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The consciousness of others

Deric Bownd’s Mindblog site has information on an upcoming lecture by Geraint Rees. I have not found a paper by him on this subject as yet. The abstract quoted by DB is (here) and below:

There has been considerable interest in using multivariate decoding techniques applied to fMRI signals in order to decode the contents of consciousness. The use of such signals has inherent disadvantages due to the delay of the hemodynamic response. Moreover to date it has not been shown possible to generalize the decoding of brain signals from one individual to another. This limits the potential utility of such approaches. Here we used a different approach that circumvented these difficulties by using magnetoencephalographic (MEG) signals to decode the contents of consciousness, and to test whether such correlates generalized reliably across individuals. We recorded the MEG of 8 healthy participants while they viewed an intermittently presented binocular rivalry stimulus consisting of a face and a grating. Using a leave-one-out cross-validation procedure, we trained support vector machines on the MEG signals to decode the rivalry percept. Decoding was significantly better than chance in all participants. We then tested whether a support vector machine trained on MEG signals from one participant could successfully decode the rivalry percept of another. Again, decoding accuracy was significantly better than chance. These findings demonstrate that it is possible to decode perception independently of physical stimulation using MEG signals in near real time in a way that generalizes across individuals. Our findings indicate that certain neural mechanisms universally covary with the contents of visual consciousness, and mark a potentially important step in the design of devices for decoding the contents of consciousness in individuals unable to report their experience behaviorally.

This seems to imply that there is a level of common structure in how concepts are experienced in brains. No doubt it depends on the history of the person, their culture-language, how the concept was acquired, etc. However a common structure makes it less likely that we are each totally unique in how our consciousness operates. It may be that my ‘red’ is pretty similar to yours if it is found to be similarly held in a similar structure. We will see how this pans out in future investigations and papers.

Please let’s not start talking about mind reading just yet – I believe they are only guessing at whether someone is conscious of a face or some stripes based on comparison with the activity of some other people’s brains when they are conscious of a face as opposed to some stripes.

Unsurprising result

Mudrik, Breska, Lamy and Deouell have published a paper, Integration without Awareness: expanding the limits of unconscious processing. It will appear in June’s Psychological Science. Unfortunately, I do not have access to it. Here is the abstract:

Human conscious awareness is commonly seen as the climax of evolution. However, what function—if any—it serves in human behavior is still debated. One of the leading suggestions is that the cardinal function of conscious awareness is to integrate numerous inputs—including the multitude of features and objects in a complex scene—across different levels of analysis into a unified, coherent, and meaningful perceptual experience. Here we demonstrate, however, that integration of objects with their background scenes can be achieved without awareness of either. We used a binocular rivalry technique known as continuous flash suppression to induce perceptual suppression in a group of human observers. Complex scenes that included incongruent objects escaped perceptual suppression faster than normal scenes did. We conclude that visual awareness is not needed for object-background integration or for processing the likelihood of an object to appear within a given semantic context, but may be needed for dealing with novel situations.

Yes, it is gratifying that this group has shown integration at a unconscious level. However, it is not particularly surprising. A little review of perception will help to see this. Sensory information arrives at the primary sensory areas of the cortex and is processed there. All this is unconscious – we have no awareness of this primary processing. Next the information from the primary areas arrives to higher areas where it is further processed into objects, moving or not, in 3D space; distinct noises, musical chords and speech sounds; and so on for each sense and for the senses together. Again all this is unconscious – we have no awareness of this higher level processing. Next a model world is built and the significance of various aspects of that model are found for both bottom up criteria and top down criteria. We need the model and the significance in order to have the conscious experience with a focus of attention and a general awareness. We are not aware of the creation of the model or search for significance, we are only aware of the finished product, conscious awareness. Our conscious awareness is like a small tip showing above an enormous iceberg of thought we are not aware of.


Mercier and Sperber in a recent paper (citation) explain their theory that the function of reasoning is primarily successful group argument. They start with a careful definition of reasoning which is itself very interesting. Stripped to its basics, all inference is made by unconscious mechanisms so we cannot consciously know the way these inferences are made; and, when we need or want reasons for our inferences, the reasons are themselves unconsciously made inferences. ‘Reasoning’ is a special process where plausible reasons are produced for holding some opinion and where reasons are evaluated for how well they support an opinion. Thus the reasons that are produced by reasoning may or may not be similar to whatever ideas causally were used unconsciously to reach an opinion. At this point it is reasonable to ask why we have a mechanism for producing reasons for an intuition which may or may not have anything to do with the actual intuition.

