Friday, February 08, 2008

The World in the Brain

Here are a few excerpts from a brief essay by Steve Kosslyn in the series "What have you changed your mind about?
There is a really elegant solution to the problem that the genes can't know in advance how far apart the eyes will be. To cope with this problem, the genes overpopulate the brain, giving us options for different environments (where the distance between eyes and length of the arms are part of the brain's "environment," in this sense), and then the environment selects which connections are appropriate, and the useless connections are pruned away. In other words, the genes take advantage of the environment to configure the brain.

This overpopulate-and-select mechanism is not limited to stereovision. In general, the environment sets up the brain (above and beyond any role it may have had in the evolution of the species), configuring it to work well in the world a person inhabits. And by environment I'm including everything outside the brain — including the social environment. For example, it's well known that children can learn multiple languages without an accent and with good grammar, if they are exposed to the language before puberty. But after puberty, it's very difficult to learn a second language so well.

This perspective leads me to wonder whether we can assume that the brains of people living in different cultures process information in precisely the same ways. Yes, people the world over have much in common (we are members of the same species, after all), but even small changes in the wiring may lead us to use the common machinery in different ways. If so, then people from different cultures may have unique perspectives on common problems, and be poised to make unique contributions toward solving such problems... to understand how any specific brain functions, we need to understand how that person was raised, and currently functions, in the surrounding culture.
A similar, more brief, response to the question was offered by Jeffrey Epstein, A science Philanthropist:
The question presupposes a well defined "you", and an implied ability that is under "your" control to change your "mind". The "you" I now believe is distributed amongst others (family friends , in hierarchal structures,) i.e. suicide bombers, believe their sacrifice is for the other parts of their "you". The question carries with it an intention that I believe is out of one's control. My mind changed as a result of its interaction with its environment. Why? because it is a part of it.

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