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Help there's a dead CEO in my head
I got covid and it changed my theory of consciousness
It kinda feels like there’s a CEO in my head.
My conscious experience is like: someone barges into the CEO’s office going “We have a meeting today with someone we want to impress!” and the CEO goes “Start rehearsing the story about that terrible movie we were in!” Someone else comes in waving a pair of jeans, saying “Is it okay for us to wear these four days in a row?” and the CEO gives the jeans a big sniff and goes “Sure is, baby!” And then the phone rings and the voice on the line goes “Have you figured out what you’re going to do with your life?” and the CEO goes “LA LA LA CAN’T HEAR YOU” and slams the receiver down.
This is how psychologists have talked about conscious thought for a long time: there’s a “central executive” that directs attention, a “supervisory system” that steps in whenever the brain needs to go off-script, a suite of “executive functions” that allow us to control ourselves. And that’s great! A properly functioning CEO is “important to just about every aspect of life,” it's “critical to the ability to adapt to an ever-changing world,” and it allows us to “lead independent, purposeful lives.”
This used to make perfect sense to me. All hail the captain of industry that lives between our ears and behind our eyes! Wise are his ways, and true! Long may he reign!
Then, last week, I got covid and it assassinated my CEO.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING A LUMP
I had somehow evaded the virus for three years, like an international fugitive staying one step ahead of a loose cannon FBI agent. She finally found me, tiptoed past my four doses of vaccine, and proceeded to turn me horizontal for two days straight.
(There’s no excitement left in catching the ‘rona this late in the game, and no one gives you much sympathy. It’s like breaking your leg on a pogo stick or getting your eye knocked out by a yo-yo: “Oh, people are still doing that?”)
I could do little more than watch movies, and I was sometimes so fatigued that I could barely bring myself to lift the remote. But the weirdest part was that most of my conscious thoughts just…went away. There were hours when the most complicated thing I could think was, “oh jeez,” or “ugghhh,” or, in a particularly lucid moment, “Minority Report still holds up.”
It was like covid sent some goons to my mind-office to rough up my CEO, smash his phone, and scare his subordinates off. That left him unable to issue orders like, “hey why don’t we answer some emails while we’re lying down” and “maybe ice cream isn’t a meal.”
From the “executive functioning” point of view, this is an unfortunate symptom of illness, just like chills and body aches. If there was a pill that could keep your CEO intact when you’re sick—a combination fever reducer and CEO protector—you should take it. After all, you need your CEO the most when things are at their worst!
But now I realize this is all wrong. When I was sick, the last thing I needed was a CEO telling me to answer emails. It’s good that he got temporarily locked out of the office, or else he might have interrupted my naps by urging me to read about the benefits of paxlovid for low-risk patients, or guilted me into getting off the couch. Planning, deciding, thinking of any kind—these all would have made me less effective at doing the most important thing for my recovery, which was being a lump.
We talk like sickness impairs our minds, and surely it can. But sometimes we impair our minds in order to get better. Psychologists call these sickness behaviors: things we do automatically when we’re ill that aid in our recovery, like lying down and avoiding other people. These behaviors feel almost involuntary, probably because they’re so effective that evolution made them difficult to ignore. The best way to understand my CEO’s departure, then, is not as an unfortunate symptom of covid, but as a fortunate part of my natural infection-fighting instincts.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR YEARS OF SERVICE, BLINDA BLORPER
In fact, contracting an era-defining illness isn’t the only opportune time for your CEO to take a hike. Insomnia is having a CEO who refuses to go home for the night. Anxiety is having a CEO who is paralyzed by fear of what might happen. OCD is having a CEO who is hellbent on figuring out, say, whether your hands have germs on them, and zero other things.
If you’ve got one of these CEO-disorders, you’re probably not gonna do too hot on tests of executive functioning, but it’s not because you need your CEO turned up. You need your CEO turned down. (Or, even better, fired and replaced.) This was one of the weird things I learned when I had a skull full of poison: sometimes it seems like solving a problem requires an intense amount of thinking, but the intense amount of thinking is the problem.
That’s why people spend billions every year trying to get their CEOs to shut up. Booze, drugs, meditation, extreme sports, trash TV, improv classes—these are all attempts at quieting the conscious. Sure, self-control is great, but also it sucks. Have you ever willpowered yourself into having a nice time? Are your best stories about you exhibiting high levels of executive function? Mine are not. I’m grateful for everything my CEO does, but I have a lot more fun when he’s not around.
(This is true in real life, too: sometimes the best thing for a CEO to do is nothing. I’ve long been a serf to university presidents who will occasionally make my life better, like when they convince some dumb billionaire that giving $300 million to Harvard is a noble thing to do, and so I get to go eat a free muffin in a nice new student center. But more often they make my life worse, like when they decide to change all the academic requirements because they want to leave a legacy, or when they force me to be part of their new undergraduate surveillance program, or when they send me emails every day that are like, “We are so sad to announce that Blinda Blorper is retiring from her position as Chief Vice President of Shrubbery Management,” followed by “We are so happy to announce we have hired Gondy Goopdiddle as Chief Vice President of Shrubbery Management,” burying in between an email that’s like “hey respond to this email if you still want to receive a paycheck or else we’ll just shred it thx.”)
THE COGNITIVE CONSULTANT
Okay, so having a CEO is not purely good. But something doesn’t even feel right about even calling this guy "the CEO” in the first place.
It wasn’t like my CEO decided to take a leave of absence when I got sick. (“I suppose I should just twiddle my thumbs for a while so we can focus on fighting this infection!”) No, some other mental process clubbed him on the head, hogtied him, and duct taped his mouth.
In fact, my CEO seems to be circumvented a lot. He gets subdued when I’m sleepy, turned off when I’m in the zone, and bypassed entirely when I need to react quickly. This never seems to be his call; something else disappears him.
If you can be sidestepped, ignored, and removed from office at any time, you’re not really in charge. This guy sounds to me less like a CEO and more like a consultant.
That word fits pretty well, actually, because the relationship between our executive functions and the rest of our minds is much more like the relationship between a client and a consultant than the relationship between an employee and an executive. Entire departments of mental activity are walled off from conscious control: you can’t will your heart to stop, direct your hippocampus to delete all memories of your former best friend, or inform your visual cortex that it should now see red as blue. This is much like how consultants only get access to parts of the company. And often, our conscious merely issues consultant-like suggestions, rather than CEO-like orders (“Please, brain, can we stop worrying so much about whether we have weird eyebrows?”).
That would mean my conscious experience—my sensation that there’s a little guy in my head directing everything—isn’t quite right. The consultant isn’t at the top of the org chart; he’s sort of off to the side, stepping in wherever he’s invited. He serves at the pleasure of the rest of the brain, rather than the other way around.
I don’t know about you, but that idea brings me great peace. Being in charge all the time blows. But if the conscious part of me is just trying to help various brain departments do their jobs better and then leave them alone, that’s way less pressure. Plus, I’m skeptical of consultants—they have a nasty habit of propping up dictators and causing opioid crises—so it’s a good reminder not to listen to my consultant too much, because it's led me astray before.
Speaking of which, it’s time for me to be horizontal again. My consultant was let back into the building too soon, and he’s got me writing when I should be recovering. Back to Minority Report which, surprisingly, holds up!
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