Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Mechanical man?

I have a new article out in New Scientist, in case anyone might be interested. It explores the idea that perhaps we humans aren't the uniquely conscious and rational animals we think we are, but act on a much more instinctual and mechanical basis, our actions often being determined by stimuli in our environment. I've touched a little on the work of Alex Pentland, whose experiments I mentioned briefly in an earlier post, and also the experimental work of psychologists John Bargh of Yale University and Ap Dijksterhuis of the University of Amsterdam.

To read a little of the original research, I suggest looking at this nice paper of Pentland, which explores two interesting ideas. First, that traditional behavioral science makes a big mistake by looking first to our rational thinking and verbal communications to explain what we do. He suggests that the baseline assumption should instead be that we, like other animals, often act for reasons that we're not really aware of, and communicate with other through instinctual and non-verbal means. In experiments, he shows that most of what we do (especially in our routines) can be accounted for in this simpler way. Second, he also argues -- and this I think is really interesting -- that our intelligence doesn't actually reside at the individual level, but at the level of the group. In other words, it's not the cleverness in our individual heads that makes people so capable, but the delicate and effective non-verbal communications that bind us into cohesive groups with agile collective behavior.


Kate said...

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses a wonderful metaphor to illustrate this idea that much behavior occurs for reasons of which we are not conscious. Haidt describes the human mind as a person riding on an elephant. The rider is the conscious mind, and the elephant is the unconscious mind. The rider holds the reins and by pulling can turn the elephant or make the elephant stop or go, but only if the elephant has no desires of his own. But, in fact, the elephant has a mind of its own and will do what the elephant wants to do.

Gazzaniga's work with split-brain patients is also an important line of research.

Partha said...

Re:"Second, he also argues -- and this I think is really interesting -- that our intelligence doesn't actually reside at the individual level, but at the level of the group," I cannot resist quoting a few lines from "Erwin Schroedinger:An Introduction to his Writings,(p.113)" by William T. Scott.
"In Nature and the Greeks Schroedinger discusses 'the very deep epistemological insight' of Heraclitus that we can only find a reliable world picture if 'this world can be so constructed as to be in common to all of us, or rather to all waking sane persons.'... Comprehensibility seems then to mean that the display of nature can be understood by men acting in common, that together they can share experiences, perceptions, and the process of reason to find an explanation of the real world around them....."
Just happened to be reading Scott's book when I came upon your post.

la tienda said...

So much helpful data for me!