Minds Are Tricky Things — Part I

I’ve been reading the literature on neuroscience, cognitive linguistics, psychology and such for a long time now, and the temptation to write about what’s new is overwhelming. There are so many exciting things being learned, and equally there are so many subtle problems of how we can know anything at all about the subjective world. But before I can bombard you with chewy words like “affect” and “epistemology,” I need to explain why any of this matters. It matters because people matter.

It is a difficult and ancient fact that we as conscious beings don’t live in the real world. There are boundaries to what we know and what we can know. I am right now sitting on a couch in my house in Oakland, California. Across the ocean, there is a woman sitting on the floor of her Tokyo apartment. I have never met her, but she is just as much a part of the world as I am. Not my world though. There seem to be boundaries to the things I perceive. Figuring out those boundaries and how things get into and out of them is the process of figuring out me, and everyone else too.

And inside those limits, what is this phantom world I live in? How did I come to believe the things that I believe, and how do others believe other things? Why do I support reproductive rights, while some are staunchly anti-abortion? How come everyone in Morocco wanted me to believe in Allah? What makes me happy, and what makes other happy? Life is full of choices, and I don’t really know how anyone makes them. Not only is understanding the mind linked with the process of understanding what is real, it might just tell us some useful things about the human race.

In a sweating hotel room in Bamako my friend Matthew once made an extraordinary remark: “I don’t know what human nature is,” he said, “and neither do you.” We were talking about tribal rivalries. I had said it was evolutionary, something deep in our species. He retorted, correctly, that no one really knows. These myths we create about ourselves: they can hold us back. They’re dangerous. Better to figure out the truth, if the truth can be known.

And so we come to something that was traditionally the domain of religion, but then, all things were traditionally the domain of religion, because religion was once the organizing principle of entire societies (societies very much simpler than our modern chaoses.) I don’t buy the supernatural explanations anymore. I find them lazy. Are we really unknowable spirits, or can we just look into brains and behaviour to see if we can see what is actually going on? I may not necessarily be a materialist, but I am definitely a naturalist. I believe in looking.

So what’s left? Who purports to be studying the mind? Basically we have psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive linguistics. Those are the direct approaches, anyway. Sociology models the group, ethnology and anthropology look at human cultures in general, and economics and politics both postulate a psychology, but the three subjects I’ve mentioned are pretty much the main scientific disciplines claiming to say something about internal mental processes. (Computer Science sometimes thinks it has something to say, but I’m with Dijkstra in noting that the question of whether computers can think is much like the equally pressing question of whether submarines can swim.)

Each field starts in a different place, and their models don’t always connect. Psychology divides us into things like attention, cognition, emotion, decision-making, and memory and tries to build models of how these things interact inside of us. Cognitive Linguistics says that the way we use language and the way we think are somehow related. Neuroscience starts from the ground up, a little like understanding a machine by beginning with the study of its gears. All of them are suspect; all of them face different methodological and philosophical issues.

The truth seems to be that no one really knows what the right way is to study the mind. That’s why it’s an interesting problem, and that’s why it’s an area of human study so prone to bullshit. In subsequent articles, I am going to try to describe the basic approach of each of these fields, and what kinds of things can and cannot be learned with each methodology. Along the way, maybe we’ll learn something about what is actually known. We do know some things, it turns out, and some of them are alarmingly cool.

One thought on “Minds Are Tricky Things — Part I”

  1. I like this topic; it’s something I myself have been thinking a lot about. Looking forward to reading more 🙂

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