Editor's Note: We asked several scientists from various fields what they thought were the greatest mysteries today, and then we added a few that were on our minds, too. This article is one of 15 in LiveScience's "Greatest Mysteries" series running each weekday.
You might think you know yourself, but you’re wrong.
Scientists who study how the brain shapes identity and behavior say that we are actually quite unaware of who we really are. Much of what drives our actions and shapes our personality is unconscious.
The nature of consciousness has long baffled psychologists and cognitive scientists, but recent research is bolstering a consensus, said Ezequiel Morsella, a psychologist at Yale University.
If you think of the brain as a set of different computers, each of which performs different complicated tasks and proceduress, consciousness is like the Wi-Fi network that integrates the computers’ activities so that they can work together, Morsella explained.
For example, if you are carrying a hot plate of food to the table, one of your brain’s “computers” will tell you to drop the plate because it’s burning your skin, whereas another will tell you to hold on so the food doesn’t end up on the floor.
The brain requires the “Wi-Fi network” of consciousness so that the different computers can interact, hash things out and determine what you do.
It’s “a physical state that integrates systems in the brain that would otherwise not be integrated,” Morsella said in a telephone interview.
More than meets the mind
So when it comes to our actions, consciousness really just skims the surface. Most of what drives what we do is embedded in neural networks not readily accessible by conscious thought, said Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University.
“The intuitive everyday idea about the sense of self and its control over behavior is as incorrect as the idea that the earth is flat,” Morsella agreed. Although we think of ourselves as independent agents, we’re not. Everything we do is influenced by unconscious processes and our environment, he added.
For instance, while we can be aware of some of our urges, we are often unaware of the processes that created them. “My eye may have scanned a picture of a hamburger in a magazine, and then a few minutes later, I have this urge,” Morsella said. “We’re unaware of the evolutionary sources of a lot of behavior.”
Other times, we’re not even aware of the urges. Research has shown, for instance, that compared to what would be expected by chance alone, more men named “Ken” move to live in Kentucky and more “Florences” move to live in Florida; more men named “Dennis” become dentists and more “Lauras” become lawyers.
According to John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale University, these surprising findings are most likely the result of our evolutionary-driven attraction to things similar to us—an urge stemming from the idea that we should mate with people who resemble us because they are more likely to share our genes and help to propel them into the next generation.
Most people, of course, are unaware of ever having such urges. “It is clearly an unconscious influence, as no one would claim name-letter overlap as a reason for making these important life choices,” Bargh wrote of the findings.
Given the limited role that conscious thought plays in shaping behavior and personality, and the complexity of all the other systems that influence us, it’s not easy to understand how we become the people we become.
Most brain research today focuses on how individual systems work, but perhaps science needs to approach the brain in a different way—by designing experiments to tease out the activity of multiple systems at once, said LeDoux.
“We need to understand how information processed by many systems, both conscious and unconscious, simultaneously determines how we think, act and feel, and more generally, how we are who we are,” he told LiveScience.