The Situationist

Accidentally Us

Posted by Jon Hanson on January 23, 2007

david-linden.jpgIn March, Harvard University/Belknap Press will release David Linden’s new book, The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God. Linden is a professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University and has been studying and writing about neural function for many years.

His new book promises to reveal how, contrary to popular opinion, “the brain is not an optimized, general-purpose problem-solving machine, but rather a weird agglomeration of ad-hoc solutions that have been piled on through millions of years of evolutionary history” and, in turn how this evolved, path-dependent collection of quirks we know as the brain “have ultimately led to almost every transcendent human foible.

In a promotional interview, Linden had this to say about the inaccuracy of our self-perceptions:

In everyday life we behave with the implicit assumption that our sensory information is “raw data” and, if necessary, we can evaluate this datathe-accidental-mind.jpg dispassionately and, only then, make decisions and plan actions based upon it. This feeling that we have about our senses, that they are trustoworthy and independent reporters, while overwhelming and pervasive, is simply not true. Our senses are not built to give us an accurate picture of the extenal world at all. Rather, they have been designed to exaggerate certain features and aspects of the sensory world and to ignore others. Your brain then blends this whole sensory stew together with emotion to create a seamless ongoing story of experience that makes sense. We cannot experience the world in a purely sensory fashion, because by the time we are aware of sensory information, it’s already been filtered, molded, and deeply intertwined with emotions and plans for action.

It’s another version of the same message that again and again social psychology and the mind sciences are providing us: We are not who we perceive ourselves to be. That gap between perception and reality is precisely the gap that the neo-realists or situationists hope to bridge.

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