'The curse of the human condition': Neuroscientist explains how COVID drove 'everyone into a collective existential crisis'
I am not myself lately. Then again, was I ever? I'm not the self I was a year ago, or the one I will be in five minutes. My sense of reality is ephemeral, and my circumstances are constantly rewriting the narrative. My brain wants to make sense of all that, though, so it keeps trying to find order and actualization. But what it keeps writing, as Emory University psychology professor Gregory Berns puts it, is its own "historical fiction."
In his apt and timely new book, "The Self Delusion: The New Neuroscience of How We Invent — and Reinvent — Our Identities," Berns, author of "How Dogs Love Us," explores the neuroscience of self perception and the clever, confounding ways we attempt to tell the stories of our lives.
Along the way, Berns explains the newest science of how memory, perception and influence play upon our pliable minds, and offers insights into better understanding who we are — and who can be.
Salon spoke to Berns recently about how our brains prime us to create stories — and superstitions, how COVID drove us into a "collective existential crisis" and the secret to shifting the tales we tell ourselves.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I was a newcomer to the concept of computational neuroscience. For those who have not yet read the book, what is this discipline and why is it significant in our understanding of the brain?
Computational neuroscience has been around, in some form or another, probably for fifty years. It used to go by different names. It first started out as AI, artificial intelligence, back in the sixties, then went through various iterations. By the time I was in training in the nineties, it was equivalent to what then was called neural networks, which now underlie everything in AI.
AI has evolved from the fifties and sixties style of AI, where people were hopeful that computers could be trained to do things that humans do. It evolved into this area where neural nets were discovered. Originally, these neural nets were based on what we knew about the brain, but then they went off on their own. As we have them today, they underlie what we now know is AI. That's everything from image recognition to self-driving cars.
Computational neuroscience is an umbrella term that covers all of these things, but with a little more emphasis on the neuroscience side, so understanding how the human brain does computations. Then all the AI people take that and put their twist on it and make computer algorithms.
We think of computers as operating like brains, but also our brains work like computers.
That's right. A computer's obviously man made, but it's an analogy. The brain is a type of computer. In particular, I think, along with a lot of neuroscientists, that it's fundamentally a prediction computer or a prediction engine. That what brains evolve to do, which is try to make internal models of how the world works so the owner of that brain can survive and outwit competitors. Or if they're prey, to avoid predators, always just staying one step ahead of things.
The better prediction that the brain does, the better the person or the animal will do. There's been a strong evolutionary pressure to make brains very good at anticipating things that might happen in the future.
We now live in a world where anticipating things has bitten us in the butt, because we also live in this state of heightened anxiety. You open the book by talking about the self that is, at its simplest terms, our past self, our perceived current self and our future self.
What you just described is the beauty of what the brain does. I don't think this is necessarily specific to humans, I think all animals do this to varying degree. It's just that humans overlay it with a narrative on top so that we have a way of putting meaning on things, if you will.
The anticipation bit is not just about what's going to happen. It's the consideration of the world of things that might happen. And not only that. We also have the capacity to look back in time and imagine things that might have been, the what-if scenarios. These are all various forms of predictions that the brain has evolved to do, to help humans in particular flourish in this world.
It feels like the past few years, there has been a deeper understanding interest in this study of the self and self-perception.
Our anticipation is different from the experience, which is different from the memory. Why do we need to have that understanding of that truth and those subtleties of our perception?
I think COVID has put everyone into a collective existential crisis. The last few years has been somewhat excessive navel-gazing about why we're here. Each of us comes to that individually and we each have our own idiosyncratic ways of dealing with that, but the whole conundrum is the curse and the benefit of the human condition.
However it is that we ended up the way we are, we have the skill of conceptualizing ourselves in the past, present and future. It's not clear that any other animal can do that, not in any substantial way. I look at my dogs, and they're clearly conscious and sentient, but I am not sure that they have a conception like we do, that they existed yesterday and they're going to exist tomorrow.
Most other animals don't have the need for this. If you know that you existed in the past and you know that you're going to exist tomorrow, how do you make sense of that? If you think about it, that is a pretty awesome understanding. It requires time shifting, it requires a huge cognitive apparatus to do that.
As I maintain in the book, you also have to contend with the fact that we physically change. Not so much day-to-day, but certainly over the years. If you look back at your childhood pictures, for all intents and purposes, those are different people. They're not the same person you are today. Physically, there may be some resemblance, but the molecules have been rearranged so many times in your body and your brain that it's just not the same person.
So, we have this realization that somehow that person was us at a different time, but they're not us now, and we're going to be different in a year or ten years. We have to construct some mechanism to link all these together. The way we do that is through narrative and storytelling. We have to, just for our own psychological health, construct something that links all these versions of ourselves together. Otherwise, the alternative is completely existential, that there is nothing unifying past, present and future, and the universe is random. Psychologically, we can't handle that.
As you point out, while there are distinct cultural and individual differences, there are also some universal ground rules to the ways we construct these narratives. One we can all relate to is, for the most part, that episodic aspect of it. I don't know any other way to really make sense of my life, but then COVID put us in a very nonlinear narrative.
