The mind is a palace

Thinking zombieEarlier I wrote about Graziano’s attention schema theory. I recently discussed shortly the theory with a psychology researcher in person. The researcher appeared abhorred to perceive the theory rejecting free will. I disagree.

Firstly I was a bit surprised at the reaction. Already in the current elementary course I’m taking on psychology, they have told me that apparently our decisions are formed in our brains well before we become aware of them.[1] Am I to assume that these results are the most abhorred ones, as this would suggest that our conscious mind couldn’t affect at all the definitions we make? We were even introduced the possibility that even if we don’t have a free “will”, we might have a free “won’t”.

I see no problems here. No need to call off punishments for criminals due to them not having had a freedom of choice upon their behaviour. (Here I could branch widely into the discussion of the philosophy of justice systems, but it is not the point of this text.)

I perceive here overrating of the role of consciousness. It is not so that our mind and personality would be our consciousness. It would seem that our mind is something of a palace, where the consciousness is the emperor.

The palace has other actors that function independently. They come up with ideas and proposals and bring them forth to the emperor’s court. There the emperor can consider them and they can be commented by other actors – other parts of the mind/brain. This court is the emperor’s focused awareness.

Some proposals are actually executed bypassing the court, if not most of them. The palace guards will not run to the court to ask every time someone approaches the gate for entry. Only if the emperor’s sworn enemy, or something else problematic approaches. This equivalent for us to greeting and smiling automatically to people who greet and smile to us, unless we have a dislike for them; or to inhaling automatically, unless there is a strange odour.

Something being unconscious or subconscious doesn’t mean that it isn’t a part of what we are. It just means that the palace we are running is executing decisions without confirming them at the court first. Certainly, these decisions may often in the court be constrained due to decency and other causes of “self-control”. It doesn’t, however, mean that the decisions wouldn’t be what the court has been all along teaching the mind, or what the mind has learned through the experiences on the outcomes. If the emperor always scowls the guards after the visit of person A, the guards will be less likely to open the gates for A, without at least confirming from the court first. If the guards always have to stop a big fight at the court yard after letting person B in, even if the emperor appears delighted of the visit (and even the fight) they will learn to go ask the court, if person B should really be let in, rather than automatically opening the gate. And they typically will obey the court’s final order, unless the court is drunk and unresponsive to the question, or the problem is a phobia or such.

This is well compatible with the neurological point of view to the brains. There are separate areas specialised for separate tasks. They are given tasks that they process and they will contact the consciousness about the tasks with different levels of enthusiasm. There is the competition for the attention. The tasks come in from senses or other neurons. Cone and rod cell activations initiate tasks in the visual cortex. The visual cortex may raise an alert on something of importance, which can affect how the auditory cortex starts to focus on incoming signals from a certain direction. The consciousness may demand attention on some particular detail. It is like the palace guards can be alerted to open the gate through the request of the arriving person, or by the palace cleaner wanting to get the light in through the open gate, or by the order of the court.

So, our mind is a palace that is ruled by the emperor of our consciousness. The emperor is really only the main director, who doesn’t have it’s own initiative. All ideas arise from the lackeys in the palace, who come forth with proposals and the emperor just confirms them. Any dilemmas too arise with different lackeys having conflicting proposals – or possibly just one lackey having several proposals in conflict with each other. The palace could be run without the emperor, and possibly within less intellect animals it is so. Their palaces are more modest and reaction to triggers is more instinctively direct and less constrained.

The important thing is that you are not the emperor. You are the whole of the palace. Your consciousness, the emperor, is only one part of your personality.

[1] – Internally generated preactivation of single neurons in human medial frontal cortex predicts volition. Fried, Mukamel & Kreiman. 2011