The HPedia: Modularity of Mind

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Theories of mental modularity propose that the human brain is composed of multiple organs or modules, each evolved to perform a specific cognitive task.  There may be limited interaction between modules.  The modularity idea stands in direct contrast to the idea of the brain as a tabula rasa, or blank slate.

The first modern proposal of modularity came from Jerry Fodor, who limited modules to the senses (sight, hearing, smell, etc.) and language (following Noam Chomsky’s language acquisition device), while the rest of human cognition is accomplished by a more fluid general intelligence.  Other researchers have since extended the modularity concept to varying degrees.  The most liberal version comes from Evolutionary Psychology, which posits “massive modularity”, including dozens or even hundreds of modules in a brain likened to a Swiss army knife (for example, see Tooby and Cosmides).  Most versions find a middle ground with a limited number of modules complemented by general intelligence or g.

Steven Mithen has put forward a model of modularity in which an increasing fluidity between modules characterized human evolution.  Mithen noticed little variation in tool manufacture prior to about 40,000 years ago, followed by an explosion of innovation by Cro-Magnons in the Upper Paleolithic.  He explains this by proposing isolation of the tool-making module from other modules in earlier hominids:

Tools were made (physical science module) pretty much as they had “always” been made.  No thought was given to the possibility that different prey (natural science module) might be better hunted with tools of a different design.  (Haule)

An evolutionary adaptation which increased integration or cognitive fluidity between modules then ushered in the innovation of the Cro-Magnons.

Jungian psychologist John Ryan Haule has attempted to interpret Jung’s archetypes as mental modules.  While the two concepts are similar insofar as both claim to be innate to human biology rather than learned, they differ upon closer inspection.  Haule holds up language as a “model archetype”, along with sociality, but neither of these fit Jung’s descriptions of the archetype’s behavior:

when an archetype “becomes conscious, it is felt as strange, uncanny, and at the same time fascinating.  At all events the conscious mind falls under its spell… [it] always produces a state of alienation.” (Haule, quoting Jung’s CW8: 590)

Such a description may seem difficult to align with language or sociality, but Haule defends it in his interview.  It seems possible that Jungian archetypes, if they exist, might be modules, but not all modules are archetypes – certainly not language or sociality.  Nevertheless, there are enough parallels between the two concepts that Jung might inspire an insight or two into mental modularity, especially in spiritual contexts.

See also “Archetype.”

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