Yes, I’m Convinced That We Are Progressively “Evolving” How We Wire and Use the Wiring in Our Brains, But We Still Don’t Any Means to Stand Back and Take a Good Look at How It All Works.

A visitor to the Brain Technologies office the other day requested a deeper understanding of the model of human thinking levels I explore in, among a number of places, my latest book, The Mother of All Minds.

For an author, what’s not to like about such a request?

So I sat my guest down in front of my computer screen. I summoned some hopefully evocative Power Point slides to help illuminate the way and plunged with gusto into a “straight from the horse’s mouth” explanation.

Apparently, the slides and the explanations were evocative and illuminative. Because there came a moment when my visitor suddenly performed a physical maneuver that writers of action books would probably describe as “she whirled around like a dervish” or some such and said, “But this is evolution! You’re saying that people’s brains are evolving!”

It was not a thought that pleased her, because the tone of her voice was a couple of notches off the accusatory scale.

Yes, I do believe I am saying that. That was also the assumption, I do believe, of the gifted brain whose work underlies great amounts of my lifework, the brain of the late psychologist Dr. Clare W. Graves.

My guest then added: “And you’re saying some people’s thinking is better than others!”

Oh, there’s no question of that. As more than a few very wise persons have observed, “Common sense really isn’t very common.” Most certainly, there are poor thinkers, average thinkers and superior thinkers. And many shades in between.

But that isn’t really the issue here.

What my visitor found offensive is the idea that some brains are equipped to improve their ability to perceive the world and do competent, suitable things in it and others aren’t. And that the flowering of this faculty is developmental, incremental and temporal. It happens, if it happens, over time. Later stages are more diverse and contemporary than earlier stages. If one becomes marooned at an “earlier” stage, it can make trouble for an individual or a whole society.

We talked at length about all this. I’m not sure how much she finally bought into the idea. I am sure that she’s close to being ready to consider that all this is possible. “Being close” is closer than many will come, and perhaps as close as this person will come. It is not for me to say, or her, for that matter. What will be(come) will be(come).

If I get another chance and if I sense that she may be ready for the next installment, I’m going to trot out polymath Otto Neurath’s Ark. It’s the best way I know to convey the idea that whatever “stage” your brain happens to be thinking at, there’s enormous room for humility. While one stage, or kind, of thinking can be demonstratively be said to be much better suited for coping with the times in which a person is living than other stages, no brain can explain precisely any of this (the universe, or our presence in it, or the presence of our brain in it) and how it all works.

That was the point of Neurath’s boat example.

He likened science to a boat that, if it is to be rebuilt (improved, perfected), must be rebuilt plank by plank at a time while it is also keeping us afloat. There’s no way ever to dry-dock the boat. There’s no external place to plop it down and examine it objectively and start over from scratch, making it better.

I think of all our brains as being like Neurath’s boat. There’s no value in arguing that one brain is better than another because there’s no place where we can park any of our brains and get off and stare at them from a distant to gain a better perspective. There’s no getting out of our brains, taking a totally objective view and being able to get back in them, no matter how much yoga we practice or how much we slow our breathing rate. We can improving our understanding of our boat/brain. We can infer that we’ve got a more durable, responsive, better-equipped-to-cope boat-brain that we had before. We can encourage ourselves and others to make better choices and choices that encourage our brains to shift their wiring and wiring usage to produce more suitable ourcomes. But we have to accomplish all this while still in the boat.

So is the brain evolving, at least in the way it utilizes its information-processing capabilities? I think so. Dr. Graves thought so. Others think and have thought so.

That still doesn’t explain away the fact that no matter which of Dr. Graves’ levels of existence or Dudley’s mind levels or someone else’s belief/value systems you now appear to be operating from, we are all still in the same boat, trying to improve it without sinking and without understanding how it really looked “first” and without all that good a sense—to be honest about it—of how it looks now.

One of the morals of this story: when you rock the boat, be prepared for a mutiny. You can make educated guesses, but there’s really no way to tell how others are going to respond to the boat-rocking until the action starts.

(The first time I ever heard of Neurath’s boat was in a book by philosopher Ellen R. Klein. You’ll seldom find a philosopher who writes more clearly on the topic of what we can know and what we can’t. For a copy of the book of hers that I read, go here: “Feminism Under Fire”.

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