We are our Brains: From English to Psychology and Beyond

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

–Shakespeare’s Hamlet

I am an English major primarily because I believe that reading literature helps me understand both myself and others better; I turn to literature to make sense of human desires, secrets, and emotions. It is for this same reason that I am a Psychology major— to unlock the secrets of the human mind and of the self.  It has always baffled me that the way I act, that the person I identify as “me”, originates in the three-pound grey mass in my head. Since I was young it has puzzled me that while I am my brain, I know so little about how it actually works. Why was I learning about neurons in Biology? Shouldn’t I just be born knowing about them?! I began this post with the Shakespeare quote because, besides that it’s good advice, it leads me to question what exactly being true to one’s self means. Who is this self that we hold up to a certain standard? And if we all have such a strong sense of self then who are we when we act out of character and why does this happen?

I was reading reviews of an interesting new book by neuroscientist David Eagleman’s called Incognito. Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor University and in his book he describes and examines the unconscious processes of our brain. In particular he looks the unconscious’ role in making us who we are. He writes that our minds are, “mostly a closed system” and “the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.” This is exactly what frustrated me when I was younger! According to Eagleman, different neural networks and synapses in our brains are competing for our attention. This is why we sometimes act in ways that we do not understand or why we sometimes hear voices in our heads telling us to do different things: “You cannot go to that party and forget about your work” vs. “You should go; you only live once!”  It’s also why everyone sometimes has embarrassing or uncharacteristic ideas pop into their heads. Yet just because the brain is operating in ways that we don’t always fully understand or have access to, does this at all mean that we are something (or, better yet, someone) different from who we think we are? Can’t our conscious self fully represent who we are as human beings?

Eagleman would certainly disagree and would argue that our unconscious selves are equally significant in fashioning us into individuals. After all, it would explain why strippers make more tips when they ovulate or why people most often marry people who’s names beginning with the same letter as theirs (these are examples from the book that I got from a review). Inevitably, all this talk about the unconscious brings me back to Freud. How much of what I do and of who I am is due to the unconscious processes of my brain? How many “mes” are there? I have so many questions! (I definitely need to read this book…) Eagleman argues the conscious mind is just a tiny sliver of what makes up who we are. I find all of this very interesting, and I know that much of what I do is unconscious, but I don’t think this means that I need to see who I am in a different light. Maybe it’s naïve but I still believe that my conscious sense of self is absolutely the most influential piece in dictating who I am. Maybe I’m arguing against the science and maybe it’s because it’s too hard to conceptualize otherwise, but I place the most value on the part of me that I am mindful of; nevertheless it’s pretty awesome, but also scary, to realize that there is a part of me that is unknowable. Sure, it’s disquieting but it also just adds to the complexity and mystery of humans.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Shakespeare would disagree with LeDoux’s claim that we are just our synapses. There is something more, but what is this something? Our souls perhaps? LeDoux’s book makes the case that our synapses are the key to understanding just about everything about us. Learning, memory, motivation, illness, and emotions can all be explained by our synapses. And, yes, LeDoux has convinced me that we can explain the majority of what we do and how we feel by understanding the ways in which our neurons are connected. Yet I take it all with a grain of salt. There’s definitely some fine print—it’s just too simple.

Somehow I’ve gotten back to the crux of my last post: free will. Although we all think we make out own choices LeDoux, and almost every other neuroscientist, is quick to point out that this is simply untrue. Our class has undoubtedly changed my perspective on free will. I used to resist arguments against free will but I have seen biological evidence that has changed my idea of what free will is. We don’t make decisions that aren’t rooted in the biology of our brains. Individuals make decisions but this also means that our brains make decisions: there is no differentiating because we are our brains and our brains can make decisions for us that we believe to be our own, spontaneous, ones.

I am personally interested in studying psychopathology after I graduate. I want to use my knowledge of human nature and of ‘synaptic sickness’ to help others discover their full potential and to relieve the pain that accompanies mental illness. This Psychology and Neuroscience course will, I am sure, prove to be immensely influential in my future studies and beyond. The way I see it now is that our brains are who we are and so it is through understanding the brain that we can understand others. This is not to say that my English degree was a waste of time… actually, quite the contrary. Instead, viewing the self through the point of view of both Psychology and English has allowed me to create a fuller picture of what it is to be human. These two very different disciplines have both given me greater compassion and have solidified how immensely complex, mysterious, wonderful, and completely awe-inspiring humans are.

3 thoughts on “We are our Brains: From English to Psychology and Beyond

  1. Great last post, Reesa!

    I would like to point out that in rereading LeDoux’s first chapter, I was surprised by how many times he actually stated we are mostly are synapses. I think LeDoux knows (or knows that the public wants to believe) that their is a little something else to ourselves.


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