Mercier and Sperber used the concept of function to look at this question – what is the function of reasoning? How does the ability to reason enhance the evolutionary fitness of humans? If there are more than one function, which has been predominant in evolution. They take trouble to avoid ‘just so stories’ and make concrete predictions for their theory.

The default function that has been accepted since the ancient Greeks is that the main function of reasoning is to enhance individual cognition. Another function that has been discussed in the past is that it helps to deal with novelty and anticipate the future. Their function (Argumentative Theory) is that reasoning enables people to exchange arguments that, on the whole, make communication more reliable and hence more advantageous, increasing fitness. They see reasoning as involved in social communication not individual thinking. (Although they take some time explaining what are valid and invalid evolutionary theories, they do not address, at least in this paper, the question of individual and group selection. Some ideas they use could be interpreted as either type of selection and if they wanted a group interpretation they would have needed to justify it as group selection which is not universally accepted.)

As has been featured in the Babel’s Dawn blog many times, the key to the origin of human speech is trust. Apes could probably have evolved speech if they could only trust one another enough to make communication safe. Mercier and Sperber say:

For communication to be stable, it has to benefit both senders and receivers; otherwise they would stop sending or stop receiving, putting an end to communication itself. But stability is often threatened by dishonest senders who may gain by manipulating receivers and inflicting too high of a cost on them. Is there a way to ensure that communication is honest?… To avoid being victims of misinformation, receivers must therefore exercise some degree of what may be called epistemic vigilance. The task of epistemic vigilance is to evaluate communicator and the content of their messages in order to filter communicated information. … The interpretation of communicated information involves activating a context of previously held beliefs and trying to integrate the new with old information. This process may bring to the fore incoherencies between old and newly communicated information. … When it uncovers some incoherence, an epistemically vigilant addressee must choose between two alternatives. The simplest is to reject communicated information, thus avoiding any risk of being misled. This may, however, deprive the addressee of valuable information and of the opportunity to correct or update earlier beliefs. The second, more elaborate, alternative consists in associating coherence checking and trust calibration and allowing for a finer-grained process of belief revision. In particular, if a highly trusted individual tells us something that is incoherent with our previous beliefs, some revision is unavoidable: We must revise either our confidence of the source or our previous beliefs. We are likely to choose the revision that reestablishes coherence at the lesser cost, and this will often consist in accepting the information communicated and revising our beliefs. … But what if the communicator is not in a position to boost her own authority? Another option is to try to convince her addressee by offering premises the addressee already believes or is willing to accept on trust, and showing that, once these premises are accepted, it would be less coherent to reject the conclusion than to accept it. This option consists in producing arguments for one’s claims and in encouraging the addressee to examine, evaluate, and accept these arguments. Producing and evaluating arguments is, of course, a use of reasoning. … Reasoning contributes to the effectiveness and reliability of communication by allowing communicators to argue for their claim and by allowing addressees to assess these arguments. It thus increases both in quantity and in epistemic quality the information humans are able to share.

Now many will think that communication and argument is a small advantage compared to individual thought. Think of the moon landing and the more than 50 millennium of group argument and cooperation that built the skills and knowledge needed for great human accomplishments like it. Cooperation is an enormous advantage and next to impossible without means of establishing trust. Without safe, efficient, effective group communication we would have culture on the level of chimps.

Mercier and Sperber go on to give reasons why reasoning is not all that good at individual thought and very good at group argument. I found them fairly convincing. The paper is rich in references to experiments by many groups that support their case and worth reading – really an interesting paper.

