Prof Chris Gosden: Becoming Roman in Britain

Professor Gosden, Professorial Fellow in European Archaeology at Oxford University, believes that “people and objects and societies are intricately linked.”  He is fascinated by neuroscientific and psychological research regarding the embodiment of mind, and believes that these disciplines have much to inform the anthropological and archaeological realms.

In his special lecture on “Becoming Roman in Britain” within the “Societies in Transition” series available from Oxford University through iTunes, he deigns to spend the first 15 minutes of his hour framing the rest of his lecture within the scope of neurophilosophical thinking about the nature of mind and body and our relationship to the objects we interact with and the environment we inhabit.

Prof. Gosden focuses on  metallurgic artifacts, particularly swords, throughout the Roman age of Britain, “because metalwork is a very… malleable aspect of human society”.  His thesis is that the neuroplasticity of human mind and culture makes both sudden shifts and long protracted trends of artifacts reasonable, and also part of a framework in which we can understand the minds of the ancients based on the proposition that “objects alter people”.

Gosden’s hesitance at putting forth his attitude on history in light of neuroscientific research, and persistence in qualifying his thinking as “controversial”, certainly throws our present problem of lack of interdisciplinary consilience into sharp relief.

[4:42] “OBJECTS ALTER PEOPLE”

“Obviously people make objects, but equally we’re all born into physical, material circumstances which profoundly affect the ways in which we interact with each other, the ways in which we sense the world.”

“A subtheme is that objects, to some degree, are in charge of us, rather than we are in charge of them.”

“There’s the long duree, the things that unfold along centuries or millennia, on the other hand there are a series of things that people are realizing about the human form, particularly about the human brain and body, which is how incredibly plastic the human brain is.  Now obviously I speak as a lay-person in these matters, but I’m very interested in the ways in which human activities, and our activities with objects, affect our sensorium, the way in which we’re wired up through the central nervous system and so on.”

[6:00] to [7:00]

“Counterposing the very long duree is the idea that — we each of us in our brains have something like a hundred billion neurons… but it’s estimated that there are something like a 100 trillion connections… Now we’re all born with more or less the same set of neurons, I guess (how would I know), but the ways in which we’re wired up, those synaptic connections between them, those hundred trillion, depend quite a lot on our life experience. So on the one hand we all have the same brains, on the other hand they become wired up in the course of our lives in rather different ways.”

[7:30 to 8:15]

“A further fact is that our brains are obviously organs of our body.  So the ways in which our bodies move influence the brain and vice versa. And our bodies, in turn, are connected with the material world. So for someone like me, having a different set of artifacts, means that our brains are wired up in different ways, means that we experience and operate in the world in different ways.  So artifacts are not in any sense passive, they influence who we are and how we operate…”

Cites research on how London cabbies have larger hippocampus (spacial awareness / locational memory) than average. [Tangential note: Individual study of cabbie who navigates with hippocampus damage (2007).]

[8:45 to 9:16]

“So one can say that brains are recognizably, they have a structure which we all share and inherit, but the way in which that structure develops depends on the way in which we develop in the world. And… various neuroscientists are beginning to work with philosophers to say that our sensory-motor systems… are linked in some way to the sets of neural connections which are to do with concept formation.”

[9:17 to 10:00]

“So actually the ways in which we think, the ways in which we form concepts, derive to some degree from the actions of our body; and what this is starting to do is to break down the distinctions between mind, that abstract space in which thoughts are developed and worked on, and our body, the physical mechanical body. The two things aren’t different, and in some ways, controversially one can say, we don’t have any such thing as a mind in that sense; we have embodied experience in reality.”

[10:16 to 11:10]

“If what I’ve said is half-true… then our relationship with objects is a very active one, and makes us what we are, and different people around the world are quite profoundly different. And having a new object… will give us a different sense of personal space, for instance.  There’s the intimate personal space of our body, there’s the reaching sphere, and then when we have extra objects which will extend our bodies, they will affect the actions of our body – affect our interactions with others.  And bring about a reordering of our sensibilities, potentially our concepts, potentially our emotions.”

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