Goodbye rational/irrational, hello automatic/controlled

by F.

I’ve always had great respect for the automatic processes that my brain is so good at orchestrating. And I don’t just mean the dull ones, like digesting food or respiration or producing ear-wax. I mean things like mate selection and visual cognition and social intelligence (to the extent I have any). Partially this is because I grew up with a broken brain and spent years trying to control it’s automatic processes. It didn’t work. Like, at all.

Plato, and his pimp Freud, had a nice metaphor for the mind: the charioteer of rationality atop the horse-drawn chariot of desire. The horses had to be whipped and beaten and tamed! They had to submit to Reason! I’m getting Ben-Hur visions just thinking about it. It’s so… classical. So ancient. It’s like Pilates. I don’t know if it’s worth a damn, but it sure sounds like recovered wisdom from a bygone golden age. Sign me up!

Luckily, a new metaphor is being popularized, cuz that whole “rationality” thing just seems sort of… wrong. The new metaphor is sort of computery, too, which is a bonus. Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis discusses this new distinction. As a reviewer in The Guardian put it:

You can do a lot with automatic processes. You can navigate by the stars (migrating birds), fight wars and run fungus farms (ants), even make tools (early hominids). The mechanism central to all of these highly specialised automatic systems is dopamine release, little bursts of this neurotransmitter being the way the brain rewards animals for doing things (like eating, building nests and having sex) that are good for the survival of our genes.

Controlled processing, however, is an altogether more slippery – and rarer – beast. To start with, it requires language. “You can have bits and pieces of thought through images, but to plan something complex or to analyse the causes of past successes and failures, you need words.”

But automatic processes have been around for millennia, giving them plenty of time to perfect themselves. Higher cortical functioning came on the scene only around 40,000 years or so ago, and is weak and buggy by comparison. This, Haidt points out, “helps to explain why we have inexpensive computers that can solve logic, maths and chess problems as well as any human can” but no robot that can walk in the woods as well as a six-year-old child.

Another wonderful book on this topic is Strangers to Ourselves, by Timothy Wilson, now, I believe, in paper. This book I loved. Short. Sweet. Full of nuggets. And if you find Gilbert’s style a little tiresome after a while (some do; I don’t), Wilson’s is almost the opposite.