The Spiral Ladder

Climb over the Wall

New World New Mind


New World, New Mind is the title of a book by Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich. At the time of writing, Ornstein was president of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge, and had authored and co-authored several books including The Psychology of Consciousness, Multimind, The Amazing Brain, and The Healing Brain; Ehrlich was Professor of Biological Sciences and Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, and author of more than 500 scientific articles and books. New World New Mind shows how despite humans having evolved, biologically and culturally, further and faster than any other species on the planet, we function with a mind fit for the eighteenth century, while playing with the ‘toys’ of the twenty-first. The authors warn that if we don’t consciously evolve to fit our advanced society, we risk losing all we have created. Drawing from disciplines like evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and cognitive science the book is ‘an invaluable study of where our society is going and what we can to do to keep up with it; why we need to develop a new mind – a new set of thought processes, reactions, perceptions and impulses – for our new world.’

Published over twenty years ago, the insights and messages in the book are as pertinent now as they were in 1989.

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(Extracted from the opening chapter)

The human nervous system, well matched to a world in which small, sharp changes (such as a branch breaking or a predator at the mouth of the cave) were important but large gradual ones were not, is inadequate to keep attention focused on many dangerous modern trends. Our nervous system and our world are mismatched now.

The human mental system is failing to comprehend the modern world. So events will continue to be out of control until people realize how selectively the environment impresses the human mind and how our comprehension is determined by the biological and cultural history of humanity. These unnoticed yet fundamental connections to our past, and how we can retrain ourselves for a “new world” of the future, one filled with unprecedented threats, are what this book is about.

Scientific evidence developed over the past three decades illuminates many aspects of the nature of both the human mind and the human predicament, and points the way to the changes needed. This evidence is drawn from many disciplines including evolutionary biology, neuroscience, cognitive science, climatology, and geochemistry. We believe that the only permanent means of resolving the paradox that our minds are both our curse and our potential salvation is through conscious change. Our biological evolution, including the physical evolution of our brains, is much, much too slow to help.

And the undirected evolution of our culture, in view of the demands being placed on it, is still too sluggish and often inappropriate. Both biological and cultural evolution are inadequate to adapt us to the environments we are creating. We don’t perceive the world as it is because our nervous system evolved to select only a small extract of reality and to ignore the rest. We never experience exactly the same situation twice, so it would be
uneconomical to take in every occurrence. Instead of conveying everything about the world, our nervous system is “impressed” only by dramatic changes. This internal spotlight makes us sensitive to the beginnings and endings of almost every event more than the changes, whether gigantic or tiny, in the middle. The perception of dramatic changes begins deep within the nervous system, amid simple sensing such as seeing light. Put a three- way bulb (50-100-150 watts) in a lamp in a dark room. Turn on the lamp: the difference between darkness and the 50-watt illumination is seen as great; but the increase from 50 to 100 and from 100 to 150 seems like almost nothing. Although the change in the physical stimulus is exactly the same, you notice it less and less as each 50 watts are added. Turn off the lamp, even from the 50-watt setting, however, and you feel it immediately! We notice the beginning and the end and overlook the greater changes in the middle.

This simplified focus on the dramatic is now out of date in complex modern life; the same routines of internal analysis that originally developed to signal abrupt physical changes in the old world are now pressed into service to perceive and decide about unprecedented dangers in the new. Scarce and unusual items, be they a headline news event, a one-day dress sale, or a chance for peace, come into the mind through the same old avenues and are filtered and judged in the same old way. This mismatched judgment happens in the most basic as well as the most momentous situations.

The same sensitivity to sharp changes gets called into play in judging the most important life-or-death essentials. Consider this: the first atomic bombs were kept secret and then were unveiled suddenly. The mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the sudden vast destruction they caused, signaled a sharp change in the world. The new threat was readily noticed and properly feared.

But two responses indicate that humanity did not perceive this important change in the world correctly. First, that atomic explosion on Hiroshima made a far greater impression than the much greater destruction and death visited upon Tokyo by conventional incendiary bombs, since burning cities seen from the air (in newsreels) had by then become routine and so were ignored.

And second, since the first frightening explosions, nuclear weapons have accumulated gradually until they now number in the tens of thousands, and most of them are ten to a hundred times more powerful than those that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our minds are inhibited in noticing the threat; the continuing accumulation of gigantic arsenals doesn’t get the same attention as the first weapons. Only public relations events, new “beginnings” like the nuclear winter announcement, or the showing of the TV film The Day After, can re-attract old minds—and then only temporarily until habituation sets in again.

A set of hydrogen bombs joined to an intercontinental ballistic missile is one of the ultimate triumphs of biological and cultural evolution. Think of it: humanity, whose own origins were as a few relatively large molecules in a tiny droplet in a primitive sea, has now itself developed the power to annihilate much of life on Earth.

But why? Why have we done it? Why, on a planet that has an exploding population, a deteriorating environment, and massive social problems, has the only genuinely creative species invested so much time, energy, and genius in building arsenals that can only be used to destroy itself? Why has humanity not redirected its efforts instead into seeking ways for people to live together without conflict and to limiting the size of its population so that everyone can lead a meaningful life? Why hasn’t humanity tried vigorously to preserve the earth that people and all living species depend upon? The answers to these kinds of questions are not simple. The dilemmas will not be “solved” by the next political campaign,
government program, educational critique, or international conference. They are to no small degree problems of how we perceive our environment and ourselves.

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(Personally I’m uncomfortable with the authors references to population control and their apparent ignorance of the behind-the-scenes political and intelligence agency dealings in many of the events and situations they describe, but that doesn’t detract from the book’s value in providing a much needed neuroscientific and cognitive perspective on humanity’s problems.)

A PDF edition of the book can be downloaded from here.

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