Seeing ourselves through the eyes of the machine

I’ve got an article in The Observer about how our inventions have profoundly shaped how we view ourselves because we’ve traditionally looked to technology for metaphors of human nature.

We tend to think that we understand ourselves and then create technologies to take advantage of that new knowledge but it usually happens the other way round – we invent something new and then use that as a metaphor to explain the mind and brain.

As history has moved on, the mind has been variously explained in terms of a wax tablets, a house with many rooms, pressures and fluids, phonograph recordings, telegraph signalling, and computing.

The idea that these are metaphors sometimes gets lost which, in some ways, is quite worrying.

It could be that we’ve reached “the end of history” as far as neuroscience goes and that everything we’ll ever say about the brain will be based on our current “brain as calculation” metaphors. But if this is not the case, there is a danger that we’ll sideline aspects of human nature that don’t easily fit the concept. Our subjective experience, emotions and the constantly varying awareness of our own minds have traditionally been much harder to understand as forms of “information processing”. Importantly, these aspects of mental life are exactly where things tend to go awry in mental illness, and it may be that our main approach for understanding the mind and brain is insufficient for tackling problems such as depression and psychosis. It could be we simply need more time with our current concepts, but history might show us that our destiny lies in another metaphor, perhaps from a future technology.

I mention Douwe Draaisma’s book Metaphors of Memory in the article but I also really recommend Alison Winter’s book Memory: Fragments of a Modern History which also covers the fascinating interaction between technological developments and how we understand ourselves.

You can read my full article at the link below.
 

Link to article in The Observer.

4 Comments

  1. Andy Forceno
    Posted July 27, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I am an ecological psychology PhD. student, and I and my colleagues who trace our thinking back to the psychologist J.J. Gibson, have rejected Computationalism. We have done decades of experiments and theory outside of the mainstream of cognitive science and have been quite successful with our non-computational approach. We have many reasons for rejecting Computationalism, most notably because it relies on the theory of indirect perception and representationalism. By embracing the direct perception of the environment by the organism, an entirely different set of testable hypotheses emerge. I would suggest Carello, Turvey, et. al.’s Inadequacies of the Computer Metaphor for a good academic critique of the computational approach in the cognitive/psychological/neuro sciences.

  2. Brian
    Posted July 28, 2014 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    I find your point on how we might have have reached “the end of history” in terms of neuroscience very interesting, and how we are always finding ways in which to explain the brain and human nature through metaphors. Perhaps we do need to discover new ways to understand the brain in order to figure out why some people suffer with depression and mental illnesses. This post gives you a lot to think about, thank you.

  3. Kaiti V.
    Posted July 28, 2014 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    “We tend to think that we understand ourselves and then create technologies to take advantage of that new knowledge but it usually happens the other way round – we invent something new and then use that as a metaphor to explain the mind and brain.”

    As a new psychology student, the idea that ‘machines’ are metaphors for the mind is pretty much the bedrock of all cognitive discourse, and you’ve just turned it on its head for me. How fantastic – I love a good flipside.

  4. dmfant
    Posted July 29, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on synthetic_zero and commented:
    the tyranny of the means…


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