Their conclusion:

Human reasoning is not a profoundly flawed general mechanism; it is a remarkably efficient specialized device adapted to a certain type of social and cognitive interaction at which it excels. There is an asymmetry between the production of arguments, which involves an intrinsic bias in favor of the opinions or decisions of the arguer whether they are sound or not, and the evaluation of arguments, which aims at distinguishing good arguments from bad ones and hence genuine information from misinformation. People are good at assessing arguments and are quite able to do so in an unbiased way, provided they have no particular axe to grind. In group reasoning experiments where participants share an interest in discovering the right answer, it has been shown that truth wins. In group tasks, individual participants come up with and propose to the group the same inappropriate answers that they come up with in individual testing. The group success is due to, first and foremost, the filtering of a variety of solutions achieved through evaluation. When different answers are initially proposed and all of them are incorrect, then all of them are likely to be rejected, and wholly or partly new hypotheses are likely to be proposed and filtered in turn, thus explaining how groups may do better than any of their individual members.

Individuals thinking on their own without benefiting from the input of others can assess only their own hypotheses. Individuals may develop some limited ability to distance themselves from their own opinion, to consider alternatives and thereby become more objective. Presumable this is what the 10% or so of people who pass the standard Wason selection task do. But this is an acquired skill and involves exercising some imperfect control over a natural disposition that spontaneously pulls in a different direction. The great achievements of human thought are collective and result from interactions over many generations. The whole scientific enterprise has always been structured around groups, moral achievements (abolition of slavery) are the outcome of intense public arguments. In group settings, reasoning biases can become a positive force and contribute to a kind of division of cognitive labour. In most discussions, rather than looking for flaws in our own arguments, it is easier to let the other person find them and only then adjust our arguments, if necessary.

I have noticed over my life that what is really important tends done in groups and orally: classroom teaching, legal trials, legislation, worship, pep talks etc. I thought that the main reason for this was the nature of oral language as opposed to written. After reading this paper I would add the value of group reasoning in establishing trust, agreement and best solutions.

Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34 (02), 57-74 DOI: 10.1017/s0140525×10000968

Conscious intent

I have a problem with the continual opposition of free will and determinism – there is always pressure to choose between them – the assumption that if one is right then the other is wrong or or vice versa. Now there is the new stance of compatibility where if I change the definition of both then I can believe both simultaneously. No – I am not willing to change the definitions and I can and do believe in neither. They are both flawed and unacceptable ideas: free will is flawed because it is not materialistic and relies on some non-physical magic process; determinism is flawed because it relies on an impossible ability to predict a system that is too large to be predicted. What we are left with after there two ideas are swept away is that we make decisions and we make them with our physical brains, a simple but believable idea.

Rigoni, Sammicheli and Brass (see citation) carefully review the neurobiology of will. I walk through this interesting review below. At the end they deal with a question of whether it is wise to disbelieve in free will. “Believing that we have free will or in other words that we have control over our own actions and over the environment thus seems to be a psychological and biological necessity.” Here is the problem in a nutshell. They are equating free will with being able to think and act, to make decisions.

The review starts with Libet’s famous 1983 experiment which established a time line between an action that was taken whenever the subject wanted to, the EEG events in the motor areas of the brain (the ready potential) and consciousness of the intention to act. The actual movement was preceded by the conscious intent by about 200ms and by the ready potential by about 500 to 1000ms. Thus the conscious intent did not cause the movement, it simply made conscious that this was going to be an intentional action. Many have attempted to find a fault in this experiment but it has withstood debate for almost 3 decades. So the idea that an act is the result of a conscious intent is dead in the water. The conscious feeling of intent is simply a marker indicating that we own the action. (I my opinion this marker is very important so that our episodic memory shows whether actions were the result of decisions of a particular type or just happened. We need this marker to understand events and to learn from them.) Using elaborations of the Libet experiment others have shown the timing of conscious awareness of intent, relative to the movement, is affected by events happening after the movement. Rigoni and group themselves have published results showing this - “The authors demonstrated that the inferential processes by which the intention is reconstructed involve brain processes related to action-monitoring.

So far there is still a connection between the action and the conscious intent. But Wegner and Wheatley put forward the hypothesis that “people feel that their conscious intentions are the source of their actions because they think about that action in advance of its occurrence, and because alternative sources of the action are not available.” People can believe they performed intentional actions when they were performed by someone else. “Taken together, all these studies provide evidence that the experience of volition is biased by factors concerning the consequences of our behaviour. According to some authors, volition is a perception, rather than the generator of behavior.

