In “Jules Evans on Neuroscience and Polytheism”, psychologist Evansoffers that we can make too much of claims that humans are ruled by unconscious motives (April 6, 2011). Such a claim forms a basis for “neurolaw” and “neuromarketing” ( also here (law and marketing as if you didn’t really exist). He notes,
The ancients’ idea that we can become ‘captains of our soul’ would seem to be up the creek without a paddle. And yet…We should remind ourselves that ancient philosophers didn’t say we were all born free, rational, moral and unified selves. They said we might perhaps become so, but only after years and years of training in mindfulness, self-examination, deliberative reasoning and impulse control. Most of us won’t put ourselves through this training, and will remain in a state of “civil war”, as Plato put it, with the multiple parts of our psyche constantly competing for power.I think this nuanced conception of human freedom, morality and rationality – as a latent capacity that can be developed through training – still holds up to scientific scrutiny.
For example, if we’re completely determined by our unconscious, automatic impulses, then how come people are able to re-programme themselves to overcome, for example, depression or alcoholism or social anxiety or other chronic emotional disorders? There are many scientific trials which show people can re-programme themselves and change their neural activity, using the techniques of rational Socratic self-examination and impulse control which cognitive therapy took from ancient Greek philosophy. It’s hard work – but it does seem we can occasionally use our conscious reason to re-wire our neurology.
They are able to do that because of the neuroplasticity of the brain, with the mind directing the system toward its goal.
Here’s part of the story of how neuroplasticity came to be discovered.
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose
Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.