision making.
They offered participants a choice between two objects. Like a pen and a mug. Something like that. They were unrelated by design.
They were not asked to come up with a rationale for their choice. Just look at the two objects, and then reach out and grab one. It just didn’t matter which one.
They hoped they’d be able to see which part of the brain fired when a decision was made.
And they could see it very clearly. They could see the part of the brain in the frontal cortex that made a decision, and the part of the brain a bit further back that controlled arm movement.
There was a flash in the part of the brain controlling the arm, and another flash in the neo-cortex.
But guess what they saw? The arm fired before the decision did.
Looks to me like the decision was made in the body, and then the brain layered a story about it over the top and after the fact. The ‘mind’ or neo-cortex did nothing but just invent a story to rationalise the choice.
So do you see the pattern here?
- The arm moves, the mind makes up a story about it.
- The coffee hits the adrenals, the mind makes up a story about it.
- I fall asleep on my arm, the mind makes up a story about it.
Does the mind do anything but tell stories?
Maybe its just there to enforce the grand narrative – that I am special and unique, and not some temporary glob of cosmic soup, distinct and identifiable only for the briefest moment of time.
I’ve learnt not to dwell on questions like that for too long, but it’s not what interests me today. Today I’m wondering, how do I incorporate this into my day?
I’m genuinely curious to hear your thoughts. I’m not really sure.
I suspect it means, don’t get too heady about decisions. If we get all tangled up in the ‘story’ of our decisions, it can distract us from the deeper wisdom that is diffused throughout the body.
Maybe wisdom is in the gut, next to the pies.
It’s definitely a reminder that there is a vast gulf between what we experience, and how we interpret those experiences – the stories we tell. It’s a reminder that there is a discipline involved in not getting too caught up in the stories you’re telling, and to keep the flavour of your stories tilted towards the positive.
And it probably means we can just relax a bit more into the adventure of it all. We possibly have a lot less agency than we think. Than we think we think. Than we think we think we think.
I don’t know. What do you reckon?
Am I on to something here? How do you think about thinking?