Thursday, May 26, 2022

The Unselfish Mind (part 4)


The Social Nature of Mind

In 1931 Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander Romanovich Luria traveled to central Asia to study the psychology of the people in that region. His goal was to test a bold hypothesis proposed by his colleague and mentor, Lev Vygotsky.

Though trained as a literary critic, who wrote a dissertation on Hamlet, Vygotsky became one of the giants of developmental psychology, the field that studies how behavior and thinking changes over a life span. It seems fair to say prior to Vygostky that most developmental theories emphasized the idea that the stages of cognitive development are encoded into the child at birth. It was also then common to use analogies from botany to describe child development. The child was seen as a plant unfolding through a prearranged sequence from seed to flower. It was no accident, as Vygotsky wryly noted, that children were sent to a place called kindergarten. 

In contrast, Vygotsky embraced a radically different understanding of development. To him, the child’s major task is to become a competent member of society. This meant that the goals of development would be specific to particular cultures and historical contexts. For example, it is now considered important that children in the first years of school learn to read and write. Yet reading and writing are cultural inventions, less than 10,000 years old and the phenomenon of mass literacy arose only with the industrial revolution. In modern societies, the ability to read and write had become important developmental milestones. While some developmental sequences, such as the transition from crawling to walking, may indeed be hard wired into us, others are created by society and, then, transmitted by culture.

Vygotsky and Luria built on this observation. Just as people create and improve physical tools to manipulate the environment and pass this technology onto future generations, they also invent psychological tools. A psychological tool (sometimes called a cognitive tool) can be understood as a technique or strategy that alters human cognition or behavior. Physical tools alter the material environment, psychological tools are cultural inventions that change how we process information or how we behave. For example, the Hindu-Arabic number system is a case of just such a tool. Hindu-Arabic numbers allow us to perform calculations much more efficiently than previous systems of representing quantities. If you doubt this, try doing multiplication with Roman numerals. Reading and writing themselves are cognitive tools - they allow us to create an external form of memory and receive information from distant sources. Cognitive tools shift human consciousness in important ways. In a well-documented example, mass literacy empowered masses of people to directly read and interpret scriptures, with the importance consequence of loosening the authority of priestly mediation. 

An inescapable consequence of this view is that different cultures and different socio-economic arrangements encourage different mentalities. This would be particularly true of different historical stages and different levels of social complexity. From Vygostsky’s view we should not expect ancient people to think about the world in the same way as modern people do.

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