The modular view of the mind, the self and meditation

The theory known as the modular view of the mind doesn’t include a unitary self. Instead, the mind consists of distinct autonomous parts, or modules, each with different responsibilities. Modules are usually activated by information in the environment and can significantly influence our state of mind. For example, pictures of neutral facial expressions look angrier to people who have recently watched a scary movie and thereby activated “the self protection module”.

The self, which controls speech and muscles, is seen as one subsystem of the modular architecture. ‘Designed’ by natural selection, it serves a social function and tends to “self promote”. For example, people are more inclined to remember events that reflect favourably on them than the opposite and therefore tend to describe themselves as above average when asked about skills. One evolutionary reason for the development of the self could be that impressing others helped transmit genes in the next generation. The self, however, doesn’t control the activation of all the other different modules nor the resulting change in the individual’s perception. It is also impermanent since the activation of modules changes our thoughts, feelings and behaviours – nothing is fix in the individual’s personality.
According to this theory, the brain module that talks and controls muscles isn’t in control of the rest of the mind and is also subject to change through the activation of other modules. It was ‘designed’ by natural selection to serve a social function and not necessarily to represent truth.

A few experiments have been made that could also support the idea that the self, as we think of it, doesn’t actually exist. In the 1960s, Michael Gazzaniga suggested with the help of the split-brain experiments, that the conscious self is susceptible of greatly overestimating the influence it has on our behaviour. The right and left hemispheres of split-brain patients are not connected, which means that information can’t be shared. In one of the experiments, an instruction to walk is flashed in the left visual field of a split-brain patient. Since the left hemisphere is connected to the right side of the body and vice versa, the left side of the brain, dominant at verbal processing and responsible for talking, is not aware of the instruction to walk. The patient will walk, but when asked why, the answer will most likely be a fabricated story by the left hemisphere such as “I am going to the bathroom”. The experiment suggests that the conscious self can fabricate and believe its own stories.
Another experiment by Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson also suggests that humans don’t control the self as much as we think we do. They showed that when a group of people had to choose one preferred product out of four identical ones, people had a strong tendency to pick the product on the far right. Each person came up with a different reason as to why they selected that particular product, none of them knowing that they were all identical. This suggests that we are not always conscious of the motivation of our behaviour and that we are capable of inventing stories about our motivation.

We associate feelings with the modules that control the mind. For example, fear triggers the self protection module. When we meditate, however, we look at our feelings with detachment which has a neutralising influence on the modules that control the mind. When we are mindful of our feelings, we don’t automatically react to them. This empowers us to be more in control of the modules that get to be in charge of the mind. Indeed, brain scans have shown that the default mode network – the area of the brain which is triggered when the mind isn’t focused on anything – quiets down during meditation, i.e. the modules that are usually activated don’t have as much power when we are mindful of our feelings.

Finally, mediation affects the long term power that different modules have over our minds. This is explained by modules operating according to the principles of operant conditioning. When we are angry and yell, it feels good. This reward reinforces the module responsible for the anger because that module has been considered successful. When we are mindful, the feeling doesn’t translate into the behaviour it would normally translate into which drains the long term power of that module.


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  1. Pingback: The self according to Anil Seth – What I learn

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