Chris Frith has written and spoken on the topic of how the brain creates both our mental world and culture. I am just beginning to read his work, but I do like this point (made by Frith in his book, Making Up the Mind): “I can see the edges of the universe with a telescope and I can see the activity in your brain with a scanner, but I can’t “see” into your mind. The mental world, we all believe, is quite distinct from physical reality. And yet in everyday life we are at least as much concerned with other minds as we are with physical reality. Most of our interactions with other people are interactions between minds, not between bodies. You are learning about my mind by reading this book. I am hoping to change the ideas in your mind by writing this book.” (p.16)
In this book, Frith asserts that “this distinction between the mental and the physical is false. It is an illusion created by the brain. Everything we know, whether it is about the physical or the mental world, comes to us through our brain. But our brain’s connection with the physical world of objects is no more direct than our brain’s connection with the mental world of ideas. By hiding from us all the unconscious inferences that it makes, our brain creates the illusion that we have direct contact with objects in the physical world. And at the same time our brain creates the illusion that our own mental world is isolated and private. Through these two illusions we experience ourselves as agents, acting independently upon the world. But, at the same time, we can share our experiences of the world. Over the millennia this ability to share experience has created human culture that has, in its turn, modified the functioning of the human brain.
By seeing through these illusions created by our brain, we can begin to develop a science that explains how the brain creates the mind.” (p.17)
However, he goes on to explain “that even an ordinary, healthy brain does not always give us a true picture of the world. Because we have no direct connection to the physical world around us, our brains have to make inferences about that world on the basis of the crude sensations they receive from our eyes, ears, and all the other sense organs. These inferences can be wrong. Furthermore there are all sorts of things our brains know that never reach our conscious minds.
But there is one bit of the physical world that we carry around with us everywhere we go. Surely we must have direct access to the state of our own body? Or is this too an illusion created by our brain?” (P.60)
“My body is an object in the physical world. But unlike other objects I have a special relationship with my body. In particular my brain is part of my body. Sensory neurons run directly into my brain from the various parts of my body. Motor neurons run the other way from my brain to all my muscles. The connections could not be more direct. I have immediate control over what my body does and I don’t need to make any inferences about what state it’s in. I have almost instant access to every part of my body whenever I need it.
So why do I still feel that slight shock when I see the plump elderly person in the mirror? Do I not know so much about myself after all? Or is my memory persistently distorted by vanity?” (p.61)
“Up until the 1980s neuropsychologists were taught that, after about the age of 16, our brains are mature and no new brain growth can occur. If the fibers connecting neurons were damaged, then those neurons would stay disconnected. If you lost a neuron, it would never be replaced. We now know this is wrong. Our brains are very plastic, especially when we are young, and remain so throughout our lives. Connections are constantly being made and unmade in response to our changing environment.
Muscles waste away if we don’t use them, but our brains respond in a rather different way if parts are not used. If one of your arms is amputated, then a small part of your brain will no longer receive any stimulation from the sense organs that were in that arm. But these neurons do not die. They are used for new purposes.” (p.70)
“Our brain is continuously learning things about the world. From moment to moment it has to discover the identity of the things around it: should they be approached or avoided? It has to discover where these things are: are they nearby or far away? It has to discover how to reach for the fruit and avoid being stung by the wasp. Furthermore, this learning occurs without a teacher. We can’t have someone at out side continually telling us whether we are doing the right or the wrong thing.” (p.85)
Ref: (emphases in blue mine) Chris Frith (2007) Making Up The Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
NB I believe Frith may discuss this further in a 2013 Harvard lecture available online – certainly he begins with how learning from others connects the individual to the social and shapes culture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxAUXoc-7XI