Manufacturing a strong mind

In the January 6th edition of the Times Literary Supplement (yes, it sometimes takes me a while to get round to reading these), Andrew Scull discusses Raymond Tallis’s book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, a valiant attempt to rout the advance in popular science of the conviction that all human activity can ultimately be explained through neuroscience.

(You can read the article online, but the TLS website is pay-only.)

Hand gripping a stone

The opposable thumb in all its glory

Scull notes that:

When our ancestors descended from the trees and began to walk on two legs, our forelimbs were free to evolve in radically new directions. … [We] developed a large opposable thumb, and the human hand evolved into “a stunningly versatile organ for interacting with the world”.

He goes on to observe that the ensuing increase in the use of tools appears to predate language by perhaps millions of years, and that our gradually enlarging brains “were a necessary, not a sufficient cause of the change in human nature and consciousness.”

This leaves tools themselves as a key transformative mechanism in human development. In our book we talk about Lambros Malafouris’ related notion that tools form a sort of external support structure for our brains, with cultural artefacts outside our heads just as important to our way of thinking as the neurons themselves.

What Tallis seems to be getting at is that the real situation is still way beyond our understanding. What we know in the scientific sense about the mind is incredibly limited when compared to the vast complexity the mind has generated: myriad cultures and indeed science itself.

I think the takeaway for me is that what you do profoundly affects how you think.

Because we haven’t got to the bottom of this mechanism by a long chalk, it’s always risky extrapolating from it, but that’s never stopped me before, so I’ll have a go.

Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods gives a number of detailed examples of the mental health benefits a natural setting can lend when it forms one of these external mental structures for children. He also shows how the destruction of a specific environment a child feels connected to can cause reactions akin to those of bereavement.

Because we evolved in situations wildly different from the settings most of us are now in, it’s important to take time to ‘reset’ and get back to the wild in some small way. Maybe one day we’ll understand our own minds well enough to bring them up to date, but that’s a very long way off.

I suspect many of us harbour these mental landscapes from our youth, even if we spend less time in them physically now. I know how important my own childhood experiences of nature are to me, how about yours?

- Leo -