We do not think in the same way our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did. We cannot. It is impossible. Our minds, their contents and their processes, are shaped by the times in which we live, and the same applies to our ancestors and predecessors. We have changed on every level that might affect our ability to think like them.
It is obvious that the contents of their minds and ours are greatly different. Many of the things we now accept as incontrovertible (assuming you are not a flat earther) are things like plate tectonics (completely unknown to our Civil War ancestors, and which still remained controversial and unproven among geologists during the Second World War). Some will of course reject it on religious grounds, but they are aware of the idea and are forced to adapt their justifications of scripture to account for it. Even in the most conservative aspects of our thinking and knowledge, we are living in a different thought world. Fundamentalists today accept pre-millennialism as an article of faith. Their pre-fundamentalist predecessors (Fundamentalism was given its name and was codified as a set of doctrines only around 1915) largely did not. Thomas Nelson Darby began to formulate and propagate the doctrine before the Civil War, but it was only toward the end of the century that it was popularized. On most of the main moral issues, and many basic points of doctrine,we have seen almost continuous change over the last two hundred years.
Our technologies have also changed what we think about and our perceptions of the world. That had already begun in the 1850s and has only continued like a metronome periodically reset to a faster beat. They have changed us in several different ways, even in the past few decades. We rarely think about this in terms of mind, but even the chemical composition of our bodies and brains are being changed. Consider just the proliferation of psychoactive chemicals that we take voluntarily and involuntarily (as they are now in both our water and food supplies). In 1860, excluding ethnobotanicals that were not widely known to Europeans and Americans, you could have taken alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, hashish, opium, or morphine. I suppose we might add coffee and tea to that. By the Second World War, that had been expanded to include heroin, cocaine, barbiturates, and amphetamines (which had a significant effect on the war at a tactical level), and experiments with LSD were underway in Switzerland. Compare that with the wider array of benzodiazepines, anti-depressants, and psychedelics we possess today, many of which may be having minor effects on us simply because of their environmental presence. And that is to say nothing of the many chemicals that we take or are permeated with that affect levels of hormones and levels of neurotransmitters as side affects.
Of course neuroscience has shown that our brains are not the same as they would have been in the past. I do not mean that we have rapidly developed new structures, but, what the past two or three decades have revealed is that the media we use, how we use it, and how intensively we use it, stimulates the growth and development of different areas of the brain. This gives a physical confirmation and basis for the earlier arguments of Walter J. Ong, that modern media technologies had changed us from a literate culture to a culture of "secondary orality." These changes occurred between the Civil War and the Second World War, in fact partially between the World Wars, and constituted a new cognitive style. Were he still alive, I wonder if he would not be seeing the rise of another cognitive style in the past decade or two.
This matter of historical cognitive style is important, though it is often ignored. When I began exploring this thirty years ago, as I was writing my dissertation, there was a small literature on the subject, but little more has emerged since. What I came away with from my clumsy attempts to discuss it then were two things. One is that it is difficult to discuss in English; our language is not well equipped to talk or write about processes of thought. The other, is that we have to look well beyond media technologies, but also at our whole technological world, to understand the forces that shape cognition. For example, try considering not just how printing, but also things like clocks (and other clockwork devices like gunlocks) affected Renaissance and Reformation mental processes. If you change your basic perception of time, from a flexible, natural one, to an inflexible, mechanical one, as urban Europeans did in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, you have changed a major component of your perception of the world and how you can think about it. If you add in the extent that clockwork devices gave Europeans of all classes a more complex mechanical model for causation than they had previously, the changes in how Europeans began to understand their world in these centuries becomes a matter of the interplay between modes of thought and the technological environment. And of course, simply changing the times at which you rise, eat, work, and sleep, based not on clocks and not the sun, will have affected things like melatonin levels and how disrupted circadian rhythms may become.
This was not simply something that happened centuries ago, it has been an on-going process of development and change, just as it was long before the invention of clockwork and printing. An argument could be made that the course of the Second World War depended not just on the technical equipment of the various countries, but the degree to which the combat commanders had absorbed the characteristics of those technologies. This is perhaps most evident in France in the Spring of 1940,when the French, wed to their concept of the "methodical battle," their telephone lines, their slow-moving and short-ranted tanks, and their paucity of radios, could not comprehend the German mode of warfare, so dependent not just on the mobility of Panzers, but also on the flexibility that ubiquitous radio sets gave them, and on the sense of being untethered that the radio and their tanks conferred, that the telephone and the tanks of their enemies did not. It is interesting that the older German generals and Hitler, used to the static telephone war of their youth, were made nervous by the likes of Guderian and Rommel, who had thoroughly absorbed the world of speed of the internal combustion engine and the freedom of the radio.
Since the War, the computing revolution has changed our cognition not just through its transformation of media, but also through its central paradigms of feedback loops, and programming. One of the most significant things to come out of the latest round of scandals, such as Cambridge Analytica, is that there is a whole generation of entrepreneurs, engineers, and programmers who have so completely internalized the programming paradigm that they view it as the proper way for society to work and to describe human relations.
This takes us close to the realms of embodied and extended cognition. The former argues that we cannot think simply in terms of the brain but must situate mind in the body and its interactions with its environment,while the latter actually includes the environment and the individual into a single unit of cognition. These make it even clearer that our minds are qualitatively different from those of our ancestors. If we take the idea that our thought processes are embodied, then we are affected by a whole variety of things, from chemicals to cars to computers, that have shaped our bodies differently from those of our ancestors. We would have to subject ourselves to a different physical and chemical environment, not just a media environment, to recapture cognitive styles past, but even that is not enough, if the actual unit of mind is our embodied brains plus the environment.
There are a number of implications to all of this. For one thing, it means the past is more of a foreign country than we generally believe. It raises the question of what we can and cannot understand, because it raises questions about just what aspects of our humanity are universal and which are environmentally influenced. To some extent, we can get into the head of someone in the past to a limited extent, if we work hard enough to try to understand their environment and all of the environmental factors that influenced their development. But we simply cannot shed the baggage of our environment and development. We can, and do, of course, use those to throw light on how they thought and on the differences between their minds and ours.
But it also suggests that too many of our historical judgments may be ill founded or terribly incomplete. Historians are well aware of this,but the general public too often takes the opposite tack, acting as if historical judgments are immutable.There are subtleties that I think we have given too little attention. The comments I made above about the mental effects of motor vehicles and radio are the sort of thing that we need to develop more fully. The same sort of thing has played out time and again in human history and development. Trying to trace the mental, as well as the physical changes in the environment, is an area where we have barely scratched the surface.