Is Your Brain a Pump, an Engine, or a Computer?
And the other crude models that we use to describe ourselves.
Hey everyone! This week we are looking at how one of our most innate tendencies to categorize and analogize can lead us astray, often for decades. Let’s get into it!
From the Ages
Approach it and there is no beginning;
follow it and there is no end.
You can't know it, but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from:
this is the essence of wisdom.
Source: Tao Te Ching, fourteen
Novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch on our tendency to categorize and self-edit:
“Man is the only animal that makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the pictures.”
For as long as we humans have been attempting to understand ourselves and the world around us, we have been using models to simplify the story. Most ancient cultures imagined gods in the images of humans. These gods, with their human-like fallibilities and melodramas, explained how the universe was formed and how humans came to exist. Progress and modernity did not break our dependence on using models to understand ourselves. Our metaphors simply evolved with technology.
Descartes imagined the brain as a series of pumps, tubes, and valves that spread spirit to the rest of the body. While not biologically accurate, this model gives a crude representation of the central nervous system, with a control center in the brain that animates the whole body.
A few centuries later Freud likened the brain to a steam engine. This metaphor of the brain adds to the Cartesian model of a control center but also attempts to explain our unconscious drivers. Freud claimed that “psychic pressure” would build up in the mind and require a release for optimal health. With this model, he explained the power that our innate drives like aggression and sexual desire often have over our more "civilized" tendencies. This model furthered our understanding of our minds. While Freud's metaphor again proved factually inaccurate, a model for unconscious thoughts and behavioral drivers added to our understanding of human nature.
Today we continue this trend. Over the last several decades, we’ve come to compare our minds to computers. Whether we are talking about our abilities for memory, recall, computational analysis, or even multi-tasking, we often cannot help but see ourselves through the capabilities of our most powerful tool to date.
While each of these models added a vital element to our overall understanding, we must also remember that none gives a remotely accurate picture of what a human mind actually is. Freud moved the needle in the right direction, but his theories and the prescriptions that they precipitated proved to be dead wrong in places. We've spent much of the last century dismantling many flawed Freudian ideas that had become common knowledge.
As Shane will attest, I love a good analogy. When chosen appropriately, they can translate a complex concept into terms with which we are already quite familiar. But their usefulness is limited. We can put too much weight into a model and come to see it as more true and broad than it was ever meant to be. Taken too literally, a model can lead us to behave and think in ways that, while constructive within the model, are actually counterproductive.
Comparing the mind to a computer, inspired teaching methodologies, note-taking systems, and file organization structures that fit the model but run contrary to the way that we actually learn and catalog information. Imagining the cardiovascular system as a network of pipes with a central pump might give an elementary school-level understanding but can actually lead to destructive behavior when we build a fitness regimen with this model as gospel.
As our old models break down, we continually update them with better versions that, hopefully, give a more comprehensive image of what a human is. But we must also be able to separate useful metaphors from biological facts. We must remember that many of the ways that we understand ourselves today will be revised in the future. Many of our models might also prove to be dead wrong.
If you enjoyed this newsletter, you might also enjoy these IHD articles:
Wrong Thinking (9 minutes)
Are Your Goals Distracting from Your Goals? (8 minutes)
Setting the Bar (many, well-worth-it hours). Get now on Audible or stay tuned for the November 9th release.
Visual Representation of Every Cognitive Bias
This chart shows an organized visual representation of all of the known cognitive biases. I love how it gives several nested levels of hierarchy to describe the general distortions that lead to each. The cognitive biases and logical fallacies that can easily infect our thinking should be fundamental aspects of our education system and every adult’s self-awareness journey. That being said, this graphic is just a model, and while I doubt it will ever prove dead wrong and will likely remain useful forever, it might not give the exact picture of how we understand ourselves in times to come.
Thank you for reading today and remember, life is too short to be normal!
In other words, the map is not the terrain. But a map is still useful when in unknown terrain.