Brain makes decisions before consciousness steps in – leading neuroscientist

Called our ‘command center,’ the brain sets the rules for our lives, and controls our thoughts and actions. Despite extensive research, scientists still don’t know exactly how the human brain works, and what it hides in its darkest corners. What is our brain really capable of? And as humanity’s reliance on technology and computers grows stronger, can progress make our brains weaker? Or is the human mind more powerful than the most advanced computers? We ask a scientist in the field of neuroscience and the theory of mind – Tatyana Chernigovskaya.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Doctor Chernigovskaya, thank you for being with us. We’ve been really looking forward to this interview, since it’s always fascinating to talk about the things that make us who we are. Take the human brain: the way it works is very individual with every person, isn’t it? Some people are good at languages, others are good at science, some find it easy to focus, others have difficulty concentrating on one thing. But can we train our brain? Or is it a case of, what we’ve got is all there is? Say, if you’re a natural born football player, do you have no chance of becoming a pianist?  

Tatyana Chernigovskaya: That is something we don’t know: whether you can become a pianist if you’re a talented football player or the other way around. If we are talking about outstanding abilities, like being a genius, that is something you have to be born with. But you can educate your brain, you can upgrade it. The brain is inherently designed to constantly learn and change. It’s changing even now as we speak. Each new experience causes it to change a bit. 

SS:Listening to one of your interviews, I was amazed when you said our brain determines what we do, long before we realise we’ve made our decision. That is to say, while we’re thinking whether we should go left or right, the brain has actually already made that decision for us. How does that work? 

SS: Does that mean our brain is a separate entity from us? Or are we part of the same mechanism? 

TC: I’m inclined to believe we are separate entities, although we’re linked in a complex relationship. There is one thing I should probably point out: the brain controls everything about you. It controls your digestion, your blood circulation, it controls the way you sit, read, write, wear your glasses, and even breathe. In fact, the brain is in charge of everything. Luckily for us, the way we are designed, we don’t have to control the process of calcium switching places with potassium in our system, or the liver processing blood. All of these things happen on their own, without us having to think about them. To a considerable extent, that is also true of our mental life. There are many things that we do on instinct, without giving it any thought – it sort of happens by itself. 

SS:What about feelings – is the brain in charge of our feelings? Is it my brain that prompts me to love, or despise, certain people?    

TC: I would say it does have something to do with it. There are things like pheromones, which are specifically related to sex, but there are many other chemical factors that may influence the way we feel. We’re not even aware of their influence. A while ago, I did research on how scents conjure memories, and I was absolutely astonished by how profoundly different smells can influence us. And like I said, it does so without ever engaging your consciousness, so for example sometimes you may dislike someone for no particular reason.

SS:Or when you’re in love with somebody – but you know he’s a bad person, but you can’t help it? 

TC: And the other way around too. I’ll give you an example. Someone applies for a job with a major company, and they turn him down after an interview, even though the applicant has an impressive background, an excellent skill set and a brilliant track record. And the reason they don’t hire him is that he uses a perfume or aftershave that someone in his position would never use. And that makes the people who are interviewing him subconsciously suspicious, they sense that something is wrong. Here’s somebody who’s supposedly a highly educated, affluent, reliable professional, but his perfume suggests this person is not what he says he is. What if he’s some kind of crook? You see? It can have serious implications.

SS:I’m still trying to get my mind around it. The brain consists of tissue, right? It’s all chemicals, neurons and cells.

TC: Correct.

SS:  Yet here we are, talking about feelings, passion and what not. Are all those things just a result of changes in our chemical balance? 

TC: If some of my friends and colleagues who study the human brain were here, they’d say, “Of course they are!” 

SS: And you agree? 

TC: I used to host a talk show on TV, where I would interview experts and intellectuals. Once I invited the Director of the Human Brain Institute, who happens to be my colleague and a good friend of mine. What’s important, he is also a physicist. Without giving it much though I asked him this tricky question, I asked “How do you explain love? What is ‘falling in love’ in scientific terms? Is it merely a chemical reaction?” He gave me a surprised look and said, “Well, of course. Falling in love is essentially one long hysterical fit.” So I asked him, “Does that mean you can treat love the same you way you’d treat hysteria? slap them a few times to help them come to their senses?” And he looked at me like I was asking something really silly, and said, “Sure!” Because that’s exactly what it is: a chemical reaction. 

