The Modern Mind

The impact of culture on human experience

The Mind As Culture in the Brain

The relationship between biology, society and the individual

In previous posts I have already began the discussion of the possibility that humanity is a reality of its own kind, an emergent phenomenon, based on our animal (biological) nature, but irreducible to it and, instead, defined by culture (on the collective level) and the mind, or as some other languages refer to it, the soul (on the level of the individual). There are three biological conditions for the emergence of this autonomous reality, I suggested: a highly developed brain, signs, and the larynx specific to our species. The first two, I further argued, are reflected in the widespread proofs of the animal abilities for what neuroscientists call “learning” and “memory,” to which I added “imagination.” We share these cognitive abilities with numerous animal species. In this post, I want to continue the discussion of the special human reality, going beyond its biological conditions.

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Nothing in even the most highly developed brain can produce a mind. Nor can the most extensive and complex set of signs imaginable do so. And even the combination of the two has no such creative or causal power. The addition to this combination of the ability to articulate sound, inherent in the peculiar structure and position of the human larynx, however, has led to the mind’s emergence. Not that it made the mind in any way likely. The biological species of homo sapiens had completely evolved—brain, larynx, and all—more than a hundred-thousand years before the mind made its first appearance among its members. This means that it was not caused by the organic combination that made it possible, but was a result of a most improbable accident—the transformation (a complete change in character) of one of its elements. When this transformation occurred, the emergent phenomenon of the mind was in place, and, being autonomous—self-regulating, self-sustaining, self-generating and self-transforming (like life)—it caused itself.

It is absolutely impossible to reconstruct how this happened. But it is possible to understand—i.e., deduce logically—what happened. A very large plurality of the signs used by homo sapiens because of the biological constitution of this species were vocal signs. The ability to articulate sound allowed for playing with it. For hundreds of thousands of years, homo sapiens cubs—children—probably had a lot of fun making various meaningless noises, noises which could be intentionally produced, as if one was reading or communicating a sign, but did not signify anything. Then, twenty—maybe, thirty thousand years ago—one particularly sapiens homo recognized that sound signs could be intentionally articulated, and intentionally articulated signs are symbols.

The intention that stood between the environmental stimulus and its sign, and which separated one from the other, transformed signs into symbols. Unlike signs, symbols represented phenomena of which they were not a part—in this sense they were arbitrary, dependent on choice. The meaning (the significance) of a symbol was not given in the phenomenon it was signifying, its referent, or genetically; it was given to it by the context in which it was used, and increasingly this context became mostly the context of other symbols. Thus the significance of symbols constantly changed. Unlike signs, which could be very many, but whose number was essentially limited by their referents in the environment, symbols were endlessly proliferating. (The very introduction of a symbol would change the environment and initiate a symbolic chain reaction.) Unlike signs, which exist in sets, they, from the first formed systems, ever changing and becoming more complex and connected by constantly transforming ties of inter-dependence. Symbols, in other words, constituted a world of their own; an autonomous, self-creative world in which things were happening according to laws of causation which did not apply anywhere else.

Symbolic Reality

The new reality which emerged out of the combination of the three organic elements, the highly developed brain, the human larynx, and the use of signs, was, to begin with, a symbolic reality. Unlike the organic reality which provided the boundary conditions for it, and in which every stage and level of the organic process occurring in time corresponded to a specific, definite, and peculiar to that particular stage state of matter occurring in space, the symbolic reality was essentially historical. It was a process which occurred without any specific reflection in substance. This process, like every process, occurred in time; but, in distinction to the organic process, its relation to space was tenuous. It created material by-products and left material side-effects, but all this was only after the fact—there was no material aspect to its actual happening.

It happened, however, by means of the organic process and the corresponding material structure of the brain. It is by means of the brain that the introduction of the very first symbols initiated the endless and ever more involved symbolic chain-reaction, transforming a singular event into an emergent reality: the use of every symbol, the perception of its significance, its maintenance and transformation was supported by the mechanisms of the individual brain and reflected in some, not necessarily specific, physico-chemical neuronal activity. This was thus a mental process. And it is this symbolic (therefore, historical) and mental process, this reality emergent out of the combination of the developed brain, the human larynx, and the use of signs, that we experience as the mind.

Mind and Culture

Of course, the overwhelming majority of the symbols in the mind process, as some of this blog’s readers know from the little experiment I suggested in Are Souls Real?, most of the words and visual images, for instance, that sound and show themselves in our heads, have not been created by the particular mind that happens to experience them at any given moment. No, they have been created by other minds, in some cases minds that are contemporary with the experiencing mind, but in an overwhelming majority of cases minds that had existed generations, often multiple generations before the experiencing mind. This symbolic common wealth, every single bit of which had been produced in some mind, that every experiencing mind makes use of, can be referred to as “collective mind” and was referred to by one great student of this symbolic and mental reality, Emile Durkheim, as “collective consciousness.” This is precisely what we mean by the word “culture“ today.  

While culture can be referred to as “collective mind,” the mind can be conceptualized as “culture in the brain,” or “individualized culture.” These are not just two elements of the same—symbolic and mental—reality, they are one and the same process occurring on two different levels—the individual and the collective, similar to the life of an organism and of the species to which it belongs in the organic world. The fundamental laws governing this process on both levels are precisely the same laws and at every moment, at every stage in it, it moves back and forth between the levels; it cannot, not for a split second, occur on only one of them. The mind constantly borrows symbols from culture, but culture can only be processed—i.e., symbols can only have significance and be symbols—in the mind.

It follows that having the mind and culture does not simply distinguish humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom, but separates it drastically from other species of life. Dependent on the organic laws, but autonomous, humanity functions in accordance with symbolic and historical laws instead, to the extent of modifying organic laws on many occasions. Defined thus by the emergent phenomenon of culture and the mind, it must be regarded itself as this emergent phenomenon. It indeed becomes a reality sui generis, of its own kind.

Liah Greenfeld is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience

Facebook: LiahGreenfeld

Liah Greenfeld, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology, political science, and anthropology at Boston University.

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