Oliver Sacks on Humans and Myth-making

Posted by on July 18, 2010 in Thoughts | 2 comments

This is a transcript from the Big Think project of an interview with emminent Professor of Neurology and Psychology at Columbia University Dr Oliver Sacks. He is most famously recognised as the professor in the movie “Awakenings” as portrayed by Robin Williams, and for his best selling book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.” Here he talks about the human mind and myths. It was too good not to share.

Question: Is the human brain predisposed to create myths?

Oliver Sacks: Yeah. First I would say that the human brain or the human mind is disposed to create stories or narratives. Children love stories, make up stories.

Jerome Bruner, a great psychologist, has spoken of two modes of thinking. One is to create narratives, one is to create paradigms or explanations or models.  And of course some of these will come together because then you want to have a story which explains.

We all come into the world and human beings are evolved into a mysterious world and had to wonder where they came from, how the world came from, what are the stars doing.

And in the absence of better explanations, I think, supernatural explanations sort of come to mind. There must have been some great figure who created the universe and who perhaps is keeping an eye on us now.

And say before 1859 and before [Charles] Darwin, before The Origin of Specieswas published, there was no natural explanation of how different animals and plants had come into being, let alone human beings.

I think Freeman Dyson, a great physicist who once wrote, “I am a practicing Christian but not a believing one.”

So I think my parents were practicing Jews, but not believing ones. I don’t think that belief is a particularly strong thing in Judaism. But my mother was also botanically inclined. I grew up in a Darwinian world, and I was very startled when I came to the [United] States and found that millions, millions and millions of people didn’t believe in evolution. I still am profoundly perplexed.

To proclaim that one doesn’t believe in the evolution, I think, what would label one as an idiot in most of the civilized world; certainly, in Europe.

And again, growing up in Europe, it was our feeling the world would become more and more secular. And now, of course, as the world stands by mad, dangerous fundamentalism on all sides; who would have thought that the 21st Century would dissolve into religious conflict?

I’m a sort of quiet, old, Jewish atheist. I’m not a militant atheist. I don’t sort of argue about things like [Richard] Dawkins and [Daniel] Dennett and Sam Harris. I quite like their books, but I’m not militant by nature, and I’m not very argumentative by nature. And if people want to believe, well, then that’s their business.

What concerns me is when belief is used to influence and corrupt educational politics. And that seems to me monstrous that creationism, or so-called intelligent design, is thought next to evolution or instead of it. And I do think it is almost is a form of madness.

Question: Is all religion madness?

Oliver Sacks: I think I need to say that there are specifically some conditions of the brain which predispose to mystical or religious thinking. In particular, when people have so-called temporal lobe epilepsy or temporal lobe seizures, they may have religious or mystical visions. Or even between seizures, they may have a gradual personality change which disposes them to mystical and religious thinking.

I think that thinking of this sort is, if you want, built into the nervous system. Although it doesn’t have to take an explicitly theistic notion.

[Albert] Einstein always used to say that the most beautiful thing in the world is the mysterious. And I think that the fundamental sets of mystery and awe and of the sublime is behind all science and art. Basically, I think, science springs from a sense of nature’s mysteriousness and the wonder of nature. And there is no need to invoke anything supernatural. Indeed, I think too much involvement in the supernatural may blind one to the wonder of nature. And I’m slightly terrified by certain fundamentalist who say, let the planet go to hell, the Final Coming is going to be soon. God will take care of it all.

I live, for myself, happily and completely within nature. I love it. I have a sense of being at home. I don’t pine for anything else. And so, I think, those parts of my temporal lobes are devoted to, as it were, to an almost religious feeling for nature.

Recorded on: Sep 4, 2008

You can view the interview here on the Big Think website

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