Saturday, December 9, 2017

Thing 1 and Thing 2

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about brains. It’s what you do when you’re unemployed and living with mental illness, and you question whether a human resources human will ever read one of your exquisitely-crafted resumes or cover letters. I hope when my letters start sounding sane it means I’ve recovered enough to interact with other human beings. [Ed. note: He’s joking. Local job leads are always appreciated.]

You become particularly susceptible to obsessing over brains when two decades of crushing reader’s block and writer’s block simultaneously disappear. It’s hard not to wonder which cranny of your skull they’re hiding in. At least for now.

Besides, brains go well with books about Shakespeare, PTSD, memory, writing, golden age television, meditation, and hearing voices. Stay tuned for future book reports.

I'm an English major who used to subscribe to the New Yorker. I’ve read about Freud, Jung, Oliver Sacks, DSM-V, Donald Trump, whatever. But my all-time favorite brain model is the one depicted in Pixar/Disney’s Inside Out.

The film is particularly helpful for explaining the longterm impact of trauma. Experiences create memories. Our brains automatically process, sort, select, and store memories for potential retrieval. The interaction of our feelings, thoughts, and sensory experience constantly updates the webbed association of our memories.

Memories of trauma are so painfully powerful they can be repressed or twisted in ways whose impact may not become apparent until years later. When our brains have a new encounter and associate it with the poorly-processed-and-stored traumatic memory, whole systems can go haywire. (Yes, IT Crowd fans, I’ve already tried turning it off and on.)

Currently I’m poring through Daniel Kahneman’s amazing book Thinking, Fast and Slow. He constructs a persuasive paradigm with smooth arguments and fascinating examples, all skillfully strung together in digestible packets. It’s no wonder Kahneman was the first of his behavioral economics buddies to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.

The fast and slow thinking in Kahneman’s title refers to the human brain’s revolutionary double processor. What Kahneman calls System 1 is the ultimate in animal brains. It's programmed to perform tasks like initiating a fight or flight, tying shoelaces, and falling in love. System 1 “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” It can conduct numerous tasks simultaneously, including monitoring events, detecting threats and opportunities, retrieving memories, making associations, and leaping to generally correct conclusions.

Human evolution’s big brain breakthrough was integrating System 1 with a second mental processor that is capable of executive function. System 2 “allocates attention to the effortful activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.” System 2 is very powerful, but it has limited capacity, and rapidly depletes energy.

The purpose of Kahneman’s book is to show how the coordinated functions of two contrasting systems make human brains and minds uniquely powerful. At the same time, each system has both bugs and features. Their interactions can lead us to make predictably bad judgments. Kahneman and other authors offer tools to recognize and avoid common mental pitfalls.

Does anyone else remember when personal computers had just 256 kilobytes of RAM? That can be compared to how far hunter-gatherer human brains developed through millions of years of natural selection, before we began overloading them with this whole misguided civilization thing a few thousand years ago.

Thirty years after buying my first IBM PC knockoff, the iMac I'm currently typing on has 16 gigabytes of operating memory. That's the equivalent of combining 64,000 clones of my first suitcase-sized "portable" computer. My first computer didn't even have a hard drive to store non-operating memory – just a reader for a 5 1/4 inch floppy disk holding only 360 kilobytes of data. Our iMac's fusion drive memory can store 2 terabytes of data, which would fill over three million floppy disks. Meanwhile, during the same three decades my brain's System 2 processing capacity hasn't budged, and my storage space for memories filled up years ago. Darwin never heard of Moore's Law.

Kahneman confesses his story of System 1 and System 2 is only a model of how the mind works. So is my personal computer metaphor. The two psychologists who coined the terms “System 1” and “System 1” to characterize multiple complex brain functions now refer instead to “Type 1” and “Type 2" processes. If old-fashioned words were back in fashion, we’d probably just call the two categories the “Subconscious” and “Conscious.”

I can’t resist naming them “Thing 1” and “Thing 2.” (After a cocktail or two, both are pronounced “thang,” of course.) They're the gay version of Kahneman’s two systems. It’s his own fault, he’s the one who suggested readers should think of his model as a “psychodrama with two characters.” Also notice his gentlemanly use of nonsexist language:
In the unlikely event of this book being made into a film, System 2 would be a supporting character who believes herself to be the hero. The defining feature of System 2, in this story, is that its operations are effortful, and one of its main characteristics is laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary. As a consequence, the thoughts and actions that System 2 believes it has chosen are often guided by the figure at the center of the story, System 1. However, there are vital tasks that only System 2 can perform because they require effort and acts of self-control in which the intuitions and impulses of System 1 are overcome. 
In Kahneman's film, Thing 1 and Thing 2 are conjoined female fraternal twins who happened to have evolved together a few million years apart. Not such an implausible pitch – Sarah Paulson was nominated for an Emmy after playing conjoined female identical twins in American Horror Story: Freak Show.1
1I have a pair of nonconjoined female virtual twins myself, born a couple of weeks apart and adopted separately
Picture the movie: The Misses Thing 1 and Thing 2 are sisters. The type of twins you might see in a Joan Crawford vehicle, or in the pilot for a new series on the Disney Channel. Thing 1 does most of the hard work, but gets little of the credit. Meanwhile, Thing 2 gets all the attention and thinks she’s totally in control. But Thing 2 is easily duped when she can’t be bothered to pay attention to what her sister is doing right next to her.

Unlike the twin sisters played by Sarah Paulson in AHS (or Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap, or Bette Davis in Dead Ringer), Thing 1 and Thing 2 don't look like each other. With all the money you save on special effects, you could afford to hire two uncontrollable divas, rather than settle for just one. Like, say, Joan and Bette.

Apparently, your brain is an FX Channel remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? 

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