Following up on my Michael Gazzaniga post, here is the conclusion of Everyday Fairytales (New Scientist, October 7, 2006). I am posting some of the sources I'm using for a planned (but not written!) Flatland essay on our subjective sense of self, free will, storytelling, and sources of human delusion in the brain.
Just an illusion
There is certainly plenty of evidence that much of what we do is the result of unconscious brain processing, and that our consciousness seems to be interpreting what has happened, rather than driving it. For example, experiments in 1985 by Benjamin Libet of the University of California in San Francisco suggested that a signal to move a finger appears in the brain several hundred milliseconds before someone consciously decides to move that finger. The idea that we have conscious free will may be an illusion, at least some of the time.
Even when we think we are making rational choices and decisions, this may be illusory too. The intriguing possibility is that we simply do not have access to all of the unconscious information on which we base our decisions, so we create fictions upon which to rationalize them, says neuroscientist Morten Kringelbach. That may well be a good thing, he adds. If we were aware of how we made every choice we would never get anything done — we cannot hold that much information in our consciousness. Wilson backs up this idea with some numbers: he says our senses may take in more than 11 million pieces of information each second, whereas even the most liberal estimates suggest that we are conscious of just 40 of these.
Nevertheless it is an unsettling thought that perhaps all our conscious mind ever does is dream up stories in an attempt to make sense of our world.
“The possibility is left open that in the most extreme case all of the people may confabulate [i.e., make shit up] all of the time,” says philosopher Lars Hall.
Food for thought.