THE MIND’S PAST
by Michael Gazzaniga
Over a hundred years ago William James lamented, "I wished by treating Psychology like a natural science, to help her to become one." Well, it never occurred. Psychology, which for many was the study of mental life, gave way during the past century to other disciplines. Today the mind sciences are the province of evolutionary biologists, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychophysicists, linguists, computer scientists—you name it. This book is about special truths that these new practitioners of the study of mind have unearthed.
Psychology itself is dead. Or, to put it another way, psychology is in a funny situation. My college, Dartmouth, is constructing a magnificent new building for psychology. Yet its four stories go like this: The basement is all neuroscience. The first floor is devoted to classrooms and administration. The second floor houses social psychology, the third floor, cognitive science, and the fourth, cognitive neuroscience. Why is it called the psychology building?
Traditions are long lasting and hard to give up. The odd thing is that everyone but its practitioners knows about the death of psychology. A dean asked the development office why money could not be raised to reimburse the college for the new psychology building. "Oh, the alumni think it’s a dead topic, you know, sort of just counseling. If those guys would call themselves the Department of Brain and Cognitive Science, I could raise $25 million in a week."
The grand questions originally asked by those trained in classical psychology have evolved into matters other scientists can address. My dear friend the late Stanley Schachter of Columbia University told me just before his death that his beloved field of social psychology was not, after all, a cumulative science. Yes, scientists keep asking questions and using the scientific method to answer them, but the answers don’t point to a body of knowledge where one result leads to another. It was a strong statement—one that he would be the first to qualify. But he was on to something. The field of psychology is not the field of molecular biology, where new discoveries building on old ones are made every day.
This is not to say that psychological processes and psychological states are uninteresting, even boring, subjects. On the contrary, they are fascinating pieces of the mysterious unknown that many curious minds struggle to understand. How the brain enables mind is the question to be answered in the twenty-first century—no doubt about it.
The next question is how to think about this question. That is the business of this little book. I think the message here is significant, one important enough to be held up for examination if it is to take hold.
My view of how the brain works is rooted in an evolutionary perspective that moves from the fact that our mental life reflects the actions of many, perhaps dozens to thousands, of neural devices that are built into our brains at the factory. These devices do crucial things for us, from managing our walking and breathing to helping us with syllogisms. There are all kinds and shapes of neural devices, and they are all clever.
At first it is hard to believe that most of these devices do their jobs before we are aware of their actions. We human beings have a centric view of the world. We think our personal selves are directing the show most of the time. I argue that recent research shows this is not true but simply appears to be true because of a special device in our left brain called the interpreter. This one device creates the illusion that we are in charge of our actions, and it does so by interpreting our past—the prior actions of our nervous system. If you want to see how I get there, get from factory-built brain to the serene sense of conscious unity we all possess, you will have to read this mercifully short book.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
The Mind's Past
Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles