“We are robots.” Such a statement usually refers to the fact that the human body is a biological machine, or that the brain is similar to a computer. This point of view contains a bit of ambiguity that allows one to consider oneself a “ghost in the machine,” a conscience or “soul” that drives a machine body.
But recent scientific discoveries suggest that the model of consciousness as a protected driver insider of a vehicle is completely wrong. They suggest that the “driver” can’t be distinguished from the “vehicle” and the feeling of “driving” that consciousness gives us is an illusion. Even if we cling to this false analogy, the machine of the body is nothing like any device that we would want to use in real life: its design is antiquated, it runs lots of programs in the background without permission, it hides information and misinforms the consciousness, it can be easily hacked, and we often abuse it because we don’t know how it works or how to take care of it. Fortunately, biology and neuroscience can offer us the outline of a user’s manual, and in this post I will describe some important points that I’ve read in various books about this topic. Understanding ourselves better doesn’t make us any less robotic, but at least it can help us become more advanced robots.
Like computer code, our code (in the form of DNA) influences our behavior to a great extent. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist, attempts to refute the myth by that name, which asserts that all of us are approximately equal at birth, and that our destiny depends mostly on our upbringing and not much on our genetic heritage. In order to empirically compare the influence of nature and nurture, scientists have carried out observational studies on identical twins separated at birth. They discovered that most of them had similar levels of mathematical and verbal intelligence, had very similar personalities, and even shared unique idiosyncrasies like constant giggling or a taste for toast dipped in coffee. And the cherry on top: they found almost no comparable correlation between fraternal twins. It’s difficult to maintain the sacredness of “identity” knowing that so much of it comes from a code composed of a mere four characters.
The DNA that we carry in every cell was optimized by thousands of years of evolution, but the tasks that it evolved to complete don’t reflect our current priorities. Pinker explains that, in the past, a human had to survive in the wild and copulate to ensure a spot in the gene pool, so we evolved various tools to maximize our probability of survival and reproduction. After the development of civilization, we didn’t need these tools anymore, but our culture developed so quickly (on an evolutionary scale) that our DNA hasn’t had enough time to adapt.
The psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow that truly serves as a reference manual of the flaws and quirks of the antiquated human brain. For example, we use an “availability heuristic” to estimate the probability of possible events, assigning more probability to events that come to mind more easily or vividly instead of using statistical reasoning. Further, he exposes that our decision-making is frighteningly inconsistent - the responses of test subjects to simple questions violated simple rules of probability and logic, and they even varied drastically depending of the type of language used in the question. Some surprising experimental results: we believe assertions written in bold or proverbs that rhyme more readily; we spend money that we’ve found randomly (as opposed to money that we’ve earned) less cautiously; and we walk more slowly after having read words associated with old people (like “Florida,” “bald,” and “wrinkle”). This leaves no doubt that the brain can be hacked.
Another mechanism that leaves the brain vulnerable to hacking is the habit loop. Perhaps in the past you’ve driven by car along a well-known route and realized afterwards that you didn’t remember doing so, as if it were automatic. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that the brain sometimes automates routines that we often repeat. Duhigg coins the term “habit loop” to refer to the cycle that begins with a signal that kicks off the look (like sitting in the car and putting the key in the ignition), proceeds with the completion of the routine (driving the car home from work), and ends with a reward (ah, home sweet home). The habit loop perpetuates all kinds of harmful behavior, from nail-biting to alcohol abuse and compulsive gambling. Duhigg offers plenty of anecdotes and useful advice; for example, he warns that trying to shake a habit all at once is much more difficult than replacing it with another habit (like enjoying a piece of candy instead of a cigarette upon feeling a desire to smoke). If we don’t hack ourselves by taking advantage of advice from Kahneman and Duhigg, someone else surely will - Duhigg recounts examples of businesses that successfully established habit loops in their customers and employees to maximize profit or output.
Not only do our evolutionary traits leave us vulnerable to trickery and manipulation, but sometimes they even wrest control from us to make sure that the goal most relevant to evolution - reproduction - doesn’t take a backseat. In particular, during high school, just when adolescents should be focusing most on their studies, the body prioritizes something else. In The Female Brain, psychologist Louann Brizendine casts light on the psychology of adolescents: girls feel an urgent desire to form social connections and suffer from hormonal fluctuations that cause mood swings, and boys find themselves constantly overcome by sexual fantasies, accompanied by shame for having had them. This emotional hijacking doesn’t end after adolescence. Brizendine explains that the wave of oxytocin and dopamine that a man enjoys while in love turns into painful withdrawal when he is separated from a loved one, and that the professional ambitions of many women have been interrupted unexpectedly by a pregnancy or an intense desire to take care of a baby.
