TED Talk: Human Nature and the Blank Slate Pinker
How it works
What is a true blank slate? The phrase seems to be commonly interpreted by the speaker as a mind that learns from the environment and other forms of external conditioning only. According to Locke himself who supposedly coined the idea that later thinkers built on:
“Let us then suppose the Mind to be, as we say, white Paper, void of all Characters, without any Ideas; How comes it to be furnished?… To this I answer, in one word, from Experience: In that, all our Knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself. Our Observation employ’d either about external, sensible Objects; or about the internal Operations of our Minds, perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that, which supplies our Understandings with all the materials of thinking.”
How it works
What I find most interesting about this interpretation is that it does not fully represent the literal translation of what the phrase should imply. If it were, how could thinking itself be excluded? After all, a blank slate is a blank slate. Thinking is something that is present and when externalized is an observable function of the mind and has to come from somewhere. Are we to suppose that these are just automatic functions gifted by nature that separates us from inanimate, non-thinking objects? Or if we were to take it a step further, if we are all made of the same cosmic material as we are taught in physics and the natural sciences, what is it about our material that would gift our minds with the natural ability to make decisions for itself? Perhaps this is a bit too philosophical of an approach, even for Locke (no irony intended). However in my mind, a truly blank slate would become an exhaustive pile of goo, near impossible to train regarding everything the brain must know or be exposed to in order to survive, much less become a conscious being.
For now, I will move on to the next word that entered my mind automatically when presented with this material and that is of course, “instinct.” Instinct is a term now taken for granted within the natural sciences but is somehow a topic of debate for the study of the human mind regarding this theory in particular. I find this schism particularly fascinating in its ability to compartmentalize accepted evolutionary science. Adversely, we could be generous and applaud the theory for its bravery in challenging the idea of instinct within animal and human nature of course, but when does bravery become a fool’s errand when such obvious questions pose such immediate challenges to the heart of the theory? The first chapter of the book, “The Power of Habit” brings in another fascinating area of the mind, weaving it seamlessly into a personable anecdotal story of a man who was a subject of study nearly three decades ago in California. As a result of the man’s illness, basil ganglia was discovered as the region of the brain that stores all automatic processes and has the ability to create new habits or automatic behaviors. Without jumping too far ahead into areas I have yet to study with real academic guidance, Jung may have smiled at this one. Although the chapter indicates that here we are only discussing basic automatic behaviors, and we are of course not at liberty to make any assumptions that cannot be directly observed through a controlled study, it is interesting to note that here we seem to have studies that support, at least vaguely, the idea of an area of the brain we are not conscious of, yet has access to habits, symbols we recognize that induce behavior, as well as the capacity to store vast amounts of memory. Could this area of the brain potentially unlock more and more information about stored information we all collectively share as a species and how can we ensure the wellbeing of this fundamental part of ourselves knowing that it can be changed by our environment? This last question, asked in the age of information and the rise of corporate influence brings about a final word that enters my mind perhaps with a bit of a warning and of great personal emphasis: autonomy.