Steve Fenton

The search for a Self

Most humans have a feeling that we have a certain amount of self-direction. The thought that we are simply a combination of DNA passed to us from our ancestors (nature) with a sprinkle of experiences (nurture), which combine to give us predictable responses to stimulation seems alien.

Yet the wealth of experiments conducted by behaviourists seem to suggest that behaviour is simply an artefact of these two inputs. If you take two rats, and carefully control their experiences, you can make them behave in the same way. The same seems to be true of other animals too… so should we believe that we are any different? Are we simply reacting in a predictable manner based on our nature and nurture?

Non-Wrinkly Brains

It would seem so… except we have something that many animals don’t have. Reasoning. The ability to run through imagined scenarios to test their outcome and to replay situations to reason about what might have been done differently and how it would have impacted the outcome. We draw from our own experiences, and from others that we have learned in conversations, books, and other sources. Our mind is a playground for trying things out that we might never even do.

We are not simply taking nature and nurture as inputs, we are drawing on our memory and imagination to reconstruct events, or generate new experiences that are completely novel – and this process of reasoning is affecting our future responses. This may be something unique to humans, or perhaps there are other animals with a large, deeply-wrinkled brain that also have this ability… but rats are a poor comparison for the human brain in both these respects.

For the anthropomorphic view of the rat, American psychology has substituted a rattomorphic view of man – Arthur Koestler.

Human Reasoning

So perhaps there are many examples of animals (such as rats) where you can control what goes in and guarantee that how they react remains predictable – but when an animal can reason, you are no longer in control of all inputs, because the internal generation of ideas could result in any number of changes to how the animal will react in the future.