Neuroscience, Thankfulness and the Voices Inside My Head

David Eagleman's "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain," is a book that has so startled me, it has brought upon an existential crisis. Eagleman's central thesis is that the brain is "mostly a closed system" and "the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it." I think this is pretty heady stuff (no pun intended).

A big part of my fascination with his study is because it's about our brains. And because I'm pretty sure I have a brain, it's a book about me. So when Eagleman describes how the brain works, he's letting me in on a secret about myself.

The other part of my fascination with Eagleman's work is how he describes the voices in my brain as the result of cognitive battles that can surface into conscious awareness. I'm happy to learn that hearing these voices -- which often conflict -- is not just something I've experienced, as it's common to everyone.

The voices are not really like the voices we hear spoken from other people, but they are voices nonetheless. This explains how we can get mad at ourselves (exactly who is it that is mad at whom?). It explains how we can feel conflicted when deciding between mundane and life-changing choices. It explains how we can have thoughts that embarrass and shame us. (Remember Mel Gibson?) Most importantly, the thoughts (or voices) that "come to mind" don't just pop into our head willy nilly.

What eventually become our conscious thoughts are the result of a long, arduous and competitive process deep within the brain, our "wet computer." It's an engagement inaccessible to the conscious mind. And it is this process "deep within the brain" that does the vast majority of cognitive machinations.

Where does God come into this discussion?

We religious types have some sense of how God talks to us. No, Sam Harris, his voice isn't baritone. It isn't much different from our other voices in our head. But when it speaks, what we hear is clear. For me, it's the "still quiet voice" that my Mother, years ago, told me to attune my inner ear to. This habit recently became shaken by a rather ordinary event.

A few weeks ago while reading "Incognito," with November coming, I thought how I needed to get on my winter tires. A few days later, I picked out a coat I hadn't worn since early spring. Putting my hands in the pockets, I felt a strange metal object. Pulling it out, I found what appeared to be a socket. But it didn't look like any kind of socket I had seen before in my tool box. Not knowing where it had come from, I decided I should just put it aside on the table in the foyer of my house.

Without thinking further about it, a couple weeks later I took my truck to the garage to get the summer tires and rims replaced. After leaving I got a call from the mechanic telling me that they couldn't find the mechanical piece that was required to get the present rims off the truck. The problem was that, earlier in the spring, I had a special set of tires mounted on new rims. Supposedly included in the package, returned to me at the time, was that little device uniquely made to take off those particular rims. As a security device, without it, the tires could only be removed with great trouble and expense. In a panic, for the life of me, I had no recollection of such a device.

That little socket I found a few weeks earlier suddenly "popped into mind." Racing home in a friend's car I went into my house and found the strange little socket sitting on the table where I had left it. Then, racing back to the garage, I placed it into the mechanic's hand whereupon he fitted it perfectly over the awaiting lug nut on the tire's rim.

Thank God. I felt that Someone really was looking out for me that day. But then I thought of Eagleman and his neurological explanation for these series of events, with none of it requiring God. It shook me.

I realized that that Someone might be my own brain.

Eagleman would like say that when I thought I needed to get my winter tires on, my brain went into panic. It knew that instead of placing that important socket into my glove compartment of the truck, I stuck it in the pocket of one of my jackets, an event my conscious brain had long since forgotten. Knowing that without it I'd be in deep trouble, my brain had to figure out how to get me -- the shallow, conscious self -- to find that socket.

Seemingly innocuous enough, while selecting a jacket to wear a couple days later, I "just decided" to pick the one I happened to be wearing earlier in the spring when I got my new tires and rims. It wasn't, however, a decision made out of nowhere. Putting my hands into the pockets -- voila! -- the dimwitted body that houses my brain finds the socket! Mission accomplished!

The greater question is, how often do we attribute our more profound thoughts and abilities to divine guidance when, in fact, they are rather the fruit of processes deep within the magnificent brain?

It isn't a question unique to religious believers. In Socratic philosophy this is the Daemonion, the inner voice that, quiet as it is, seems to have a clarity that distinguishes it from the other voices in our heads. It's the Muse that artists, musicians, writers and thinkers of all sorts attribute to creative work, which, because it can sometimes flow profusely out of our minds, is hard to attribute to our own abilities and consciousness. (Notice how it overpowers athletes when they acknowledge divine intervention?) It appears so outside ourselves that we think it is inspired.

Eagleman's study is important. Among other things, it is furthering the process of modern secularity as it provides alternatives to religious belief. But I hesitate. I'm not quite ready to attribute all such turn of events to my brain. No doubt, old habits are hard to dispel. And I don't want to be guilty of mortal hubris, described forcefully in the other great read "All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age."

So I continue to take the middle ground between secularity and religious belief. For the time being, I'm happy to stand amazed at the evolutionary development of the brain and to be also thankful to whatever or whoever else might help along the way.