Can my mind kill my brain

Think, feel, act. How the brain controls our behavior

Actually, the title should read feel, think, feel, act. The feeling, the limbic system, has the first and the last word. The feeling creates desires, plans and intentions in us and thus triggers our conscious thinking. Our thinking, our intellect, our reason is always used when feelings have no ready-made prescriptions, when something is so complex that the feelings cannot cope with it. Because feelings are simply structured. They cannot see many details well, they cannot connect large amounts of data together quickly. So when you have to make very complex trade-offs, you can't do it emotionally, then the mind is used. That's why we have such a large cerebral cortex. This is an enormously large, associative memory that can quickly link large amounts of data from different sensory modalities. The limbic system cannot do any of this at all. But at some point there has to be action. Knowledge alone is useless. ... And what is done on the basis of this knowledge is in turn decided by the limbic system.

From this point of view, consciousness is a kind of mainframe computer with no decision-making power. When it comes to the question of what is done or not done, it must not have a say. The first and last reasons for action are negotiated in the limibic system, in that level of the brain that we are currently not aware of. Gerhard Roth, Professor of Behavioral Physiology and Rector of the Hanse Wissenschaftskolleg, presents an enormous wealth of material in his book to support his thesis. Extensive literature studies, research results from colleagues and his own experiments from his research career have flowed into the book. However, Gerhard Roth has the rare ability to express the complicated so precisely and clearly that one can follow his explanations even without prior knowledge. The only thing the author demands from the reader is the willingness to take on a new perspective on the Son of Gods man. Because of its brain structure, this is much more mundane and animal than we usually want to admit. Twenty-five years of brain research have disillusioned Gerhard Roth:

The disillusionment lies in realizing that the assumption is correct that our cerebral cortex, our consciousness, is constantly deceiving itself about our own motives or the motives of our brain. We ascribe a lot of things to ourselves, and the actual motives are much more direct. Many noble drives are given, and the real determinants of our behavior are: power, lust for fame, greed for money, envy, resentment, aggressiveness, sexuality. And all of this in culture, in civilization, is packaged in an incredibly skilful manner - even in part - completely unconsciously. But just as elementary for us apes, who we are, is being loved by the group. Nothing is worse for a monkey than to be rejected by its group. That leads to suicide, to severe depression. And the longing for recognition ... that is an equally primary need. ... And we apes always tremble at the possible loss of this recognition. This is the worst that can happen to us.

Aggressive, mendacious and regrettably fearful for all of this. This is how naked the person stands in front of the brain researcher. Gerhard Roth, who is also a doctor of philosophy, manages the difficult balancing act between natural science and humanities in many places in the book. "Feeling, Thinking, Acting" does not add a new title to the now almost unmanageable list of literature on introductions to brain research. Rather, the book represents a neurophilosophical consideration of the phenomenon of human action. The following experiment occupies a central place in Roth's considerations: A test person is asked to perform a simple hand movement at a point in time chosen by himself. She records this point in time with the help of an oscilloscope clock. The surprising result is that a readiness potential can be demonstrated about 350 milliseconds before the conscious decision is made. The test subject had therefore made the conscious decision to act clearly after the initiation of the movement through neural processes. Gerhard Roth writes: "The act of will does indeed occur after the brain has already decided which movement it will carry out." Nevertheless, the ego pretends to act consciously. This opens a new chapter in the exploration of the ego:

The ego is an important authority, because without this virtual actor, as it can be called, we would not be able to survive socially. But it is a virtual actor, a magnifying glass, so to speak, an aid that does nothing itself. It's, if you want to put it cynically, a user interface that makes things a lot easier to handle. There are many images, but they all have in common that the self does nothing, but is a tool for the unconscious to better master complex situations.

The ego, writes Gerhard Roth, is an authority that stubbornly denies its producers.

If you look at the cerebral cortex, the connections between what comes in and what goes out outweigh hundreds of thousands to a million times. So everything that penetrates from the unconscious into the consciousness experiences the consciousness in and of itself and can only ascribe it all to itself. ... I cannot follow these wishes into the unconscious. ... And so it happens that this I ascribes all ... the wishes that come from the unconscious, the plans for action that also come from the unconscious, to itself. And this is this lie: I do this, I experience this, I want it this way now. These are illusions, but they are very useful illusions. If you destroy this apparatus, people can no longer act in complex situations. It's like taking your computer away from someone who is running a very complicated traffic system and it's lost.

Gerhard Roth underlines the famous dictum of Freud, who said that the ego is not master in one's own house. At the end of the book there is a revision of the humanistic image of man. Because consciousness can no longer be seen as the decisive basis of action. Rather, reason and understanding are embedded in the emotional nature of the human being. Roth also sees no brain-physiological reason to hold on to the ability of humans to change, since around fifty percent of the character structure is genetically determined and the rest is formed in the first three years of life. And language can no longer justify its high status as a mediator of knowledge in the résumé of the book, but is understood by Roth as a tool to legitimize unconsciously controlled behavior. Finally, from the fact that our ego has only limited insight into the drives of our behavior, it inevitably follows that the subjectively perceived freedom of wishing, planning and wanting is an illusion.

That way leads Think, feel, act a central blow against the ratio-centrist worldview on a neurobiological basis. After the publication of his book, Gerhard Roth learned how out of date such a representation of the human being and his brain is in an era still struggling for the rule of reason and rationality:

Some of the reviews have been written by social scientists and philosophers. And of course that's understandable if they don't think it's great because these people are being attacked directly. So when you write a book like that on a topic like that, you have to get a thick skin. It would be rather strange if everyone cheered in agreement. Incidentally, it was no different with my first book, "The Brain and Its Reality". I believe it has sold over thirty thousand copies now, and it is extremely popular. It takes time.