by Leonard Mlodinow
You only think you make your own choices. Truth is the real you lives deep in your unconscious mind and rules with a rod of iron. Your preference in politicians, the amount you tip your waiter, how you interact with friends (and enemies), strangers, even spouses – all reflect the workings of your mind on two levels: the conscious which we know and the unconsciousness, a total stranger. Research indicates that in the hidden recesses of our brains may lurk our very own Margaret Thatcher!
When my mother was eighty-five she inherited, from my son, a pet Russian tortoise named Miss Dinnerman. It lived in her yard, in a large pen enclosing both shrubs and lawn, delineated by chicken wire. My mother’s knees were starting to go, so she’d had to curtail her traditional two-hour walks around the neighborhood. She was looking for a friend, one she could easily access, and the tortoise got the job. She decorated the pen with rocks and pieces of wood and visited the animal everyday, just like she used to visit the bank teller and the cashier at Big Lots. On occasion she even brought Miss Dinnerman flowers, which she thought made the pen look pretty, but which the tortoise treated like a delivery from the local Pizza Hut.
My mother didn’t mind when the tortoise ate her bouquets. She thought it was cute. “Look how she enjoys it,” she’d say. But despite the cushy existence, the free room and board, and the freshly cut flowers, Miss Dinnerman’s main goal in life seemed to be escape. Whenever she wasn’t eating or sleeping, Miss Dinnerman would walk the perimeter, poking around for a hole in the chicken wire. She would even try to climb it, as awkward as a skateboarder trying to scale a spiral staircase. My mother saw this behavior, too, in human terms. To her, it was a heroic effort, like POW Steve McQueen plotting his breakout from a Nazi Camp in The Great Escape. “Every creature wants freedom,” my mother told me. “Even if she has it good here, she doesn’t like being confined.” My mother believed that Miss Dinnerman recognized her voice and responded to it. She believed that Miss Dinnerman understood her. “You’re reading too much into her behavior,” I told my mother. “Tortoises are primitive creatures.” I would even demonstrate my point, waving my hands and hollering like a crazy person, then pointing out how the tortoise just ignored me. “So what?” she’d say. “Your kids ignore you, and you don’t call them primitive creatures.”
It can be difficult to distinguish willed, conscious behavior from that which is habitual and automatic. Indeed, as humans, our tendency to believe in consciously motivated behavior is so powerful that we read consciousness into not only our own behaviors but those of the animal kingdom as well. We do this with our pets, of course. It’s called anthropomorphizing. The tortoise is as brave as a POW, the cat peed on the suitcase because it was mad at us for going away, the dog must hate the mailman for some good reason. Simpler organisms, too, can appear to behave with human-like thoughtfulness and intentionality. The lowly fruit fly, for example, goes through an elaborate mating ritual, which the male initiates by tapping the female with his foreleg and vibrating his wing in order to play her a courtship song. If the female accepts the advance, she will do nothing, and the male will take over from there. If she is not sexually receptive, she will either strike him with her wings or legs, or run away. Though I have elicited frighteningly similar responses from human females, this fruit fly mating ritual is completely programmed. Fruit flies don’t worry about issues such as where their relationship is headed; they simply exercise a routine that is hardwired within them. In fact, their actions are so directly related to their biological constitution that scientists have discovered a chemical that, when applied to a male of the species, will, within hours, convert a heterosexual fruit fly into one that is gay. Even the roundworm called C. elegans–a creature made of only about a thousand cells–can appear to act with conscious intent. For instance, it may slither past a bit of perfectly digestible bacteria and toward another tidbit that awaits it elsewhere on the petri dish. One might be tempted to conclude that the roundworm is exercising its free will, as we ourselves might do when rejecting an unappealing vegetable or a high-calorie desert. But a roundworm does not think to itself, I’d better watch my diameter; it simply moves toward the nutrient it has been programmed to hunt down.
