The Ornamental Mind

As discussed in Chapter 1, traditional theories viewed the human mind as a set of survival abilities. The dominant metaphors for mental adaptations were drawn from military and technical domains. Cognitive science views the mind as a computer for processing information. Many evolutionary psychologists view the mind as a Swiss army knife, with distinct mental tools for solving different adaptive problems. Some primatologiste view the mind as a Machiavellian intelligence center devoted to covert operations.

Our discussion of sensory bias theory and pleasure leads to a different view. Perhaps we can do better by picturing the human brain as an entertainment system that evolved to stimulate other brains—brains that happened to have certain sensory biases and pleasure systems. At the psychological level, we could view the human mind as evolved to embody the set of psychological preferences our ancestors had. Those preferences were not restricted to the surface details of courtship like the iridescence of a peacock's tail; they could have included any preferences that lead us to like one person's company more than another's. The preferences could have been social, intellectual, and moral, not just sensory.

This "ornamental mind" theory leads to some quite different metaphors drawn from the entertainment industry rather than the military-industrial complex. The mind as amusement park. The mind as a special-effects science-fiction action film, or romantic comedy. The mind as a Las Vegas honeymoon suite. The mind as a dance club, cabinet of curiosities, mystery novel, computer strategy game, Baroque cathedral, or luxury cruise ship. You get the idea.

Psychologists who pride themselves on their seriousness may consider these metaphors trivial. To them, the mind is obviously a computer that evolved to process information. Well, that seems obvious now, but in 1970 the mind as a computer was just another metaphor. It was just slightly better than Sigmund Freud's metaphor of the mind as a hydraulic system of liquid libido, or John Locke's metaphor of the mind as a blank slate. The mind-as-computer helped to focus attention on questions of how the mind accomplishes various perceptual and cognitive tasks. The field of cognitive science grew up around such questions.

However, the mind-as-computer metaphor drew attention away from questions of evolution, individual differences, motivation, emotion, creativity, social interaction, sexuality, family life, culture, status, money, power, birth, growth, disease, insanity, and death. As long as you ignore most of human life, the computer metaphor is terrific. Computers are human artifacts designed to fulfill human needs, such as increasing the value of Microsoft stock. They are not autonomous entities that evolved to survive and reproduce. This makes the computer metaphor very poor at helping psychologists to identify mental adaptations that evolved through natural and sexual selection. "Processing information" is not a proper biological function—it is just a shadow of a hint of an abstraction across a vast set of possible biological functions. The mind-as-computer metaphor is evolutionarily agnostic, which makes it nearly useless as a foundation for evolutionary psychology. At the very least, the metaphor of the mind as a sexually selected entertainment system identifies some selection pressures that may have shaped the mind during evolution.

This entertainment metaphor suggests that the human mind shares some features with the entertainment industry. The mind has to be open for business, with a clean, safe, welcoming interior. It needs good public access routes and good advertising. It must provide a world of stimulation, ideas, adventure, interaction, and novelty set apart from the ordinary world of tedium, toil, and threatening uncertainty. It must capture the right market niche, and respond to changing consumer tastes. The mind hides the appalling working conditions of its employees (the energy-hungry brain circuits) to provide attentive, smiling service for visitors. Like the future dystopia in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, the Eloi of leisured ideas appear on the surface of consciousness, while the Morlocks of cognitive effort are imprisoned underground.

If the ornamental mind theory has any merit, then the functional demands that evolution has placed on the human mind have been misunderstood. The entertainment industry does not operate like a military campaign. As Darwin realized, sexual selection does not work like survival of the fittest. All of the criteria of success, the strategies, the resources, and the modes of competition are different.

Viewed from a military point of view, Hollywood is a failure. It hasn't even managed to annex the San Fernando valley, or invade Santa Monica, or bomb Santa Barbara, or establish a secret alliance with Tijuana. Its standing army is just a few hundred studio security guards, and it has no navy or air force. Its people are undisciplined, vain, soft, and prone to fantasy. They live on salad. They would be no match for the Spartans, the Mongols, or the British SAS. This is all true, but rather misses the point. If the human mind evolved as an entertainment system like Hollywood, those of its features that look like military-competitive weaknesses may actually be its greatest strengths. Its propensity for wild fantasy does not undermine its competitive edge, but attracts enormous interest from adoring fans. Its avoidance of physical conflict allows it to amass, quietly and discreetly, enormous resources and expertise to produce ever more impressive shows. Its emphasis on beauty over strength, fiction over fact, and dramatic experience over plot coherence, reflects popular taste, and popular tastes are what it lives on. Its huge promotional budgets, costly award shows, and conspicuously luxurious lifestyle are not just wasteful vanity—they are part of the show. Its obsession with fads and fashion do not reflect victimization by exploitative memes, but the strategic appropriation of cultural ideas to promote its own products.

Profit is Hollywood's bottom line, and everything about it that would look baffling to Genghis Khan makes perfect sense to entertainment industry analysts who understand what produces profit. To understand the human mind's evolution, we have to remember that reproductive success is evolution's bottom line. The mind makes very little sense as a Swiss army knife or a military command center. It makes more sense as an entertainment system designed to stimulate other brains, and the ornamental mind theory captures that intuition.

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