The will and the self

It’s early morning and you’re warm in bed.  You don’t want to get up but you have to.  Imagine there are two selves, the one that wants to stay in bed and the one that wants to get up.  Which one is doing all the talking?  (I mean, all the mental, conscious activity, not actually talking aloud.)

I think it’s the one that wants to get up.  The sleepy self is not talking in the conscious mind.  The sleepy self seems to be more in the body.  You might say it’s your primitive self whereas the mentally talking self is the one that remembers obligations and promises and worries about being a lazy, irresponsible, failure of a person.  That is, the talking self is the one that is self-conscious, that believes in its own identity.

Nevertheless, the  sleepy self is very powerful.  Both selves affect behavior.  You might sleep in a bit more or you might get up.  You might go for a run, or you might just go on your phone.  You might eat/drink/snort that substance or you might refrain.  All the time, one self is the “real” self – the conscious, talking, planning self.    The other self is kinda silent but strong.

Which self to trust?  This is something I’ve always been confused by when people talk about will power.  Whose will?  Clearly, the people talking about will mean the conscious talking will.  Not the will of the other self.

But consider.  Today I was furious at my little son because he played instead of getting ready for school when I had made it clear several times that he needed to get ready, and I had specified the actions and I had put out the things for him.  He had not controlled himself sufficiently to get ready.  Or, put another way, he had not imposed his conscious will on himself to obey me and the social requirements of the day (getting ready for school).

Similarly, when the alarm went off this morning, I wanted to sleep more.  But I had promised my husband and my supervisor to get all this stuff done.  I had to get up.

The conscious talking mind is the mind of social response and obligation.  The mind that tells you to diet and exercise, to smile and be polite, to stand and wait.  It is the mind of planning but also the mind of servitude.

The difference comes out more strongly when you are a parent.  The child needs to conform to social expectations; the child needs to be loved and protected.  Which self to trust?


Action is our default

The default state for humans is action, not inaction.  You can see it easily in toddlers who must be doing something at all times.  If you ask them to stop, they can’t.  If you ask them to do something else instead, they can.  They can’t stop hitting their baby sister, but they’ll switch agreeably to hitting a ball or stacking blocks instead.

With adults, it’s more obvious with mental activity and social interaction.  If you’ve tried meditation, you’ll know how hard it is to empty your mind.  Even when you manage it, and you’re contemplating nothing, there’s still that awareness of contemplation and of nothing.  The activity is still continuing.  Maybe you’ve also experienced the discomfort of an empty, quiet room and the itch to go online or text someone or turn on the TV.  Action is our default.

This matters when theories of human action assume that it occurs against a background of inaction.  The assumption is that you are in your default state of doing nothing when you respond to a stimulus of some kind or are motivated in some way, and those external inputs cause you to act.  If we assume that action is the default, in contrast, then the stimuli and the motivation are unnecessary, because you would act anyway with whatever’s available, just as a toddler will pick up leaves and bits of rubbish to play with if he happens to be out on the footpath.

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The action of influencing you from one action to another is very different from motivating you to act from scratch.  The first only requires that one option is more salient or attractive than the other competing options, and the bar might be very low.  If we assume that inaction is the default, then to stir someone to act would require them to pay the cost of expending energy.  The chosen action must be justifiable in some way.  If action is the default, then each individual action does not need to be justified, but only understood in terms of the context, in the same way that we might try to understand the particular path a river takes.


Gods of our own reality

The self-absorption of humans is extraordinary.   It’s a defining quality of our human psychology.  Some writers have even gone so far as to say mind and self go hand in hand.

What is it for?  The brain uses about 20% of our body’s energy.  Self-absorption is costly.  We don’t need to brood about ourselves to act selfishly and survive, so what’s it all about?

A lot of people seem to think that our sense of self is for decision-making.  They say that we’re so intelligent and in control of our environment that we need to use our deliberate reasoning powers in order to create impressive erections such as rockets to the moon and thereby demonstrate our dominance over nature.

You see?  It’s narcissism.  It seems to run as background noise all the time.  We are gods of our own reality and we can’t switch it off to say, hey, that makes no sense.

