The Frontal Cortex

The Collective Mind

A great comment by Joel Kahn, who argues that we need a new science of human interaction, able to study what Durkheim referred to as “the conscience collective”:

Durkheim was obviously not the first to advance a notion of mind which transcended the individual. But while it may have been common for many nineteenth century figures to write about group minds with distinctive emergent or transcendent properties (think for example of all that interest in the spirit of history, or more concretely in crowds, or ‘primitive’ minds), which required minds to be viewed collectively rather than as separate entities bounded by the skulls or skins of individualised human beings, from the early 20th century such notions were gradually abandoned or discredited, such that even Durkheim himself was compelled to drop his term in favour of the far more innocuous-sounding ‘collective representation’.

There were a number of related reasons for this development. For Durkheim himself it was the difficulty of conceiving of some sort of collective consciousness among the increasingly individualised members of highly differentiated modern societies. It was just such a renewed spirit of individualism that led 20th century sociologists to reject the idea of the mind of a ‘crowd’. It is commonplace now for most students of modern cultural anthropology, along with many neuroscientists, to dismiss any notion of group mind by pointing out, that we can never really know what’s in someone else’s mind or share their unique experience of the world, a feat which the notion of group mind seems to support.

I can’t think of a more worthwhile, or more difficult, scientific project. One of the tremendous biases and blind spots of modern neuroscience is that it’s almost always forced to see the mind in a social vacuum. While there have been some rudimentary attempts to study human interaction, or what happens to the cortex when it’s not by itself – see, for instance, some of the work by Read Montague – our theories of the brain are almost entirely based on brains in isolation. The reasons for this are straightforward: other people are confounding variables. They make everything too complicated. Nevertheless, even a cursory glance at human existence is a reminder that we are profoundly social animals, that our minds are largely shaped by the minds of others.

Of course, as Kahn points out, this scientific lacunae badly needs some inter-disciplinary interaction. If we’re going to understand the “collective conscious,” and how it influences the individual consciousness, we’re going to need to bring together the insights and methodologies of neuroscientists, sociologists, anthropologists, social psychologists, etc.

Comments

  1. #1 Alvaro
    April 9, 2008

    Very intriguing line of thought.

    In that Collective Mind, who/ what/ where are the frontal lobes? and white matter?

  2. #2 jope
    April 10, 2008

    Try your luck with Alberto Melucci’s Challenging Codes. The verbiage was a bit dense for me, but he also does some serious criss-crossing of the terrain representing a very complex set of dynamics.

  3. #3 Dr X
    April 10, 2008

    There is a wealth of interesting material associated with the work of contemporary relational psychoanalytic writers and researchers, beginning with Daniel Stern’s videotaped observations of maternal-infant interactions as they relate to relationally created intrapsychic reality. Another researcher who has done some fascinating work is psychoanalyst Robert Langs who, in collaboration with mathematician Anthony Badalamanti, looked at evidence for the reality of a bipersonal (psychic) field in psychotherapy. More recently, Allan Schore has written extensively on neuropsychological research and relational psychoanalysis. Schore’s work is nothing short of brilliant. In Affect Regulation and The Origins of the Self, Schore offers some fascinating discussion of what he characterizes as “brain-to-brain” communication and what could be understood as minds transcending the space of individual skulls.

  4. #4 Tom
    April 10, 2008

    One reason for the eclipse of the concept of the group mind in the 20th century was its frequent association with racism. Thinkers who postulated a group mind, such as the founder of psychology, Wilhelm Wundt, who called it a Volkseele. denied that there could be a common group mind for all humanity, because only distinct ethnic groups possessed the common history/language/culture/values/location required to develop the organic relations among individuals required to constitute a true collective mind. Indeed, many German intellectuals disdained the USA because they viewed it as a collection of self-seeking individuals related as machine parts rather than as organic cells in a living body. While it was logically possible to define group minds in linguistic and cultural terms, as Johann Herder and Wundt did, there was a drift into seeking biological bases of ethnicity that led to racist views of group minds, hence Nazi stereotypes of The Aryan and The Jew.

  5. #5 Jessica
    April 12, 2008

    This is what we Communication scholars call “Communication and Social Cognition.” Most of what I do deals with the interactivity of humans and the subsequent impact on cognition and behavior. There are many people in Communication departments that pursue answering such questions.

  6. #6 Rachael
    April 12, 2008

    Hi Jonah – sorry to say I haven’t been able to keep up with blog reading lately (life’s keeping me busy at the moment)…but as usual this is a very interesting post. I notice one thing:

    >>It is commonplace now for most students of modern cultural anthropology, along with many neuroscientists, to dismiss any notion of group mind by pointing out, that we can never really know what’s in someone else’s mind or share their unique experience of the world, a feat which the notion of group mind seems to support.

    I actually don’t agree with this statement at all. Why does a collective mind require inter-knowledge of individual minds? Neuron #1 has no idea what neuron #2 is doing in my mind right now, “I” haven’t a clue of the activities of either one of them, but I would call that a collective consciousness of neurons.

    It is true that there is some knowledge, some net behavior – greater than the sum of its parts – which results from societies. In a sense, that output is defined by parameters that make it “alive” as well, for if we were all to die then “it” would be lost as well. If we go back to the definition of life, social knowledge is growing, adaptable, organizing, self sustaining and mortal. What else do we need to say “it” exists, at least in the abstract?

  7. #7 Albert
    May 4, 2008

    Hi rachael

    It is your assumption that brain cells, human organisms, individuals and human societies are comparable, and it is an assumption, that the cells dont reflect information in a way not determined by the system.

    Pretty totalitarian. Humanity is a monster with a mind we will never understand.

    But, as you sad, with out humans, no humanity, without the cells, no organism.

    But is this comparison useful?

    A human society can change or have a revolution, be split and fused with other societies, if your cells go to radical, you get cancer, but no one can tell a whole human society toi do this and that, as you can.

    You are like a singular control center within your organism, there is no revolution and all of the sudden the shoulder has the whole power.

    What I want to say: Not every centralized dynamic processing is the same, and the inter-worlds are, in my world view, leaning on integral philosophy, the other side of the individuals, whichs mind-sets are co-creators of the other side(yeah, the inter ones once again), which dynamically change embedding these co-creational efforts of the subjects

    Isnt that totally obvious !!!!?? ( ; ) )

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