SS:But what’s your take on it? 

TC: I don't share his opinion, but I don’t reject it either. I personally don’t like it, to be honest. But, as a neurophysiologist, I have to acknowledge that it may indeed be all about chemistry.

SS:Listening to what you’re saying, reading articles on neuroscience, you come to think that almost anything about our personality can be explained by the equation of chemicals in our brain. But is there anything about human nature that cannot be explained that way? 

TC: Oh yes. I believe most things about us cannot be explained in chemical or physical terms, and this is where I disagree with most of my colleagues who study the human brain. They believe that at some point in the future, we will have studied every single neuron in the brain, and then we’ll be able to explain everything. My take on it is - no, we won’t. All our knowledge about those billions of neurons can’t answer the most important question – the one you just asked. Because there are things that cannot be explained through physiology or neural networks. To name a few, it’s anything that has to do with feelings, anything related to art, and other subtle matters. 

SS: What I want to understand is, what is the original, most important function of the brain? 

TC: Well, the brain needs to figure out what the world around it is like.  Do you understand what I mean? When a baby is born, it is like an alien. It is born into particular surroundings, into a particular world. 

In biological terms, the objective of every living being is to adapt in this world and survive. So the better you know it, the better you can respond to the negative or even dangerous things that it throws at you. 

SS: Does this mean we are permanently in a state of war with our surroundings? 

TC: It's not a state of war; I'd rather say we are in a state of constant alert. We are constantly observing what's happening around us and deciding how to react to it. Once again, 90% of the time this happens automatically, subconsciously. In other words, the brain always works by itself; it tracks everything and reacts in a split-second.The more our brain knows, the greater are our chances to survive, so to speak. Of course, we as a species are at the top of the pyramid, and we have other goals, not just physical survival. We are even ready to give up our lives in order to achieve higher goals, which then become a part of our neural network – like all other non-physical things. If everything were a physical phenomenon, then why would even need art? What would be the point in philosophy or science? You just eat your meal and that's it. You eat, you pass your genes on to the next generations and that's it. But we are not like this. Humans are different. How did this come to be and what is the purpose of us humans – these are the questions I've spent a lot of time thinking about, and so far I haven’t found an answer. This has always been bothering me, really. Nature has no need of us. In fact, humans are even harmful to nature. 

SS:  But I'm still trying to understand - since we exist, there has to be a purpose? 

TC: Of course there is! We just don’t know what it is.

SS:  And yet I’m trying to understand what it could be. That is, if it is as you say - that one of our brain’s main functions is to stay alert in order to survive and adapt - maybe it explains why we have such a hard time staying happy all the time, wouldn’t you agree? Because we spend most of our time self-reflecting, looking for possible threats or risks, living like we could be attacked by something or someone at any time. Yet, at the same time, when I observe children – they don’t seem to be burdened by it as much, because they are probably only beginning to adapt. So it’s easier for them to be happy, as they are not burdened with all this stuff yet – what do you think?

TC: You are absolutely right, and I agree with everything you just said. But I would still add one proverbial drop of poison into this lovely tun of wine. It’s not so simple with children either; they can fly off the handle for no apparent reason, too. Say we observe a child who is indeed happy and content, and the next moment you know he or she goes completely out of control and throws a tantrum. Why is that? Because his or her biochemistry changed. You see? Roughly speaking, an unexpected surge of serotonin or an unexpected surge of dopamine. It’s like the riddle of what came first, the chicken or the egg, which I like so much. Am I happy because I have enough serotonin – speaking hypothetically – or do have enough serotonin because I’m alright? We don’t really know who or what sets the tune here.

In general, biologists, stick to a completely materialistic approach, i.e. if everything is fine inside of our cells that means we are all fine, too. I could never agree with this. 

SS: The idea that our thoughts are material and can shape our reality – you said that you tend to believe that more and more now yourself, that thoughts can actually materialise. How? 

TC: I can give you an answer you will probably not like, but that’s all I can give you. I am not into explaining life in mystical terms. Or maybe on a large scale life IS mystical, but to me my everyday life is not, I don’t really believe in spirits inhabiting my house, for example. But I observe that it often happens that when I think of something it just somehow happens really soon. For example, I might suddenly think of a person I haven’t seen for some eight years, like “I wonder how he is doing, it’s been so long” and the next moment my phone rings and that person is calling. Mystical or not, but it happens. 

