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Choice from the brain's perspective

Choosing Futures: The Brain's Way

Paul Grobstein
Choices and Constraints
4 December 2008


Prelude: Que Será, Será

Act 1: To choose or not to choose ... is not the question

Act 2: The frog brain and the story teller: unconscious and conscious choice

Act 3: To be of not to be ... what's the problem? (alternate) (alternate)

Act 4: The downside of conscious choice

There was another particular which contributed, more than any other thing, to waste my spirits and bring on this distemper, which was that having read many books of morailty ... and being smit with their beautiful representations of virtue and philosopy, I understood the improvement of my temper and will, along with my reason and understanding.  I was continually fortifying myself with reflections ... . These no doubt are exceeding useful, when joined with an active life, because the occasion being presented along with the reflection, works it into the soul, and makes it take a deep impression; but in solitude they serve to little other purpose, than to waste the spirits, the force of the mind meeting with no resistance, but wasting itself in the air, like our arm when it misses its aim ... David Hume

Act 5: The point of choice: live another day

Finale: Choose to open new choices


alesnick's picture

another day

Thanks, Paul, Anne, and everyone for a compelling discussion yesterday.  It's playing on  in my head.

I thought to write to try to say back/clarify what I am taking from Paul's highlighting of depression as the problem of choice.  I appreciate this focus; it makes sense that it would be a primary consideration, though it is not often enough in understood as such (and instead characterized as one mental disturbance among many).

Paul, are you saying that in order for people not to get isolated in/by our thoughts (not to think they are the world, the only world we can or do live in), we have to in a sense release them to go where they will through the obscure (to us, because unconsious) channels of the frog brain by which we move and breathe and interact in/with/as the world?  So thinking has to be a process both clarifying and mysterious, active and receptive?

Paul Grobstein's picture

reciprocity and depression

"So thinking has to be a process both clarifying and mysterious, active and receptive?"

Yep. Or else it serves "to little other purpose, than to waste the spirits, the force of the mind meeting with no resistance, but wasting itself in the air, like our arm when it misses its aim." If/when we don't "go through the obscure (to us, because unconscious) channels of the frog brain" to "interact in/with/as the world," we suffer from loss of dynamic connection ("reciprocity") with the world and with each other, as well as within ourselves. That's indeed the current form of the story.

Anne Dalke's picture

Notes on the Brain's Way

My notes from today's rich session:

* To choose is to have alternatives.

* We can choose not to engage in the habitual; we cannot but choose.

* Most of our choices are unconscious: to perceive is to choose.

* The "you" making the choice, in most cases, is "the you not known to you."

* What gets us into trouble is our illusion about conscious choice ("what a piece of work is man/How noble in reason..."): our seeking meaning independently of our unconscious relation to the world.

* We idealize conscious choice as separate from what constitutes the basis of our decisions: the coarseness of our organs.

* Several different metaphors were evoked to describe the relation between conscious and unconscious processes: an onion with layers, a rider on the back of a horse, and a continuum.

* The hazard of focusing on conscious choice is that of getting stuck; this belief can generate a number of problems, including depression.

* We recognize in Hamlet our fears about conscious choices--though there is actually a pair of choosers in that play: Ophelia has the "more raw choice" ("her options were worse than his") of tearing herself out of the narrative, purposely absenting herself from the play.

* This series began with an overview of the history of theater:

  • conventional Aristotelian theater, in which the audience makes no conscious choices of their own;
  • Brechtian theater, which forces the audience to become conscious choosers;
  • a postmodern theater of connection and engagement, which involves the interplay of the conscious and unconsciousness.

* We closed by invoking a further range of related ideas:

  • Sartre @ the cliff: "Your present tense self unwilling to trust your future self to jump";
  • William James similarly invoking the "will to believe";
  • the use of totems to enhance one's sense of agency;
  • the role of the "we-function" (culture; the "unloading of language"; the revising of the past) in choosing;
  • the developmental model of Damasio, moving from "proto-" to "autobiographical" self.


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