The reality that human beings inhabit is largely a construct of their own minds. Discuss.

Khalil Betz-Heinemann – SE301
The reality that human beings inhabit
is largely a construct of their own minds. Discuss.
This statement has at its core a combination of long running questions that have been
answered by many academic and non-academic disciplines. These questions include ‘What is
reality?’ and ‘What is the mind?’ The answers are numerous and are defined as such by the
area of interest that is being used to read these questions. This essay will attempt to throw a
little light on the extensive discussion that surrounds these using its pre-defined context –
Anthropology - as its perspective questioner and answerer. This may seem like an obvious
statement to make, however the very essence of this essay is to demonstrate that the actual
way you read the presented statement reveals that its answers are implicit within it. It is this
differing reading that splits Anthropology into two camps; Social and Biological. This essay
will endeavour to briefly see how both perspectives can illuminate the presented statement
and how both are necessary in creating a fully comprehensive understanding of it.
As the meanings of some words are usually variable, their use here will be defined as such;
‘world’ is used to mean the physical, social and ideological environment we each find
ourselves in, ‘data’ is used to mean the physical, social and ideological information we each
absorb and ‘topic’ refers to the underlined statement above.
If we look at the topic from a Biological Anthropological perspective it could be discussed in
terms of: We humans are organisms that collect sensory data from the world we inhabit. We
then use our own brains to interpret it and thus produce a construction of reality. So the
question being posed is whether our own ‘reality’ is the actual biological and chemical
interpretation happening in our brains, of the world around us. From a Social
Anthropological perspective the statement could be discussed in terms of: We humans are
organisms that grow up using our brains to collect data from the societies we each inhabit,
thus creating a social construct we then use to interpret the world with. So the question being
posed is whether our own reality IS the result of the way we interpret our own cultures’
explanations of the world? Looking at these two statements we can already see that it is
important to investigate the biological perspective first and so outline how humans actually
have a mind and how this is used to perceive reality. We can then proceed to see whether this
reality is a construct of the human mind.
In 2009 a documentary on scientists whose beliefs are relevant with regards to the biology of
the human mind, was aired (Sautoy 2009). The investigation throughout was presented by a
non-scientist who participated in the experiments that upheld the scientists’ beliefs. As it uses
a methodological approach to provide a description of a certain cultural belief system, with
participant observation, it can be treated as an ethnographic film. Even in the knowledge that
it may be limited by its alterations for media purposes, because these are also part of the
social context. It will be used here as a raw visual record that when placed within this essays
context, becomes an ethnographic monograph. So to understand a biological interpretation of
the human mind, the beliefs presented by this monograph will be looked into further.
Let us start in the 1640’s with René Descartes who outlined his theory of dualism, which
holds that the mind is a nonphysical substance. Descartes was the first to clearly identify the
mind with consciousness and self-awareness and to distinguish this from the brain, which was
the seat of intelligence. We can see more recently from Gallup’s famous ‘Mirror Test’ and
Khalil Betz-Heinemann – SE301
further follow on experiments that all our Great Ape relatives possess the potential ability to
have an understanding of themselves as separate from the environment around them (1987).
Being self-aware is something that develops and does so in human infants between 18 to 22
months. It follows on from this that once one has the realization that ones body is separate
from the environment one can form a concept of ‘I’. Once we have this we can then also
realize that even though I am me, my body is actually still just a material part within a
material environment. So one must now solve this quandary by supposing that there is
something that is me almost looking out of my material body that is controlling it; the mind.
However this ‘looking out’ is a mere illusion that our brain imposes upon us. If one’s senses
are fed with information from someone else’s position in space and time, one has the
perception and reacts exactly as if they were in the other person’s head (Ehrsson 2007). This
is to say that the ‘self’ a person perceives within an environment, is a construction of that
persons sensory perception and chemical computation in their brain. Essentially the illusion
of a human’s inner ‘I’ in their head is created by the brain’s necessity to place itself within
time and space in conjunction with the body so it can react to the environment effectively.
