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Society of Mind

6.13 self-knowledge is dangerous

To “know oneself” more perfectly might seem to promise something powerful and good. But there are fallacies concealed behind that happy thought. No doubt, a mind that wants to change itself could benefit from knowing how it works. But such knowledge might as easily encourage us to wreck ourselves — if we had ways to poke our clumsy mental fingers into the tricky circuits of the mind's machinery. Could this be why our brains force us to play those games of mental hide and seek?

Just see how prone we are to risk experiments that change ourselves; how fatally we're drawn to drugs, to meditation, music, even conversation — all powerful addictions that can change our very personalities. Just see how everyone is entranced by any promise to transgress the bounds of normal pleasure and reward.

In ordinary life, our pleasure systems help us learn — and, therefore, to behave ourselves — by forcing checks and balances on us. Why, for example, do we become bored when doing the same thing over and over, even if that activity was pleasant at first? This appears to be one property of our pleasure systems; without enough variety, they tend to satiate. Every learning machine must have some such protective scheme, since otherwise it could get trapped into endlessly repeating the same activity. We are fortunate to be equipped with mechanisms that keep us from wasting too much time, and it is fortunate, too, that we find it hard to suppress such mechanisms.

If we could deliberately seize control of our pleasure systems, we could reproduce the pleasure of success without the need for any actual accomplishment. And that would be the end of everything.

What prevents such meddling? Our minds are bound by many self-constraints. For example, we find it hard to determine what's happening inside the mind. Later, when we talk about infant development, we'll see that even if our inner eyes could see what's there, we'd find it singularly hard to change the agents we might want most to change — the ones that, in our infancy, helped shape our longest-lasting self-ideals.

These agents are hard to change because of their special evolutionary origin. The long-term stability of many other mental agencies depends on how slowly we change our images of what we ought to be like. Few of us would survive if, left to random chance, our most adventurous impulses could tamper freely with the basis of our personalities. Why would that be such a bad thing to do? Because an ordinary change of mind can be reversed if it leads to a bad result. But when you change your self-ideals — then nothing is left to turn you back.

Sigmund Freud theorized that each person's growth is governed by unconscious needs to please, placate, oppose, or terminate our images of parental authority. If we recognized the influence of those old images, however, we might consider them too infantile or too unworthy to tolerate and seek to replace them with something better. But then what would we substitute for them — once we divested ourselves of all those ties to instinct and society? We'd each end up as instruments of even more capricious sorts of self-invented goals.

It's mainly when our systems fail that consciousness becomes engaged. For example, we walk and talk without much sense of how we actually do those things. But a person with an injured leg may, for the first time, begin to formulate theories about how walking works (To turn to the left, I'll have to push myself that way,) and then perhaps consider which muscles might accomplish that goal. When we recognize that we're confused, we begin to reflect on how our minds solve problems and engage the little we know about our strategies of thought. Then we find ourselves saying things like this:

Now I must get organized. Why can't I concentrate on the important questions and not get distracted by those other nonessential details?

Paradoxically, it is smart to realize that one is confused — as opposed to being confused without knowing it. For that stimulates us to apply our intellect to altering or repairing the defective process. Yet we dislike and disparage the sense of confusion, not appreciating the quality of this recognition.

However, once your B-brains make you start to ask yourself What was I really attempting to do? you can exploit that as an opportunity to change your goals or change how you describe your situation. That way, you can escape the distress of feeling trapped because there seem to be no adequate alternatives. The conscious experience of confusion can resemble pain; perhaps this is because of how they both impel us to discover ways to escape from a predicament. The difference is that confusion is directed against a person's own failing state of mind, whereas pain reflects exterior disturbances. In either case, internal processes must be demolished and rebuilt.

Both confusion and pain have injurious effects when they lead us to abandon goals on larger scales than appropriate: The entire subject makes me feel ill. Perhaps I should abandon the whole project, occupation, or relationship. But even such dispiriting thoughts can serve as probes for finding other agencies that might be engaged for help.