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Invisible Forces Operating on Human Bodies: Gravity, Gods, and Minds

📄 Contents

  1. The Chicago Social Brain Network
  2. Background
  3. Conclusion
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The members of the Chicago Social Brain Network work beyond the boundaries of disciplinary borders, geographical precincts, and epistemological comfort zones to develop a rigorous but innovative approach to the study of the human mind, sociality, spirituality, health, and well-being.
This chapter is from the book

We may believe we know why we think, feel, and act as we do, but various forces influence us in ways that are largely invisible to our senses. Gravity is an invisible force that holds us to the surface of the Earth, and magnetism is an invisible force that we use in everyday life. The fact that gravity and magnetism are invisible to us does not place them beyond scientific scrutiny. Similarly, a host of forces have emerged over the course of human evolution to influence our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Because many of these forces are elemental, we are dealing with an area of human behavior that has also been addressed for centuries by various religions. Among these are forces that compel us to seek trusting and meaningful connections with others and to seek meaning and connection with something larger than ourselves. The story of these invisible forces speaks to who we are and what our potential might be as a species. In short, it is the story of the human mind.

  • * The Chicago Social Brain Network is a group of more than a dozen scholars from the neurosciences, behavioral sciences, social sciences, and humanities who share an interest in who we are as a species, and the role of biological and social factors in the shaping of individuals, institutions, and societies across human history. The scientists and scholars in the Network differ in background, epistemologies, beliefs, and methods. After five years of working together, we found that a common set of themes emerged in our work despite the differences among us. These themes, which provide a different perspective on how we might think about human history, experience, and spirituality, are examined here and explored in more detail in subsequent chapters.

The mind can be thought of as the structure and processes responsible for cognition, emotion, and behavior. It is now widely recognized that many structures and processes of the mind operate outside of awareness, with only the end products reaching awareness, and then only sometimes. But clearly we know a great deal about the mind from what we experience through our senses. It is common sense that we know the shape or color of an object from simply seeing it.

Or do we? It is obvious that the tops of the tables depicted in the top panel of Figure 1.1 differ in size and shape. You may be surprised to learn that your mind is fooling you—the tops of the table are precisely the same size and shape. If you don’t believe it, trace and cut a piece of paper the size of one tabletop and then place it over the other. Self-evident truths can sometimes be absolutely false.

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1 The two seemingly differently shaped table tops are, in fact, identical in the picture plane. This illusion arises because our visual system provides depth interpretations of the two-dimensional drawing. Table illusion from Mind Sights: Original Visual Illusions, Ambiguities, and Other Anomalies by Roger N. Shepard. Copyright © 1990 by Roger N. Shepard. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

The science of the mind is not unique in this regard. As the historian Daniel Boorstin noted1:

  • Nothing could be more obvious than that the earth is stable and unmoving, and that we are the center of the universe. Modern Western science takes its beginning from the denial of this commonsense axiom.... Common sense, the foundation of everyday life, could no longer serve for the governance of the world. When “scientific” knowledge, the sophisticated product of complicated instruments and subtle calculations, provided unimpeachable truths, things were no longer as they seemed.

And just as the observation that we roam on stable ground led to the incorrect inference that we are the center of the universe, the observation that we look out onto the world and onto others fosters the mistaken notion that the human brain is a solitary, autonomous instrument whose connections with other brains is of no real import.

The human brain, the organ of the mind, is housed deep within the cranial vault, where it is protected and isolated from others, so it may seem obvious that the brain is a solitary information-processing device that has no special means of connecting with other brains. But we are fundamentally a social species. Faces, expressive displays, and human speech receive preferential processing in neonatal as well as adult brains. When people feel rejected by others, their brains show the same pattern of activation as when they are exposed to a physically painful stimulus. Permit people to cooperate with others, and their brains show the same pattern of activation as when they are given a rich reward such as delicious food or drink. We may not be aware of it, but human evolution has sculpted a human need for social connection, along with neural circuits and hormonal processes that enable and promote communication and connection across brains. As we shall see in the chapters to follow, our sociality is an important part of who we are as a species, and it plays an important, although often invisible, role in the operations of our brain and our biology. Among the questions we examine is whether our social brain also contributes to the ubiquitous human quest for spirituality.

The Chicago Social Brain Network

For hundreds of years, theology and philosophy were the hub disciplines of scholarship, and other fields of inquiry orbited around this dyad and were tightly constrained by it. Over the past three centuries, the sciences have come into their own, displacing theology and philosophy at the center of the academic universe. In so doing, they have produced extraordinary advances in everyday life. People may reminisce about the good old days, but thanks to science and technology, the amount of total income spent on the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter dropped from 80% in 1901 to 50% in 2002–2003. Yet there remains an inchoate sense that something is missing in our lives, something intangible and elusive. Science has improved our material lives, but improvements in material life may not be enough to optimize human well-being.