It has been further shown that the brain does not just store this data it has received from the
senses as raw information, but can actually store data as concepts (Koch 1999). These
concept storages are then activated when related stimuli that first created them are sensed.
This allows the person to understand something outside from the mere confines of the raw
data it emits by relating it to conceptions of previously similar data.
To summarise we can see that self-awareness is non-uniquely human and develops overtime
by interacting with the environment and other people in it. This then leads to us having the
perception of an ethereal mind which is due to the brain’s activity now having a
hardwired/learnt concept of ‘I’. This then expresses itself as an experience of being self-
conscious. However there is lacking an explanation of how the encoded ‘I’ expresses itself
and gives us the experience of actually having consciousness, before we can even develop
self-consciousness.
One way to do this is compare our cranial activity when we are conscious and unconscious.
When we are asleep our brain remains active, however we are not conscious. While asleep
reaction to stimuli produces only localized activity in the brain, but when we are awake and
conscious, reaction to stimuli causes different areas of the brain to interact with each other in
unity (Massimi 2009). The actual integrated activity between different parts of the brain gives
us the experience of consciousness. A helpful analogy to make is between consciousness and
wetness. Water molecules themselves are not wet, but sensing them together gives the
experience of wetness. Just as individual neurons or concept storages are not conscious, but
sensing/stimulation of them together gives the experience of consciousness. Both are
emergent properties that one can only experience as a result of the interactions between
individual parts.
So when asked whether ‘the reality that human’s inhabit is a construct of their own minds’,
we can say yes because as humans we each KNOW reality by storing and accessing
relevant data of it and the cross cranial activity that does this IS the actual experience of
consciousness. Self-awareness is then added when we experience these ideas of reality OUT
THERE (the world), IN HERE (your head), i.e. the mind. So reality for each of us is how our
consciousness understands the stimuli it receives from the world and creates its reality called
the mind i.e. each of our minds is each of our own realities.
Khalil Betz-Heinemann – SE301
However a person’s mind, being the experience of integrated cranial activity, is also the
reflection of their brain’s makeup. On a general level this can be mainly attributed to how
each person’s gene’s expressed themselves in the physical construction of their brain. On a
small scale though, what is actually encoded into the neurons are information and concepts -
data - that we have gleaned from our environment. This is where we can see that a
biologically scientific belief system on its own is inherently lacking, but has given rise to a
resultant mechanistic view of the world as represented by the ethnographic film investigated
here. This mechanistic extrapolation from science into a belief system is in itself a cultural
construction that is a result of contemporary pessimism (Malik 2001). Fields of science
related to studying the mind have themselves moved from a mechanistic Cartesian model of
the mind to an Experiential model (Orange 2001). Another basic pillar of science refutes a
mechanistic viewpoint; The Uncertainty Principle. All observations, scientific or otherwise,
are either potentially changed by being observed or are limited by the extent of the observers
capabilities. A merely biological explanation leaves us with a mechanism behind the mind but
doesn’t illuminate its content. Therefore a socially anthropological reflection upon the
biology and construction of the human mind is imminent.
Each person grows up learning about something that is described by someone else whether
its’ their parents, teachers, books, films, the natural world etc... All these things give off data
about themselves. As outlined by Freud, a child’s brain absorbs this data and learns what
benefits or what harms it in whichever scenario they exists (1961). This is reinforced into
more ridged structures called laws and taboos, within most human social groups (Dember
1970).
Additionally these concepts (including laws and taboos) created by other members, usually
by those with authority, are expounded incessantly upon a child’s mind. This is perhaps best
described by Sociologist Luckmann; "The child does not internalize the world of his [initial]
significant others as one of many possible worlds. He internalizes it as the world, the only
existent and only conceivable world . . ." ; these initial socializations give a person, "the
world of childhood . . . . the home world” (1991: pg 134-136). The social implications and
existence of these culturally imposed ‘home worlds’ e.g. Mangu (Evans-Pritchard 1976),
Karma (Brow 1978), Virgin-centricity (Giovanni 1981), Theism, Religion, Democracy,
Individual freedom within Capitalism etc... have been recorded in countless ethnographic
monographs.
