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We are gaining insights, also, into aspects of the mind that may be uniquely human. Dennett, surely rightly, highlights “displaced reference” as a key innovation of language, its “power to refer to things not present in the environment of the communicators, out of sight, in the past, imaginary or hypothetical”. But while language is uniquely helpful when I want to tell you what I think, it is only one of many ways of achieving this kind of reference. When I imagine the house in which I spent my childhood, many leagues hence, I also represent a thing not present, and for most of us such ‘“visualisation” plays a large part in our mental lives. With colleagues in Edinburgh I recently described a group of people who lead “lives without imagery”. It seems that two per cent of the population may fall into this category — not least Standpoint’s own Dominic Lawson. Such “aphantasia” had a distinctive neural signature in the first such case we studied: in the several thousand who have since volunteered intriguing associations are coming to light, including, in many, an impoverishment of memory for the personal past, an impaired ability to recognise familiar faces, and — here’s the fun and the puzzle — abundant potential for the highest achievements in both the sciences and the arts: Craig Venter, the first person to decode the human genome, and Oliver Sacks, the great chronicler of neurological disorders, have both described their lack of imagery.

Aphantasia, like synaesthesia, the “merging of the senses” that allows some of us to taste Tuesday or to see it emblazoned in crimson, illustrates the great — and often unsuspected — variety of human experience. Discovering that these differences between us correspond to differences between our brains helps to validate our introspection. The hundred thousand million neurons of the human brain, each connecting to thousands of other cells, those connections shaped by our lifetime’s experience, provide the biological background to Roger Scruton’s remark that we are “unique, irreplaceable, not admitting of substitutes”. The neuroscientist can wholeheartedly agree. Our uniqueness is a property at once un-mysterious and miraculous — much like the privacy, the “inwardness” of our experience: we contain multitudes, bounded by the narrow confines of the skull, unavoidably committed to a single point of view. We are strangely insensitive to the astounding complexity within the human frame. It gives us a powerful reason to respect and to reach out to one another, to transcend our tribalism.
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Al de Baran
February 25th, 2017
12:02 AM
"the study of the brain is beginning to provide intriguing hints about the structure of the mind". Far more likely that the reverse is true: The conceptual structure of a particular type of mind (the Western, analytic, scientific materialist mind) dictates the way the brain is being studied.

Tom Hewitt
February 24th, 2017
10:02 AM
A good article. I'm ploughing through Dennett's tome at the moment. Pace Scruton, he is entitled to use the adjective sacred as he wishes. If it were being applied to a metaphorical transcendental, well and good, but, alas, Scruton intends that we should take the transcendent literally. In his writings on music and art, he emphasises the ineffable. But the ineffable is only the immanent which have not yet found the words to describe.

Klaus Rohde
February 23rd, 2017
11:02 PM
Is consciousness equivalent to intelligence and can it be digitalized? No. See here:

Eric MacDonald
February 23rd, 2017
5:02 PM
When you say that "the study of the brain is beginning to provide intriguing hints about the structure of the mind," would it not be more accurate to say that this study is providing hints about the structure of neural correlates of the mind? Unless you presuppose a one to one relationship between the structure of brain events and the structure of mind events – and it is not clear that you have a right to that presupposition – then the structure of the the neural correlates of thought is all that can be hinted at by the study of the brain.

Robert Landbeck
February 23rd, 2017
2:02 PM
" to transcend our tribalism." is what history demonstrates our species is incapable of doing! And for what appears as 'our' exceptionalism' from within the tinted glasses of any particular cultural construct, The Dooms Day clock is closer to midnight, an environmental crisis looks set to overwhelm us in the near future. However one might wish to describe our species, Evolution has fixed and limited our moral and spiritual potential. And secular or religious, there is no understanding that exists with the authority to to take man off the slippery slope to his own self made hell.

ted schrey montreal
February 23rd, 2017
2:02 PM
I prefer to understand that "mind" stands for the aggregate of all our "ideas". No ifs, ands, buts, hows or whys.

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