Nonfiction

Review – The Myth of Irrationality: The Science of the Mind from Plato to Star Trek by John McCrone

This month’s Comparative Geeks post is in conversation with two friends on a topic I’ve been contemplating for some time: how emotions are portrayed on Star Trek. That post is mostly focused on how Data and Spock represent types of human neurodivergence, not a complete absence of emotion or a state of repression that needs release. We also touch on the idea, present in Star Trek but in a lot of other media as well, that humans are fundamentally irrational and that’s what makes us special, even transcendent. I’ve never liked that theme, but it’s even more concerning in light of the anti-intellectualist trend in modern culture.

the-myth-of-irrationality-science-of-the-mind-from-plato-to-star-trekImagine my delight when I found an entire book on the topic! The Myth of Irrationality: The Science of the Mind from Plato to Star Trek (1993) by John McCrone, science writer and author of four books on consciousness. It’s turned out to be a very difficult book to review, however. (This is gonna be a little longer than a typical review, but I promise it’s interesting! Also, if you’d like to read the introductory chapter/argument for yourself, it’s posted on the author’s website.)

Firstly, even though Star Trek is in the title, it’s only mentioned as an example once or twice and not on any deep level. Pop culture in general comes up a bit more, but still isn’t the main focus of the book. I’m still a little disappointed, and feel justified in disappointment due to the title of the book, but I can extrapolate my own connections (and will do so later in this review). It’s actually a popular-science book explaining an alternate model for how intelligence and supposed irrationality work, and the model is fascinating.

McCrone opens with some background of how we got to where we are today. As with many things, it begins with Plato, who described a three-part model: animal desires down in the gut and loins, higher intellect in the mind, and in between, an irrational but virtuous heart… But irrationality could also be divinely inspired. The Catholic Church picked up this concept, completing a transition to the mind as floaty thing tenuously balanced between “bad” and “good” irrationality. There’s a blip in the Enlightenment when philosophers thought of the mind as a force civilizing animalistic humans, but then it’s back to the Romantics and Rousseau, arguing that civilization was the problem and people should get back to their “natural” behavior. Popular culture was becoming a thing at the same time, in the late 1700s — hey, I wrote about this! — and Romantic literature spread the idea. From this point, the idea of individualism is closely linked with societal rebellion and flagrant emotionalism. “Being yourself” equates to “rejecting the constraints of polite society” or just following any impulse you have in the name of some “real” inner self. Good ol’ Freud made a big contribution here too, with his (made-up) ideas about the subconscious.

McCrone has no truck with any of this, particularly because so much of it is made up. There’s no science in any of that above, just philosophy. McCrone wants to examine how the brain might actually have evolved and how it seems to function now, in terms of how we think and what we think about. Most mixtures of psychology and evolution have only a tenuous grasp on either and end up wildly reductionist, but this isn’t that. He readily admits the difficulty in studying how the brain has developed since we don’t have historical brains and can’t interview humanoids at different stages of evolution, but he puts together a bookful of reasonable evidence all the same.

Instead of the three-part, or even two-part rational/irrational schema, he suggests a “bifold theory,” a brain divided between animal and cultural operations. The animal part is pretty basic, doesn’t do much, and isn’t scary — it’s basically the skills a similar animal can do, like immediate reactions to stimuli and tending to basic needs. In humans, the rest is socially developed and is predicated on having a language. Through language we learn how to think, how to retain ideas for more than a moment. Crucially, we develop an inner voice, chuntering away in our minds to make associations and interrogate impulses. McCrone compares this to hardware and software. From the best brain history available via preserved skulls, it seems that increasingly-complex language triggered complex thought, rather than the other way around.

