Sunday, December 07, 2008

Mind as a Committee

In the '90s, I used to watch the sitcom Herman's Head, which had a pretty neat premise: while Herman was going about his day, there would be flashes to a set representing the inside of his head, where 4 distinct personalities argued out the decisions that he would make. The characters in Herman's Head as defined in Wikipedia (link) are:
  • Angel represented his sensitivity. As the only female character in his brain, Angel also represented his feminine side, or in Jungian terms the anima, and sometimes used this fact to manipulate the male characters.

  • Animal represented his lust or hunger. He was an archetypal fratboy, and possibly derives his name from Animal House. He usually bullies Wimp. In one episode where Herman's personalities are assessing a sleazy man (Ken Hudson Campbell in a dual role) dating Louise , Animal sticks up for him (probably because this man looks exactly like him and shares his traits).

  • Wimp represented his anxiety. He was a paranoid hypochondriac. But since he always expected the worst, he was often the best prepared to handle crises when the others could not decide.

  • Genius represented his intellect and logic and because of this he clashes with the naive nature of Angel and stupidity of Animal. At times he could get overworked, as in one episode where his face is blackened by soot and he exclaims "I think I blew a fuse!", after Herman makes a ridiculous decision.
The representation of Herman's head is a metaphor for the internal deliberating aspects of the mind that we almost all experience. We're torn between different decisions and for different reasons. Should I patiently wait for things to fall into place? comfortable with what comes my way, whatever it is? ...seize opportunities? ...skip this whole thing and try something else? It often feels like there are many different aspects to us trying to hammer this all out.

I have a friend who uses a committee metaphor (and she grew up without a TV, so she doesn't even know about Herman's Head). When she is deliberating something and wants me to understand, she might say something like this: "I want to and I don't. There are some committee members who really want to, one who is worried about the timing, one who is afraid of trying something new, two who think I will miss an opportunity, and another who just thinks this is silly and that I will have fun doing whatever, so I might as well do this." I have always felt this way. Sometimes I respond: "I want to, but I also don't want to, and the part of me that doesn't want to is winning." This often lead to a trap that makes it difficult to commit to something.

Jon Haidt refers to the concept of mind as a committee as one of the great ideas, because it has come up many times in people's minds, across culture and history. For example, it shows up in Freud's idea of the id, the ego, and the superego. Also, Platos' chariot allegory from Phaedrus:
Of the nature of the soul, though her true form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure. And let the figure be composite -- a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now ... the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble to him.
In his essay The Plato Chariot Analogy, psychologist and statistician John S. Uebersax, PhD. describes the allegory and talks about how the concept originated even before Plato:

The soul is portrayed as a charioteer (Reason), and two winged steeds: one white ('spiritnedness', the irascible, boldness;) and one black (concupiscence, the appetitive, desire). The goal is to ascend to divine heights -- but the black horse poses problems. The chariot figure itself is just the beginning, however; it leads to a revealing portrayal of the 'ups and downs' of the spiritual or philosophical life.

The myth itself is not Plato's--it was ancient even for him, perhaps coming from Egypt or Mesopotamia--but he adapted and reworked it. It greatly surpasses Freud's mechanistic ego/id/superego model, to the same degree that art and science conjoined exceed science alone.

There's even physiological backing for for the mind as a committee metaphor, as Haidt points out in The Happiness Hypothesis (I keep coming back to this 1 2). The different parts of the brain that serve different functions may account for the differing and often opposing aspects of the personality. The reptilian portion of the brain controls the fight or flight response, the mammalian portion of the brain controls the desire for status seeking, and the neocortex contains higher-level reasoning. These layers already show how there can be differing aspects of the brain, each with its own set of priorities. This 3 layer approach is a great simplification of the truly interconnected brains that we do have. There are multiple different regions of functionality in each layer and many interconnections between each part and across layers. It is no wonder that our brains often feel tugged in different directions with conflicting internal messages and priorities. It is wired that way.

The committee metaphor, in any of it's incarnations, has a lot of support, and can be very useful. I've adopted this metaphor and find that it really works for me, providing several benefits:

First, it makes it easier to see and understand things for myself and likewise it creates a good way to explain indecision to others. I find it effective for emotionally loaded conflicts around decisions. It is a simple way to explain the process in my head and my heart. It let's others know how I'm making my decisions--I'm torn, not making a straightforward choice.

Second, it allows me to Declare Peace on Myself. The thing to remember, I am not any single piece; I am all of the pieces. I am the whole committee. I am the charioteer and the two horses (not just the charioteer). I am Angel, Animal, Wimp, and Genius. To paraphrase Pema Chodron in Comfortable with Uncertainty, chapter 6: any striving to improve, as if by fighting any side of our personality, is "a subtle aggression against who we really are." I see that there is no benefit in fighting any of these parts; that would be fighting myself. It is futile and likely to only make that part stronger. Rather, I can accept it, love it, and possibly train it. All of these acts I can achieve through meditation.

Third, another huge advantage to having a clearer picture of how I operate internally is helps overcome indecision. Some understanding of how my mind works under the face makes it easier for me to grease and tighten the cogs. It also helps me to decipher the deliberation process and avoid the stress of indecision.

I encourage you to explore this metaphor and see if it can also provide these benefits to you. Every time that you have a tough decision to make can now be an excellent opportunity to explore this metaphor and get to know yourself further. Whenever I can be mindful enough to do so, that's what I try to do.


  1. Sounds like an episode of radio lab:

    Actually sounds like several episodes; there's another one about how the brain is like a symphony instead instead of warring tribes.

  2. Thanks for the pointer, Roy. I'll check those out and see what new thoughts spark up.