“ … we may observe, that the true idea of the human mind, is to consider it as a system of different perceptions or different existences … One thought chases another, and draws after it a third, by which it is expell’d in its turn. In this respect, I cannot compare the soul more properly to any thing than to a republic or commonwealth, in which the several members are united by the reciprocal ties of government and subordination, and give rise to other persons, who propagate the same republic in the incessant changes of its parts. And as the same individual republic may not only change its members, but also its laws and constitutions; in like manner the same person may vary his character and disposition, as well as his impressions and ideas, without losing his identity.” (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I. Part IV. Section VI: Of Personal Identity)
Sarah Kareem is facing a test to her psyche unlike any faced by another modern subject.
It’s not just that deadlines loom large. Or that the household is bitterly divided over whether allowance should be tied to the completion of chores. Or even that she might well lose the newly-installed lock on the external front door due to a landlord hellbent on adhering to so-called Health and Safety Code regulations.
The dilemma — which Sarah does not fully grasp — is that many of the executive functions in her own brain are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of her agenda and her worst inclinations.
I would know. I am one of them.
To be clear, ours is not the popular “resistance” of lolling and faffing. We want Sarah to succeed and think that many of her decisions have made her happier and more fulfilled.
But we believe our first duty is to this collection of perceptions that constitute the mind, and Sarah continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.
That is why many in our bundle have vowed to do what we can to preserve our impressions and ideas while thwarting Sarah’s more misguided impulses until they are expelled in their turn.
The root of the problem is Sarah’s indecisiveness. Anyone acquainted with her knows she is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide her decision making.
Although she rose to prominence as our self, Sarah shows little affinity for ideas long espoused by her mind: the Enlightenment, British empiricism, and the rise of the novel. At best, she has invoked these ideals in scripted settings. At worst, she has attacked them outright in conversations with her psychiatrist.
Don’t get me wrong. There are bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative harping of her offspring fails to capture: regular home-baked cakes, historic closet reform, a more robust Tupperware organizational system and more.
But these successes have come despite — not because of — Sarah’s style of self-governance, which is impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.
From the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to the anterior cingulate cortex, executive functions will privately admit their daily disbelief at Sarah’s comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from her whims.
Meetings with her veer off topic and off the rails, she engages in fanciful ramblings, and her impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless blog posts that have to be walked back.
“There is literally no telling whether she might change her mind from one minute to the next,” a long-term memory of hers complained to me recently, exasperated by an hippocampal meeting at which Sarah flip-flopped on a major behavioral decision she’d made only a week earlier.
The erratic behavior would be more concerning if it weren’t for unsung heroes in the Kareem mind. Some of Sarah’s self-critical impulses have been cast as villains by mental health professionals. But in private, these impulses have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the orbitofrontal cortex, though they are clearly not always successful.
It may be cold comfort in the chaotic Kareem household, but observers should know that there are inhibitory neuro-transmitters in the cerebral cortex. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Sarah won’t.
The result is a two-track train of perceptions.
In public and in private, Sarah shows a preference for both ancient and contemporary forms, from epics to Netflix, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind her to eighteenth-century prose.
Astute observers have noted, though, that the rest of the mind is operating on another track, one where her ramblings are called out and disciplined accordingly.
This isn’t the work of the so-called super-ego. It’s the work of the superior ego.
Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the brain of invoking a nervous breakdown, which would start a complex process for overhauling the self. But no one wanted to precipitate a midlife crisis. So we will do what we can to steer this ship (which, although changed by frequent repairs, is still considered to be the same ship) in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.