So opens Roland Barthes’ little essay — well known to some, of course — in his collection, Mythologies (read the full essay here). Judging by a recent news story, it turns out that he was right: that the ordinary is continually dressed up as extraordinary and that, at every turn, we make our worlds meaningful by crafting History into Necessity, as he famously phrases it. For the headline of the story, posted here, reads:
And voila, Einstein’s brain is, in the Barthean sense, a myth.
But why were we all so enraptured by it? Why preserve it, slice it up, plumb its folds for the mysteries of intelligence?
According to the report, two words: confirmation bias.
Listen to the story (Neuromythology of Einstein’s Brain):
Like seeing faces in the clouds…
But if we take this notion of confirmation bias seriously, that the faces are in our heads and not in the clouds, that his grey matter’s specialiness is our invention and not his possession, then our way of perceiving the world actively constitutes that world in certain ways for us.
Might “confirmation bias,” then, not name a flaw in just some experimental settings but, rather, be a synonym for culture, or perhaps cognition itself? And might naming just some judgements “confirmation bias” be a handy way to normalize all the others which are as well?
That is, if we take seriously that perception brings the structures and patterning with it, that without the observer it’s not just that the proverbial solitary woods has no noisy trees falling but that, whatever else it may become once we get our senses on it, it is at least just a mass of indistinguishable stuff of indeterminate consequence, then we arrive at the very critique of identity that informs Culture on the Edge: identity is constituted in the very claiming of it, in the very acting of it. Not acting it out, as we sometimes say, as if it’s secretly on the inside somewhere, just waiting to escape. No, it’s entirely the other way around.
The myth of Einstein’s brain, then, like all successful identifications, is that it is but one site where we accomplish the nifty trick of assuming it’s all about that organ in the jar of preservative and not all about us, the ones who kept it on hand in the first place, and our cult of celebrity, our insecurities, and our hopes and dreams.