There may not be a way to confirm what pre-humans were thinking, but there have been some modern experiments in child psychology, language development, the inner voice, and studies of children who were never exposed to language like those abandoned in the wild or born deaf and blind. (McCrone’s major precursor in all this was Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who invented the bifold theory and was having a minor resurgence among psychologists at the time.) It’s fascinating stuff, and honestly I buy McCrone’s argument about the inner voice. Even if it turns out not to be the sole explanation for human thought, it’s definitely something psychologists should be studying. And, it means that a lot of our strategies for being better people or more creative people have been built on a false assumption, that we need to tap into something inside us that isn’t actually there. 

The book is 25 years old. What’s happened in the past 25 years? I need to find one of those backward-citation thingies and find out if anyone’s developed (or indeed criticized) these ideas since then. That’s the trouble with science writing, it shows its age quickly and it can be hard to track an idea when you’re not a professional. Sometimes the book also shows its age in terminology, and although I didn’t notice anything fundamentally bad, I don’t know if we might’ve learned more about the cultures and conditions he uses as examples.

The pop culture bits are pretty 90s too, and seem included toward the end just as an attempt to prove how important it is to have an accurate model of why we do what we do. It’s really not necessary, the book is entirely readable without it and his slightly rant-like style here doesn’t really fit with the scientific stuff in the rest of the book. But you came here for Star Trek, so I’ll do it myself. There are plenty of examples of Kirk or another noble human suddenly pulling out the answer to a problem based on good old human irrationality, to the amazement of Spock or whatever other character is there to represent logic and intelligence. McCrone mentions one or two, and you can get a lot more discussion of that kind of thing in the post linked above, but I’ll leave you with a scene from the appropriately-named original-series episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.”

Platos-Stepchildren-1

McCoy: The release of emotions, Mr. Spock, is what keeps us healthy. Emotionally healthy, that is.

Spock: That may be, Doctor. However, I have noted that the healthy release of emotion is frequently very unhealthy for those closest to you.

Kirk: Which just goes to prove that there’s no such thing as a perfect solution.

Spock: So it would seem, Captain.

Star Trek is an excellent place to go for explorations of what it means to be human, and the relationship between intellect and impulse has been a consistent theme throughout the show. If McCrone is right, the “healthy release of emotion” is not what out culture thinks it is, and our intellect isn’t either. Our brains aren’t doing what we thought they were, because the idea of a roiling irrationality under the surface is a myth. Kirk may still be the perfect blend of intelligence and creativity, but sudden irrational impulses aren’t the reason why.

Comment below with thoughts, and I don’t care if it’s years after I posted this, if you ever read The Myth of Irrationality and wanna chat about it, you go right ahead, I’ll still be interested.

 

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6 thoughts on “Review – The Myth of Irrationality: The Science of the Mind from Plato to Star Trek by John McCrone

  1. First, a heresy. I’ve never seen Star Trek! But I have read this book and find the stuff about language producing thought via the inner voice extremely well argued and convincing. However, I do still believe in the unconscious. I would find it hard to account for much deeply imaginative art without thinking of the artist as having special access to his or her unconscious. But this may just be me clinging to long-held beliefs out of habit. I plan to re-read the last part of the book to see if McCrone can convert me on this.

    I liked your summary of McCrone’s central argument. Enviably clear and concise.

    I suppose I shouldn’t miss an opportunity to plug my book, Ignoring Chaucer.

    All the best

    Like

    1. Thanks for the comment! I think the debate over whether we have an unconscious or not probably just comes down to what we think we’re talking about. There are obviously many things about the mind and its operations that we don’t understand, and creativity is one of them. McCrone seems to be arguing that the subconscious just isn’t as scary as people think it is, it’s not some massive and uncontrollable Freudian thing inside us, but rather a matter of how our brains work to store and recognize information. So I find that reassuring more than unconvincing, and I don’t think it precludes a genius’s ability to recognize things other people would find to be deeply internal. I’ve always held that the skill (or ability/wherewithal/etc) to creating something meaningful is what makes the difference, not inspiration. Everyone you meet has an idea for a brilliant novel, but very few carry it off at all, let alone as brilliantly as they imagined.

      Your book looks very interesting, I’ll see if I can find a copy!

      Like

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