Do humans work like cars?


ver the past couple of weeks I have been doing a fair bit of maintenance work on my Landrover Defender. It is very satisfying, but also very frustrating as I don't have the knowledge nor experience to sort problems out quickly and efficiently. But I am learning, and Youtube is a great help.

Being a psychotherapist, this led me to thinking about the similarities between humans and cars. Cars work in a relatively simple way. Once you can understand how the system works, it will be the same whether you look at the car again tomorrow morning, or in ten years time. It is mechanical. I can look at the rear-axle, see that it is attached to a rear-differential, look at the prop-shaft coming out of that, follow it forwards to the transmission, gear box, engine, and so on. One thing follows another. There are no massive variations, and I can track through the car to find what part is connected to or linked to another part. I would like to think that humans work in a similar way, but I am not convinced of this.

We are a body, with various organs (heart, lungs, liver, feet) just as a car has various parts (fuel pump and injector, air filter, oil filter, rear wheels). The brain is also just another organ. But we do seem to see this as a special organ. It has been named (by someone I can't remember!) as the "seat of consciousness". Which leads me to this thing called consciousness. It is not something I can touch, pick-up, nor examine with my eyes, unlike an exhaust system. It appears to be ethereal, and not made-up of matter. However, it must be made-up of physical processes. If a car's movement is the product of the engine and working parts collaborating together to produce forward movement, so a human body and all - and I mean all - its organs collaborate to produce conscious awareness.

So, on the surface of it, we are just like cars. More complex maybe, but still a series of physical processes within a physical body producing us. Consciousness or 'who we are' can be reduced to 'simple' physical states.

But, where the analogy gets more opaque is when I look at how I came to be who I am today. I am not the same as my wife, nor neighbour, nor any other human on the planet (I think!). I am Me. I am a product of both my physical body (which has been affected by my genes and my environment) and my life experiences. I fell on some stone steps as a child and I still have the scar on my forehead. I had surgery on my knee ten years ago due to rock climbing and a weakness in my cartilage, and so have difficulty with my knee at times. I was given a healthy, balanced diet as my body grew, and so I am taller than my predicted height was. In fact, if I had been born and brought up in a third-world country I probably would not be the height I am now regardless of my genes. But I have also been shaped by my life experiences in an emotional way. I don't enjoy being in large groups of people, but why? Maybe because I was brought up as a semi-only child with my brothers being significantly older than me. Maybe because I'm just over-sensitive to how others perceive me: when there are more people in a room, there are more perceptions to deal with, and so this is a more stressful environment. But why the hell am I even struggling to work this out? Fuel gets to the engine cylinders via the fuel tank, pump, filter and then fuel injectors. Blood gets to my muscles via a series of electrical impulses sent from my brain to my heart, which then pumps the blood to my legs via a series of arteries and capillaries. Yet the path of how my personality has been shaped is far more complex. It feels significantly harder to simply trace back through the past to find the important parts. There are so many more variables to take into account - genes, family environment, school, friendships, significant events, and so on.

So how does this apply to therapy? People's personalities are like a confused ball of wool, and therapy feels like a process of pulling out random strands, looking to see if they are connected to the current issue; maybe putting them aside to look at later; and then pulling out the next strand. It is not clear. It is not quick. And it is not neat. We are reverse-engineering: looking at the finished product, and then looking back to see what created it. And where I can work out how the rear wheels of my car are powered by simply looking at what they are connected to, the human personality is far more complex than this, with multiple connections to multiple events in the past, where events may well be connected to each other, and where other humans (i.e. complex variables) also become involved. Maybe we are more akin to spiders' webs, than cars, with the multiple, inter-linking strands connecting to form a whole web.