I mentioned at the beginning of the post Neuroscience 202 - Brains as Reality Creators that two of my favourite subjects about the brain are how they create reality and the other was "zombie programs". I've introduced the concept of how our brains create the realities we experience and now I'd like to introduce and talk about the "zombie programs" that create and run our "conscious experience".
This topic, I have found, is very difficult for most people to accept and it's not hard to understand why - nobody wants to accept the fact that they are not exactly the "agent" in control of their very self and actions but in reality whose life and whose very essence is produced and run by mechanisms in their brain over which they have little actual awareness, let alone control. It certainly didn't make me comfortable and I railed against it at first, but the evidence trumped my desired beliefs and I came to accept the facts. My own acceptance aside, I do understand the natural repulsion towards the idea but I'm going to ask that you put that aside in the spirit of learning how brains - and thus "us" - really work.
When we are looking at mental health problems a lot of what we are looking at is various what those in various fields would call behaviours, even in such serious disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder or addictions and addictive tendencies of all kinds. But what gives rise to the behaviours (AKA: outwardly observable symptoms)? Psychiatry would tell us that these are caused by "chemical imbalances" for which their prescribed medications will "correct" or "put in balance". I will get to another day deconstructing the myth of chemical imbalances but suffice for now to say that when I started doing my own research and investigation into what was going on in the brain to cause symptoms of mental health disorders, I could quickly see that there was a whole lot more going on than just "chemical imbalances". Though neurochemicals do indeed play roles - we get an introduction to the roles and functions of a couple of major neurotransmitters in this post on dopamine and this one on serotonin - it is simply incorrect and terribly incomplete to subscribe all wayward human behaviour and the great number of symptoms of the various mental health problems to just the actions of neurochemicals alone.
But aside from outward behaviours, what we are looking at in mental health disorders are mental experiences - something that is not outwardly observable. All mental experiences lead to behavioural changes. The question is how obvious those changes are. In bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, the behavioural changes can be quite stark and dramatic. For many, however, it is much more subtle. Many, many people suffer behind a veil or facade they learn to present to the world to cover their inner suffering but this too will ultimately affect behaviour, decision making and interactions with others in negative ways. On the other hand, there are those whose very minds shield them from from what is not right about their mental experiences and behaviours and carry forth in their lives in a sort of blithe denial of inappropriate behaviours in ways that may be harmful or disruptive to themselves and those around them.
What gave me a burning desire to study neuroscience is that I deeply wanted to understand what was going on in the brain to create symptoms of both outwardly observable behaviours and our inner mental experiences. One important aspect I discovered early on is that our mental experiences are largely the "reality" that our brains create; how we perceive both the world around us and our own inner world. From that I realized that the torturous inner mental experiences we suffer from (that can cascade into behavioural changes of all kinds, actual physiological damage and an overall decline in health) are, I'll posit, the result of "distorted realities" that our brains are creating.
We can also think of our "realities" as at least part of what creates our "conscious experience" so let's have a look at what I mean by that.
Our "conscious experience" is - we'll say for our purposes here - what we "see" and "hear" in our minds when we wake up in the morning and that inner screen in our mind comes to life and our inner thought dialogues start to roll. We'll also include what we visually see and audibly hear as these will become all part of what we consciously experience at any one time. As an analogy for understanding conscious experience we'll use the monitor screen and speakers of your computer. Although your computer (along with an Internet connection) can produce enormous and widely varied amounts of information, calculations and much so on, you only experience a small fraction at a time on your computer screen and speakers at any one time. The same is true of the brain (and even more so - the human brain still dwarfs any computer and mainframe on earth for computing power) - your inner screen and dialogue - your conscious experience - only represents a tiny fraction of what's going on "beneath the surface" of your conscious awareness.
And like what you see on your computer screen, your brain has all kinds of impressive doo-dads and programming that create what you see on the screen and through the speakers (I outlined some of those "impressive doo-dads" in my very popular basic primer to brain anatomy - Neuroanatomy 101).
And also like what you see on your computer screen and hear on your speakers, we don't think much – if at all - about what creates what we see and hear and smell and feel (tactically and emotionally) and think and so on: our conscious experience. Which becomes very unfortunate when our conscious experience is going way off the rails and we're melting down with anxiety, depression, heart pounding inner pain, auditory and visual hallucinations, delusions, self-hatred and wildly negative thoughts and all that other fun stuff that completely messes our lives up.