But the evidence points elsewhere.

  1. Truth is an illusion.  Well, duh.  Everyone knows that truth is an illusion, but we know it like an esoteric fact that we can pull out when the conversation gets philosophical.  It has nothing to with day-to-day truths like the dishes, supermarket car parks, and relatives.  Those things seem so real that they define our reality in the same way as knowing our hands are our hands when we stare at them while on the toilet.
  2. The brain is active not passive.  Everything we perceive, feel and think is an action.  It must be.  It is.  But it doesn’t feel that way.  If you’re lying on the grass and staring at the clouds, and the person next to you sees a heart shape, and then you see it too, it seems like you’re just taking in what’s out there.  You’re seeing clouds because there are clouds and your eyes are kinda videoing them with neurons.  You feel like you, yourself, are at the control center of the mind sorting through incoming perceptions and messages.  You get a pain message from your leg but you ignore it because you have a gut feeling that the other person is about to say something wonderful.  The control center makes a choice to lie still.  That’s how it seems.
  3. We don’t exist in our heads alone.  Of course we don’t.  Mind-body. We can’t live without the support of the group. Most of our actions are not done consciously, we are strongly influenced by the physical environment and by other people, we are owned by habits, and we have trouble controlling ourselves.  We know all this.  And yet, there behind my eyes it’s me.  I feel so sure of it, I love it so, my fragile self.


The miracle of rockets is not decision-making or reason, but coordination of large groups. Unfortunately for my self-esteem, I am not a rocket scientist but I bet that every piece of information that was used to build a rocket was established by trial and error and then shared.  There were a long string of errors to learn from.  It was the organization of group knowledge and effort that was the miracle, same it was for all other human miracles such as the pyramids, small pox injections and clean water in cities.  We are the hive.  Again, we know this…in theory.

It just doesn’t seem that way.  At the supermarket, with my shopping basket, my choices seem deliberate and planned.  They matter.  What kind of person am I?  What kind of dining experience will I create for my family tonight, and what will that say about me?  All around the world, millions of people are scurrying about with similar thoughts to this.  They’re all absorbed in their own lives and their own plans and it feels like reality.

Evolution doesn’t care about us.  It wouldn’t let us spend 20% of our energy on basking in our own divinity because it’s all just so real.  Our egocentrism must be have some immediate and essential function.  Our feelings of self are an action.  We do self, and the reason for it must be coordination with others.

Suppose you, me and some other losers are dividing up tasks between us. I can’t say who’s going to do what without a sense of self, and you can’t understand and obey without a sense of who you are.  I pick who does what based on my assessment of our competencies – which requires a sense of self and other.  You wouldn’t obey me without your sensitivity to hierarchy – which requires a sense of self within the group.  Sharing resources efficiently between the group requires a sense of fairness, as well as a sense of outrage when the self has been treated poorly.  Self is a function, and a good one.

The Great Attention Giver

Have you noticed that when you catch up with someone who’s been alone a bit too much, they can’t stop talking?   Sometimes it pours out of them, unedited.  Sometimes they’ll tell you the same story over and over.  They’ll say – did I tell you this already?  It’s because they’re not really paying attention to who they’re talking to.  It makes me curious, because if it doesn’t matter all that much who you’re talking to, why do you need a person at all?  Why not talk to a stuffed animal or to the mirror?  But we do need to be heard.

For years now I’ve realized that my main value to other people – to my family, friends and society at large – is the attention I give them.  Hearing what they have to say has much more value than anything I could possibly say myself.  With my children, who are still small and charming, it’s a particularly strong effect.  They want me too watch them, to see them, to hear them.  By the end of the day, my attention is exhausted.  Then, when my husband and other adults want the same audience service from me, it’s hard to give it.

Now, I’ve started this blog and i can see that nobody is reading it.  Probably nobody will ever read it because it’s the same as in the real world – people want others to listen.  There are far more people writing online then there is audience for them.  I am much more valuable as a blog reader, and possibly as a commenter on blog than as a blog writer.