Animals like fruit flies and tortoises are at the lower end on the brain-power scale, but the role of automatic processing is not limited to such primitive creatures. We humans also perform many automatic, unconscious behaviors. We tend to be unaware of them, however, because the interplay between our conscious and our unconscious minds is so complex. This complexity has its roots in the physiology of our brains. As mammals, we have new layers of cortex built upon the base of our more primitive reptilian brains; and as humans, we have yet more cerebral matter built upon those. We have an unconscious mind and, superimposed upon it, a conscious brain. How much of our feelings, judgments, and behavior is due to each can be very hard to say, as we are constantly shifting back and forth between them. For example, one morning we mean to stop at the post office on the way to work, but at the key intersection, we turn right, toward to office, because we are running on autopilot–that is, acting unconsciously. Then, when trying to explain to the police officer the reason for our subsequent U-turn, our conscious mind calculates the optimal excuse, while our autopilot unconscious handles the proper use of gerunds, subjunctive verbs, and indefinite articles so that our plea is expressed in fine grammatical form. If asked to step out of the car, we will consciously obey, then instinctively stand about four feet from the officer, although when talking to friends we automatically adjust that separation to about two and half feet. (Most of us follow these unspoken rules of interpersonal distance without ever thinking about them and can’t help feeling uncomfortable when they are violated.)
Once attention is called to them, it is easy to accept many of our simple behaviors (like making that right turn) as being automatic. The real issue is the extent to which more complex and substantive behaviors, with the potential to have much greater impact on our lives, are also automatic –even though we may feel sure that they are carefully thought through and totally rational. How does our unconscious affect our attitude about questions like Which house should I buy? Which stock should I sell? Should I hire that person to take care of my child? Or: Are bright blue eyes into which I can’t stop staring a sufficient basis for a long-term loving relationship?
If it is difficult to recognize automatic behavior in animals, it is even more difficult to recognize habitual behavior in our lives. When I was in graduate school, long before my mother’s tortoise stage, I used to phone her around eight every Thursday night. Then, one Thursday, I didn’t. Most parents would have concluded that I forgot, or maybe that I finally “got a life” and was out for the evening. But my mother had a different interpretation. Starting around nine she began to call my apartment, asking for me. My roommate apparently didn’t mind the first four or five calls, but after that, as I discovered the next morning, her reservoir of good will had dried up. Especially when my mother started accusing her of hiding the fact that I had been severely injured and hence was not calling because I was under sedation in the local hospital. By midnight, my mother’s imagination had goosed that scenario up a couple notches–she was now accusing my roommate of covering up my recent death. “Why lie about it?” my mother asked. “I’m going to find out.” Most children would be embarrassed to learn that their mother, a person who has known them intimately for their whole life, would think it more plausible that they had been killed than that they had been out on a date. But I had seen my mother exhibit such behavior before. To outsiders, she appeared to be a perfectly normal individual, except for a few quirks, like believing in evil spirits and enjoying accordion music. Those were to be expected, remnants of the culture she grew up with. But my mother’s mind worked differently from that of anyone else I knew. Today I understand why, even though my mother herself does not recognize it: decades earlier, her psyche had been reconstructed to view situations within a context that most of us could never imagine. It all started in 1939, when my mother was sixteen. Her own mother had died from abdominal cancer after suffering at home in excruciating pain for an entire year. Then, a short while later, my mother came home from school one day and found that her father had been taken by the Nazis. My mother and her sister, Sabina, were soon also taken away, to a forced labor camp, which her sister did not survive. Virtually overnight, my mother’s life had been transformed from that of a well-loved and well-cared-for teenager in a well-to-do family to that of an orphaned, hated, and starving slave laborer. After her liberation my mother emigrated, married, settled in a peaceful neighborhood in Chicago, and had a stable and safe lower-middle-class family existence. She no longer had any rational reason to fear the sudden loss of everything dear to her, and yet that fear has driven her interpretation of everyday events for the rest of her life.
My mother interpreted the meanings of actions through a dictionary that was different from the one most of us use, and via her own unique rules of grammar. Her interpretations had become automatic to her, not consciously arrived at. Just as we all understand spoken language without any conscious application of linguistic rules, so too did she understand the world’s message to her without any awareness that her early experiences had forever reshaped her expectations. My mother never recognized that her perceptions were skewed by the ever-present fear that at any moment justice, probability, and logic could cease to have force or meaning.