A recent video over at the intellectual web site aeon got me thinking about the phenomenon of alien hand syndrome. (I’ll link to it here but it’s not really essential that you watch it.) Alien hand syndrome is a condition experienced by people who have had their left and right brains separated (usually as a treatment for epilepsy) where one hand acts outside of the control of its owner. The hand may start undressing its owner, or slapping them, or doing various other often anti-social behaviors.
Concurrently to all this, I’ve been reading Robert Wright’s “Why Buddhism is True.” In a recent section, he gets into the Buddha’s notion that there is no self. Part of how the Buddha made the case was to ask whether we (our selves) really have complete control over various components such as our feelings, our perceptions, a few others, and our bodies.
Well, that would seem to get right into the alien hand syndrome and loss of control over the body. But that’s a kind of a special case, one could say. These are people whose brains have been split.
Having said that, after reading this I started paying close attention to my actions. And I do notice a kind of disconcerting lack of control. I wash my hands and wipe them on the towel and while I may in some sense control the overall plan of action, I find my hands basically running on automatic for the specific movements. Clearly they are running learned programs and don’t really ask for specific input from my conscious self (which may not exist according to the Buddha.)
This isn’t really news to anybody. We all understand that we don’t finely control our actions when riding a bike or walking. Indeed, if we try to consciously monitor and control our actions while doing these things, we can easily screw ourselves up. But I do feel like I’ve stumbled onto an insight into how automatic much of our behavior is. In a sense, we all constantly experience a mild version of alien hand syndrome.