The listening role is demanding, but rigid.  As a listener, you’re only valuable to the extent that you approve and sympathize.  Nobody likes a critical or bored listener. Given the limited output you’re required to provide, and the great demand for it, it’s strange how the role cannot be mass produced or mechanized somehow.  The other side – story-telling, jokes – have all been very successfully mechanized.  People watch TV for hours, even soapies, which are like gossip sessions about people who don’t exist.  But a recorded face of someone listening just doesn’t work well.


People paying attention in Scotland (cc Mount Pleasant Granary)


There are all these sayings to encourage people to stfu: speech is silver, silence is golden; only say what is true, kind and necessary; a man of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weeds; brevity is the soul of wit; a silent fool is counted wise.  Most of these sayings are from the olden days, so it’s something from forever.

I think it’s okay?  When I was young, having sex with men seemed such an easy way to make them happy.  Now, listening carefully to people is such an easy way to make them happy.  When I feel the same urges myself – that I need to be heard – it feels so silly.  Why should people listen to more words when there are so many words out there already?  Maybe one day there’ll be a drug for it and people will stop talking like turning off a tap.

All this seems a bit creepy because sometimes people are genuinely interesting and it’s no hardship to listen. On the contrary.  The thing is, though, that even boring people need an audience sometimes.  I’m not sure why we all want to be heard.

Is psychology only about assigned tasks?

Can you think of a psychological experiment which doesn’t involve participants doing an assigned task?  I can’t.  It might be possible with one of those studies in public spaces, where you construct different environments in different cities and watch the effects, but I can’t think of one.  In any case, the vast majority of experiments in psychology involve people doing assigned tasks.

Doing assigned tasks is a subset of human behavior with particular qualities.  For example, consider Milgram’s study where he got participants to administer electric shocks to what they believed to be a real confederate in another room.  Most of the participants, infamously, continued to administer shocks even up to painful and dangerous levels.  Suppose, instead of that, Milgram had just left the set up in an open space, and people had just happened upon it, and had chosen to sit down and administer electric shocks to someone.  Psychologically, that’s a very different action, right?  Or suppose, instead of that, someone had had the idea from scratch and had constructed their own electric shock system, found a participant, strapped them into the chair, and administered electric shocks.  That’s arguably criminal behavior and different again.


Assigned tasks are a lot of what we do.  Most of our lives at school and work are occupied with assigned tasks, and then there are socially assigned tasks, such as when we respond to invitations.  We also assign ourselves tasks, when we make resolutions and set formal goals and plans.

I think what happens when we take on an assigned tasks, is that we suspend part of our attention and critical thinking, and that frees up attentional resources for the task in hand.  That’s the whole point of assigning our own tasks or working as part of a hierarchy – we take on the task to completion and do not distract ourselves with its purpose, or what else we might be doing instead.  Take the famous framing experiment by Kahneman, for example (pdf).  Participants were given the following task:

Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If Program B is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved. Which of the two programs would you favor?

In many ways, this is a meaningless question.  Of course, if you were really in a situation like that, you’d need a lot more information than is there.  You would doubt the likelihood estimates – what are they based on?  You would consult with experts, and you would not make a decision right away based on only that information.  But the task is not to really get involved in administering medical programs – the tasks is to make a decision about a theoretical problem.  It’s like a game. The risks and benefits of the decision are based on your own self-esteem – did you say something intelligent or stupid?  Will the person asking the question be pleased or not?  According to the rules of the game, behaving as if it were a real situation (“I need more information!”) would be inappropriate.

Isn’t this a problem?  If we’re always studying how humans behave when they’re given assigned tasks, and not in other circumstances, aren’t we getting a totally biased picture? Especially, as Milgram showed so clearly, people are likely to suspend their own judgment when engaged in tasks assigned by someone else.

Mental Representations

I’m in the middle of Gibson’s Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.  It was written in 1979, and it’s making me feel stressed because it challenges a lot of what I’ve learnt and thought about psychology.

What I understood from my previous studies is that there is sensation and there is perception.  Sensation is the light pattern on the retina for vision, and it is involuntary.  Perception is how the brain interprets those input signals to make sense of the world.

