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Neuroscience

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Myth and the mind

Saturated with rites and symbols, psychology feeds a deep human need once nourished by mythology

Rami Gabriel

Photo by Christopher Anderson/Magnum

Rami Gabriel

is an associate professor of psychology and founding fellow at the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of A Suspicious Science: The Uses of Psychology (forthcoming) and Why I Buy: Self, Taste, and Consumer Society in America (2013), and co-author with Stephen Asma of The Emotional Mind: Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition (2019). 

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Psychology is not solely the science of the mind. It’s a form of knowledge enmeshed with our mythical understanding of deeper questions of significance. In our secular age, many people no longer turn to sacred books to understand who and what they are. Psychology is where many find meaning. Indeed, the stories we tell ourselves through psychology fulfil many of the same functions served in the traditional belief practices of mythology. Falling somewhere between a social science, a natural science and a human science, it isn’t simple to determine which type of knowledge the study of the mind is supposed to pursue. Psychology aspires to the status of the physical sciences, but it tries to explain much more, and ends up revealing much less.

Today, the term ‘mythology’ connotes uncorroborated legend. But that’s not entirely accurate. Mythology is really a set of beliefs buttressed by practices, or rituals, that together console our desire for explanation. As the Romanian theorist Mircea Eliade wrote in 1957: ‘Myth never quite disappears from the present world of the psyche … it only changes its aspect.’ And in our time its aspect is to be found in psychology.

Mythology remains important in Western culture. Take, for instance, the role model of the hero, of Hercules and Aeneas, of contemporary revolutionaries, martyrs and dictators. These ideal figures exemplify models of human achievement. Similarly, notions of salvation, progress and ethics are so constitutive of our notions of reality that they’re often communicated through the format of mythology. There’s a surfeit of cultural products that fulfil the function of myth whereby characters and stories give us the means to understand the world we live in. In the imaginary world we enter through novels, to the weightless experience of desire that’s consumerism, we inhabit the broad spaces of meaning-construction. Through superhero comic books, to the obscure immanence of modern art, from visions of paradisiacal vacations, to computer games and the self-mythologising of social media production, we seek a higher ground beyond the banal and the profane. We’ve even replaced the effervescent experience of sacred rites, not in blood sacrifice or vision quests, but in our engagement with art, drugs, cinema, rock music and all-night dance parties. Lastly, individuals have developed their own ways to create self-narratives that include mythical transitions in pilgrimages or personal quests to their ancestral lands. Likewise, some seek inner spaces wherein faith and meaning can be transformed into experience.

To prepare for our exploration of contemporary mythology, we can look back at civilisations and consider the function of the stories they told. The story of the flood, for example, recurs in early urban societies, marking a crisis in human-divine relations and man’s experience of gradual self-reliance and separation from nature. Whereas during the Axial Age (800-200 BCE), faith developed in an environment of early trade economies, at which time we observe a concern with individual conscience, morality, compassion and a tendency to look within. According to Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth (2005), these Axial myths of interiority indicate that people felt they no longer shared the same nature as the gods, and that the supreme reality had become impossibly difficult to access. These myths were a response to the loss of previous notions of social order, cosmology and human good, and represented ways to portray these social transformations in macrocosmic stories. Just as we consider how the myth of the flood or myths of interiority were reflections of how people tried to make sense of their rapidly changing world, our dependence on psychology can be understood as a result of shifts in modes of life and knowledge practices in the 19th and 20th centuries.

What constitutes a mythology? It’s an organised canon of beliefs that explains the state of the world. It also delivers an origin story – such as the Hindu Laws of Manu or the Biblical creation story – that creates a setting for how we experience the world. In fact, for Eliade, all myths provided an explanation of the world by virtue of giving an account of where things came from. If all mythologies are origin stories in this sense, what are the origin stories suggested by psychology? Two original elements of human nature are explained in its lore: the story of personhood – that is, what it means to be an individual and have an identity – and, secondly, the story of our physical constitution in the brain. The humanist vision of individualism, of the dignity of a person as a political subject articulates the former notion of what it means to be a person. Neuroscience, meanwhile, offers the latter ontological foundation of our materiality.