These data and concepts - home world - become hardwired, as described previously (Koch
1999), into the child’s brain. Those concepts that work best without conflicting with
previously learnt data will be used more and thus become more entrenched within the child’s
mind. As shown by scientist Haynes we can actually see our brains use these collated
concepts to form decisions of what we are going to do up to 10 seconds before we are
conscious of actually making a personal decision (2008). The concepts we have learnt to use
most, are most often accessed and so are the ones that make up (constitute and decide) our
mind’s most of the time. So our mind is always going to be a reflection of other people’s
minds. From a Social Anthropological perspective then, the reality we inhabit is largely a
construction of other people’s minds to form our own.
This reliance on the social group is part of the evolutionary result of human’s having the
capacity for multiple orders of intentionality (Dunbar 1998: pg188). Intentionality requires
thinking within a shared construct of the mind. Intentionality is proportional to brain size and
Khalil Betz-Heinemann – SE301
allows us to function effectively in large social groups. So as evolution dictates, if a species
has an effective adaptation it will carry on being selected for and survive. Therefore there is
no escaping the social mind.
Essentially we have ‘learnt social patterns’ which the brain compares with stimulus data and
thus shows how likely we are to make a decision. Our own pattern is a relationship between
these patterns which is how we create our own mind. Therefore we must constantly try to
keep this pattern informed so that when it comes to decision time the unconscious brain
predetermines the most educated decision. Though we also have those last unpredictable 10
seconds (Haynes 2008) for moulding these culturally transmitted concepts and thus adapting
the social mind. In conclusion a holistic approach to Anthropology is necessary for
illuminating the initial statement posed and that in itself is a way to form an educated and
socially constructive mind of your own.
Bibliography
Brow, J. (1978). Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura District: The Historical Anthropology of a
Community in Sri Lanka. University of Washington Press: London.
Dember, W. N. (1970). The psychology of perception. Holt, Rinehart and Winston: U.S.A.
Dunbar, R. I. M. (1998). Evolutionary Anthropology – The Social Brain Hypothesis. Wiley-
Liss: U.K.
Ehrsson, H. H. (2007). The Experimental Induction of Out-of-Body Experiences. Science,
vol.317 no.5841 pg1048.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1976). Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford
University Press: U.K.
Freud, S. (1961). Beyond the pleasure principle. W.W. Norton: New York.
Gallup, G. G. (1987). Self-awareness: Comparative Primate Biology, Behavior, Cognition,
and Motivation. Liss: New York.
Giovanni, M. (1981). Woman: a dominant symbol within the cultural system of a Sicilian
town. Man, vol.16 no.3 pg408-426.
Khalil Betz-Heinemann – SE301
Haynes, J. D. et al (2008). Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the brain. Nature
Neuroscience, vol.11, no.5.
Koch, C. (1999). Biophysics of Computation: Information Processing in Single Neurons. Oxford
University Press: New York.
Luckmann, T. & Berger, P. L. (1991). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the
Sociology of Knowledge. Penguin Social Sciences Publishing: U.K.
Malik, K. (2001). Materialism, Mechanism and the Human Mind. The New Humanist,
vol.116, issue 3.
Massimi, M. (2009) Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation experiment. B.B.C. Horizon, The
Secret You, 41minutes.
Orange, D. M. (2001). From Cartesian Minds to Experiential Worlds in Psychoanalysis.
Psychoanalytic Psychology, 18:287-302.
Sautoy, M. (2009). Horizon: The Secret You. British Broadcasting Corporation: U.K.
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences
himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest a kind of optical delusion of his
consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for
a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of
compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein.
Advertisements