Dr David Bell on the group mind

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.

References

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.

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17 Responses to Dr David Bell on the group mind

  1. stackja

    THE GROUP MIND – ALP/ABC/MSM comes to mind.

  2. Got taught Popperian science method (by name) today in my Grad Cert course. Class even was asked who knew of Popper — two of us stuck up our hands.

    That was a turn up for the books.

  3. Rafe

    Two in one class is remarkable!

  4. lem

    Fantastic read, and cruising the blogs it is amazing to see the memes bobbing up here and there! Pity more psychology isn’t taught generally, really.

  5. johanna

    What rubbish.

    ” Grammar adds memes such as prepositions that specify their position in time and space.”

    Whatever mechanism is used to place a verb in time or space, it is not a “meme’. Of the three languages I know, they are mechanisms, not “memes” (whatever TF they are). Oh, wait:

    “A name gives a unit of perception an agreed group meaning, the meme.”

    Alles klaar.

  6. wreckage

    I’m not really sure memes are anything other than psuedo-science, but this is an interesting post on the nature of ideas, and I am fascinated with the broad idea of a meme in that it formalizes my intuition that ideas have survival utility.

  7. I can hardly wait for coz to discover this post.

    This is how jews designed their approach to 3rd world edumacation. Youse shills at catallaxy just dont get it.

    Youse is all picking on me because I believe in dominionionononism.

    Oh well. I suppose this is all part of the wonderfully accommodating world of the Cat. Diversity in action, etc.

  8. wreckage

    I believe dinonomnomnominalism, which is the theory that dinosaurs would eat us all and it’s a good thing the fuckers are all dead.

  9. I believe dinonomnomnominalism, which is the theory that dinosaurs would eat us all and it’s a good thing the fuckers are all dead.

    Ah yes. I’m familiar with that theory, too, which I last saw espoused with particular clarity on Barney & Friends.

    “I hate you, you hate me
    Let’s get together and kill barney
    With an MP-60 and blow him out the door
    No more purple dinosaur”

  10. I’m not really sure memes are anything other than psuedo-science, but this is an interesting post on the nature of ideas, and I am fascinated with the broad idea of a meme in that it formalizes my intuition that ideas have survival utility.

    I enjoyed Dr Bell’s book; it was a very forthright expose of many things which were and still are wrong with institutionalised mental health services.

    However, when it came to the unified field theories, I tended to skip along to the next lot of patient anecdotes.

    Meme theory is all very well and groovy, but it places a larger demand upon my faith than my normal everyday religion.

  11. johanna

    Philippa, there was a discussion of “memes” in relation to science at the admirable Dr Judith Curry’s blog a while back.

    Fashions, the zeitgest – OK. But once you get into grammar or proper science – fugeddaboutit.

    It’s just a fad.

  12. egg_

    Apologies if it’s akin to Godwin’s, but have read of toxic (work) cultures likened to e.g. Nazism tapping into group empathy to instill fear against e.g. Jews; e.g. KRudd’s attempt to instill public fear over the risk of Konfrontasi with Indonesia should Abbott be elected.

  13. wreckage

    “Psychosomatic illnesses” are also a fad.

  14. Driftforge

    Two in one class is remarkable!

    So was being taught Popperian method in a statistics course. Then again, the lecturer is a New Zealander, so the process may well have been maintained in NZ since his presence there.

  15. Lem

    If you want to get an idea about memes, and also how much you are just a vehicle around the planet for your genes (sorry if anyone is feeling fragile this am!) read “The Selfish Gene” Rafe referenced above. Nasty little blighters they can be!

    Now, I’m off to work. My genes told me to.

  16. Ellen of Tasmania

    Meme theory is all very well and groovy, but it places a larger demand upon my faith than my normal everyday religion.

    Ditto. But ‘memes’ are the need of the atheist hour, I think.

  17. wreckage

    “The Selfish Gene” is a pile of question-begging old balls.

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