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.