Your left brain is a liar and coward. Give your body and right brain a chance.
Our society privileges intelligence. Since Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” we have also attributed thinking to being, assuming the self is indeed the voice in our head. There are doubts that the rational brain makes crucial decisions, and experiments showing the right brain confabulates and deceives. Integrating bodily perception and embodied cognition, as well as the right brain, can serve as a balance to the dominance of the loud little man between our ears.
Today, we are talking again about Matthew Crawford’s “The World Beyond Your Head” and the concept of embodied cognition, embodied perception, left brain/right brain split, and the moment of choice.
Step 56: Embodied Perception
Today we continue considering “the world inside of our head” as quite narrow versus “the world of your body”, pulling heavily from Matthew Crawford, but also Iris Murdoch and Iain McGilchrist.
We are going to look a bit at the mind/body split that became the “my self is the voices in my head” problem. And hopefully cast some doubt on the intellect as a lone arbiter for decisions, and reintegrate the right brain and body. This is difficult because at our most foundational (linguistic) attitudes we consider the self as the intellect: Alan Watts says we often say “I have a body” when we ought to say “I am a body.”
We tend to think the “I”, or “me”, is somehow located in the head: a “little man or woman or homunculus or demon” is watching out of our eyes and giving orders. The body is an extension that reports to and enacts the brain’s commands at will: a type of machine that is controlled from on high. Yet, today, we can contradict this saying that ‘somehow’ the body constitutes the self, and in many ways is more reliable than the little man/woman/demon between our ears who pretends to be in control.
Matthew Crawford has shown us that living out of our heads, the ole Descartes dictum “I think therefore I am,” privileges the little man between our ears, who produces mental constructs that we start to identify with. This creates personal identities but is layered on top of deep subliminal cultural ideologies as well. Crawford shows us that our concepts, our mental models, morph easily and allow us to be manipulated. Especially through cultural indoctrination and advertising. (Step 53, Step 54)
The problem is “inside of our heads” is the same place we go to do logic-y and math-y things, so going there for answers feels like rationality… it feels like we are making or finding the truth.
A caveat: we need more rationality in a lot of areas, and overall it is fantastic (I am pro-rationality), but being truly rational is also realizing we are not always rational. We tend to cloak our non-rationality as rational (and over-indexing on logic), which leads to its own brutally reductive and efficient characteristics that (in many ways) are detrimental to humans. When I talk about “rationality or logic,” I am mostly referring to the cultural tendency to champion what Allan Watts calls the Cartesian net. This is a way of thinking where we throw a net or grid over the world, dividing it up so we can quantify, measure, and abstract the messy reality we encounter. And we do this internally to ourselves to borrow the gravitas, solidity, and cache of seemingly infallible objective truthiness of logic and math and science.
“Truth was never high on the agenda for humans.”Yuval Noah Harari
Step 56: Embodied Perception
Part 1: How we got here
The strength of humans may be our ability to communicate and share knowledge, and the biggest illness we may have is getting locked inside our own thought processes. “I think therefore I am” leaves us alone, thinking, which is how we end up with crazy people. Yet, somewhere along the way objective rationality won and we split the human into parts, categorically speaking, not literally.
One split was the rational self and the will (or moral drive).
Here’s how it worked: you observed facts (a banana peel on the street), bring the data into yourself, make a determination (if I step on it I will slip), and then act (avoid the banana peel or pick it up so no one else slips on it). The action, observable to all, was your morality on display. (what kind of person are you, you selfish peel dodger?)
Notice, nothing of the body in here, except to be observed enacting your virtues? The body is, if anything, not rational and historically maybe even evil, or at least lustful. (And who wouldn’t be with all those banana peels laying around?)
But more importantly for today: Notice how this determination of “who you are” parallels a type of scientific method: first, we collect data, then develop a theory, and finally test it with observable reaction.