There's a tremendous amount going on in the brain that creates all that but today we're going to look at "zombie programs".
"Zombie programs" is a term coined by the neuroscientist David Eagleman in his book Incognito which he uses to refer to the vast and enormous numbers of neuronal circuit programming that hums away below our conscious awareness controlling all of our physical movements, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, actions, decisions and so on. When I talk about our "subconscious" running our lives (as I have repeatedly throughout this blog), this is for the most part what I am referring to, not in the Freudian subconscious sense (which is what will generally spring to most people's minds when they hear the term subconscious). What we are experiencing consciously is but a very small fraction of what's going on beneath the surface (or in the guts of the computer in our analogy).
For an easy example, take walking. All those foot placements, leg movements, balance, how your place in space is marked, and sense of direction and so on that we take for granted are taken care of by all kinds of autonomously running networks of highly complex brain regions. Walking is one of our "pre-loaded from the factory" “programs”; in other words, it's not something we have to be explicitly taught - there are programs that we are born with that even take care of the learning process of walking (the human species are rather slow at this, however. In herd animals, for example, newborns have to almost literally hit the ground running).
That moving picture show you experience as "sight" is another. This entails vast amounts of circuitry located mostly in our occipital lobe that takes the blizzard of light photons pounding the retinas of your eyes that are then relayed by electrical impulses through the optic nerve to the back of your brain where it assembles them into geometric shapes, colours, distance perception, 3D perception, movement and so on into what you experience as "sight". And as we saw in Brains as Reality Creators, we only "see" a fraction of what's going on within the light spectrum (this can be a bit of a philosophical quagmire so don't start getting worked up about what you're "not seeing". Your eyesight and inner picture show has evolved just fine to equip you with all you need to know to get through life). Everything we experience as sight and further, what is "remembered" (yes, even what you think you are consciously remembering), is taken care of by a completely autonomous set of "brainware" programs.
The same is of course also true with sound and a subset of sound called speech recognition. Again, all kinds of very complicated circuitry is required to take the disturbances in the air (sound waves) caused by a person speaking to you through vibrations of their vocal cords and translate all those air waves into what we experience as sound, then into individual sounds, then words, then groups of words and then assembled bits of meaning which you experience as a person verbalizing some sort of (presumably important but maybe not) information to you. Yet other groups of neuronal regions and circuitry will, if yet another program detects possibly important meaning, churn all that verbalization around looking for deeper or wider meaning or any possible connections to other stored bits of information (of which only a small percentage may or may not make it into your conscious experience). Yet other completely autonomous programs will be assembling your own words and groups of words and sets of meaning to verbalize in response (while yet other regions filter possible responses and decide that no response at all is perhaps better).
Yes, we may believe we are "thinking" of all those clever things we are saying (or perhaps wisely keeping to ourselves), but in actuality, that's all subconscious "zombie" programs doing all of that for us. Even if you consciously try to think deeper of what to say, all that's happening is different programs are (hopefully) being called on to produce something (hopefully) more clever.
The vast, vast majority of our thoughts - our non-verbalized inner self-dialogue - is created subconsciously by far flung networks of brain regions and speech regions. The words I am typing on this page translating my thoughts and knowledge into words? I am experiencing them as a conscious process (and it sort of is) but it's really all subconscious autonomous programs whirring away furiously inside my brain that is creating all of this - though most people, unaware of this process, would gladly take conscious credit for it all! Ditto with much of song writing and music composition - that's all subconscious programs stitching together fragments of this and that the artist's mind either consciously stored away (a small fraction) and subconsciously stored away (the vast majority) and presenting it to the artist's conscious mind at the moment of creation (what they experience as "inspiration") or are the result of countless hours and many years of musical training (which itself creates "brain programs" related to music).
And on and on and on we could go for all of our actions, reactions, emotional responses, things we say, hear, do, think, believe, create and so on and so on. What makes it to our "conscious mind" is but an infinitesimally small fraction of what your brain is really up to.
Our subconscious programs may well be running all kinds of programs our conscious selves may not even approve of! Take certain prejudices and biases. The public persona we present and what we consciously want to believe may say one thing, but tricky psychological tests may reveal quite something else beneath the surface! (for those so interested - and are brave enough - this piece on The Illusion of Moral Superiority delves into this in some detail and depth)
Most of what we experience as "choices" and "decisions" in fact are almost invariably the product of a dizzying amount of background calculating being worked out by far flung region of your brain (and often at odds with each other!) which quite likely had been going on for hours, days or weeks or longer prior humming away well, well below the surface of your mind before the "choice" or "decision" or "inspiration" sprung up to your conscious mind.
