Two quotes from this article that Alexander Technique concerns itself with: the how of things rather than the why and making our nervous system our ally…
“To pose the question that psychiatrists ask their patients, why are we preoccupied all at once with the how instead of the why of things?”
“Self-awareness sets us free. “The great thing, then, in all education,” writes James, “is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.”
The Amygdala Made Me Do It
By JAMES ATLAS
Published: May 12, 2012
WHY are we thinking so much about thinking these days? Near the top of best-seller lists around the country, you’ll find Jonah Lehrer’s “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” followed by Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” and somewhere in the middle, where it’s held its ground for several months, Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Recently arrived is “Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior,” by Leonard Mlodinow.
Unlike most pop self-help books, these are about life as we know it — the one you can change, but only a little, and with a ton of work. Professor Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in economic science a decade ago, has synthesized a lifetime’s research in neurobiology, economics and psychology. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” goes to the heart of the matter: How aware are we of the invisible forces of brain chemistry, social cues and temperament that determine how we think and act? Has the concept of free will gone out the window?
These books possess a unifying theme: The choices we make in day-to-day life are prompted by impulses lodged deep within the nervous system. Not only are we not masters of our fate; we are captives of biological determinism. Once we enter the portals of the strange neuronal world known as the brain, we discover that — to put the matter plainly — we have no idea what we’re doing.
Professor Kahneman breaks down the way we process information into two modes of thinking: System 1 is intuitive, System 2 is logical. System 1 “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” We react to faces that we perceive as angry faster than to “happy” faces because they contain a greater possibility of danger. System 2 “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.” It makes decisions — or thinks it does. We don’t notice when a person dressed in a gorilla suit appears in a film of two teams passing basketballs if we’ve been assigned the job of counting how many times one team passes the ball. We “normalize” irrational data either by organizing it to fit a made-up narrative or by ignoring it altogether.
The effect of these “cognitive biases” can be unsettling: A study of judges in Israel revealed that 65 percent of requests for parole were granted after meals, dropping steadily to zero until the judges’ “next feeding.” “Thinking, Fast and Slow” isn’t prescriptive. Professor Kahneman shows us how our minds work, not how to fiddle with what Gilbert Ryle called the ghost in the machine.
“The Power of Habit” is more proactive. Mr. Duhigg’s thesis is that we can’t change our habits, we can only acquire new ones. Alcoholics can’t stop drinking through willpower alone: they need to alter behavior — going to A.A. meetings instead of bars, for instance — that triggers the impulse to drink. “You have to keep the same cues and rewards as before, and feed the craving by inserting a new routine.”
“The Power of Habit” and “Imagine” belong to a genre that has become increasingly conspicuous over the last few years: the hortatory book, armed with highly sophisticated science, that demonstrates how we can achieve our ambitions despite our sensory cluelessness.
Like Timothy D. Wilson’s recent how-not-to book, “Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change,” a primer for well-intentioned parents, bosses, coaches, teachers, psychologists and others in the life-improvement professions, they’re full of stories about people who accomplished amazing things in life by, in effect, rewiring themselves.
Mr. Duhigg recounts the now legendary story of the football coach Tony Dungy’s system for reviving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a loser team: teach them not to think. By instilling in his players an “automatic” response to situations encountered on the field, Mr. Dungy “removed the need for decision making.” Glance at the outside foot of the lineman to see if he’s getting ready to step back… Check the direction of the quarterback’s face to see where he’s going to throw. Don’t react: act. Guess what? The Bucs started to win. (That game, anyway. Then they went back to losing, and he was fired.)
Mr. Lehrer calls this ability to identify and re-program what goes on inside our heads “the science of insight.” Our minds are more susceptible to epiphanies when we’re taking warm showers, watching Robin Williams do stand-up or walking on the beach. The color blue puts us in a more creative mood than the color red: it stimulates our alpha waves by triggering associations with clear skies and oceans.
Why now? To pose the question that psychiatrists ask their patients, why are we preoccupied all at once with the how instead of the why of things?
“It’s a convergence of ideas, really,” says Professor Kahneman. “It used to be that the main explanation focused on emotional or social distortions of thought.” What he and his colleagues on the best-seller list are doing now is to “scientize” brain research, using the tools of our technological age — neurobiology, brain scans, retinal research — to prove that reflection plays a more minor role in our lives than we ever realized.
The 18th-century philosopher David Hume (much quoted by Mr. Lehrer) didn’t have an M.R.I. scanner at his disposal, but he framed the question in much the same way. His major work, “A Treatise of Human Nature,” explored the ways in which habit, or “custom,” rules our lives. Hume’s experiments with perception — how we respond to colors, distance, numerical sets — prefigure the rigorous science of Professor Kahneman. His intent was to show us “the natural infirmity and unsteadiness both of our imagination and senses.” Consciousness, like philosophy itself, stands on a “weak foundation.”
If Hume seems modern, William James reads like a contemporary. Writing toward the end of the 19th century, James addressed the same question that had concerned Hume — how the unconscious operates as a physical process, not just, as Freud would have it, a mental one. In his now-classic essay, “Habit,” he argued that even our most complex acts are reflexive — “concatenated discharges in the nerve-centres.” The hunter spots the bird and shoots. The fencer knows when to parry and return. They perform these acts unthinkingly — they act before they think. But what about people who involuntarily perform acts that are against their own interests, like biting their nails, “snuffling” or speaking with “nasality”? The answer is that we can train ourselves to change if we work at it hard enough. Self-awareness sets us free. “The great thing, then, in all education,” writes James, “is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.”
Are we there yet? The linguistic philosopher John Searle, who has been writing on this subject for over half a century, is convinced we’re on the right track, but have a long way to go. “I’ve become more and more dissatisfied with the philosophical tradition,” he said last week, speaking from his office in Berkeley. “People have always been interested in how the brain works, but we’ve got to see it as a more natural process, like digestion and photosynthesis.” The brain is an organ, too.
Does this mean we have no “agency,” no capacity to act on our own? Or can autonomy thrive within the prison of self-ignorance? “We have to believe it does,” says Steven Lukes, a professor of sociology at New York University highly admired for his work in moral philosophy. “If we seriously thought that our intentions made no difference to how we behave, we couldn’t go on using the language of ethics. How would we go on living the lives we live?” Or doing what we think is right? “People have free will when they ‘feel’ they have free will,” says Professor Kahneman. “If we didn’t believe in it, we would have no responsibility.”
But of course what one “feels,” as we’ve learned from all these books, could well be — indeed, probably is — an illusion. As Timothy Wilson puts it with haunting simplicity: “We are strangers to ourselves.”
Strangers who can learn how to be friends.
The author of “My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale.”