We live in a world made up of data. Everything we see and everything we do not are part of a larger overall flow of information which most times we have no access to. To access it, to understand it, we need a binary combination of the right tools and the right mindset. It’s like using an X-Ray machine to look at fractured bones. The machine’s high energy, short wavelength electromagnetic waves pass through flesh to reveal the bones hidden beneath but unless someone is trained to understand what the X-rays show, all we see are shadows. Meaninglessness made up of possibilities.
It is the same with thoughts and thinking. We can see the effects but we are not usually able to see the process. In a purely inductive way we may manage to get a little smarter but the real quantum leap of performance, the real levelling up of our skillset eludes us because we cannot directly see how thinking works. We cannot retrace the pathways of thought processes or recreate mental states. All of this remains, usually hidden behind our eyes, protected by some of the hardest bones in the body and buried deep within the folds of the three pound mass of grey matter that is our brain.
But what if we could? What if there was a way to actually see how the best performers in any field think before they act? What if we could trace exactly the complex neurophysiological processes that enabled them to be as good as they are and then recreate them for ourselves? Would that not change everything?
Neuroscience is constantly developing tools and ideas that help us better understand how our brain works. This may sound great (if a little scary) until we realize that it opens up all sorts of issues on subjects that would normally be treated as black & white cases behavioral lapses, such as the case of Charles Whitman who in 1966 did something unthinkable.
The fact that there is a strong link between biological correlates and abstract mental behavior opens the door to a lot of different possibilities. For one there is the obvious fact around which “The Sniper Mind” was built which suggests that if we roughly know how the brain does something specific we can then replicate that mental state to achieve a higher psychological, emotional and physical level.
The flip side of that is one which sees the brain as an organ that is particularly vulnerable to imbalances which can then lead to the commitment of truly terrible acts. When a scientific discipline uncovers direct links between biological states and physical acts we seemingly choose to perform the traditional questions that arise over “right and wrong”, morality and free will undergo a profound transformation.
As you’d expect at this stage there is no definitive answer to everything. David Eagleman suggests that free will is both possible and a mirage of sorts and we need to rethink our approach to reality as well as the way we relate to each other at a deeper social level.
Everything we learn about the brain is tantalizing and terrifying in equal parts. It holds the promise of a great transformation that will unbind us from restraints that hold us back from achieving our full potential. It threatens to overturn virtually everything we believe in about personal responsibility, free will and reality itself. I cannot promise you easy answers in any of this. We are in an uncharted territory where we learn things that will enable us to re-engineer ourselves from the inside out. We are hardwired to be curious so forward we step into the unknown, our sole solace the knowledge that we are doing so together.
I know you have reacted to the expected stimulus provided by “The Sunday Read” with your customary response of buying plenty of coffee and lots of cookies, donuts, croissants and chocolate cake to accompany it, so all that’s left to me to say is have an awesome Sunday, wherever you are.