“Philosophy in the past has played the game of science partly because it thought it was science.”Iris Murdoch
She said this back in the 60’s and pointed out that philosophy and psychoanalysis are not science, they are broader and about human nature, but they tend to borrow from science some of the security of logic. But, Murdoch says philosophy and psychoanalysis cannot preclude the “inner self” or morality: We are born humans long before we become logical scientists.
Step 56: Embodied Perception
Part 2: Problem 1
In Step 54 we discussed that through fMRI scans scientists can tell that when we “pause to deliberate” before making a decision our brain is only producing electrical chatter: not actual thought. This points to the notion that the decision is made either before we even began deliberation or made in some way not related to the brain. This is either scary or free-ing, but the implications are profound.
Fascinatingly enough, in the philosophies of existentialism and surrealism, both acknowledge that when we’re making difficult decisions there seems to be a “void” at the moment of choice, an “emptiness” when it is time to make the decision. Existentialists claim that “emptiness” is a sign of freedom to make a choice, while surrealists say that emptiness means there are no reasons, it is all chance.
Iris Murdoch says when we have to make a difficult decision mostly we are enacting the behavior of thinking. We have learned to pause, stroke our beards, squint our eyes, and perhaps look upward with an out-of-focus gaze. We adopt the posture of deliberation, learned by watching others pretend to think.
Murdoch says the “deciding” was already done previously: day by day in a piecemeal fashion we assemble who we are and how we will react through little habits and interactions.
She says you are “free” – you have freedom- in the small seemingly inconsequential actions of your daily life. But when the big moral choice comes and you enter this strange state of “emptiness”… it seems like your “will” moves of its own accord.
Problem 1 is that under stress, big decisions made at the moment, do not really look to rationality: It just happens. The right brain is nowhere to be found.
Step 56: Embodied Perception
Part 2: Problem 2
Iain McGilchrist wrote an amazingly thick book that I purchased and have not yet read called “The Master and the Emissary“. But, I did listen to some podcasts where he talked about the left-brain right-brain split.
The Right-brain is the “master” who let his “emissary,” the Left-brain, do the talking. Now the ‘rational’ LEFT brain begins to think it is in charge. so it talks all the time, and won’t listen to the Right brain. Imagine a pompous King Author shooing off Merlin because he’s in the middle of a real knee-slapper.
“not now Merlin… and that’s when he stepped on teh banana peel! haha”
Now, the Left side of the brain (which controls the right side of the body) handles math, facts, sequence, logic, and articulates language, even though the right also understands language. The Right side of the brain handles feelings, intuition, and holistic thinking, often seen as creative.
How do we know this? There have been experiments, conducted around 1960 by Roger Sperry with humans who had their corpus callosum cut to prevent epileptic seizures. (The Corpus Callosum is the bundle of nerves that connect the Left and Right hemispheres.)
For instance, if the Left hand (which is controlled by the Right-brain with feelings and imagination and holistic thinking) is put into a box and the person is told to grab an object. Let’s say the left hand (controlled by the right brain) grabs a hammer… when asked what the Left Hand is holding, the person will say something, like “a banana”… this is the Left side of the brain talking. It controls the speech centers. The left brain pretends to know, to be in control… so it lies.
To make this even stranger, the Left hand, with the “hammer” will reach over and start trying to help, to show the other side (show the Left side of the brain) it is holding a banana. But the Left side of the brain will deny its help and continue lying, proclaiming it has been deceived.
“Merlin tricked me again!”
Problem 2: The left side of your brain lies. This is the logic side, which coincidentally is also the self-deception and confabulation part of the brain.
Culturally, through science and philosophy, we have given control to a liar, who is great with focus, logic, and math, but maybe we should restrict his “authority” a little and put some checks and balances in place.
Step 56: Embodied Perception
Part 3: Embodied Perception
Embodied knowledge: the body has its own knowledge that is quicker, and more embedded than rationality.
