The Animal Inside


Lyra has a dæmon named Pan but don’t be alarmed. Everyone in Lyra’s world, the parallel universe of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass has a dæmon that takes the form of some kind of animal. If the human and her dæmon become separated, the human dies. Naturally a human is never seen without a dæmon; to see such a monstrosity would be like seeing a human without a head.

In the second book of the trilogy Lyra and Pan cross over into our present-day universe. I’ve only read a few pages but Lyra has already observed that in our world, we humans have dæmons but the difference is that our dæmons are on the inside. Pullman hasn’t revealed this yet but I’m guessing that a dæmon is really a soul.

Or perhaps the dæmon is the basal ganglia. While the existence of our soul isn’t a certainty, you can bet you have a basal ganglia – it’s a part of your brain you can’t live without and it seems to control many functions:

“… including voluntary motor control, procedural learning relating to routine behaviors or “habits” such as bruxism, eye movements, and cognitive, emotional functions. Currently popular theories implicate the basal ganglia primarily in action selection…”

The basal ganglia is a very old part of the brain. Our ancestors had basal ganglia going way back, much further back in time than our human ancestors have had the prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of the brain where we make decisions. But the thing about making decisions is that we can only concentrate on one thing at a time – see my upcoming piece on the folly of multitasking which I’m trying to write simultaneously with this. Our brain knows this so behaviors we repeat become habits and the basal ganglia take over.

This fascinating process is described in detail in a recent episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. Most of what we do becomes controlled by this ancient part of our brain – our dæmon – or the animal inside of us. The trick to taming this beast, if that’s possible, is to understand the roles of cue, routine and reward.


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