It was only last month that Time was heaping praise on us for, well, just being us . . . and for doing the things we do, like “seizing the reins of the global media, . . . founding and framing the new digital democracy, . . . working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game . . . .” For our brilliance, hard work, and good choices, we were named and seemingly immortalized as “Time’s Person of the Year for 2006.”
Being us was great back then, wasn’t it?
What a difference a month makes. Now that our 2007 magazine subscriptions are all paid up, and even before the glow of our collective blush has faded, Time turned ugly this week with a cover that might as well have read, “Hey you, “Person of the year for 2006″! Guess what, loser. You’re clueless!”
We should’ve known it couldn’t last. Just when we were getting comfortable with the notion that we were unexpectedly spectacular, Time’s editors whipsawed us back toward the terrestrial. How?
Easy. This week’s “Mind & Body Special Issue” provides accessible, well-written, fascinating overviews of some of the recent research in the mind sciences. Buzzkill!
Among Time’s “brain bank” is Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who provides the leading and longest article of the issue. Pinker cuts to the chase, taking aim at the most cherished component of our interiors, the very part that we always imagined made us so special, so human, so built for everlasting life: consciousness.
Within a half dozen, image-laden pages, Pinker peppers us with these bitter pills:
- “Some of our deepest convictions about what it means to be human have been shaken”;
- “[N]euroscientists agree . . . that our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain”;
- “Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain”;
- “consciousness can be pushed around by physical manipulations”;
- “the intuitive feeling we have that there’s an executive ‘I’ that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of the muscles, is an illusion”;
- even “[o]ur authorship of voluntary actions can . . . be an illusion”; and, “people have a motive to sell themselves as beneficent, rational, competent agents.”
Not yet despondent? Just wait, there’s more. The implications of this mind-science research, Pinker claims, travel to questions about whether we will “survive the death of our bodies” (bye bye immortality) and whether we are, in fact, “free agents responsible for our choices.”
So, let me get this straight. In December, Time sells us on ourselves, giving us our props for choices well made. In January, Time brings in Professor Killjoy to inform us that we are active, if non-conscious participants in that selling and that we may not deserve much credit for our accomplishments. Makes me want to remove my museum-mounted Time cover from over the mantle and hide it under my bed until all this mind-science research fades from my consciousness or until my self-affirming motivated reasoning works its magic. But I won’t, because that’s just what they want me to do. And I can’t be manipulated. No, I can be, but I choose not to be. Don’t mess with “Time’s Person of the Year”!
Other disturbing articles and sidebars in the “Mind & Body” issue include: “Time Travel in the Brain,” by Dan Gilbert & Randy Buckner; “A Story We Tell Ourselves” by Antonio Damasio ; “How We Make Life and Death Decisions,” about Joshua Greene’s research; and “Marketing to Your Mind” about neuromarketing and research by scientists such as Read Montague.