Everything I know about myself I've learned from studying the characters I create when I write. Everything I know about the characters I create when I write I've learned from studying myself.

One thing I've noticed about all these people (both my characters and myself) is that they're not consistent in their desires. Sometimes they want something, and sometimes they want something completely different and opposite. It makes me wonder: When I want something, who really wants it? The answer is self-evident, right? I want it. Didn't I just say that? Okay, yes, but when I say "I" want it, who am I thinking of? How is it possible that I want different and opposite things at the same time? Who's calling the shots around here?

In other words, who is the boss of the brain?

You wake up in the morning. Your teeth are all mungy. Your sense of taste detects this fact and sends word to the brain. The brain – some part of it – then launches various physical programs... "get up" "walk to the bathroom" "brush your darn teeth." This all happens so fast that you don't notice it, but if you paused to notice it, you would see it taking place. You would see yourself issuing the conscious command: "Brush your darn teeth." And along with the command come instructions – instructions which must be called up from memory/storage in order to be used. This makes sense on the face of it. Why keep open a file on how to brush your teeth at any moment other than the actual time you need it?

But think about it anyhow, just for the heck of it, and see if you can name ten different instructions you use to even just brush your teeth.


So there's a whole class of information we might label "how-to programs." How to ride a bus, how to shake a hand, how to type or bounce a soccer ball off your head or catch a frisbee or feed a dog or start an arson fire. We don't use these programs except when we need them. We don't even know they're there unless we access them. No, seriously, you can't know how to brush your teeth without thinking about how to brush your teeth.

But obviously there's more to the brain than how to do things. There are also memories, some of which, interestingly, are only available on demand. To show you what I mean, I'm going to make a request, one you won't be able to refuse. Until you see the request, you won't be able to grant it; however, once you see the request, you can't help but grant it. Ready? Here's the request.

Think of your first kiss.

Boom, there it is.

...I'm in seventh grade, playing spin-the-bottle in Sue Boone's family's family room. Her father has a gun locker, and I look at it as I kiss her. Even at this tender age, when my sense of irony is no more highly developed than any seventh-grader's sense of irony might be, the irony of the juxtaposition is not lost on me. It seems that I have recently learned the word "juxtaposition," and that word enters my mind unbidden now. This annoys me, for I feel I should be concentrating on the kiss...

The memory appears unbidden in the brain. You can't stop it. You can't control it. You can minimize the picture by thinking of something else, but the harder you try not to think of something, the more compelling the thought of that something becomes. Quick! Don't think of a duck! No, I mean it, DON'T THINK OF A DUCK! So here we have compelling inner evidence that the brain is not, in some sense, even the boss of the brain. It calls up instruction sets when it needs them, but it calls up some objects (like memories) whether it needs them or not.

Okay, there's instruction sets, and there's memories, and hey look, the two swap files. My how-to file on how to rewire a lamp, for example, contains the memory (a complete and, believe me, painful file) of the time I tried to do the job without unplugging the lamp first. And the memory of the event contains an instruction: Kid, don't try this at home!

Now it seems that this loose coalition of brain resources is nested: memories within how-tos and... feelings within memories. When I thought of Sue Boone just now and that fabulous first kiss (and ironic juxtapositions notwithstanding) the memory came with feelings attached, feelings I can enumerate and name: fondness for Sue; regret that I don't know where she is now; regret at the time gone by; a certain smug satisfaction in knowing how much more I know now; plus hints and fragments of other feelings that flesh out the memory like chocolate hops or cumin round out the taste of a micro-brewed beer.

So here's the "feelings" region of the brain: a rowdy, wild-west territory that introduces itself unbidden. You see someone attractive walking down the street and you say "Whoo doll!" You may have had no intention of saying "Whoo doll!" It just spilled out. On the other hand, I sure know that I can introduce feelings consciously. I can think of my wife and feel love. I can think of my bills and feel frustration. I can think of my wife's bills and feel loving frustration, oh well. So some feelings come because we call them and others don't. If I look out the window now, I see a bright sunny day. I feel frustration that I'm not out there enjoying the day. But I feel satisfaction that I'm in here writing. Which of these feelings is consciously controlled? Either? Neither? Both? Are those thoughts "me?" Or are they just "part of me?" And if they're "part of me" then who is the whole me, and where is he to be found? Who is delivering these thoughts and who is receiving them? Who is the boss of the brain?

At this point confusion sets in, so I grope for a metaphor and find... a royal court.

Think of the brain as a royal court. Note all the advisors.

There's a practical advisor. It tells you to brush your teeth or eat when you're hungry or run for the bus.

There's a spiritual advisor. It tells you to believe in God or not to believe in God. It formulates your morality and ethics. It points you to the lucky slot machine.

There's the historian or archivist who tends to your memories and makes them available on demand. Or sometimes not on demand. The historian is crotchety and arbitrary.

There's the prime minister, planning your day, carrying out orders in your name. S/he goes to work, does a job, stops at the dry cleaner's on the way home.

There's the royal consort, urging you to reproduce.

There's the queen mother, reading ancient edicts from the past. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself you miserable loser. Go sit on your throne till you figure out what you've done wrong."

Maybe there's a rogue minister with an agenda all his/her own. This minister feeds your habits, keeps them functioning in you. Maybe you'd like to displace this minister. Maybe you'd like to behead this minister. But this is a sinister minister, tricky and insidious, using misdirection and subterfuge to keep you drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes, snorting coke, watching reality TV MTV, whatever.

Is there a wizard in your royal court? Is there magic in your mind? Do creative gifts come unbidden? Don't you wish you could give the wizard more power -- or use more effectively the power the wizard has?

Maybe if we allied the wizard with the historian we could start to get a sense of the patterns of our personal magic. We might see, for example, that we get more "magic," more raw creativity when we create in the morning than in the afternoon. The historian and the wizard compare notes, pass on their findings to the prime minister who sends a suggestion to the monarch: Do creative tasks in the morning; you do a better job of them then.

Maybe all the ministers communicate with one another, deal and strategize with one another. Suppose your queen mother relentlessly presented you with a picture of yourself as a fat, ineffectual child. She might go to the rogue minister and say, "Make that monarch eat, make that monarch binge; together we can keep that fat, ineffectual, vision of weakness alive.

Maybe they compete. The royal consort and the spiritual advisor are locked in a raging debate. The consort insists that there is no meaning to life but children; it's the job of the species to reproduce, full stop. The spiritual advisor says no, if we reproduce it's God's will. If we don't, that's God's will too.

So what you're saying is that if I never find love it's God's will and I should just accept that? Speaking as the monarch, I find that argument bogus.

But if I'm a weak monarch, or weaker relatively than my spiritual advisor anyway, I buy the argument and I act accordingly. I accept that it's God's will for me not to be loved.

But what if... what if... what if the queen mother is secretly in cahoots with the spiritual advisor? What if the queen mother (who wants to keep me weak) is putting words in the spiritual advisor's mouth? Am I a smart enough monarch to see all the intrigues and machinations of my court?

Do I have enough awareness?

This is the question we'll tackle next time. Till then, see if you can draw connections between actions you take and the part of you that wants those actions to happen. As yourself, and see if you can answer, "Who is the boss of this brain?"

Author's Bio: 

John Vorhaus is author of THE COMIC TOOLBOX: HOW TO BE FUNNY EVEN IF YOU'RE NOT and CREATIVITY RULES! A WRITER'S WORKBOOK. An international consultant in television and film script development, he has worked for television networks, film schools, production companies and film funding bodies in 19 countries on four continents. For more Vorhausian insight, visit "Vorza's Brain" at www.vorza.com.