Sailing alone around the world in a small boat is a dangerous business. Sailing alone and non-stop even more so. Fewer have successfully circumnavigated the earth than climbed Everest or orbited the planet in space. When asked why risk so much for so little, the answers given by participants in the Golden Globe Race are curiously unsatisfying. The challenge, the solitude, the simplicity of life at sea. They are no more illuminating than Edmund Hillary’s explanation for scaling Mt. Everest: Because it’s there.
Imagine you’re standing on the bow of a boat, Thomas Metzinger suggests. A pod of dolphin plays in the bow wave, skimming the surface, leaping into the air, veering left and right with unconscious artistry. It only appears to be play. Leaping into the air saves energy because it’s less dense than water. It’s an efficient way to move forward and breathe at the same time. Their ballistic leaps alternate with swimming submerged, near the surface, typically twice the length of time in the air.
That, says Metzinger, is an instructive metaphor for the way we think.
Dolphin Model of Cognition
In the ‘dolphin model of cognition,’ the surface of the sea stands in place for the interface between conscious and unconscious processing. We spend far less time above the surface than submerged and sometimes we skim the space between, half in, half out.
“The point is that the mental contents available to us via introspection are nothing more than momentary flashes of automatic cognitive processing, grinding away beneath the waves of our awareness most of the time.”
Which leads to the perplexing question: Who is standing on the bow, watching the dolphins?
“But if we are only ever partly aware of what is happening in our own minds, surely we can’t be in absolute command of our thoughts, let alone causing them?”
Which brings us to one of the more recent fields of research in neuroscience and experimental psychology, mind wandering. It seems a surprisingly simple subject for study by something as imposing as neuroscience.
“Much of the time we like to describe some foundational ‘self’ as the initiator or cause of our actions, but this is a pervasive myth. In fact, we only resemble something like this for about a third of our conscious lifetime.”
If we’re not entirely in control of our thoughts and actions, or even entirely aware of them, how do we hold people responsible for their crimes, how do we make moral judgments, how do we explain our reasons for sailing alone around the world?
We’re Not Automatons
If we’re not fully rational beings capable of self-determination, neither are we the witless puppets of our unconscious. “Instead, our conscious inner life seems to be about the management of spontaneously emerging mental behaviour. Most of what populates our awareness unfolds automatically, just like a heartbeat or autoimmune response, but it can still be guided to a greater or lesser degree.”
Our minds wander more often than we’d like to admit, several hundred times a day, up to 50% of our waking lives. For some, that includes much of their time driving a car along a familiar route. They arrive, or become aware that they’re lost, without realizing how they got there.
There are networks in the brain responsible for managing distinct functions. The default-mode network manages our time when at rest, when our attention focuses internally, during daydreams or spontaneous memories, when we think about ourselves or the future. Overlapping areas of the brain activate during mind wandering and the functioning of the default-mode network. Metzinger suspects they both serve the fundamental purpose of keeping our sense of self intact and consistent over time. They are the storytellers of ourselves.
“Like an automatic maintenance program, they constantly generate new stories, weaving back and forth between different time-horizons, each micro-narrative contributing to the illusion that we are actually the same person over time.”
Which suggests that our identity—the very concept of who we are—is a succession of stories we invent unconsciously and tell ourselves when half-awake. But we aren’t automatons, not entirely. We can influence the storyline, bend it, even if we can’t reinvent completely.
As Metzinger says, “We can’t get off the ship, let alone summon dolphins from nowhere, but perhaps we can choose where to look.”
We are less like Ahab standing on the deck of the Pequod, captain of his destiny than Ahab lashed to the back of Moby Dick as the great beast submerged and surfaced, sounded and breached.
It’s not surprising that the sailors in the Golden Globe about to race around the world can’t articulate why they are risking so much and what they hope to gain. Any explanation is likely a rationalization. The truth lies deeper.
Are You Sleepwalking Now? Thomas Metzinger, Aeon Magazine.