Can these two very different ways of seeing the world be used synergistically to shed new light on the human mind? To explore this question, in fall 2004, we established an ongoing network of more than a dozen scholars unbounded by disciplinary precincts, geographical borders, or methodological perspectives to set aside antagonisms that had grown up between science and humanities. These Network scholars hail from disciplines as disparate as psychology, neurology, theology, statistics, philosophy, internal medicine, anthropology, and sociology. Each of these scholars was well known in his or her own field and was busy with other obligations, but the opportunity to achieve a deeper, more comprehensive discussion of the human mind made it worth the time and effort required to be part of the Network.

Although various members of the Network interact on a daily or weekly basis, the entire Network convenes twice annually for a four-day retreat to discuss each other’s research, critique each other, and learn from one another. Scientific analyses characterized by rigorous experimental designs and data analytic strategies are interlaced with rich philosophical, theological, and historical analyses of the same questions about invisible forces that act on us all. The dialogue between the Network scientists and the scholars from the humanities and theology is bidirectional. For instance, the beliefs and behavior described in the humanities and theology are rich in hypotheses that can now be tested empirically, and the measures and methods of the behavioral sciences and neurosciences now permit rigorous investigation of some of these hypotheses. Each of the Network members brings a unique perspective to the study of the human mind, and the provocative story of the mind that is emerging from the collective efforts of the Network is the subject of this book.

The Network is unconventional in other ways as well. Traditionally, scientists and scholars work together to achieve a common understanding and a consensus position. We quickly learned that we did not need to come to a consensus to benefit tremendously from the dialogue on the capacity and motivation for the ubiquitous human quest for sociality and spirituality. For instance, there is no consensus within the Network on whether there is a God, and we do not seek here to provide the final word on what science and the humanities each have to say to the other about the human mind. Instead, our purpose is to illustrate the possibility and importance of engaging others whose views we may not share in a serious dialogue on such topics. We have learned many lessons as a Network:

  1. Some questions about human nature and our social and spiritual aspirations have been asked by humankind for thousands of years. Accordingly, we can gain more from engaging in a collaborative process of thinking about these questions than from demanding simple and immediate answers. We discuss what we see as possible answers to questions about our nature and strivings, but the value in stating these positions is to have clear positions from which to move thinking and research forward. Thus, our purpose in writing this book is to articulate ideas to be shaped and refined, not to provide the final word.
  2. One need not agree with a position to perform a deep and thorough analysis of the arguments for and against the position. Objectivity in thought and analysis are keys to reaching a deep understanding of a topic. By taking a position, developing arguments for and against the position, and then taking the opposite position and doing likewise, we develop the capacity to be more dispassionate and powerful thinkers—and gain deeper insight into a topic.
  3. One need not reach agreement with someone to learn a great deal from discussions with them or to make significant advances in addressing a complex question. The salve of affirmation can lead us to seek like-minded others and to denigrate and avoid those who disagree with us. Although this may provide temporary comfort, it does little to help address deep divisions or solve problems that we encounter in an increasingly complex and diverse world. There are inherent tensions between the sciences and the humanities, and these tensions have led to a polarization of views, an “It’s my way or the highway” approach toward those holding divergent points of view. The contents of this book illustrate an alternative possibility. The Network is a very interdisciplinary group, and the perspectives captured in the subsequent chapters reflect some of the same tensions that other scientific and religious books have wrestled with—and from which they have not benefited. The tensions reflect deep and enduring differences in the way in which scholars in the humanities, the social sciences, and the sciences think about theory, methods, and evidence. These differences can test one’s mettle, but if acknowledged, respected, embraced, and pursued, they result in a richer, more innovative and synergistic collaborative effort. In the case of our Network, this was neither easy nor quick, but it was achieved through a mutual respect and exchange of ideas and a shared conviction regarding the importance of the Network’s combination of approaches from the humanities and the sciences. In a sense, our Network is a microcosm of the structure that exists in our society. If these tensions are embraced and used to their full catapultic effect, we can make progress on serious problems, transforming not only how we think about the problem, but also how we think about those who hold different or opposing views.
  4. The insights or advances we can achieve need not be our or our opponent’s position, or a less than optimal compromise between the two; they can be truly innovative, building on and transcending both initial positions. The specific forms of such creative and transcendent solutions are difficult to articulate in advance, but there is a thought process—characterized by clarity, openness, constructive criticism, and synthesis—that increases the likelihood one will reach such solutions. All of the perspectives discussed in this book have been transformed through this process.
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