Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Seven nuggets on how we confuse ourselves about our brains and our world.

In a series of posts starting on Nov. 27, 2020 I attempted to abstract and condense the ideas in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s 2017 book “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain”. That book is a hard slog, as was my series of posts on its contents. Barrett also did her own condensation in her followup book, “Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain,” that appeared in late 2020 at the same time as my posts, and I’ve finally gotten around to scanning through it. I want to pass on her brief epilogue that extracts a few crisp nuggets from her lessons:
ONCE UPON A TIME, you were a little stomach on a stick, floating in the sea. Little by little, you evolved. You grew sensory systems and learned that you were part of a bigger world. You grew bodily systems to navigate that world efficiently. And you grew a brain that ran a budget for your body. You learned to live in groups with all the other little brains-in-bodies. You crawled out of the water and onto land. And across the expanse of evolutionary time - with the innovation that comes from trial and error and the deaths of trillions of animals - you ended up with a human brain. A brain that can do so many impressive things but at the same time severely misunderstands itself.
-A brain that constructs such rich mental experiences that we feel like emotion and reason wrestle inside us 
-A brain that’s so complex that we describe it by metaphors and mistake them for knowledge 
-A brain that’s so skilled at rewiring itself that we think we’re born with all sorts of things that we actually learn 
-A brain that’s so effective at hallucinating that we believe we see the world objectively, and so fast at predicting that we mistake our movements for reactions 
-A brain that regulates other brains so invisibly that we presume we’re independent of each other 
-A brain that creates so many kinds of minds that we assume there’s a single human nature to explain them all 
-A brain that’s so good at believing its own inventions that we mistake social reality for the natural world
We know much about the brain today, but there are still so many more lessons to learn. For now, at least, we’ve learned enough to sketch our brain’s fantastical evolutionary journey and consider the implications for some of the most central and challenging aspects of our lives.
Our kind of brain isn’t the biggest in the animal kingdom, and it’s not the best in any objective sense. But it’s ours. It’s the source of our strengths and our foibles. It gives us our capacity to build civilizations and our capacity to tear down each other. It makes us simply, imperfectly, gloriously human.

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