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Head in Sand, Feels Good

If I think too hard about it, I become very frustrated with the inability of science, especially neuroscience, to explain my inner life — my feelings, thoughts, moods; in short, my life — in any meaningful way.

As a baseline, I feel, or at least feel that I ought to feel, like a lump of instinctive biological responses to unconsciously perceived stimuli. Outside that lumpen state, the things that make me happy, that give meaning to the everyday — the presence of a friend, the taste of chocolate, a good conversation, the pleasure of a new idea — are reduced to triggers of conditioned responses.

These responses exist to reward and encourage behaviors or conditions that are somehow beneficial to survival and, ostensibly, reproduction — chocolate is energy-rich, a companion could help in a pinch and is worth keeping around. When such a direct benefit isn’t clear, it’s because the conditioning networks have been hijacked or cross-wired: my parents took pleasure in learning, I sought their approval, and so it stuck. All this lends a certain mechanization — impressive in complexity and scope, but deadening nonetheless — to happiness.

(Naturally, this perspective doesn’t work the same way on sorrow, which can’t be dispelled or dulled by recourse to clockwork biological explanations. The ability to rationalize positives but not negatives probably represents some other quirk of mental programming. And on it goes.)

So I don’t tend to think too hard about it, because what’s the point? Maybe that verges on willful ignorance. Maybe the ability to read about some finding and say — aha! so that’s why! — and take a momentary interest, eke a cocktail conversation out of it, and then forget it in any introspective sense, is not entirely logical. In which case, too bad. Because it’s plenty useful. Rules of thumb and blindnessess and half-rationalities and gray areas and creative tensions and fierce loyalties and bad jokes make the world go round.

None of which is particularly original … but these thoughts have been percolating lately because I just finished Nicola Barker’s Darkmans, the most complete novel I’ve read since Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; like any good novel it helps one understand oneself and others, and its insights exist in a world without Steven Pinker.

(That said, his New York Times Magazine article on the neurobiology of morality was fascinating.)

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