Contemporary psychology is a form of mythology insofar as it is an attempt to succor our need to believe in stories that provide a sense of value and signification in the context of secular modernity. The ways in which psychology is used – for example in experiments or self-help literature or personality tests or brain scans – are means of providing rituals to enact the myths of personhood and materialism.

A closer examination of the nature of belief is crucial to understand why we need mythology. Belief is our guiding star. Believing in something is an act of commitment guided by the emotions and solidified by habit and repetition. In our secular epoch, an individual must steer through a foggy landscape of science and superstition. When there are no dominant traditions and so many possible explanations on hand, how does an individual transcend doubt and make his commitment?

Our actions are motivated by a range of beliefs, from the unreflective and instinctive to consciously constructed meta-beliefs that we hone continuously. Belief is built around emotions, it assuages the experience of doubt, which gives rise to feelings of anxiety and insecurity. This is most clearly perceptible in the act of suspending conclusion, the sceptical balance of doubt that inaugurates the search for corroboration or disproval of belief. The subjective state of perplexity that challenges and interrupts is suffused with affect since the emotional core of the act of reason is the seeking of warrant for belief. A thinker’s duty to truth and away from error is itself a sort of affective push. By demanding a resolution through securing an explanation, the process of doubt is a steadying and guiding factor for reflection. As the American pragmatist John Dewey wrote in 1910: ‘The problem fixes the end of thought, and the end controls the process of thinking.’

In this case, accuracy is not the goal of belief. As the American philosopher William James argues in The Will to Believe (1897), there’s a human weakness to letting belief ride on emotional factors such as ‘lively conception’ and ‘instinctive liking’. As we’ve learned from decision neuroscience, marketing and behavioural economics, decision-making is itself subject to emotional factors such as fear, hope, prejudice and imitation, not to mention social pressures. Both reflective and unreflective belief are subject to emotional influences.

We inhabit a ubiquitous system of symbols, in which we’re constantly challenged to find patterns to believe in

A pragmatic approach to belief is particularly apt for human sciences such as psychology, since the study of our own nature – as Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Michel Foucault have pointed out – is no disinterested foray. Contemporary society, in particular, with its facts, experts and overabundance of information, brings to the fore James’s contention that, when deciding between options on intellectual grounds is too complicated, it’s our emotions that decide. Doubt is the ground for all belief, and belief in having attained the truth is a passionate affirmation of the solace of explanation. What makes an explanation satisfying is that it accords with the social system in which one is embedded. For example, in Hindu society, there’s a reinforcing relationship between samsara (the cycle of existence), karma and caste, whereby one’s position in society is explained by one’s past lives. The French sociologist Émile Durkheim’s magisterial work on the social origins of religion made this point clear, that society itself is what bestows significance upon beliefs.

The capacity to have beliefs is part of the suite of primate abilities to cooperate, collaborate, commit, imagine and develop an aesthetic sense that allows for awe and transcendence. The structures that make up our domesticated social world depend upon the adoption of particular beliefs that enable basic understanding and practical heuristics. Mythology is the compendium that explains the world with symbols drawn from the lived reality of a people. We inhabit a ubiquitous system of symbols, in which we’re constantly challenged to find patterns to believe in. The shared symbols we use to create explanations come to constitute our social history. Together these elements lead to ideological commitments. An individual’s beliefs are drawn from this collaborative imagination of society and infused with subjective emotional investment.

To believe is to make a commitment to a set of symbols that assuage doubt. To believe is to passionately commit to a way of experiencing the world. Any given set of beliefs is real to anyone who shares it. Or, as Durkheim put it, no religions are false; all are true in their own fashion.

In a secular age, our beliefs concerning the nature of the mind can’t be affirmed by any higher authority than our affective drive towards belief. The ancient experience of possession by the gods, of supernatural necessity, resembles the non-rational, affective tone of creative inspiration and is certainly involved in how we moderns come to adopt metaphysical beliefs. Conversion experiences and peak moments draw on similar emotional elements. The sense of awe towards science and technology in our time engenders a passionate belief in contemporary psychology that resembles how people in the past held to their mythologies.

