When we're wrong about the root causes of our actions, were we ever right?
In an unnerving experiment that dates at least as far back as the nineteenth-century scientist Jean-Martin Charcot, a hypnotist prompts a willing participant, under trance, to open an umbrella and circle the room. When asked why they are holding an opened umbrella indoors, the subjects, at first puzzled, in the next instant retreat unselfconsciously to the comfort of a strange fiction: Rather than state the obvious, that the hypnotist in the room must have had a hand in it, they instead give a range of responses which almost all refer to internal, rather than external factors. A typical response would be something like, “I heard it was going to rain tomorrow, and I was checking the umbrella for holes.”
This amnesiac, revisionist backfilling of our experience seems to be a feature of waking life, and not a bug. Similar results have been borne out in a slew of more modern takes on the experiment. In fact, this phenomenon of reinterpretation and assimilation seems to extend to the very foundation of our everyday experience of life itself.
Drawing from his decades of work studying the behavior of patients that have undergone the so-called “split brain” procedure to sever the connection between the brain’s right and left hemispheres, the pioneering cognitive psychologist Michael Gazzaniga has described the mind as “a constellation of semi-independent agents,” and describes our experience of self-direction as more a process of reducing complexity than interpreting reality.
As Gazzaniga puts it, the brain “has to generate a theory to explain all of these independent elements. And that theory becomes our particular theory of ourself and of the world.”
Some minutes ago, you made a choice to start reading this page. How do you know? The answer can only be because you remember doing it. Your moment of decision happened fairly recently, but it is already just a memory. And, as most of us are keenly aware, memory often gets the better of us. (Nowhere is the malleability of memory more clearly on display than in the umbrella experiment I described above.) Memory is fallible, fragile, suggestible. Most of us are not so keenly aware, however, that every conscious experience, even that which we term the “present moment,” is actually a memory. Memory is really all we have.
Our experience of the world begins with sensory input and travels through the nervous system to the brain, where it gets processed and interpreted through the firing of neurons. This all must take time, even if it seems near-instantaneous. The fact is, we are always late to the game. Every experience is really just a memory of an experience.
If this seems inconsequential, consider the following thought exercise:
Say the length of time between Moment and Memory isn’t just a handful of milliseconds. Say it is instead some untenable length of time, so long that we’d have no choice but to notice the agonizing distance between the time we perform an action and the time we remember performing it.
Let’s imagine, for the sake of illustration, that length is seven minutes.
I pour a cup of coffee, sit down and begin to write this piece at my kitchen island, bathed in the late afternoon sun streaming in through the bay window. I place my phone next to me, expecting my wife to finish her run soon and call about dinner. Seven minutes later, I’m three paragraphs into my writing before I actually remember doing any of it. And with each passing moment, I gain one more moment of memory about what happened seven minutes earlier.
What would my inner experience be in this situation?
Would I be a prisoner trapped in a body operated by a foreign mind? It would certainly feel like it. If in fact I had done all those things I just described, it could not possibly have been my own conscious mind that influenced those acts, arriving to the scene as late as it did. “I” would not be the author of this piece, and if I wanted to stop writing and stand up, I would not be able to do so. Like a seatbelted roller coaster rider, I would simply be tossed back and forth by a vehicle whose operator lay across an impenetrable, seven-minute chasm, and I would not — could not — feel that I was responsible for the trajectory of the ride.
But might our everyday sense of responsibility for our actions simply be a factor of the length of time between a moment and our memory of it? Perhaps we could reverse the tape, reduce the gap from seven minutes, and try to imagine how short a length of time it would take for me to once again convince myself (or maybe, for my brain to convince me) that I was in control of my actions.
The more relevant question, of course, is whether I ever actually was to begin with.
The seven-minute gap problem helps us confront a bizarre, but crucial question about our existence: Am I, against all my intuitions, simply hoisting an open umbrella toward the ceiling, ignorant to the actual forces by which I am led? If prompted to explain why I lifted the coffee mug to my lips just now, or why I took a particular route home from the office earlier today, or why I decided to write any of this down at all, would my explanations be just as confident — and just as wrong — as the man explaining to his hypnotist puppeteer that he was just “checking the umbrella for holes”?