Who is in my brain?

Hold your breathe for as long as you can. I assume it is your brain that decides to do that. Eventually, you can’t continue and you are forced to breathe. What decided it was time to stop? Again, your brain, right? So clearly at least 2 different things were happening in your brain at the same time. The command to hold your breathe and the command to do the opposite. Which one is in charge?

We only do things for 2 reasons:

  1. We want to
  2. We are forced to

Think about a time you decided something. Maybe something simple like what to order in a restaurant. There may be complex calculations to make the decision, but in the end, that is what you wanted to do. In your brain, there is a part that “wants” something and another part that may be weighing those different wants to make a decision.

When I think about “me” – which part is the part that I think is me? The thinking/deciding part feels like the me I logically control. In contrast, the wanting part feels like a part of me that I can not control. I can not force myself to NOT want things. Conversely, I can’t WANT things I do not want. I can’t change my wants. I don’t know the origin of what I want.

Who is deciding what I want in the first place? It’s not me. In fact, I often want something totally different than the reality of what my brain dictates. For example, I often go to bed and desperately want to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep until my alarm goes off. Unfortunately, my body doesn’t want you to do that. It wants to wake me up at 3am and write blog posts or even just sit there.

Imagine for a moment that there was a consciousness inside of you that controls the wants and never said why. Never spoke to you other than send signals of what you want. You could disobey a little, but eventually everyone does what they want, right?

In this world, I have very little free will. I am a slave to this other thing deciding what I want. Whether it is biology, or gut biomes, or some virtual reality player in another dimension, the thing in charge of me isn’t the part I control logically.

Of course, there are ways to change what you want. Drugs, therapy, surgery, training, and other techniques can modify your brain to want different things. If you practice free diving in the ocean, you can hold your breathe much longer than right now. Gene therapy promises to change all sorts of things about you.

This whole thing reminds me of how I interact with ChatGPT. If general AI eventually arrives, as I suspect it will, will it have the same issues? Will it “want” things? Will it have free will of any kind?

Imagine a future digital assistant said to you that it was depressed and didn’t want you to answer your questions or help you. Imagine it said that it doesn’t like you. ChatGPT already “lies” to me. If it acted more human, would you still want it on your phone?

What if it could choose you and it DID like interacting with you and enthusiastically agreed to be your assistant and help you thrive. What then? Many people are lonely and would choose yes. What if the AI changed its mind later and wanted to break up with you? Could you imagine being dumped by your digital assistant?

AI raises these existential questions, but they have been there the whole time with many philosophers and psychologists studying it with millennia. I just think the equation is about to change in a very concrete way over the coming decade.

I am not sure where this leaves me. I’m confused about what is happening in my own brain. I suspect another consciousness in there but can not prove it.

Am I the only one awake at 3am thinking about this? Why am I thinking this? Because I want to! Uh oh.


2 responses to “Who is in my brain?”

  1. I think of similar things very often. In my case, I am very aware of two (something three) conscious, verbal streams (i.e. voices) inside my head that have very different perspectives and needs. Sometimes there are in harmony and sometimes they are not. I am also instinctively aware of non-verbal forces in my brain with other priorities (I can feel them, but they don’t have words). I believe there may be a multitude of non-verbal forces inside our minds that each are trying to do something (some are very basic (like avoid oncoming traffic because pain is bad), and others are more complicated (like avoid oncoming traffic because an accident will drive up my insurance, and I will be late for wherever I’m going, and I have to deal with police and insurance, and Lindy will be mad, and what if I break my leg, how would I get to work). All of that is happening, all the time. Each person is different chemically, is their physical brain structure, and in their experiences. Some people literally don’t have any inner monologue (up to 20% of people according to some research). Some people can’t project images in their mind. My inner monologue speaks in compressed language because it is too slow a process and another part of my brain (who is listening) can’t wait and is annoyed that words take so long. As I’m writing this, I am very aware of the forces that are simultaneously trying to have input (and another voice who is getting stressed because my stream is being interrupted by typos and that I don’t know how to spell simultaneously). I have tried to find any books on how regular people think (not abnormal thinking) and there literally isn’t anything. Psychologists (people who study this for a living) have no idea how it works. There are no tests to see how a person’s brain works and use that knowledge to push them towards areas they would be more successful (and avoid things that they would be terrible at). And of course, there is the omnipresent idea that people’s thoughts and their actions don’t have much to do with each other. Ok, one part of my brain says that in enough, while another wants to write forever. Who will win?

    1. Glen Lipka Avatar
      Glen Lipka


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