Saturday, May 28, 2011

Old World New Mind

In 1989, two renowned American academics, psychologist Robert Ornstein and biologist Paul Ehrlich, wrote a book called “New World New Mind: Moving Towards Conscious Evolution”. Their thesis, in essence, was fairly straightforward: humans had created a new world for themselves, but were still using an “old mind” to ineffectively deal with its consequences.

This mismatch meant that primitive fear and anger could potentially launch nuclear weapons, and that a mind wired for drama and stark contrasts simply could not detect and react to “slow change” - such as what we are seeing in climate change and the slow but sure consumption of the planet’s resources. By the time Chinese and Indians consume like Westerners, it may simply too late.

Ornstein and Ehrlich put forward an answer: humans can develop a “new mind” to deal with the challenges of a new world through a process they call “conscious evolution”. For this to happen we need to slow down our fast reflexes, widen our mental filters, see more “grays” in the world and approach the complexities facing us through holistic methods. Through a campaign of awareness and new forms of education that are focused on developing those parts of the mind currently slumbering, they believe we can make this transformation, thereby effectively saving ourselves from the spiraling dangers of our new world.

Above all, the shift will hinge on humans first becoming aware that they even have a problem, and realizing that their minds are operating according to methods devised to save us from saber-tooth tigers - and not from the environmental impact of carbon-based resources. Only when we become “conscious” of these limits, can we proceed to a new evolution.

In our other blog, entitled The Missing Piece, we have attempted to demonstrate how the specific problems of the Middle East, especially the ongoing ethnic conflicts and their fall-out, can be approached in new ways based on novel understandings of our psychology and culture. We have looked at matters ranging from cult thinking, to conditioning, to the basic sources of extremism. We have also placed a heavy emphasis on the Human Givens approach of psychological understanding that describes the innate needs and capacities that all humans have, and that, if satisfied, eliminate mental illness.

In our view, meeting these needs will also diminish and even resolve conflict in the Middle East, and serve as the basis for the proper planning and development of societies there and in other regions.

The approaches presented in “The Missing Piece” are another way of understanding and developing “The New Mind” that Ornstein and Ehrlich propose.

Recently, we have seen the Arab countries go through unexpected revolutions that have succeeded in casting aside leaders and systems in place for decades. In the first few months of 2011, this "old world”, which is in a sense the oldest world, has leapt from a culture frozen since ancient times to a situation where positive evolution is at least possible.

The road ahead for the Arab world is difficult and unpredictable. The old mind may triumph. But the Arab revolutions carry with them a spirit of individual empowerment and functionalism that are largely anti-cult, anti-ideology and anti-authority, and which may yet carry the day even if the process is decades long.

The Arab people have risen up en masse because their needs - especially for legitimacy and dignity - were not sufficiently met by their rulers and governments. Today, they have the space to attempt to wrest control over their lives and build a future where their needs, their “Human Givens”, are indeed met and the problems ahead faced more constructively.

Ornstein and Ehrlich wrote their tome the year that the Berlin Wall fell. Little did anyone know that twenty-one years later another set of earth-shaking revolutions would occur, and that radical changes would begin in a most unexpected place. There are no assurances of success for this endeavor in the Middle East, nor anywhere in the globe for that matter. However, we believe that the dissemination of these ideas is crucial today to the solution of our problems and for the future of human development. As Ornstein and Ehrlich say to end their book:

“If this book stimulates some more people to think about the roots of the human predicament, and how we might begin to adapt to our society, then we will have accomplished our purpose. With luck, we will have started to change your mind.”

With luck, the Arab revolutions may also lead, against all odds, to an “Old World New Mind”.

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