Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Integral Mind


I made one of my regular visits to my favorite used book store today. Among the handful of treasures I picked up was a book by Merlin Donald, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of A Mind So Rare. Donald takes a view of mind that I haven't really seen before, but which is distinctly integral in many ways.

According to Donald, what makes the human mind unique in all of nature (and I'm not sure I agree that this is an exclusively human trait) is that it is not simply a material structure -- as so many neuroscientists like to argue these days -- but is also composed of our individual subjective experiences AND our cultural experiences. In his view, our minds would not exist as we currently understand them without the influence of culture.

This is from the dust-jacket of the book:

Donal proposes that the human mind is a hybrid product of interweaving a supercomplex form of matter (the brain) with an invisible symbolic web (culture) to form a "distributed" cognitive network.

This is from one of the many articles by Donald that are available online:

Our brains and minds can be deeply affected by the overwhelming influence of symbolic cultures during development. I mean this, not in the superficial sense intended, for instance, by the Whorfian hypothesis about the influence of language on the way we think, but on a much deeper, architectural, level. Some cultural changes can actually remodel the operational structure of the cognitive system. The clearest example of this is the extended and widespread effect of literacy on cognition. In this case, we know that the brain's architecture has not been affected, at least not in its basic anatomy or wiring diagram. But its functional architecture has changed, under the influence of culture.

In this modified view, brain-culture interactions can cut both ways. Undoubtedly, certain brain modifications are a precondition of the emergence of complex culture and must precede its evolution. This order of precedence is confirmed by the archaeological record, which shows that cultural change often followed anatomical change, sometimes by many generations. This was true of advances in both toolmaking and the domestication of fire, which only emerged hundreds of thousands of years after the increased brain size of archaic Homo became a reality. But, at the same time, certain uses to which the human brain is put, such as literacy and distributed symbolic cognition, cannot occur without an appropriate level of cultural evolution and in this case, the brain is drawn along by cultural change. This is achieved by influencing development.

I think this is an important distinction in how we think of the mind. Some of this is implied, though seldom expressed explicitly, in developmental psychology and by people such as Steven Pinker and Howard Bloom.

The idea of the mind as a "distributed cognitive network" is in many ways similar to what Bloom was arguing in Global Brain:

While cyber-thinkers claim the Internet is bringing us toward some sort of worldwide mind, Bloom believes we've had one all along. Drawing on information theory, debates within evolutionary' biology, and research psychology (among other disciplines), Bloom understands the development of life on Earth as a series of achievements in collective information processing. He stands up for 'group selection' (a minority view among evolutionists) and traces cooperation among organisms-and competition between groups-throughout the history of evolution. 'Creative webs' of early microorganisms teamed up to go after food sources: modern colonies of E. coli bacteria seem to program themselves for useful, nonrandom mutations. Octopi 'teach' one another to avoid aversive stimuli. Ancient Sparta killed its weakest infants; Athens educated them. Each of these is a social learning system. And each such system relies on several functions. 'Conformity enforcers' keep most group members doing the same things; 'diversity generators' seek out new things; 'resource shifters' help the system alter itself to favor new things that work. In Bloom's model, bowling leagues, bacteria, bees, Belgium and brains all behave in similar ways.

Bloom, like Donald, believes that the human mind has been shaped by a series of cultural processes, and that without this cultural influence we wouldn't have the minds we currently possess and tend to think of as highly individual. It would be interesting to hear these two men discuss their unique understanding of human evolution.

From a Buddhist perspective, the mind simply does not exist in any absolute sense. However, in the relative world, we are a combination of our biology (the brain), our interior experience (the psyche), and our collaborative experience (culture). The mind is an integral experience.

I think both Bloom and Donald tend to conflate the cultural and the social into one unit (rather than seeing the cultural as an interior experience and the social as an exterior experience), but this objection is minor in the overall value of what they are saying.

I suspect that I will have more to say about Donald's book as I get further into it.


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