Friday, July 22, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 1

Internal Conflicts Ineradicable. Rand's vision of the rational man contained a rather odd feature: he experienced no internal conflicts.

An emotion is an automatic response, an automatic effect of man's value premises. An effect, not a cause. There is no necessary clash, no dichotomy between man's reason and his emotions -- provided he observes their proper relationship. A rational man knows -- or makes it a point to discover -- the source of his emotions, the basic premises from which they come; if his premises are wrong, he corrects them. He never acts on emotions for which he cannot account, the meaning of which he does not understand. In appraising a situation, he knows why he reacts as he does and whether he is right. He has no inner conflicts, his mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony. His emotions are not his enemies, they are his means of enjoying life.

Rand's contentions in this paragraph not only go against the vast experience of mankind, which has found inner conflicts to be rooted in the very warp and woof of human nature, but of scientific brain research as well. A growing body of evidence compiled by neuroscientists suggests that the brain is made up of competing subsystems:

Brains are like representative democracies. They are built of multiple, over-lapping experts who weigh in and compete over different choices. As Walt Whitman correctly surmised, we are large and we harbor multitudes within us. And those multitudes are locked in chronic battle.

There is an ongoing conversation among the different factions in your brain; each competing to control the single output channel of your behavior. As a result, you can accomplish the strange feats of arguing with yourself, and cajoling yourself to do something...

Because of these internal multitudes, biological creatures can be conflicted. The term conflicted could not be sensibly applied to an entity that has a single program. [Incognito, 107-108]

The most obvious manifestation of these built-in competing sub-systems involves the two hemispheres of the brain. Experiments with split-brain patients demonstrate that

the two hemispheres have somewhat different personalities and skills -- this includes their abilities to think abstractly, create stories, draw inferences, determine the source of memory, and make good choices in a gambling game. Roger Sperry, one of the neurobiologists who pioneered the split-brain studies, ... came to understand the brain as "two separate realms of conscious awareness; two sensing, perceiving, thinking and remembering systems." The two halves constitute a team of rivals: agents with the same goals but slightly different ways of going about it. [ibid, 124]

In other words, the conflicts that arise out of this arrangement are hard-wired into the brain: they can't be reprogrammed by changing or "correcting" basic premises (as if changing one's premises could alter the basic structure of the brain!). Rand, unwittingly, assumes that the brain is a single program that can be controlled by the consciousness. The Randian view does not accord with many facts uncovered by neuroscience research. "Everywhere we look we find overlapping systems that compete," writes neuroscientist David Eagleman.

This phenomenon of overlapping systems is most dramatically illustrated in what is known as "alien hand syndrome":

In alien hand syndrome, which can result from the split-brain surgeries we discussed a few pages ago, the two hands express conflicted desires. A patient's "alien" hand might pick up a cookie to put it in his mouth, while the normally behaving hand will grab it at the wrist to stop it. A struggle ensues. Or one hand will pick up a newspaper, and the other will slap it back down. Or one hand will zip up a jacket, and the other will unzip it. Some patients with alien hand syndrome have found that yelling "Stop!" will cause the other hemisphere (and the alien hand) to back down. But besides that little modicum of control, the hand is running on its own inaccessible programs, and that is why it's branded as alien -- because the conscious part of the patient seems to have no predictive power over it; it does not feel as though it's part of the patient's personality at all. A patient in this situation often says, "I swear I'm not doing this." [ibid, 131]


Ian Berger said...

Rand's characters in her novels, at least her heroes, certainly displayed this characteristic. They were always confident, secure, dauntless, and focussed. That's what makes the two I partially read “Atlas, Fountainhead” so boring. How can a mature reader get involved with a character who is already perfect?

It's silly, though. The rational intellect is a powerful force, but it is by no means the most powerful force that motivates we humans. We do things for deeper reasons than the conscious intellectual ones Ms. Rand is fond of discussing. The rational mind in itself is only a scaffold for the deep desires that motivate us all. Rationality has its place, of course, but it's not really in charge.

Bryan White said...

I always figured that Rand was trying to say that we should strive to take a rational and level-headed approach to our decisions and our understanding - which would be fine advice and most certainly not an entirely fruitless and futile endeavor - but then she goes on the pretend that we have unlimited and unobstructed latitude in doing this, and that only "flawed premises" can possibly stand in our way. This undercuts both the complexity of being human and the significance of the struggles involved.