Sleepwalking and critical thinking

by Rob Tiller

Some weeks ago I hurt myself sleepwalking when I wandered into the shower in the middle of the night. I remember not knowing where I was. I felt confused and frightened. Then I fell and hit my head on the tile, gashing my forehead, and woke up.

In the last couple of years, I’ve seen evidence a handful of times that I must have been sleepwalking in a fairly benign way, such as lights left on that I’d turned out the night before. On one occasion, I started to take off for a drive in the middle of the night and backed into a parked car. These incidents have been mildly or very unsettling. They make you wonder about what else is going on in your brain that you aren’t aware of.

Back in college, I enjoyed listening to a comedy album by Firesign Theatre titled Everything You Know Is Wrong. Earlier this week I checked out the first few minutes on in video form on YouTube, and verified that it still seems funny and disconcerting. The title has rattled around in my head for decades now ike a verbal Escher drawing, impossible either to forget or resolve. Lately it has seemed to me increasingly resonant as I’ve read more about neuroscience and consciousness. It’s inherently interesting, at least to me, and by moments I think it could lead toward a fuller, better understanding and a happier life. But if Everything I Know Is Wrong, this could also be wrong.

Speaking of sleepwalking, last month’s Scientific American had a somewhat sensationalistic but still interesting article on recent sleep research by James Vlahos titled The Case of the Sleeping Slayer. As you’d expect, it describes some violent and tragic cases, such as persons who commit murder while asleep, and also describes a new theory about the nature of sleep.

According to Vlahos, sleep is not a whole-brain phenomenon, but rather “a scattered, bottom-up process. ‘The new paradigm views sleep as an emergent property of the collective output of smaller functional units within the brain,” according to James Krueger of Washington State University. Krueger and other researchers think that individual parts of the brain “go to sleep at different times around the clock depending on how much they have been taxed recently.” What we think of as sleep (stillness, closed eyes, slackened muscles) happens when most of the neurons are in the sleep condition. Apparently parts of the brain may be snoozing without our looking like that.

There’s good evidence that other animals have modular sleeping habits. Vlahos’s article notes that dolphins sleep with half of heir brain at a time and keep an eye open for the non-sleep part. I’ve also read that birds also rest their brains in this modular way so they can always keep an eye out for predators. The theory seems promising. I occasionally note waking behaviours in myself, like forgetting where I parked, that could be explained by the partial wakefulness approach. It would explain not only sleepwalking, but other odd behavior, like people who sit on airplanes without reading anything.

When I get to thinking about thinking, I sometimes have flashbacks to the my days as a freshman at Oberlin College, where amidst the midwestern corn fields I got a hard blast of serious philosophy and critical thinking about social issues. It would be an understatement to say it was humbling. The air was dense with intense ideas. No matter how hard I worked, I usually had the feeling there was a lot I was missing, along with the feeling that some of my fellow students were getting a lot more. But by moments I felt real excitement as I wrestled with an idea and managed to pin it.

In retrospect, I think that learning the skill of wrestling with challenging ideas was more significant than any particular idea. A significant amount of what I learned was eventually superseded by new and better understandings. An example: we all took Freud seriously as a scientist, but now do not consider him as such.

But my teachers drilled into me the habit of testing an unfamiliar concept rather than simply swallowing it. It’s related to the scientific method in its insistence on evidence and logic, and its use of thought experiments. This habit of mind is sometimes called critical thinking. Once you start doing it, you tend to think it’s the best way to think.

My liberal arts education inspired me to be curious and to explore new ideas. But to some extent it may also have led me down the garden path. My recent reading in neuroscience and evolutionary biology has called into question some of my deeply held beliefs about the power of reason. It’s exciting, though: Its helping me understand various oddities about my own subjective experience and the observable lives of others.

If this sounds interesting, I recommend Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. You may recall that I wrote about this book some months back; I’ve been re-reading it and getting more out of it. Haidt, a professor at University of Virginia, (my law school alma mater) has a style that is accessible and friendly, but he challenges our usual was of thinking about thinking. The heart of his message is at odds with most of what I learned in my undergraduate years and have mostly assumed ever since.

There are a lot of big ideas in Haidt’s book, but probably the biggest is that the primary driver of our behavior is not rational conscious thought, but rather our unconscious system of feeling and emotion. It’s the system that tells us quickly what needs to be done. (Freud was right in guessing that there was subconscious, but he didn’t figure out much about what it did.) Haight compares our moral intuitions to an elephant, and the rational mind to the rider of the elephant. The rider developed to serve the elephant. The elephant usually goes where it wants to go, although the much-less-powerful rider can influence the elephant. This understanding of our nature leads Haidt to focus closely on the nature of our moral perceptions and beliefs.

Some of Haidt’s research relates to differences in moral systems among different communities. In one study, he used a questionnaire with narratives intended to invoke disgust (like incest and cruelty), but structured to defy an easy explanation for the disgust (no one was hurt). In the face of such dumbfounding problems, people came up with explanations for their feelings — but the explanations didn’t make much sense. This suggests that some of what our reasoning mind is doing is pretending to understand things it doesn’t, and making up post hoc rationalizations for feelings that start elsewhere.

Haidt contends that emotions are a kind of cognition — intuitive, rather than rational, but not inferior to reason. Intuitive processes are essential to our lives; we couldn’t possibly reason about the hundreds of decisions we make every day. We like or dislike things instantly and decisively, and adjust our behavior without noticing the process. Our conscious reasoning processes are along for the ride, and only get involved with explaining our behavior when there’s some anomaly or challenge.

Another theme of Haidt’s book relates to human cooperation. He observes that we are the best species in the animal kingdom at cooperating outside kinship groups. Haidt investigates this from an evolutionary perspective. In the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we had to form effective groups in order to defendant against predators and find food. This involved development of intuitive cognitive skills, including the ability to easily track the emotions of other human beings.

Haidt suggests thinking about the most successful human groups not just as collections of individuals, but as superorganisms. Humans have evolved the ability by moments to lose their individuality and merge with a group, whether it be hunters, warriors, or dancers. Some of our peak moments come when we lose ourselves in such groups.

Looking at ourselves as having two natures, individual and group members, explains some of our apparent contradictions, such as how we can be both deeply selfish and deeply altruistic. Looking at emotions as driving reasoning explains a lot of political behavior, not to mention personal decisions that are from a rational standpoint inexplicable. It might even help us avoid some bad decisions.