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  • Do I contradict myself?

    Very well, then I contradict myself,

    (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

    ~ Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 1855

    Nous trouvons tellement de différence entre nous et nous mêmes que entre nous et autrui.

    (We find as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.)

    ~ Michel de Montaigne, Essais, Book II, 1580

    "I'll tell you a secret from my past."

    "No, I won't."

    "I really want to get this out."

    "Don't be a fool, Geoff. Shut up."

    "But nobody listening really knows me."

    "Well some of them do, so stifle yourself."
  • It's called "being of two minds" about something, and most of us feel that way from time to time. Entertaining conflicting perspectives at once can be enlightening or debilitating. It can let us debate ourselves to untangle an issue, but also can lead to confusion, indecision and self-doubt. Madness even.

    My little opening dialog shows one way to resolve confliction about whether to tell a secret. When it occurs to me #1 that it would be OK to tell it to people I don't know, me #2 reminds me #1 that the audience is not a set of strangers. That gives me #1 a pretext to put the desire to confess away for another time.

    I'm not talking about my sub-personalities duking it out. Being of two minds is a special case of having many minds, which I believe we all do – and by all, I mean every sentient creature.

    Want to freak out a lab rat? Give it a food dispenser that issues electric shocks as well as treats. You can drive a herring gull nuts by slipping a red egg into her nest; seeing red triggers her flight alarm, but seeing the egg makes her want to nurture it. Different parts of her brain process the inputs and their outputs conflict to produce an unsolvable dilemma.

    So it is with humans, except that we have much more executive capacity to resolve dilemmas. Yet we too have many distinct neural mechanisms that process stimuli in parallel independently. Sometimes they agree on what we should do and cooperate, but they don't have to.

    Just as organs work in concert to make an organism function, brains contain "organs" (structures and pathways connecting them) that operate well below the level of consciousness. Very efficiently, they do their things and feed results to our conscious "self." If our brains didn't work that way, we would have died out long ago, because it would simply take too long to, say, duck out of the way of a rock being hurled at us. Our brains evolved by mechanizing survival skills and tucking them away in hidden places.

    Given that type of machinery, it's no wonder that we sometimes argue with ourselves and have trouble understanding what we feel and why. We are – by our nature – of many minds, at sixes and sevens, beside ourselves. We contain multitudes – a cacophonous collectivity, a parliament of partial personalities, yet we expect to command our minions like a CEO.

    Forget about doing that. Instead, let's just join our crowd at the pub and try to refrain from telling any embarrassing secrets.


    Inspired by David Eagleman's book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain
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