The emotional motivation for explanation keeps away the anxiety of doubt because belief aims to benefit the believer. It’s an act of expression, of individual invention in which imagination is crucial for conceiving of the future. Believing in well-founded fictions, or positive illusions, is common. In fact, some truths are produced through the act of believing, or making believe, such as fairy tales, conspiracy theories and hoaxes. Beliefs about the mind, whether they’re made in the laboratory or in popular psychology, rely on such well-intentioned fictions.

How did science become a source of meaning and significance? The Enlightenment was a shift towards freedom of judgment by liberating individuals from dogma. It brought about a world where the space for religious belief became the space for opinion, political affiliation and consumerism. Belief took on a constitutive role in establishing one’s autonomy. As the American philosopher Robert Pippin wrote in 1991, to be modern is to ‘demand independence … a freedom from … historical tradition and the power to rule one’s own beliefs’. In this way, modernity takes up the energy of religious belief and produces substitutes such as professional sports, Marxism-Leninism, social justice and celebrity worship.

Earlier, the Reformation loosened the partition between Christian belief and secular ways of knowing such that modern belief has come to be above all else a form of autonomy. A humanist alternative to faith thus became possible. Indeed, Enlightenment humanism accepts no goal beyond human flourishing. The Enlightenment was pivotal in this modern invention of an immanent order in nature whereby the world could be understood on its own terms without recourse to the existence of deities. Secularism implies this emptying-out of God and religious belief from the public space, and the general falling-off of religious belief and practices.

And yet, modernity is characterised by a proliferation of belief. To believe now in a liberal capitalist democracy is to commit to the sense of your own autonomy through self-fashioning, that is, through consciously deciding between options of beliefs. Belief is an option, a choice between a set of theories or construals of reality. From Michel de Montaigne’s radical scepticism to René Descartes’s method of doubt and Søren Kierkegaard’s De omnibus dubitandum est (1843) – a sketch of a philosophy student who took doubt to perverse levels – we observe the great importance of belief to the autonomous grounding of knowledge in modernity.

For more than 100 years of research, psychology doesn’t have as much to show as the physical sciences do

Max Weber argued that a disenchantment of the Universe and subsequent age of anxiety is part and parcel with these changes. An integral element of this conception of secularism is that it replaced an enchanted world where belief in transcendent beings, moral forces and the power of ritual were never questioned. Nowadays, as the philosopher Charles Taylor writes in A Secular Age (2007), ‘the only locus of thoughts, feelings, spiritual élan is what we call minds … and minds are bounded, so that these thoughts, feelings, etc, are situated “within” them.’ The realm of psychology now encapsulates the spheres heretofore reserved for spirits, demons and gods. What the world has lost in becoming disenchanted, the mind has gained in epistemological status. It’s not that we no longer believe in transcendence, it’s that many of us can imagine the influence and causal power of enchanted processes (and thus meaning itself) to occur only in the mind.

But isn’t psychology different from mythology in that it can be falsified? No doubt, since 1879, psychologists have devised methods to empirically investigate the mind, ranging from introspectionism to behaviourism, cognitive modelling, connectionism, and more. For example, as a cognitive psychologist, I am trained in the theory of how the mind works and the use of statistical instruments to pursue investigations of behaviour. Yet, our field is currently in a crisis due to issues with replication, ecological validity, the cultural limits of experimental subject populations, and some ethical peccadilloes. Frankly, for more than 100 years of research, we don’t have as much to show as the physical sciences do; so far, psychology is not very effective at tracing general laws. Sigmund Freud’s theories were largely unfalsifiable, and the promissory note that the mind is the brain has yet to be cashed in. It might be best to conceive of empirical psychology as a set of pragmatic methods to develop discursively helpful metaphors of the mind and hold out in hope that we slowly secure a set of reliable correlations between neuroanatomy and function.

Conceiving of psychology as a mythology enables us to perceive that psychology is an explicit portrayal of what we want to understand about reality and the ultimately pragmatic forms that such knowledge has taken. The emotional need to possess explanations worthy of the commitment of belief is greater than what we can ever know.