SS: Ok, could you tell me then, if I’ve got this right you believe in God? 

TC: Yes, I am an Orthodox Christian. 

SS: Then what is it that we call a “soul” – does it really exist or is it our brain working, too? 

TC: I have no doubt that it exists. But I have no way to know. And no one does. All the talk along the lines “let’s find out the weight of a soul by weighing the body it just departed from” is just not serious. We can’t be seriously talking about that.

But those who do not believe SHOULD be in fact be thrown off a little and take a minute to ponder - why is it that so many scientists and researchers happen to be believers, too? It dawned on me one day. I realised that this is because they went so deep down into the mechanisms of our unbelievably complicated world, that they understood that something so complicated can’t exist without a creator, it simply cannot be like that on its own.  

SS: We discussed how the brain makes decisions without us knowing. To what extent can we place the responsibility for our actions on our brain? What if a person has schizophrenia, and he murders somebody – but he doesn’t go to prison, you can’t punish a person driven by a sick mind. We have seen cases like this take place. So on a larger scale – is it ok for a person to say “it’s my brain that’s responsible, not me?”- because as you say, they are not one and the same thing.

TC: That’s a very good question, and a dangerous one, too. And there is so much more to it than the legal aspect. 

SS: Like morals and ethics. 

TC: Morals and ethics, and not only. It’s about our entire civilization. It’s the key question: are we responsible for anything at all or can we just say “oh that’s just how I am?” Following that logic, a child may just as well tell the parents “It’s not my fault I’m such a fool, you made me. You should have tried better.” Like “that’s on you.” And this is already happening, you see? This thing that you asked about, it’s already here, because, for example, there have been precedents in the United States where the defendant made a statement: “That’s not me, that’s my brain.” Can you imagine that? This basically means: “I have nothing to do with this, my brain is the bad guy, talk to him.” This is a complete nightmare! If we go down that slippery slope our entire civilization will collapse. There are some cases when this point can be valid, and like, for instance, a psychiatric evaluation – when experts have to see whether the person acted with the full knowledge of what they were doing, or not. The only thing we can do then is isolate that person from society and try to treat them.  But we can’t blow this out of proportion to the point where we ask “Do we have to be responsible for anything at all?” 

SS: And let’s talk about genetics in general – our genes determine a lot of things in our lives. So what has more power over us – our mind or our genes? 

TC: Genes, unfortunately... 

SS: Our brain or our genes?

TC: ... In much wisdom is much grief, but that is the kind of knowledge you should have. I personally think that it wouldn’t hurt if each person had their genetic and genealogical profile to know who their ancestors were, what they did, what kind of diseases run in the family.

SS: Can the brain overpower genetics? I’ll explain what I mean. Nowadays we have a popular theory that positive thinking can cure even cancer, that if you think positive thoughts it’ll all go away. 

TC: I think so too. My answer is yes. But I say this not as a scientist, but as a human being.

We all know – ask any physician – that if a patient thinks there is no hope, then there really is none. But once they brace for a fight, that triggers certain mechanisms, including chemistry, which give them the resilience to recover, so they actually get a chance. Every therapist knows that. If you give up and say, “Well, that’s just genetics, there’s nothing I can do about it,” then there’s really nothing you can do. But I think that a lot is actually in our hands. 

SS: I’ve noticed that mental disorders are on the rise, I mean depression, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. There’s research and statistics to prove it. Is this a trend? Is there an explanation for it, or is it just randomly happening to lots of people?

TC: That’s something that’s been worrying me most of all lately: why do we suddenly have so many people with mental disorders? Why are we seeing so many kids with dyslexia, attention disorders? Every human organism undergoes mutations, we’re constantly evolving. What if we’re witnessing some kind of a breakdown? I’ve heard that in the United States, there is already talk of an “epidemic of mental disorders.” They think it’s that serious. Here in Russia, we’ve been debating whether we should announce a nationwide Year of Mental Health. That’s not because we have particularly many cases, but the issue itself has got everyone concerned. You see? It is a risk factor, and it entails economic costs, because people stop living their normal lives and have to get help from psychiatrists and psychotherapists. They have to stay at a clinic, they don’t go to work. Rehabilitation takes time, and there’s often a long recovery period. This is all costly, in economic terms. 

