Us and Them continues to engage my attention as David Berreby explores how the mind codes information about our experience. Whenever I engage with this subject I’m struck by the complexity of what goes on inside each of our heads as we make sense of the world. For instance, it’s fascinating to see how the mind processes the raw stimulus sent by the eyes to present a stable image from the upside down, jiggly data hitting the back of our retina as we move through the world.
He cites historian Derek de Solla Price who shows how even the metaphors we use to describe the workings of our mind have changed over time, reflecting the prevalent technology. Plato compared the mind to a chariot; Freud uses images of pressure emotions blocked or directed, consistent with the age of industrial machinery. The age of computers gave us metaphors from cybernetics, and now in the age of the internet, the latest thinking sees the mind as a network…
… A network in which everything is connected to everything. People who have seen a picture of rotting food judge someone’s ethical lapse more harshly; those who have heard the name “Michael Schumacher” write more quickly than a control group. A team of experimenters pose as mental patients by claiming to hear inner voices; after being admitted they report no more voices, but their everyday behaviour is now seen by psychiatrists as evidence of illness (so walking around becomes neurotic pacing).
As with so much of the science around this, the comforting idea that we are individually captains of our own ship starts to look distinctly dodgy.
Five chapters in, I can highly recommend this book!