Understanding this basic brain function concept is critical for understanding a great deal of how we "work" (or not).
Everything we experience as memory (including storage, retrieval and importance attached to each memory) are all taken care of by autonomous brain functions that run largely way below our conscious experience and control (including all manner of memory training techniques).
Everything we think of as "habits" or habitual actions would be autonomously running programs.
Not only all that, but we get very little choice into what programs all of our programming! This too was largely a subconscious process from a lifetime of various cultural, societal and family influences, AKA "nurture" of nature vs nurture fame (or maybe infamy would be a better term given how filled with acerbic controversy that topic is),
Now, having established that (and this is all beyond a shadow of doubt among any credible neuroscientist current with the latest findings), this begs a few questions.
One, why - if we humans are blessed with higher states of consciousness than our animal brethren and fore-bearers (as we indeed are) - does so much stuff run below conscious awareness?
This is a very good question, indeed. And the answers aren't all that difficult and will completely make sense.
One, is that our consciousness - as nifty as the human version is (and it is human consciousness and the cognitive flexibility it provides that sets humans apart) -it is limited. The cognitive scientist Bernard Baars in his landmark (and very widely cited) paper on Cognitive Theory of Consciousness explains part of consciousness as a "global workspace", a sort of "workbench" where we can put things while we work on them and like a workbench, there is only so much we can put on it at any one time (to put this breathtakingly briefly and simply). We can also think of this as what we can run on our "working memory" at any one time. This too is limited.
So if you consider the astronomical amounts of tasks your brain needs to do at any one time to guide your fanny through life - movements, short term and long term planning and decision making, thinking, creating (if that's your bag), blah-blah-blah ad nauseam and try to imagine going over every single solitary detail of all of that - your brain would melt down and run out your ears. And I only mean this partially facetiously - when we examine what's going on in mental breakdowns, this is almost what is literally going on; your mind - your conscious experience - literally does break down in overwhelm as your mind, or consciousness, is flooded with too many things your conscious self can't handle (as mine did spectacularly on several occasions requiring emergency 911 calls and hospitalizations in psych wards).
Back to our computer screen and speakers analogy, it is much the same way - you can put only so much on the screen at one time and if we look at the brain's working memory and think of it as our computer's RAM, this too is limited. Put too much on there, and your computer will crash and so it is with your brain and mind (or consciousness).
So this is one reason why so much of our lives, behaviours, decision making and so on is largely handled below your conscious awareness - your conscious mind and working memory can only handle a tiny, tiny fraction of what needs to be done by your brain. If we look at this through the lens of evolutionary benefits, having your brain melt down from conscious overload is unquestionably a Bad Thing and would have, in the past, meant that you became tiger dinner and your genes - or that of your offspring - would not get passed on. Yes, yes, speaking in evolutionary terms, this is a Very Bad Thing. So the brain evolved Not To Let That Happen thus it just takes care of the vast majority of stuff required to guide your fanny through life autonomously below the surface on its own, thank you very much.
Two, is for the simple reason of energy economy. The brain - that three pound blob of soft tofu like substance between your ears, approximately between 1 and 2 percent of your total body weight - burns up a whopping 20% of the energy you consume through calories and about the same amount of the oxygen your lungs draw in. Consciously churning through things, it turns out, radically ups the draw on those (limited) energy reserves. So again, if we look at it through evolutionary terms, even though human consciousness has been a great thing, the rest of your brain is too smart (or well programmed) to let you burn up too much energy that way. Again, to have you be a tiger's dinner and not pass on your genes because you didn't have the energy to deal with the tiger or you burned up too much "RAM" pondering over what to do would be - in evolutionary terms - A Bad Thing. So it evolved to run the great majority of things on "auto-pilot" because that is the most energy efficient way - not to mention fastest - of crunching incoming data and generating responses (movements, thoughts, etc, all of the above we looked at).
The second question, if we don't consciously decide what programs our brains (and it is mostly an illusion that you believe you do program much in there, as clever and bright and as "in control" as you think you are), what does program your brain?
