Is your brain a fortress or a wild bus ride?

One year ago, I had a profound experience that completely changed the way I look at psychology, decision making, and personal development.

The accident

A good friend of mine has a congenital heart condition that went undetected his entire life. He’s in his 30s and otherwise healthy. One day while dirt biking in the mountains, his heart arrested and stopped. Luckily, thanks to CPR administered right away he made a full recovery.

He was in a remote place when the accident happened, and his brain went without oxygen for an extended period, so they were worried about his brain. While there was no brain damage, his short term memory was gone, and doctors said it would take time for it to return.

In the early days, he remembered nothing of the accident and could not form new memories. First, he couldn’t remember anything that happened this week, and then only the last couple days, then only the last couple hours. His memory was essentially “catching up” to real time.

Despite his lack of memory, everything that made him who-he-was remained intact. His personality, sense of humor, likes and dislikes all seemed completely normal.

No memory

The experience of finding yourself in a strange hospital not knowing how you got there makes you curious about what is going on, to say the least! I must have told my friend the story of the accident and how he ended up in the hospital, among other stories, 50-100 times. And I was just one of dozens of people visiting on a regular basis.

After repeating yourself so often, you start noticing patterns.

(my friend realizes he’s in a hospital after a long unrelated conversation)

Him: What are we doing here?

Me: Hey Man, it’s okay, you had an accident, and you’re at the hospital. You were riding your dirt bike and had something like a heart attack. The doctors aren’t sure, but they know your heart arrested, and you were completely unconscious. [Mutual friend] did CPR on you for 30 minutes on the trail and the paramedics took over on the way to the hospital.

Him: (shocked….long pauses, very emotional).
Really? I guess I owe [Mutual friend] a few beers. (laughs…..long pause).

Why do I have this? (points to urine catheter and reaches down to try and pull it out)

Me: Don’t pull that out! It will really hurt. You had surgery a couple days ago.

Him: They finally forced me to have that penis reduction surgery, huh? (laughs… continues pulling at catheter).

Me: You have that so you don’t need to get up to take a piss. The shitty thing is the nurse says it makes it so you constantly feel like you have to take a piss.

The insight

Each time I told him the story, his inner DVR was not recording. So when I would rewind the story to the beginning, I got to see something rare — watching someone be told a story again and truly experience it for the first time. Each time I noticed he would observe his surroundings in the same order, become emotional at the same triggers, laugh at the same punchlines. He would even crack the same jokes (see penis reduction surgery joke). If I didn’t deviate from the “story path” he didn’t deviate from his “reaction path”. It was like having a carbon copy interaction.

Why does this matter? We all have this feeling that we are the authors of our destiny and that we are in control of our thoughts, feelings, and reactions. There is a distinct sensation that we are “at the wheel” when we interact with the outside world. The sensation of consciousness is that such that something happens to us, we consider it, then react. We have indelibly made a mark on the world by our action.

But what if this isn’t completely true?

Seeing my friend “re-live” the story path and genuinely react exactly the same each time made me question the nature of how we experience the world. Which of our behaviors are virtually autonomous (subconscious) and which are truly considered choices in which we can say that we objectively authored the outcome (conscious).

Two brain analogies

Imagine a massive house or building. Each attribute of the building represents something unique that make us who we are. Things like our genetic predispositions, our personality, cognitive biases, our ethical constructs all form this one-of-a-kind building. Reality comes to us like weather. The wind blows, rain falls, or a child bounces a ball off the door. Depending the design of your house the water may pool in some areas, and the child’s ball may rebound wildly depending on the shape of the door. Our interactions with others are simply bounced back off our emotional exterior with the same predictability as a ball bouncing off the side of a house. The house is built the way it’s built, and there’s little choice in how things interact. And mostly nothing we can do to stop the govern the responses except to go through the painstaking process of changing the structure. Call this the fortress paradigm.

Now, imagine a bus driver standing behind a giant steering wheel. The driver is navigating intersections of choice as he travels life’s road. However, it’s not easy to steer because the bus filled with backseat drivers representing our genetic predispositions, our personality, cognitive biases, our ethical constructs, or even a spontaneous emotional state. Sometimes the passengers reach for the wheel and try to steer the bus themselves. Nevertheless the driver can see intersections and decide to turn left or right, and those decisions feel like real choice. In this world, all we have to do is quiet the backseat drivers to adjust our true course. Call this the bus driver paradigm.

In my view, my friends behavior shows that we are probably more fortress than bus driver. Interacting the same way over and over again seems to implicate he was bouncing back reactions more than he was consciously considering them. These reactions were wholly unique to him but such minor variation in his patterns (not just reacting, but initiating jokes, etc.) leads me to the conclusion that he had little conscious authorship in the interaction. It happened again and again. To believe he was more of a bus driver would mean that he might have different reactions, if only once in a while.

What does it mean?

I never imagined myself as an immovable object with outside events bouncing off me, predetermined by physics. For my entire life, I imagined my consciousness and decision-making capability similar to that of the bus driver. However, seeing my friend work through the same interactions with people over and over again made me think that there may be some things burned into the deeper levels of our psyche that we have no control over. Potentially, some facets of what we consider our “self” may be even deeper than even the subconscious and exist in our nervous system or some other aspect of out physiology. Philosophy on this topic is clearly beyond my expertise, but my experience (rather than intuition) makes this possibility hard to ignore.

If our identity and behaviors exist on a more primal level than consciousness, it explains why self-help leaves many disgruntled and why personal development is so difficult. The self-help industry emerged and profited greatly from the boomer generations growing self-consciousness that behavior may be the root of their problems. While this might be true, the reason many people become disillusioned with self-help is because they underestimate the difficulty that meaningful change requires. Altering a fortress is no easy task.

There are a couple very positive conclusions I come to based on my experience. One of them is that if you believe you are more fortress than a bus driver, listening to others is more valuable than ever before. The easiest way to take yourself off your default “story path” is to shut up and listen more.

Do you define your experience as a bus driver or a fortress? What does that mean to you? Interesting questions, if nothing else.

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