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.