The Higher “I”

By all accounts, the current “Trumpfluenced” election season has taken unexpected twists and turns, with predictions shattered and political norms dashed. And even a new vista in neuroscience! On June 23, The Washington Post reported on the research of Spencor Gerrol (of Spark Experience) in trying to decipher voter unpredictability. Study participants wore headgear gadgets measuring their emotional responses — through electroencephalograms (whatever those are!), galvanic skin responses (probably a fancy term for skin movements), eye tracking, and microfacial recognition (facial expressions?) — while viewing debates, interviews and speeches. Replacing conscious expression, Gerrol’s “BrainWave” technology harvested information directly from the brain.

According to Gerrol, “What people feel and what they say they feel are rarely the same… Emotion is subconscious. The idea is to measure emotion without asking.” An example: One participant said she supports Trump “because of his positions on immigration and spending… [but I] hate his behavior… he is a bully and not presidential at all!” However, the brain-activity headset — with its array of circular prongs — showed a different picture: While viewing a Trump-tirade against “Little Marco,” she exhibited strong, positive emotion.

Sounds perturbing? Perhaps. I cannot help but wonder, though, if Gerrol and his team of neuroscientists inaccurately assumed that emotion is purely subconscious and is distortedly “filtered” when expressed consciously.

As Torah Jews, we are acutely aware of what gentiles often struggle mightily to understand: the dichotomy of components that comprise what we are. There is a body and a soul, a mind and a heart, a lower “I” and a higher “I”. The Nefesh HaChaim expounds at great length on the three major aspects of the human soul — nefesh, ruach, and neshamah — and the various human functions to which each component corresponds.

There is a well-known example of the baalei mussar about how to discover the real “I”: It’s 6:30 a.m. and the alarm is ringing. You had a rough night and don’t feel like waking up. Concomitantly, you know well the negative impact that sleeping in will have on your day. “Uch, but I don’t feel like getting up!” you think to yourself as you roll over and hit the snooze button…

Stop! Who was that talking? Is it really true that you don’t want to wake up right now? Is that you’re true ratzon? Really? You don’t want to wake up? You don’t want to start off your day on the right foot? Of course you do! Just what? You’re tired, so it’s hard. But does that justify a statement of “I don’t want to get up now”? What does your true “I” really want? So who was that talking? Was that thought an expression of you or was it someone else infiltrating your thoughts?

It sure was, and his name is the yetzer hara. He’s awfully cunning. Not only does he know how to pit a mighty challenge against you; he even knows how to masquerade his “suggestions” as though they’re really coming from you!

In this world, we are constantly involved in the melachah of borer: sifting through the chaff to separate the good from the bad. We examine ourselves to discover wherein lies the true “I”, and what is more an expression of the nefesh habeheimis. We’re not out to negate that animalistic part of ourselves — unlike the doctrine of some others — but to harness it by placing it squarely under the direction of the higher, true “I”.

So there are conflicting forces within us. We know that. When someone is lazily listening to a CNN-led “presidential debate,” it is quite possible that his immediate emotional reactions are not coming from the true, higher “I” in him, but the lower, animalistic “I” that is enjoying the inflammatory rhetoric and comical entertainment. He may subsequently regret wasting his time listening to such drivel and find himself appalled at the behavior of individuals who are trying to win the most powerful seat in the country. In other words, the emotions the neuro-gadget picks up in the moment may not be presenting an accurate depiction of that person’s true, inner feelings.

We all find contradictions in ourselves on a regular basis. Perhaps we enjoyed listening to some juicy gossip, only to later regret such distasteful behavior. Or, how about the shul-talkers? Inside, we may be repulsed by it, but we may stumble anyway because, in the moment, the gossip “feels” good. It’s not that we’re frauds. We’re not hypocrites. It’s simply the fact that we are a delicate and complex composite of disparate parts. Recognizing internal inconsistencies does not need to be an impetus for harsh self-incrimination, but an empowering opportunity to learn more about and get in touch with our true “I”, the higher “I”.