Embodied perception: the body collecting sensory data from your environment by engaging with it, moving through it.
Have you ever moved before you knew something was wrong? Did you act without thought? Perhaps you just “felt” something that later turned out to be wise, but at the time you weren’t thinking at all? This can be considered embodied perception. Your body’s autonomic systems, your automatic nervous systems, pick up on cues before your rational mind can process them, and you react without the intervention or judgment of your brain.
How far does this perception extend? Matthew Crawford discusses how our brain ceases to differentiate between a tool and our hand, the tool merely becomes an extension of our perception, an extension of our hand. Overtime, through familiarity, our perceptual range can extend, and our environmental range expands to new sensitivities. A primary point Crawford makes is that:
“Perceiving is a way of acting. Perception is not something that happens to us, or in us. It is something we do. “Matthew Crawford
This counters the assumption that the mind interprets perception: the body does it through action and movement, which means we perceive THROUGH the body, and it is filtering knowledge.
About a year ago I listened to The Philosopher’s Zone podcast on “Neurophenomenology and Sensemaking”. We aren’t going to cover all of that, but in our techno-rationalized world, we tend to look for the one bolt that caused the problem: it is a reductive and isolationist way of thinking that fails to account for systemic variables and multiple cascading failures and reactions.
But your body is built for holistic environmental sensemaking and holds knowledge that often supersedes what your logical brain can tell you. Speaking of Neurophenomenology, Brad Roberts quotes a guy named Claxton, who talks of
“the human body as a massive, seething streaming collection of interconnected communicating systems, that binds the muscles, the stomach, the heart, the sensors in the brain so tightly together that no part especially the brain, can be seen as functionally separate from or senior to any other part.”Claxton
One of the examples given by Roberts, who has written his PhD thesis on sense making, is the Piper Alpha Oil Rig explosion where 167 people died, and 62 survived. Those who survived reacted to the felt heat and flames and jumped in the ocean, those who perished were insulated from the heat and waited for rescue. Those who perished had an impoverished perception of the environment: their physical sense of direct data was limited.
Another example is Cpt Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who saved all those people by crash landing in the Hudson River, was reacting at the moment to an emerging situation, but after years of flying and practicing belly landings he knew the correct glide path: he had already mastered the technical proficiency which allowed him to react instinctually.
This is interesting because it “sounds” like rational thinking in hindsight: I have the skills and knowledge, I recognize the situation, make a judgment, and react. YET… Crawford says
at High speeds judgment is not the right word because reaction is too fast, cognitive activity is costly and takes time ~ you literally feel the situation to process the data.
To examine how the body computes versus intellectual computation Crawford discusses robot design.
A robot has to interact with its environment. The old-fashioned way to do this was to compute all the variables before and during and after movement… it is grossly inefficient, all that computation. And as we know from behavioral economics and evolutionary science, thinking takes a lot of energy and we were designed to run in passive mode as much as possible. Robot Designers are now following an evolutionary (morphological) model. They find that the right design imparts feedback more efficiently than computation.
for instance, With a bit of gravity on a downhill slope, a human can walk with virtually zero energy. Each step imparts more information through the movement: it tracks incline through increased or decreased gait, terrain through resistance, etc… Apply this evolutionary design to a robot and the mechanics impart information at low energy and reduced computation.
To further underline the importance of locomotion as a means of cogitating or perceiving, Crawford says sight and movement are connected. He has cited some developmental examples with kittens on a merry-go-round. The brunt of it is: We perceive three-dimensionally through movement. Our awareness and cognition are through mapping the environment, gauging what the environment provides, and from there we are afforded possibilities.
“When we perceive, we perceive in an idiom of possibilities for movement.”Alva Noe
So, when your motorcycle slips on that ever-present banana peel, you are gyroscopically correcting: it is almost as if the bike is your body. As you move through your environment, perceiving possibilities, you realize you can’t correct the left without hitting oncoming traffic, and your body accounts for this through environmental awareness, without spending time rationally considering it. All of this is to save the ole noggin, which was dumb enough to get onto a motorcycle.
