A correspondent has asked me what triggered my original interest in how the mind and brain works. I thought back to 1986, when I first read Robert Ornstein’s Multimind. Ornstein, a professor of human biology at Stanford, and at that time President of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge, seemed well qualified to tell me.
I rely largely on memory when I recall his theme. He set out to explain why it was that we were often inconsistent in our judgments. The answer he suggested is that we hold in our brain a number of different minds. Faced by a situation calling for our judgment we wheel out what seems to be the most appropriate mind, and that leads to our conclusion. There is some degree of insulation between our different minds, which can lead us to form different and inconsistent conclusions – without observing that we are doing so.
The concept of multimind is metaphorical. An example or two will help us to understand how it works.
Imagine that you are in a queue waiting to use a photocopying machine. At that point, you are feeling impatient and perhaps put out that only one machine is available. However, just as you reach the head of the queue someone appears out of the blue and says: “I need to take a copy quickly because it’s Thursday.” And you find yourself standing aside. This happens because we react to the word “because”; it signals to us that there is a reason for us accepting the request. In fact the actual reason “because it’s Thursday” tells us nothing. But we scarcely listen to that: “because” is enough to trigger one of our minds – in this case the “I am a helpful person mind.”
You need an electrical job to be done in your house. You expect it to cost around £500. So you go for quotes. The first quote you receive is for £2000. You are really shocked. The next quote comes in at £1750. Then a third quote comes in at £1000. Not only do you grab it, you feel that it’s really quite cheap. Why have you forgotten that this quote is twice your original estimate? Because of course your comparison mind is with the expensive quote, and no longer with your original estimate.
A dramatic example occurs when someone who would go to enormous lengths to save the life of a week old baby, would happily grant its mother the right to have it dismembered and evacuated only a week before birth. Challenged, that person, quite sincerely, might see no inconsistency
Following King David’s seduction of Bathsheba, Nathan asked him how a man should be punished if he had stolen a poor man’s only ewe lamb. David said: “the man who hath done this deserves to die.” Nathan replied: “You are the man.” And David saw the truth and said: “I have sinned against the Lord.”
But perhaps the most common and certainly not least important is the contrast between how we judge others and how we judge ourselves. The example of David is significant here: Nathan has to present him with a new frame of reference which obliges David to judge in objective rather than subjective terms.
Here is an example – trivial but true. I live in a quiet road and on a summer’s afternoon I deplore loud noises made by neighbours, especially if they are protracted. Yet somehow this does not apply to me when I mow the lawn. Were I challenged I would claim that it was a comforting noise of an English summer. As it happens, sensitivity to the noise of others and insensitivity to our own noise is, the psychologists tell us, particularly contrasted.
There is a collective version of this. It is only too easy to condemn atrocities emanating from the Muslim religion, while not noticing similar or greater atrocities in the history of Christendom.
Have we always maintained the high sexual standards we expect of others? Are we as scrupulous in truth-telling as we expect of others? That list could be a long one. Where does it end? For us, perhaps, with “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Do we?