First Person Plural

multiple_mindsIn the November 2008 issue of The Atlantic, Paul Bloom offers an interesting article on his “community of selves” theory of the brain.  Here’s an example of what he has in mind.

Late at night, when deciding not to bother setting up the coffee machine for the next morning, I sometimes think of the man who will wake up as a different person and wonder, What did he ever do for me?  When I get up and there’s no coffee ready, I curse the lazy bastard who shirked his duties the night before.

Maybe this explains why I go to Starbucks every morning: Late-night Me and Morning Me are tired of fighting, and we have agreed to pay someone else to make the coffee.  (No doubt Retirement Me will be mad at the both of us for our extravagance.)

Some of the latest and best thinking is that our brains house multiple circuits or systems, and that at times these systems conflict.  Here’s how Bloom puts it:

The idea is that… within each brain different selves are continually popping in and out of existence.  They have different desires, and they fight for control — bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.

This description sounds awfully familiar to me, and I don’t just mean Thanksgiving with the relatives.  We’ve tackled behaviors like this as we’ve studied the science of procrastination.  The reason it’s easier to plan to do something that incurs upfront costs and downstream benefits than to actually do it is that we have two competing brain systems: the delta (frontoparietal) system weighs costs and benefits regardless of when they occur, and the beta (limbic) system cares only about those that occur in the present.  Whether you engage in a behavior in the here and now is presumably the result of the wrestling match between those two systems.

Bloom serves up a lot of interesting ideas about what determines which systems win an argument (context can matter a lot, subtle cues can have non-trivial effects), and the potential effectiveness of self-binding (i.e., making a commitment in advance that increases the cost of non-desirable behaviors).  He also spends a great deal of time on the mystery of why we enjoy stories so much, arguing that this activity allows us to try on different selves.

There’s been some discussion here at Express Scripts about how literally to take the theory of different selves; it may be nothing more than a handy way of thinking about things.  We do take literally, however, the existence of multiple brain circuits or systems and the potential for these systems to tug us in opposing directions.  Perhaps of even greater interest is that nature has had to solve the problem of making what’s good in the long term feel good in the present (e.g., moral sentiments), and by altering the context or reframing our messages we may be able to take advantage of these solutions.

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that adult seatbelt use took off only after child seatbelt laws were widespread; that is, children were asking their parents why they didn’t put on their seatbelts, and parents complied.  This change in context reframed failure to wear seatbelts from an act of personal liberty to one of hypocrisy, and nature has made the latter feel bad because widespread hypocrisy is a drag on the survival of the group.  Can we engineer more effective communications through a better understanding of these and other nerve endings?

(Note: this entry originally appeared at

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