Or, on a larger scale, taking into account the possibilities our environment affords, such as knowing the Hudson river is up ahead and being familiar enough with the plane to do a belly landing, allows Cpt Sully Sullenberger to save 155 people.
Step 56: Embodied Perception
Part 4: Recap
We are casting into doubt the over-reliance on internal logic. Because it is quite messy the way emotions and instinctual behaviors interact with your brain: it’s not purely rational.
Once again, we are a seething communication system. So tightly bound, the body and brain are really inseparable. Yet, of course, we keep trying to separate them to make sense of them. Sure, your “I” or identity, your “you”, might be influenced by reason. But at that vital moment, your logical rationality may either choose to take a backseat (disappear and shut up), or when it’s really confused and scared, it might just start lying.
We know that philosophy is often pretended to be logical and scientific, and it attempts to ascribe these features to us. And of course, we also like to appeal to rationality as a guide so we are not contradictory or culturally estranged. But maybe we aren’t actually being rational when we attempt rationality.
Our societal championing of logic has led us into these cul de sacs of harm. We’re often plagued with bureaucratic inefficiency, the reduction of people into functions, or tools that are abused. Our behavioral economic knowledge is often used for propaganda and manipulation. And of course, if we’re left alone in our heads, constructing stories, we become fragile, and racked with insecurity.
We can say that the fault stems from “logic” tainted with capitalism or human urges: we just need more logic to fix it. Thankfully, that is slowly happening, but it is an uphill battle because we have made a society based on efficiency and utility. And there’s very little incentive to study things that cannot be measured and monetized and made useful. Things like movement without action, deliberation without decision, morality and virtue that isn’t for sale.
Fortunately, science has progressed and with more sensitive instruments, scientists and neuro-physicists are now investigating these discarded phenomena, such as “the instinct that saves lives” or the “moment of choice.” This draws them back from this edge, this kind of superstitious hocus-pocus area into more valid concepts.
However, the research shows that there really isn’t anything that looks like thought on fMRI machines whenever we’re deliberating a big decision, which leads us to reconsider what’s happening at the “moment of choice.”
1. You can declare your will acted of its own accord. This implies that the real you is your unthinking “will” -your inner urges- and it’s enacting your morality or values. But it’s definitely not beholden to reason, because your reason just disappeared during the moment of choice. So this means the real you is irrational.
2. Through embodied cognition, your body made the decision. And we can call this an instinct. Once again, this is kind of irrational from a classical understanding of reason, or logic.
3. You might take this left brain/right brain discussion, and consider a different conclusion: That a more holistic nonlanguage, part of you is weighing in. The Master might actually be taking over from the Emissary.
It’s not that this part cannot be fooled or be wrong. It is, after all, evolutionarily adapted to maybe a savannah and not really a dense urban population where there’s a lot of driving while on cell phones. And of course, they didn’t have a whole lot of banana peels on sidewalks back then.
But perhaps we have let the little demon between our ears maybe he’s been doing too much driving. Perhaps we have not actually set ourselves up for mastery and flow, which is bodily and right brain. Let’s consider integrating some other forms of knowledge: use your embodied perception, use your whole self. Sure, keep your reason but supplement it with the rest of your being, expand your cognition through your body, and get to know the right brain version of yourself.
This may actually end up expanding who you are and how you relate to the world. And at the same time, it might ground you in a richer reality than your illusory mental models can ever devise.
(This is part four of several episodes on “The World Beyond Your Head”)
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Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head (2015) _ link
Alan Watts, The Book
Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good
The Master & His Emissary, IaIn McGilchrist
Neurophenomenology and embodied sensemaking, The Philosopher’s Zone, David Rutledge and Brad Roberts
Lost in Math, Sabine Hossenfelder