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How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories (The MIT Press) Paperback – August 13, 2019
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Rosenberg has written a fascinating and challenging book, one that every historian should read and take into account.—Choice—
"Has narrative history long been held hostage to 'theory of mind,' and, thus, getting things all wrong? It has, and it is likely to continue doing so, as long as it reflexively accomodates itself to minds eager to be 'besotted by stories,' argues Alex Rosenberg in his thought-provoking new book that brings together social sciences, neuroscience, and cognitive evolutionary psychology and anthropology. It is a page-turner (Rosenberg knows how to tell a good story!) that starts an expertly and timely conversation about the role of cognitive adaptations in shaping academic and popular discourses."―Lisa Zunshine, Bush-Holbrook Professor of English, University of Kentucky; author of Getting Inside Your Head: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Popular Culture
- Item Weight : 15.2 ounces
- Paperback : 296 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0262537990
- ISBN-13 : 978-0262537995
- Publisher : The MIT Press; Reprint Edition (August 13, 2019)
- Product Dimensions : 6.13 x 0.78 x 9.06 inches
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #693,294 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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This passage views technology as an unpredictable agent. But this is a category error: humans decide how to use technology. And, on the basis of historical experience, we can confidentially predict some impacts of new technologies, including more efficient mass-killings and profit-oriented marketing.
Concerning lessons from history, indeed much caution and also skepticism is needed. But on micro-history the book by Ernest May Strange Victory clearly provides the lesson that the quality of high staff work is more important than hardware for winning wars, given more or less equal force sized. Mezo history provides more lessons, such as on the historic importance of select leaders, as clearly the case with Adolf Hitler. On the level of deep macro-history, as recognized by the way in the book, evolution theory is based on it as are some macro-historic theorems. Therefore, sweeping denial of learning from history overshoots the target.
True, most teachers of history and many history writers are story-oriented and lack understanding of complex theories. But viewing historical processes as shaped by a dynamic mix between necessity (including stochastic), chance and choice illustrates a theoretic paradigm which can and in part should come instead of narrative. Such possibilities are ignored in the book.
What I found very disturbing is the statement “there has to be a fact of the matter about what the kaiser actually believed and desired” and again “there has to be a fact of the matter about what the kaiser actually believed and desired” (Kindle location 1973). The author ignores the possibility of indeterminacy -- a dynamic composition including chance “quantum” leaps, which cannot be reduced to an ontological “fact.” To apply as an analogue Schrödinger's cat, the processes in the mind are not “facts,” though the decision is (also analogous to a quantum wave collapse).
This leads to my last comment: In my view the author adopts a wrong view of the relations between brain and mind. He states “Unless the mind is a distinct entity from the brain, surely, the beliefs and the desires that bring about behavior are somehow inscribed in the brain, in the neural circuits of the cerebral cortex” (Kindle location 2243). This is a materialistic view of the mind, ignoring other possibilities, such as brain as substrata with the mind having some or much autonomy from its material basis. Also the mind can be viewed as an emergent property of most of the brain as an hyper-complex systems, that provides significant autonomy to the mind – which can explain consciousness and free will as a kind of “facts” and not an illusion.
Related is the trust that neurosciences “will ensure that there is a fact of the matter, a right answer to the explanatory questions narrative history seeks to answer, even if we don’t yet have the means to nail that answer down exactly. The only way to vindicate narrative history’s recourse to the theory of mind is through neuroscience” (Kindle location 2252). This is a belief and surely not a fact. Indeed it may be counter-factual if understanding of human minds requires a meta-mind, being beyond the evolutionary selected human minds as facilitating species survival.
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
What is this dynamite? It is the empirical findings of neuroscience, primarily from studying the brains of rats, which explode the illusion of historians having any idea of what was going on in the minds of historical figures. The book tells us that Rat brain Neuroscience is increasingly showing that the neurons in their tiny brains are firing away and have no relationship to any actions of the rat. (Oh yes, rat brains are really just tiny versions of our brains). Human neurons are the same and have not content that can be understood and It follows from this that History is all bunk, as Henry Ford said. No one can claim any true knowledge of history because neurons have no content we can understand. We can hardly figure out what the guy next to us on the train believes or desires, so how can we know what Julius Caesar was thinking? We can't know anything because the neurons of that guy and Julius's neurons have not content. We are totally lost in utter ignorance. Thus history is just a romp of the Theory of Mind and once we realize from rat neuroscience that the theory of mind is an illusion, we can burn all our history books or make them into Hollywood movies.
My final verdict is that this book is very interesting and thought provoking. It very well may be on the correct path with its neuroscience based critique of Theory of Mind, but neuroscience still has a long way to go. As for claiming history has nothing to say and really is dangerous and should be ignored as a result of neuroscience, that is a claim that would need another book to cover. I look for a follow up.
Think again. The author is deeply versed in how memory is acquired, how it works, and how memes fail us. Much of what we think we know is false. A study of brain chemistry proves that we don’t know what we think we know, and that what we regard as ‘memories’ are not stored indelibly like zeros and ones in computer RAM, but have a quite different structure.
When we quote accounts of historical events - contemporaneous or not - we can never know what the characters really thought, but only what was written later. Memories fail, rationalization takes place. Appeals to authority prevail, because whatever was thought or what really happened is gone.