Psychology has come to take on the rhetoric of personal enlightenment in its therapeutic practices and thus attempts to serve as a means of salvation. This is apparent in the self-help literature. The field of psychology gained in popularity by drawing on popular metaphors that shaped the human niche in an industrial landscape. In particular, psychology emphasised society’s pressure to achieve efficiency through purpose, integration and productivity. Identity and autonomy as the key characteristics of personhood came together to perpetuate capitalism through extending the notion of exchange value over all relations, and melding seamlessly with techno-fetishism. Mythology was traditionally the expression of an enchanted world, and now psychology is an attempt to fill the disenchanted space with a rich characterisation of interiority.

The mythology of psychology satisfies the affective and cognitive needs of belief. For reflective belief, it offers explanation and a path to salvation through causal-predictive principles and origin stories. For non-reflective belief, myth is enacted and entrained in a set of rituals. For example, one can believe that personality is caused by the chemical balance (or imbalance) of neurotransmitters, and one can enact this by the ritual of taking medication. Together, mythology and its practices in ritual provide the platform for creating meaning through making commitments in the act of belief. It does so by expressing, enhancing and codifying belief in a way that enforces morality and vouches for shared social activities. Myth enforces belief by enlivening our notions of fate and destiny, thus providing symbols and expressive ways to cope with the hazards of life. Meaning-seeking creatures need stories to deal with the unknown and provide guidance as to where we came from and where we’re going. Mythology is that constant byproduct of living faith that triggers creativity in acts of interpretation and imagination. Myths are therefore an early solution for the tragic facts of life that are beyond the ken of practical, logical, scientific thought.

Whereas fire is sacred for the Brahmans, the scientific approach is sacred in secular modernity

Mythological schemes – including psychology – provide stories about the origins of mortality, sexuality, society, rules and work. They offer a motivation for why things are the way they are. Our shared world is maintained by the practice of rites, of rituals. As the French philosopher Georges Bataille wrote, rites represent rules of conduct in the presence of the sacred, thus protecting and insulating it from the profane. In myths and the rituals that sustain them, we search for a lost sense of intimacy with transcendent sources. By providing explanatory tenets, psychology is thus a means of enabling humans to sustain their practices of personhood and materialism such that we can face the world with greater confidence and increased energy.

The sacred nature of a symbol or story derives its power from the power of society, which, as Durkheim argued, is the very condition of civilisation. Whereas fire is sacred for the Brahmans, the scientific approach and the notion of the liberal individual are sacred in secular modernity. This organisation of reality is exhaustively moral. It defines logic for the group because the moral power is society itself, that system of ideas by which individuals understand themselves and their existence relative to the conditions of civilisation that are embodied in society. James argued that society backs up the passionate affirmation of our desires when we adopt prevailing beliefs. Indeed, as the anthropologist William Mazzarella points out in The Mana of Mass Society (2017), society is both external and intimate. Early anthropologists used mana, a term derived from Polynesian spirituality, to specify this force that guarantees the moral, symbolic and cultural order. Mana in the form of our origin story of personhood and metaphysical materialism manages the anxiety of doubt for secular moderns.

Psychology as mythology grounds the materialist and historical origin story of mankind in neuroscience and empirical psychology. The cosmology of Enlightenment humanism is enacted in the rituals of personhood worked out in clinical psychology and, more esoterically, in popular psychology.

While logic and science have proven more efficient in gaining control over the environment, the aspect of myth that dictates ethics has been underplayed. Modern man is, as Eliade claimed, in an anxious limbo in the middle of an initiatory ritual of dying. To believe in the all-importance of identity and materialism, he must face a vacuum of nothingness which would render the rituals of life meaningless. The truth might be that there’s no unassailable truth about human nature. Psychology as mythology delivers at the same time too much and too little.

To read more on such topics, visit Psyche, a digital magazine from Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophical understanding and the arts.

Rami Gabriel

is an associate professor of psychology and founding fellow at the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of A Suspicious Science: The Uses of Psychology (forthcoming) and Why I Buy: Self, Taste, and Consumer Society in America (2013), and co-author with Stephen Asma of The Emotional Mind: Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition (2019). 

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