Leonard Mlodinow and the New Unconscious

Cal Tech professor and popular science writer Leonard Mlodinow has a new book out, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. He gave this RSA talk in the UK, which I enjoyed watching:

Mlodinow does two things in this video which out to encourage (neuro)anthropologists. First, he provides a broad, biocultural approach to talking and thinking about ourselves. He mentions primates, evolution, culture, our brains, and more. In other words, he uses the basic holistic approach of anthropology as an intellectual framework – even though he doesn’t call it that, and doesn’t know that he could hang his hat on that decades-old approach.

Second, he brings back a focus on the unconscious, a realm that has been largely occupied by psychologists since Freud. He does this largely through a focus on neuroscience, but with a consistent emphasis on the social side of human interaction. In this way, he opens up doors for more culturally-informed researchers to consider the unconscious in news ways, as something that “encultured practices” and the like can shape in fundamental ways.

Take his effective presentation about how we see, and how internal processing is what makes a rather blurry first-person view into a three-dimensional world. Our brain provides that information, that regularity. And in social and cultural questions – which occupy much of our everyday life – the regularities and the interpretive framework come from culture.

Turning to his book, the chapters do seem to provide a set-up for lots of anthropological discussions: how we read people, how we judge people, how we sort people into groups, how social feelings work, and so forth. I haven’t read the book myself, so if anyone has, I’d be interested to hear what they think.

To do this sort of work will require a bio-cultural or psycho-cultural combination. Mlodinow seems focused on the mechanisms of social cognition and unconscious processing; most anthropologists are more interested in the frameworks and models that can provide regularities, as well as the particular content of thought and self in specific times and places. Each side has often assumed that understanding one – mechanisms, models, and content – provides privileged insight into the other domains. But I just don’t see it that way – the data of vision, the interpretative processing, and the experience of seeing specific things – all matter to understanding the anthropology of being human.

Final note. If you liked the 10 minutes or so of Mlodinow, you can see a long version of his Subliminal talk on Authors at Google.

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