Eyes of a Hococephala fusca Robber Fly (Thomas Shanahan)

The lens of the eye focuses the image onto the retina, but it’s inverted.  That’s okay, textbooks told us when I was young, because the brain inverts it.  “The fallacy ought to be evident,” Gibson writes.  Sadly, because it never really occurred to me before, it really is evident.  It’s obvious that we don’t have eyes inside our brains. We can’t see our own retina, and it makes no difference if the image is inverted or not, because it’s not actually an image.

Gibson argues that we’re fooled by a communication metaphor for understanding our minds.  Because we communicate with each other all the time using signals – images, sounds, and symbols – we’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that our brains are doing the same thing when they’re not.  There’s no message that we need to interpret.  There’s no input signal.  There’s no sensation, at least not in the way we’ve been using the word.  There’s only perception.

The consequences of this are profound, and Gibson’s moving on to that.  I’m going to jump ahead and speculate though.  If we’re not interpreting signals, what are we doing then?  What’s the purpose of self-awareness?

I think conscious awareness is not a central function of the mind after all, but a peripheral function.  I think it exists for communication.  Thinking is essential for talking and for understanding the language we hear from others.  I think it’s for group coordination.

Group coordination is possible without language, of course, because lots of species do it.  Language, however, allows specialization.  It allows different members of the group to take charge depending on their particular knowledge in that particular context.  We can have transactive memory.  If this theory is right, then everything we think is for communicating, or for interpreting communication from others.  Functions which do not require communication would not feature in our stream of consciousness.  And what we think and perceive is related to what we need to communicate, not to what is real in any kind of objective sense.  It feels objective because it aligns with what other people are communicating.

Further, subjective events are actions.  If we feel worried, we are doing worry.  If we’re feeling hunger, we’re doing hunger.  We don’t need the conscious awareness of hunger to be motivated to eat. These are actions of pre-communication.  Our conscious awareness is always doing something, just as bodies are always doing something.

The difference between this model and the input-output computational model, is that according to the former, people will feel and think not in response to particular stimuli, but in response to their communication needs at the time.  It’s easy to think of examples where this happens.  You’ve been feeling numb all day, but then you see someone you’re close to, or someone says something kind, and you suddenly experience a wave of sadness and burst into tears.  This is rational according to the communication model, but irrational according to the computational model.

Why mothers love normal

I used to hate normal.  Now I’m a mother, I’m all about normal.  Like everyone else, I moved to the suburbs.  I have a house with a fence.  I have a car.  I go to the supermarket and school pick up.  Mothers remind me sometimes of a converging herd of animals – seals maybe – all involved in mini-interactions, looking this way and that way, but somehow the end point is all of us moving in the same way, and being the same.


I met a new mother at the park last week.  She had just moved from an edgy inner suburb, and she was explaining her reasons for moving and they were all such weak reasons, and she seemed to know it and kept talking around and around as if she could figure out why she – who had sworn off the suburbs, who hated the suburbs, who was waaay too cool for the suburbs, had just moved here.  She was sleep deprived.  I wanted to explain the seal theory to her, but it wasn’t the right moment.

Moving to the suburbs isn’t really about having a back yard, because most people don’t, actually, have much of a back yard anymore and anyway, that’s just one thing.  It’s not about schools, because people move before they’ve even gone on a school tour.  It’s about being normal.  I think it’s a deep instinct that kicks in along with all the other mad mother stuff, along with the hormones in pregnancy.  Normality.

Social status protects children.  The fact is, social status of families is strongly and consistently linked to child outcomes in our society, in other societies, and even in other species.  And to take Ishiguro’s metaphor from the Remains of the Day, social status is not like a ladder, but like a wheel.  The closer to the hub (i.e., the more normal), the greater your social influence.  That is why normality in parents corresponds to good outcomes for children.

So many of the parenting rules seem ridiculous and random in those moments when we’re awake enough to think properly.  Kids need both parents.  They need a home, a back yard, music lessons.  They need to go to school.  None of that stuff can be justified in terms of mechanics of how children grow and learn, because children need those things because other children have them.  If we lived at different times or different places, then our children would need quite different things.  They need to be normal. Somehow, deep down, we believe that, and that’s why this normal thing happens when we have kids.

That’s my theory anyway.