I'm actually not too sure you want to know too much about this but here we go anyway. It's in fact kind of impossible to know in any precise terms (though at times we can recall specific experiences or lessons), but in truth it's possible that every single thing your five senses ever brought in for your entire life may have played a role. If you want to put that in some perspective, if you are an average adult your brain will hold something like 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes) of "data". To put that in perspective, if your brain worked like your TV recorder, that would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows. You would have to leave the TV running continuously for three hundred years to play all that back. And by some estimates, that's conservative. Oh - and it turns out that everything you've ever put in your gut may play a big role, too. Yikes.
This data is a rough summation of everything you've read, heard, experienced, seen, smelled, touched, and felt along with all the myriad of cultural and environmental experiences and influences you've had throughout life and through school, not to mention almost endless amounts of thoughts and feelings your own brain has produced (and what you shoveled down your throat all your life - urp) - and all of that has at least some potential to have become “inputted” into the zombie programs that in turn run "you".
Try go back and put all that on your "conscious plate" and deal with it. I think you can imagine now how impossible that would be.
And what filters through all that data (and blocks out astronomically more data) itself is determined by subconscious autonomous programs that hum along way well, well below the surface. These themselves are part of what I was getting to in the posts on "ego defenses" as well as in Genetic Factors and Environmental Factors in Brain Development.
This is why it's important to be more aware of what we're "consuming" every day in the way of "input data". You may recall in my Positive Difference Making Fundamentals that I made big changes to my "data input" and this is what I'm talking about. If we give our brains better material to run on, they will create better programs and they - and thus us - will run better, at least to some degree.
So that is a very brief introduction to the programs that whir and twirl and whiz away in your brain well, well below your conscious awareness.
What, you are probably thinking, does this have to do with mental health and conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and depression and so on?
A couple of things.
One is that I believe - my theory is - that a lot of what goes wrong in mental health disorders is that these subconscious programs are in various ways running amok and are messing with your "conscious experience" (producing auditory or visual hallucinations, as just one example). Or, as we'll see, it may be that some of our most important programs have been poorly programmed (by "bad data" that we've absorbed throughout our lives or at key times or in key ways) and these are in some way running our lives and mind very poorly (the negative/self flagellating thoughts programs would likely top this list in many of us).
It is my idea - and approach - that any given mental health disorder is in fact a "distorted" conscious experience - our programs have encountered problems or were never programmed right in the first place and are messing with what's on the "computer screens and speakers" of our conscious minds that we are experiencing and as a result, our mental states, behaviours and actions are being messed up (to put it very mildly). We'll also see that it could well be some very important programs are actually "offline" - such as key behavioural regulating regions and programs and this may be greatly involved in what's going on in acute or long term mental disorders.
Two - and more important - is the very exciting news that very many of these programs can be reprogrammed. The brain - even late in life - will respond to retraining "commands". It takes a lot of specific dedicated work, but it can be done. When we look at neuroplasticity, we are going to learn some very encouraging things about how we can "reprogram" or retrain our brains. And this goes for even the most severe neuropsychiatric condition (though it is true that the longer the condition has been present, the harder the work it is to reprogram it. I will get to some very interesting cases studies on this to show how possible it is).
Three - it is again my belief and theory that a good number of our mental health disorders and mental meltdowns are the result of warring zombie programs. And this can indeed happen as we'll see in Part Two of this series. We'll look at how all these programs running our brains and minds don't always "get along" and these inner wars, these "regional battles", can produce - in our conscious experience - a lot of our difficulties. Thus, examine what's going on in these "inner wars", understand what's going on and why they're at war, straiten them out - or retrain some of them, as we'll learn - and it's entirely possible that a good deal of what's messing with your conscious experience and causing you grief and depression and anxiety or what have you will greatly settle down. As a bipolar person with borderline personality disorder and at times social anxiety disorder, I have lots and lots and lots of "war stories" to relate.
Four - in further understanding how our brain uses and regulates energy, we will see that having most of our functions and reactions handled by autonomously running subconscious programs is the most efficient in terms of best utilizing available energy and that having so many of these programs out of tune or at war with each other plays a large role in what leaves us drained of energy.
And perhaps most importantly, understanding these programs and in turn what triggers them is going to be huge in understanding perhaps the most important zombie program of them all when it comes to mental health disorders and suffering - the stress response system.
That's it for today. I needed to introduce the concepts of subconscious autonomous programs - AKA: zombie programs - and how they run our worlds and create our conscious experience before I moved on to explain other things we'll look at and learn in understanding and dealing with mental health disorders.