The Committee in Your Head

Tom Robertson: Posted on Wednesday, November 07, 2012 11:07 AM

Committees are infamous for getting in their own way – lack of focus, conflicts, dominators, wall flowers. But it doesn’t take two to tango – modern neuroscience shows us that each of our brains functions very much like a committee. (Professor Michael Gazzaniga of University of California addresses this in an interesting series of lectures available on-line:  http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/humanities-soc-sci/news-events/lectures/gifford-lectures/archive/archive-2009-2010/prof-gazzaniga

Our brains have evolved in our complex natural and social environment to master survival using an amazing variety of modules that specialize in things such as finding patterns, reading faces, predicting outcomes, forming language, and spurring us to action. A real gift to us humans is a set of modules that gives us the experience of consciousness. Through consciousness we can reflect, focus, daydream, analyze. Consciousness is such a compelling experience that it is easy to think we ARE our consciousness, that anything we are not conscious of is something animal or automatic, and not part of our higher selves. 

But neuroscience shows us that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg. Consciousness is wonderful but it is slow. We could never survive if we could only process information at the conscious level. An awful lot of the sophisticated cognitive function that makes us who we are, holds our special talents, and allows us to achieve, is unconscious!  

Fortunately our cognitive modules, conscious and unconscious, have evolved to work together. Sort of like when a team agrees to serve on a committee. However, both types of committee don’t always agree, don’t always pull together. This makes sense because life is complicated, there are always trade-offs, and we really need multiple perspectives. But how do we meld diverse perspectives into choices that move us forward? In our next blog entry, we will explore that question as it applies to the committee in our head.  

— Tom