You will recall that I posted a link to David’s book on his experiences in the psychiatric services and forensic psychiatry over several decades. He was always concerned with the drivers of human behaviour and in recent times his interests have taken a philosophical/anthropological turn to speculate on the way groups are united and motivated by shared ideas. At the individual level, modern brain science offers increasing understanding of the micro-processes. Better understanding of the interface between the individual brain and group influences may offer the prospect of mitigating the impact of fanatical political and religious movements, the madness of crowds and “groupthink”. He has written a guest post to share some of these speculations.
THE GROUP MIND
Rafe Champion reminds us that thinkers largely ignore Popper’s concept of World 3. They miss the force shaping contemporary existence. They also bypass its puzzle. Some such as Sigmund Freud recognise an equivalent, the group mind, but in vague terms. The pragmatists have done better. Politicians and priests forever, and marketeers more recently, have manipulated it skilfully.
The group provides the medium for World 3. As his “argument for interactionism” shows, Popper knew it well enough. He specified its group-based essentials: language, “interaction with other persons”, cultural learning and participation in a civilization (Popper & Eccles, 1983, p.120). World 3 encompasses more than the living group. It has longevity beyond the life span of its members. In the group Plato’s ideas can still interact with the living minds of today. Popper recognised that although “man-made”, World 3 seems superhuman. It gives matter the capacity to transcend itself.
Language drove the evolution of distinctive human attributes and functions (Blackmore, 1999). It requires the large brain early enough for the infant to acquire the skill (Torey, 2009), which for its part can develop only in the milieu of the group. Language makes possible self-awareness, the creation of ideas and massive accumulation of knowledge. Thinkers have yet to focus on its core, the nature of ideas.
Popper dismissed Plato’s contention that the world of intelligible objects consists of essences (Popper & Eccles, 1983, p.43). Since then Dawkins generated the idea of the meme to provide a new perspective. The Platonic essences, Essence, stripped of the qualities of divine origin or intuition, equates to what Richard Dawkins (1989) so very recently called the meme. Most significantly, Dawkins revealed its ability to evolve and so in our quest to understand life, evolution replaces the divine.
I contend that we cannot understand the nature of memes unless we trace their origin back to the process that achieves perception. Automatic brain action unavailable to conscious introspection, virtually unconscious, precedes awareness. From its sensory input the brain extracts the units of perception in recognisable steps that take place at measurable intervals coinciding with evoked potentials. The ancients termed the units of perception “classes” and cognitive scientists call them “categories” (see “The Atoms of Thought” in brainaction.com). The process delivers the content of awareness in a form that conveys each unit’s meaning for the individual animal.
Homo sapiens replaced dependence on tooth and claw with action guided by the meanings delivered with awareness that has been made possible by human language. Language has given the group mind of the herd the capacity to perpetuate meanings. A name gives a unit of perception an agreed group meaning, the meme. Grammar adds memes such as prepositions that specify their position in time and space. The next extraordinary step took memes beyond reality-bound categories, giving World 3 its infinite potential. It also brought danger. Abandoning the constraints of reality testing admits the potential to accept falsity.
Fed into the group mind, memes spread and interact to evolve far more rapidly than genes or societies (see “The Values Cycle” in brainaction). The memes, which the group has adopted through consensual agreement, feed back into its infants to direct the bulk of everyday human thought. The individual profits from the group cohesion secured by its memes. They made civilisations possible and in return individuals submit to meme tyranny, which at its extreme exacts the sacrifice of self or others. We have the heavy responsibility to ensure that the ideas of World 3 serve rather than master us (see Chap.14 “Mastery” in “Welcome to the Loony Bin”). Along the way we face the puzzle of how something that exists only in your and my mind and in their products such as the written word exerts the influence of World 3.
The rapidity of memic evolution explains the power and rapid expansion of World 3. The speed also reveals its danger. The interaction of memes in the groups that survive long enough has propelled us to our present perilous position. We possess knowledge and power beyond the managing capacity of our far slower social development of World 3, our collective wisdom, culture, attitudes and values.
Blackmore S., The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.
Dawkins R. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2nd edition, 1989.
Popper K.R. and Eccles J.C. The Self and its Brain. An Argument for Interactionism. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1983.