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Monday, June 06, 2016

Review: Origins of the Human Mind

Origins of the Human Mind is a Great Courses lecture series about the evolution and development of the human mind. The topic is complex and interesting, and made more so by the fact that it's very much an area of open-ended research, with many unresolved problems and issues we still do not understand.

Stephen P. Hinshaw's lecturing tone and cadence reminds me very much of the William Hurt character in Dark City: he pauses, takes a breath, says a phrase, and then pauses again. I wonder if William Hurt used Hinshaw as the model for his performance in that movie. I mention this because if you hated that cadence of speech you may not enjoy this lecture series, even though the content is very good.

Hinshaw covers first the easier, developmental side. How does the human mind develop, and what are the stages it goes through. When does theory of mind first develop, and what are the vulnerabilities and critical periods a child goes through. This is great stuff. He debunks "nature vs. nurture", noting that very often it is the interaction of genes and the environment that creates a problem (or future mental capability or condition), and that the more we know about how genes interact with each other and the environment, the more easily we can intervene in order to head off issues right from the beginning. For instance, people with certain kinds of genes cannot be exposed to certain kinds of foods or it could damage brain development, and we're just in the opening phases of this class of research. He also does a very good job of explicating the difference between boys and girls' development, noting the particular vulnerabilities each gender has.

The evolutionary side is more challenging. As Hinshaw notes, behavioral changes leave no fossils. But there are several major mysteries that he posits solutions to:

  • Why is mental illness so prevalent? Schizophrenia is as high as 1% of the population, and other conditions such as ADHD, autism, and bipolar disorder are also dismayingly common. The potential answer here is that some of the genes that confer properties like ADHD actually provided advantages in the past (and in fact, without the existence of mandatory schooling, ADHD might not actually exist as a disorder as children would never be forced to sit still for such a long time). In particular, families of many people with bipolar disorder turn out to be very successful in business and the arts, which indicates that many of the properties taken to the extreme in that condition are properties that actually aid in reproductive success.
  • Why are humans prone to prejudice (racial or otherwise). Here the deep rooted treatment of other tribes as non-human seems to be deeply embedded in human's psyche, and might have been selected for in order to tightly bind tribes of humans.
  • Why are humans so susceptible to religion? Religion here appears to have been used as a binding force to secure cooperation in groups exceeding Dunbar's number. Over time, the groups that succeeded in securing such cooperation out-competed the groups that did not do so.
Hinshaw ends the lecture series with a very personal story about his own father's bipolar disorder and psychotic breaks. That lecture ties together his themes very neatly: while the study of the human mind is ultimately a scientific endeavor, to attempt to do that endeavor without understanding and using the power of story telling that's deeply rooted in humanity's origins would be a mistake and leave much of the richness of such study behind.

All in all, I really enjoyed this lecture series, and would highly recommend it.

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