So our attempts to control ourselves rationally are often thwarted by one involuntary mechanism or another, whether it be a mental shortcut that sacrifices precision for speed, a harmful habit that becomes more and more automatic, or a mental siege of hormones. Fortunately, these are now well-studied so that we can control them and exercise more conscious control over ourselves. But for some reason, the useful resources that scientifically inform us are lost in a mountain of pseudoscientific self-help garbage (like astrology) and are almost completely lacking in school curricula. Sometimes there exist little-known easy ways to improve our quality of life using psychology, diet, and - my personal favorite - sleep.
In the book Why we Sleep by Matthew Walker, he asserts that sleep loss is the source of one of the greatest and most preventible health epidemics in the world. He explains that sleep is divided into alternating REM and NREM phases, and that both play important roles in memory storage and consolidation and the long-term development of the brain. Depriving oneself of sleep results in a significant deterioration of memory and creativity in the short run (which entails that sleeping before an exam is often better than pulling an all-nighter to study) and various health problems, like an increased risk of heart disease and Alzheimer’s, in the long run. Despite this, many people chronically stay up late, drink caffeine to put off sleeping, and use sleeping pills (which definitely help us go to sleep, but inhibit the most beneficial brain waves that occur during sleep).
Because of genetics, subconscious heuristics, habits, hormones, and the brain-cleaning that occurs during sleep, now it appears that consciousness is responsible for relatively little, and that it is more of a “passenger” than a “driver.” What exactly is the purpose of consciousness? What is it good for? The neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene addresses these questions in his book Consciousness and the Brain, and although he doesn’t definitively establish how phenomena like qualia or the feeling of free will arise from interactions between neurons, he does shed light on the nature of consciousness in a way that is as illuminating as it is astonishing.
At the beginning of his book, Dehaene explains some ingenious experiments that scientists used to find an objective “signature” of a conscious thought. They showed images on a screen to various subjects, but did so very quickly (only for a few milliseconds), sometimes so quickly that the subject claimed not to have seen any picture. Afterwards, the scientists asked these subjects to guess (using a multiple-choice question) what they had seen, and they discovered that their responses were much more accurate on average than a random guess. This revealed that although many subjects did not perceive the image consciously, it entered their brain subconsciously and was stored somewhere inaccessible by the consciousness. Later, they analyzed brain scans made during the experiment using an EEG (electroencephalogram) and found the desired “signature” of consciousness. Upon seeing a picture (of a face, for example) and not perceiving it consciously, an electrical impulse would appear locally in a particular brain region (like the region responsible for recognizing faces), but the conscious awareness of the stimulus would cause an electric wave originating from said region to inundate the entire brain globally. This wave, called the “P3 wave,” serves as a surprisingly useful indicator of conscious thought - it has even been used to detect consciousness in and communicate with paralysis patients. Furthermore, deliberately triggering a P3 wave using electrodes in the brain causes all kinds of conscious experiences, depending on its origin, from an intense emotional reaction to the sensation of hearing and seeing an entire imaginary symphony.
Dehaene hypothesizes that the purpose of consciousness is to propagate important local information throughout the brain. There are many small isolated systems of neurons that encode information in their continuous local activity, and when any one of them reaches a certain threshold of electrical activity, it causes an “avalanche” of electricity that ends up creating a P3 wave, allowing us to consciously consider the encoded information and connect it with information in other parts of the brain. It could be the case that our subjective experience of “consciousness” is nothing more than a side-effect of the mechanism that the brain uses to judge the relative importance of local information and share the most important information globally.
We really are robots: genetics determine a large part of our personalities; underlying heuristics, habits, and hormones control us more than we realize; it even seems like the most cherished and private part of our being, the consciousness, exists to fulfill the mechanical task of global information sharing. It seems like there’s no ghost in the machine - we’re all machine and no ghost. But there’s no reason to get depressed. This knowledge isn’t going to do away with our subjective feelings of consciousness and free will (even if they are illusions). Instead, we should celebrate that we already know so much about the brain that we can use to “self-hack” and improve our quality of life. I would rather be a happy, healthy, and well-informed robot than a robot that gets depressed about being a robot.
One more thing: I recommend that any interested reader read some (or even all!) of the books that I’ve mentioned in this blog post. I can’t do them justice with only a few short paragraphs, and they’re full of other interesting ideas and details.