SS: Many people tend to believe that this rising “epidemic,” as they call it in the U.S., could be caused by the spread of computer technology and the Internet. 

TC: That too. 

SS:  It’s a fact that our lives are largely tied to social networks. For me, it’s a dilemma, so I want to ask you, a person who understands the brain. I think that easy access to information is great. I think that being able to talk to my friends on the other side of the world is great. But some people believe that there’s too much information and our brain can’t handle it, that we’re becoming dumber rather than smarter. What do you think? 

TC:The internet is a tool, and, it brought dramatic and positive change to our lives. You can get access to any library, get this or that article, in a second when it used to take months of research to find what you’re looking for, sometimes with no result. It’s a good thing, yes.

But there’s a different point of view. There is even this term, the Google Generation. It’s been proven that the Google Generation has significantly worse memory skills than their grandparents and great-grandparents. You say, “Okay, Google” and get an answer to any question, except, of course, it’s often not the right answer. The right answers are not usually stored in the Wikipedia. Sure, you can learn some little things from there, it’s very convenient. I use it, too. Say, I forgot how to make a sauce, and I can look up the recipe right away. It’s useful, but not for important questions. If I need to know what kind of structures Sumerians lived in, I won’t read about it on Wikipedia. What are we seeing as a result of this digital age? Kids aged two or even younger constantly use tablets like the iPad. And when they come up to a real window they do this - try to zoom in - to enlarge the picture. The danger is that they don’t see the difference between the real world and virtual world.

SS: But how is this any different from, say, my childhood? I was engrossed in books and believed in imaginary characters – I loved some of them, hated others, talked to them all the time. That’s also a parallel world, how is it different from the virtual one? 

TC:You’re asking very good questions. I’ve been thinking about it myself. Since the very beginning humanity has been living in imaginary worlds. I mean what is music? What are fairy tales? What are they? What are plays? What is cinema, what are films that make us cry and lose sleep?You asked a serious and dangerous question. Sure, the tendency has always been there, but here’s what I think is different – when I go to see a movie, I know I’m in the cinema. When I exit, I know it’s a different world out there. When I go to see a play, I’m in a theatre. I leave, I go home, and I have some tea. See what I mean? There was a distinct line between one world and the other. But now, ever since this nightmare started... I think Pokémon Go is mind-blowing for everyone, because virtual Pokémons pretty much appear in the real world.

There was this incident in the Hermitage Museum recently - a woman went to the police, claiming she’d been raped by a Pokémon in St George’s Hall. You see, they are in our world now, and people will be confused – what’s real and what’s not? One world is overlapping the other. 

SS: Some believe that we don’t need certain skills anymore – like the ability to memorize information, for example, is becoming redundant these days. Like us losing our tails in the process of evolution, we just don’t need it anymore. 

TC: My answer to that may sound somewhat harsh, but humanity would have to be insane to leave all of its knowledge and all of its skills to computers. 

SS: The point I’m trying to make is, what if we’re just being alarmist? Maybe it’s all just a part of evolution, and we’re being suspicious because it’s human nature to be wary of all things new?

TC: Well, I definitely am an alarmist by nature, and I tend to look to the future with concern. Among other things, I attend conferences on artificial intelligence and its prospects, where such issues are debated at length. There’s a lot of food for thought there. Their deliberations may seem purely theoretical, but it’s all very serious. The moment artificial intelligence develops its own personality… I am afraid our days will be numbered. Just think about it. It’s no longer a mere instrument, but a person, with its own ego. It will have its own intentions and its own plans… and we won’t be part of those plans. It should be able to get rid of us in no time – it can use biotechnologies, to name just one. That’s why I believe we have reasons to be alarmed. And I would never be so reckless as to entrust all of my knowledge and all of my skills to a computer that may break down on me for good one day. That would leave me empty-handed and helpless. And I wouldn’t want that.

SS: Doctor Chernigovskaya, thank you so much for this fascinating talk. I want you to promise me that we’ll talk again sometime in the future.

TC: Thank you.