Saturday, October 10, 2009

Post No. 137b: A Funny Thing Happened to Us on the Way to the Forum (Part 2)

This is a continuation of our daily excerpts taken from “New World New Mind.” This is the second excerpt in the series. For an introductory explanation of why we have chosen this book to share with you, click here.

[All of this is copyrighted material, and we are simply sharing some of it with you.]

Chapter 1 – The Threat within the Triumph (Continued)

“Why does the growing budget deficit attract relatively little attention while the comparatively meaningless stock market ‘crash’ makes headlines? Why do many popular writers yearn for a return to an education suitable for Oxford men before World War I, when the world has changed in critical ways to a greater extent since World War II than it changed between the birth of Christ and that war? Why do the numbers of nuclear weapons expand astronomically but largely unheralded, while a small girl trapped in a well commands the front pages? Why do we collectively spend billions on medical care while neglecting the simple preventative actions that, if we took them, would save many times the lives?

“We believe it is no accident.

“All these things are happening now, and are happening all at once, in part because the human mental system is failing to comprehend the modern world. So events will, in our opinion, 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.

“We are writing this book in an effort to help decision makers, educators, physicians, businessmen, and concerned citizens to change their ‘minds’ – not in the conventional sense, but rather to change the way they make decisions. We don’t think there is any panacea for all the problems of society; nothing simple that we can do right now is guaranteed to prevent a nuclear war or avoid the next plague. Everything, unfortunately, cannot be solved by one book! But we do think that if people understood the fundamental root of many of our problems, they might begin to change in a direction that could secure the human future.

“Today’s situation is unprecedented, but the human situation has often been unprecedented. In part, successfully facing the unprecedented has distinguished human beings from other forms of life. Since they spread out of Africa, people have always created new environments for themselves; they have always had to adapt to new and unexplored territory.

“There is a difference now, though. At no previous time have people had the capacity to destroy their civilization in a few hours and to ruin much of the planet’s life-support systems in the process. And never before has a species been engaged, as are we, in the process of destroying those systems wholesale in a ‘gradual’ manner that could complete the job in less than a century.

“But fortunately there is still time to change. 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, or in the middle.

“The perception of dramatic changes begins deep with 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 almost like 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.”


  1. Interesting concept and actually plausable. Reminds me of the movie "Idiocracy" in some ways.

  2. Who are "we"? The authors? They seem to have noticed. The average person? Are there polls cited to show that? Our leaders and representatives? Some might say so. Our media? Many might say so.

    I disagree with the author (based on what you have excerpted, I haven't read it). I think it is noticed and, quite often, those trying to draw attention to the "important things" are often dismissed or denigrated for various reasons. Think of the old "They laughed at..." comments. We tend to ignore those who give us early warnings. And there are those who take advantage of that to attain and retain power.

  3. Iris: Thanks again for visiting us. Not being familiar with the movie "Idiocracy" which you mentioned, we had to look it up. There are some interesting parallels.

    For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, click here

  4. Douglas:

    "We" are the authors of the book. According to
    Wikipedia, Dr. Robert Evan Ornstein is a psychologist, writer, was a professor at Stanford University, and chairman of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK). He has been involved in reconciling the scientific understanding of mind and consciousness with other scientific and cultural traditions. He has written on the brain's role in health, the way in which human consciousness is unable to understand the fast paced modern world, and the way our current consciousness has developed.

    Paul Ralph Ehrlich (born 29 May 1932 ) is an American entomologist specializing in Lepidoptera (butterflies). Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies in the department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University. We should note that he received some criticism associated with writing the "Population Bomb," where he prematurely predicted mass starvation on a world-wide scale.

    This book, and the positions of the authors, are based on their study of the evolutionary biology of the brain in humans.

  5. If "we" are the authors of the book then are they saying "they" don't pay attention to anything unless it is critical, devastating, or dramtic? That's why I asked who the "we" are. If the authors are speaking for themselves, fine, but I fail to see the importance of the book in that case. If the authors meant the collective "we", the public, then I have to disagree because one can find countless warnings of future (and present) problems that are being ignored by a portion of the public.

    The question, in the last case, is why is a portion of the public is ignoring warning signs?
    Fear, real or imagined, of change? Willful, or inherent, ignorance? Are they being encouraged to by the media, by the politicians, by those who should be "in the know" on various subjects but just perceive things differently ,or some combination of these?

    This facet of human culture is way too complex to explain in a single book. It may be true that the complexity and vastness of a modern world is too much for the human mind. But not for a multitude of human minds, in my opinion. There is a computer concept called "distributed processing". I think human societies are fine biological examples of that.

  6. Douglas:

    When we read your first comment in this string, we did not quite appreciate where your line of thought was heading. We thought that you were simply questioning the credentials of the authors. After reading your second comment, we think we understand your issue better. You appear to be questioning whether the positions taken by the authors are simply their "opinions/guesses" which they are trying to apply to others in society.

    We have somewhat of an advantage over you (in terms of trying to interpret the positions of the authors) since we have read the book and have a much better appreciation of the work and research on which the book is based.

    As you read more excerpts, the following should become clearer: This is about the human brain, and scientific research into the evolution of the brain. Keep in mind that the book was written roughly 20 years ago, when we did not have the sophisticated brain scanning and imaging equipment now available to us. The latest research has confirmed many of their "rudimentary" positions taken.

    Keep reading for a few more days and then let's re-visit your question again. Thanks for the inquiry.


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