In high school (’53-’57) and earlier I had a Chinese-born friend who often asked me questions, like “what is that man over there doing?” Often it was something I thought was obvious, like raking leaves. I don’t know whether this was something about the culture difference. When we first met in fifth grade, she was already an English speaker, but spoke Chinese at home. She has always been a devout Christian without asking questions.
Recently I’ve run into the same sort of difference when ill-advisedly trying to talk to locals, particularly Trump fans. Our vocabularies don’t match but more than that, some concepts on each side seem to be invisible, inconceivable, unthinkable. It’s not that they don’t believe in what I say, but that they think I’m talking nonsense. Of course, I assume that I’m the superior one who is flexible, open, and capable of considerable empathy, but that may simply be a conceit. To put it bluntly, they seem stupid to me and I seem — as they put it — to have my head in the clouds, to be out of touch with reality.
Stephen Mithen uses the phrase “contained minds” as though it were a technical term of art. The meaning appears to be similar to “closed minds” but less pejorative. Something like being color-blind. Idea-blind. It’s interesting but less motivated than wondering which of their ideas are invisible to me. One is the universal necessity of family and community. Another is the appeal of sports, shaping the world into competition. An idea I used to accept but now have brought to consciousness and debunked is romantic love. (Did you flinch?)
It seems to me as though the people who have “contained minds” are preventing themselves from thinking anything that might threaten the way they live. They are contained by a taboo on change. Innovation and exploration are high values of mine, but not for them. Their conviction is that there is one true way and one should not deviate from it, because it is risking damage. In fact, being too deviant will result in punishment or ostracism. It’s not surprising that in this town teachers tend to be the grandchildren of mothers and grandmothers who also taught here. I suspect they continue the same concepts. Introducing a strange idea makes their eyes turn into pinwheels.
While I was researching Mithen, I ran across an essay on Medium.com about “deconstructing religion” in which Steven Hackett addressed the problem of 19th century Christians who won’t give up their familiar old ideas. https://medium.com/backyard-theology/evangelicals-faith-deconstruction-4f08ef0a9d61 He suggests that approaching the idea lockdown as an exercise in “deconstruction” might be useful. That academic concept has been an opener of cans of worms since the Algerian/French philosophers, Derrida and Foucault, made their reputations on it. The existence of such a school of thought has been inconceivable to a lot of people. Forbidden, dangerous. Revolutionary, heretical.
In former revolutions, disbelievers and dissenters were sometimes killed to shut them up. It was not effective. When the evidence of scientific knowledge reaches the weight of a preponderance, the resulting ideas are hard to prevent. When something as new as the wheel or ”the pill” is invented, society changes — sometimes radically. The question is what will deconstruct the lockstep Republican senators and what will change the paralyzed society that has produced the Proud Boys?
When I went looking for papers by Mithen, I found on Academia.edu a paper resisting his ideas called “Why Neanderthals Hate Poetry” by Sarnecki and Sponheimer.
They reframe his theory as being about a compartmented mind versus fluid cross-compartment thought. Then they embark on a lot of out-dated ideas about minds and intelligence. Anyway, who says neanderthals hate poetry? Evidently these authors have not read Lakoff or Johnson and their premise that metaphor is the basis of intelligence. Forget compartments.
When I began trying to teach how to read in 1961 after preparation that was certified as English, but was actually about the nature of human beings, no one really knew how reading was learned — what it was that happened and why. One simply presented a page of print, noted that each letter stood for a sound and expected reading. In the half-century since then, it’s become clear that brains, like the rest of the body, accumulates or drops many small abilities according to changes in the genome or the environment — or both. Some are advantages and persist, but others cause the person to perish.
Often an advantage in one way becomes an ability that transfers to something else. For instance, the ability to distinguish the silhouette of a hunted animal becomes the ability to “see” the little marks of the alphabet and tell them apart, like separating O,Q, and G or C. The next skill might be sequencing, what to do in what order — like the sequence in flint-napping transferred to understanding the implication of word order to produce meaning.
A major jump is the ability to name and manipulate abstract concepts, like seeing scat and knowing which animal it came from but later looking for other signs of something not present. This became metaphor which Lakoff and Johnson see as the basis of language altogether.
“New concepts became established in the mind, which then shaped thought and influenced the manner in which the world was perceived. As such, they were as much a driver as a consequence of cultural change from the Palaeolithic into the Neolithic, and beyond.”
“ . . . the complex interactions between ideological, technological, social, demographic, economic and environmental change, with the relative importance of these as drivers and as consequences varying with place and time.”
My own premise is that language and therefore thought come out of culture which comes out of the ecosystem where the humans live. One might say that intelligence is particulate or even sedimentary, accumulating and shifting according to the forces around it
“Scientists are still struggling to understand why humans are able to read and write, despite the fact that we have only been doing it for the last five millennia — far too brief a period for any major evolutionary developments to occur. It is now widely believed that our ability to read and understand written symbols is an accidental offshoot of traits that evolved for different reasons, such as the ability to speak.”
“When you read letters on a page, the left occipito-temporal cortex of your brain immediately links each written word to its spoken equivalent. One part of your brain analyzes the word’s meaning, while another part makes it possible to automatically recognize words. The stronger these two brain functions are, the faster and more efficiently a person can read.”
I suspect that in part “contained minds” result locally from vast monoculture grain economies where repetition augmented with huge machines interfere with direct contact with nature. Success in cultivation, planting and harvest require the ability to stay there and keep doing the same thing.
Finally, after I had quit teaching English, I found a book that listed every small ability needed to be a successful reader. If one of them was missing, reading became difficult or impossible. I recognized this from real life. Crucial steps can be eliminated by bad heredity, bad food, trauma, starvation, addictive substances, and bad teaching. I grieve that I didn’t know this in 1961.
At least awareness of this approach to brains enabled me to understand Mithen’s study of the paleolithic minds as enmeshment in the world of their times and their developing abilities to interpret their ecosystems, even as their activities change everything.