The analogy I used was like being on a train, where you think of a train ride as a journey between stations, or stops, where not much happens in between. The way you encode it then is the stops, or as you say, episodic.
I think there's a couple of reasons for that. Probably the most important is that our brains do not appear designed or evolved for continuous recording, or at least recalling things in kind of a continuous fashion. Our brains are not video recorders in the sense that a camera is. It seems as if the memories themselves are laid down in an episodic fashion and those episodes are defined by when things happen.
Most of the day, nothing happens. I don't think it's been calculated, but we go through the day, probably 90% of the day is pretty static, and then the other 10% is just stuff happening. That's going to vary from day to day. When stuff happens, when something in the world changes or something changes in you, those are the things that we encode in memory and those are the things that get stored.
When you recall a memory, you can't call up the exact recording of what happened. You have these sparse instances that you can call up. But you still have to fill in the gaps somehow, because they're not just still images, they're highlights. It's the highlight reel of the day, or of your life.
The brain has to fill in those gaps. The thing I've become fascinated about is, how do you fill in those gaps? The best answer I have is that they're built on what psychologists call schemas. Or if we want to be mathematical about it, I call them basis functions. These are the templates that get laid down early in life as children. These are the stories that we hear when we're young, because those are the stories where the child doesn't have many of their own experiences. Not much has happened. Those are the templates for understanding the world, when the parents tell their kids stories.
These are fairy tales and fables and simple stories, good versus evil. These are going to be culturally different depending on where you grew up, but there are some common themes. Importantly, those are the templates that stay with us throughout our lives and help us interpret these episodic events as they happen to us. They provide a ready framework for slotting things into as they come.
One of the things that is universal also is that fine line between superstition and myth-making and straight-up delusion. It's a way of creating pattern more than anything else, looking for explanations and answers in things that might otherwise seem random. Is that another aspect of just our brains needing to create order?
It is. And that's part of the prediction engine that's baked into all animals' brains. The brain is a prediction engine. It's that way because there was, at some point in time, a survival advantage to that, and there still is.
If you think about the alternative, let's say that life is just a series of random events that are completely unconnected to each other. If that were the case, then there really wouldn't be any survival advantage to having a predictive brain, because if things were random, then there's nothing to predict.
The fact that we can predict things is also a reflection of the world that we've evolved in, that there is some amount of order there, certainly not 100%, but there's enough order that brains can extract it. That drives things, even when there is no predictability or causality. It's not like you can turn off the prediction engine; it's always going.
That's where superstitions come from. It's like if two events happen in close proximity to each other, then the brain's naturally going to equate them in some causal way, even if they're not. That's how superstitions arise. Then you can consider superstitions the building blocks of storytelling or fables.
It doesn't take much to spin up a superstition into something quite elaborate. Whether you call it a delusion or to talk about conspiracy theories, it doesn't take much.
That leads us into groupthink and the double-edged sword of living in a social environment, because we need each other, we take our cues from each other. We are impacted in our morality by each other. Looking at this country today, do we seem more polarized, or are we actually more polarized? And what is that in our brains that we can learn from?
We're definitely polarized. I think the question then is why. It comes back to, okay, we humans have to ascribe meaning to events because that is the nature of being human. We tell stories. In this country, we've basically got a series of events have happened. Whether it's COVID, climate change, politics, you can pick any one of those things.
Some things happen, and we can agree on specific events that happened probably because they've been recorded in various forms from the media. But the interpretation of them is vastly different. The thing that's fascinating about all of this is, how can two people have completely diametrically opposite views of what happened? How does that come about? The answer is because they have different basis functions to interpret the events. They have different schemas.
You take January 6th. Perfect example. You've got a sizable portion of the country that looked at those events and interpret it in one narrative framework, one schema. Then you've got a whole bunch of other people who interpret it entirely different, and they're operating on different schemes. They're different narrative basis functions.
The book is called "The Self Delusion," but you later more deeply describe it as the "self historical fiction." What does that mean when you say that our concept of the self is historical fiction?
It means that the interpretation of our past. Self-identity comes from the story that you tell about your life, which is the historical part. But it is a story. I hope to convince the reader there isn't just one story for anything. That story is one that you choose, and you have the capability of telling in different ways.
In that sense, it is fiction. The story you tell yourself is a sort of fiction. It's almost a delusion. The story you tell about yourself to other people is probably a slightly different version, so that's a different fiction. This goes on and on.
I hope to convey in the book that the stories you choose to tell, we have control over that to some degree. Actually, the best way to shift your storytelling, if that's what you want to do, is by controlling what you consume. Because as we were just talking about, a lot of this is influenced by what other people say. Our brains are very good at mixing up things that happen to us versus things that happen to other people. The provenance of our memories gets all muddled.
That's right, we are. And so, if you want to be a good curator, then you need to be careful about the types of things that you consume from other people, because that will heavily influence your own thought processes.