Is there a little man (or woman) in our head, pulling the strings? Throughout history, philosophers, psychologists, and religious thinkers have struggled with consolidating the science of the brain with the magic of the mind. Religions have long taught that the body and the spirit are different entities. The body will eventually return to the earth and the spirit will return to heaven (or, perhaps, continue to roam the earth). We refer to the little man in our head as a homunculus.
The homunculus in psychology refers to the theory of something separate from the body, living inside, who is the essence of who we are. The little man in our head theory is scoffed at by most scientists.
For many, the brain is seen as a physical structure, while the mind is a spiritual power within, running the show—the homunculus.
René Descartes (1596-1650)
Descartes was a brilliant French scientist. He tried to reconcile science with his catholic beliefs by identifying a location in the brain that he theorized connected the material and spiritual matter. Descartes explained that his thoughts belong to a non-spatial substance that is distinct from matter.
Modern science has moved away from the Cartesian philosophy of matter and thought. His theory is often referred to as the Descartes Error. Anthony Damasio, in his book The Descartes Error wrote, “It does not help to invoke a homunculus doing any seeing or thinking or whatever in your brain, because the natural question is whether the brain of that homunculus also has a little person in his brain doing his seeing and thinking, and so on ad infinitum. That particular explanation, which poses the problem of infinite regress, is no explanation at all” (2005, Kindle location 3523).
Uncomfortable with the Unknown
The homunculus fills the holes of the unknown. We can gather a basic understanding of neurons and synapses, seeing how they communicate and move muscles; but when it comes to intention, freewill, and choice, we can’t take that giant leap. We envision some ghost running the machine. Robert M. Sapolsky wrote, “we’re only a first few baby steps into understanding any of this, so few that it leaves huge, unexplained gaps that perfectly smart people fill in with a homunculus” (2018, location 9,552).
I, personally, have learned to be comfortable with the unknown. I certainly struggle with beliefs of some separate spiritual entity inhabiting my body and pulling the strings. Yet, I still grasp tightly to beliefs in freewill. I am the captain of this ship, not a little homunculus or a firing neuron.
Michael Gazzaniga explains that “this is the homuncular problem we can’t seem to shake: The idea that a person, a little man, a spirit, someone is in charge. Even those of us who know all the data, who know that it has got to work some other way, we still have this overwhelming sense of being at the controls.” (2012).
Biology, Environments, and Epigenetics
Science discoveries in brain science are far from complete. We know much is determined (if not all) from our biological inheritance and environmental exposures. Studies in epigenetics are fascinating, uncovering mysteries of altering gene expression.
Where exactly the biology forms consciousness, freewill (or illusions of freewill), we may never completely know. When ever our knowledge leaves a hole, we tend to fill in the unknown with a mysterious force to bridge the confusion. In many cases, there is an answer, a scientific explanation, we just haven’t discovered it yet personally or globally.
Conclusions are Self Supporting
An oddity of our human brain is once we come to a conclusion, our future interpretations of new evidence molds to fit the interpretation. If we believe (the conclusion) our house is haunted, every creak, thump, and sound is transformed into footsteps, opening doors, and frightening movements from the unseen world.
When consciousness is explained as a homunculus or spirit running the show, incoming experience supports our conclusion. When consciousness is explained through science, incoming experience supports this conclusion.
Little man in my head or not, we must make decisions, directing our lives to secure our futures. We can wonder but still must go about living.
Damasio, Antonio R. (2018). The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. Vintage
Damasio, Antonio R. (2005). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition
Gazzaniga, Michael (2012). Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. Ecco; Reprint edition
Sapolsky, Robert M. (2018). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition