Keith Oatley on Our Minds, Our Selves: A Brief History of Psychology

OatleyAdvances in psychology have revolutionized our understanding of the human mind. Imaging technology allows researchers to monitor brain activity, letting us see what happens when we perceive, think, and feel. But technology is only part of how ideas about the mind and brain have developed over the past century and a half. In Our Minds, Our Selves, distinguished psychologist and writer Keith Oatley provides an engaging, original, and authoritative history of modern psychology told through the stories of its most important breakthroughs and the men and women who made them.

What prompted you to write this book?

There didn’t seem to be a book about the mind that people could read and say, “Oh, that’s why I see a certain person in this way, but feel myself to be rather different,” or “So that’s what goes on in a conversation.” I wanted to write a book on psychology that throws light on everyday human life, that gives the reader a sense of important turning points in research, and that focuses on the deeper principles of how the mind works, principles that help us think about our selves and others.

We like to think that we’re in direct touch with reality, but you say that’s not quite how it is.

In a way we are in touch with reality, but the mind isn’t a place into which reality can enter through eyes and ears. It’s the other way round: we project what we know from our inner understandings onto what comes in from the senses. Think of reading. If you did not know how to read, what you would see on a page would be black bits and white spaces. But since you can read, you project meanings onto these bits and spaces. With people it’s the same. You can read other people’s minds, project your understandings onto them.

You start with the problem of consciousness. Isn’t that a bit difficult?

Consciousness may seem difficult and people have argued about it for centuries, but the basic idea is straightforward. The brain contains some 86 billion nerve cells, each of which has connections to hundreds or thousands of others. We couldn’t possibly be aware of everything that goes on as these neurons interact with each other. The brain gives us a set of conclusions from these processes. This was the theory that Helmholtz proposed. Not many people know it, but really he was the main founder of our understanding of mind. The conclusions the mind offers are what we become conscious of: “That’s what it’s like out there in the world, laid out in space, with people to meet, objects to use, places to go.” From physics we might get a different depiction, perhaps of protons and electrons and waves, but that wouldn’t be of much help to us, in our ordinary lives. The conclusions the brain offers come into our conscious awareness, from sampling patterns of light and sound, to tell us: “That’s what this person means.” Or looking back to something remembered: “That’s what happened.” Or looking forward, with a plan: “Here’s what I might do.”

You say the book is about the principles of mind. What do you mean?

The deepest principle is that the mind offers us conclusions by being able to make models of the world, and even of our own self. A clock is a model of the rotation of the earth. We use it to get up in the morning, or to go and meet a friend. With some kinds of models, we can do more: we can see what would happen if we make alterations to the model, because models are things we can change. We translate an idea, or an aspiration, into our model of the world. Then we can manipulate the model, change it, to create new states. We call this thinking. Then we translate back again, from the resulting model-states into terms of the world again, to see something in a particular way, or to say this, or to do that.

You said there are other principles, too. What’s another one?

The characteristic of our human species that separates from other animals is our ability to cooperate. From an early age, human children, but not chimpanzees, can recognize when someone is trying to do something, but isn’t quite able to, and can know how to help. A two-year-old child, for instance, can see an adult with her hands full of books who seems to be wanting to put the books into a cupboard, but because her hands are full can’t open the door. The two-year-old will open the cupboard door for this person. And children of this age start to make joint plans, for instance when they play. They don’t just play on their own, they play together. Even a simple game like hide-and-seek requires cooperation. Plans that involve goals and activities shared with others become more important than anything else for us: how to join with another in living together, how to raise a family, how to cooperate with others at our place of work for ends that are useful. This principle widens so that we humans form communities and cultures, in which what goes for the whole group becomes important. So we try to be helpful, we are upset by injustice, we don’t want to tolerate people who are destructive. This is called morality. We strive to make the world a better place, not just for our selves, individually, but for everyone.

Is human intelligence going to be overtaken by artificial intelligence?

The most recent kinds of artificial intelligence are starting to think in ways similar to how we humans think, by forming intuitions from many examples, and projecting meanings from these intuitions onto new inputs. Often, when we humans have encountered a new group of people, or a new situation, we have become antagonistic; we have reacted as if the situation is one of conflict. With newer forms of artificial intelligence, we will need to think hard, to take on what is known from psychology, history, and social science, to fashion not conflict but cooperation with these new forms.

Keith Oatley is a distinguished academic researcher and teacher, as well as a prize-winning novelist. He has written for scientific journals, the New York Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, and Scientific American Mind. He is the author of many books, including Such Stuff as Dreams and The Passionate Muse, and a coauthor of the leading textbook on emotion. He is professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto and lives in Toronto.