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Mind

A map of the mind....

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMay 22, 2006 2:47 AM

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Reader Mengu Gulmen emailed me about our exchange in regards to how we view the development of the mind:

Mengu: Every decision we make, everything we do and say, is based on the previous experiences we've had [all we did, all we have learned from our schools and our families and friends and internet and .... Myself: This sounds close to tabula rasa. See the cognitive revolution for why I disagree.

Mengu then sent me this link, and stated:

Our neurodevelopment is closely related with our experiences (what our 'sensors' provide us) throughout our lives. So our thoughts are shaped according to those links established in the past between our neurons.

To some extent I don't disagree with Mengu. But, I would offer that though an important component of our neural development is (I think quantifying it is really useless) critically connected to the sequence of experiences which we absorb over our liftime, I also believe our mind comes with predisposed cognitive biases. That is, the cognitive revolution suggests that all information processing is not created equal. Noam Chomsky and the various schools of thought that followed him gave us the "universal grammar," while we know that humans have natural faculties for facial recognition (of other humans), social model building and numeracy. This isn't a black or white issue, obviously language is learned, but the ability to learn language with obligate ease is a function of our biology. I also believe that far more mild, but non-trivial, mental abilities and biases lurk in the background. I do not believe that supernatural agents are simply an emergent property of our reflective mind, I believe that theism has deep implicit and reflexive roots which makes it "intuitive." This is an important issue that I think fellow atheists need to understand, that religion is not just about the conscious mind, or creeds or models of the universe, but it is lurking in the cognitive hardware of most humans in a very fundamental fashion. Of course, just because we have a cognitive bias doesn't mean that we have to accept these quirks as true, we consciously reject the veracity of tricks and visual illusions. To get my point across in a less verbose fashion, I will make recourse to a geometrical analogy. Imagine that the set of actions and experiences in a person's life is represented by a plane. Now, one can imagine that various previous actions and events determines the path of the person moving across this "experience" surface. My view point can be likened to a rugged plane, where some "canals" of experience are favored over "ridges" because of biases of the human mind. This does not mean that the elevated areas of experience are off bounds, but it does mean that those regions must be subject to greater constraints, conditions and forces. For example, many heterosexual men have sex with other men in prison. Prison is a constraint which tips the playing field so intercourse with other men is now a behavior which is acceptable. But, once the constraint of prison is removed heterosexual males usually revert to relationships with females. When that canal of experience is available, then most males naturally revert to that path. Culture and experience space are similar. There is an enormous sample space of possibilities, but they are not all created equal. The reemergence of particular motifs and cultural patterns in many times and places is a reflection of the cognitive hardware of our mind which is naturally evoked toward a particular configuration with greater ease than the alternatives.

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