You experience your mind as a unit, the conscious ‘me’ or self that participates in and interprets the world. Sigmund Freud demoted this ‘me’ to one of a three-member team: the ego, the superego and the id. Freud also famously promoted the idea that our behavior is frequently driven by mental processes of which we are unaware: the subconscious or unconscious parts of the mind.
The details of Freud’s theories are now almost completely debunked, but notions related to the ego, the superego and the id keep creeping back in disguise, and the role of unconscious processes appears to be even greater than Freud supposed.
The modern conception of the mind is built on five converging vectors: from philosophy, computer science, experimental psychology, evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience aided by functional MRI.
This experimentally validated model views the mind as a bundle of “modules” or “agents,” built up in layers of increasing abstraction. A plethora of modules, rather than just Freud’s three.
According to Robert Kurzban, “Modularity suggests that there is no “I.” Instead each of us is a contentious “we” – a collection of discrete but interacting systems whose constant conflicts shape our interactions with one another and our experience of the world.”
Here is a quotation from each of the five fields contributing to the modern model of the mind:
How can intelligence emerge from non-intelligence? To answer that we’ll show that you can build a mind from many little parts, each mindless by itself. I’ll call “Society of Mind” this scheme in which each mind is made of many smaller processes.
The past forty years of research have shown that the human brain has billions of neurons organized into local, specialized circuits for specific functions, known as modules.
In our brains there is a cobbled-together collection of specialist brain circuits, which, thanks to a family of habits inculcated partly by culture and partly by individual self-exploration, conspire together to produce a more or less orderly, more or less effective, more or less well-designed virtual machine, the Joycean machine. By yoking these independently evolved specialist organs together in common cause, and thereby giving their union vastly enhanced powers, this virtual machine, this software of the brain, performs a sort of internal political miracle: It creates a virtual captain of the crew, without elevating any one of them to long-term dictatorial power. Who’s in charge? First one coalition, then another…
At 8pm I’m full from dinner and I’m watching the Simpsons. The context is not one that will activate my impatient food- consumption modules, and my state isn’t either - because I am satiated, that module is deactivated. In contrast, nothing is inhibiting the modules that like to be healthy. The balance of power in the food domain now strongly favors the patient modules. Further, because some modules are quite good at building representations of the future – i.e., planning – they know that at midnight the battle will be tilted in the other direction, and patient modules are also the ones that can plan.
What did our experiments suggest? It may be that our models of human behavior need to be rethought. Perhaps there is no such thing as a fully integrated human being. We may, in fact, be an agglomeration of multiple selves.
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