(All this makes philosophical sense to me if consciousness is not confused with perception, cognition, affect or action. It is simply the awareness of some of the results of these processes. Consciousness does not do sense, or think or react emotionally or move, it simple reports and not even with very full reports. It is reporting that decisions have been made and action has or is going to follow in the form of a feeling of intent.)

The authors also deal with our experience of ‘free will’ in others, the “ability to immediately and effortlessly discriminate between actions performed intentionally and actions performed unintentionally”, as in Dennett’s intentional stance. This ‘free will’ is a legal/moral concept used to establish personal responsibility for an action. There are several theories of how social cognition is accomplished, how we understand other’s actions by seeing them as the product of goals and intention.

Three theories are outlined. “The simulation theory suggests that people use their own mental mechanisms to predict the mental processes of others.” A theory-of-mind theory suggests “people use inferential and deductive processes that do not involve simulation”. These may be two extremes of a spectrum, an intuitive end and a reflective end, with much of the process happening between these ends. The third theory is that mirror neurons allow a perception of intention that does not involve simulation or cognition. (-perhaps by magic?)

(My opinion is that our brains have a sparse but important inbuilt framework. For example, we can be convinced that there are more than 3 dimensions but we cannot change the way we see the world in 3D. And we can understand action in a different way but we cannot avoid marking some actions, ours and others, with the labels of intended and unintended. I assume that all my actions are a product of my brain planning them and that there were reasons of some kind for putting that planning into train. None of my actions are in any sense not my actions. I am responsible for what I do. I cannot avoid responsibility for my actions by not having consciously registered my intent. Nor do I think that others can avoid responsibility for their actions. Punishment or reward is a completely different and much more complex question, with responsibility being only one ingredient.)

The authors then pass on to Baumeister’s notion of willpower. “One central assumption of the

willpower metaphor is that it draws on a common limited resource. Tasks that require willpower include self-control, decision making, complex problem solving and conflict resolution. From this perspective there is not one task that measures the free will but rather a number of tasks that draw more or less on this resource.” Tasks requiring willpower interfere with each other, the resource can be depleted. Behavior that uses willpower, is willed, is very effortful. (Again, my opinion is somewhat different. I know the feeling of fatigue that is associated with these sorts of activities. But I feel that this has to do with the attentional steering and working memory activity that is required when we have to continuously pass some mental process through consciousness. Metaphorically, if two or more mental processes, that are usually relatively independent, have to cooperate or converse or argue it out, the only way this can be done is through the global awareness of consciousness. But consciousness is a slow, energy consuming and narrow bottle neck. And it is precisely in this situation that it may be important to mark an action as intended.)

The authors have by this time shown in many ways that free will, with the definition discussed through hundreds of years of philosophy, is not in keeping with current neuroscience. They have been discussing actual physical explanations of intent, action and feelings of agency. Now comes the question, “what would happen if people would be induced to believe the subjective experience of free will is completely illusional?” A number of experiments have shown that reading a particular passage from Francis Crick encourages cheating and other antisocial attitudes. The experiments include Rigoni’s own recent work, “brain potentials that precede voluntary movements and that reflect the intentional involvement in action preparation, are strongly modulated by the level of disbelief in free will.” The ready potential is weaker after reading Crick. (As I see it, that case has not been made. What has been shown is that either belief in determinism has produced these results or disbelief in free will. All that is required is to read the passage to know how it undermines the idea that we really actually make decisions and are responsible for our actions. Decision making and responsibility are not the definition of free will – taking decisions without using the physical material world is what free will involves.)

Although the authors are very careful to not confuse their definition of free will with the conventional philosophical one and point to the difference in several places, I expect that others reporting these ideas will not be so careful. This is why I believe that attempting to change the definition of free will (or determinism for that matter) is a very dangerous action.



This post is also posted on the Nature BPCC forum


Citation: Humana.Mente Journal of Philosophical Studies Issue 15 Jan 2011 p.13;Davide Rigoni, Luca Sammicheli, Marcel Brass; Perspective on the Experience of Will;


Mirror neurons re-visited

There is a posting on Talking Brains (here) by Greg Hickok discussing the change in the views about mirror neurons. You may remember how magical mirror neurons were supposed to be when they were discovered. They were the source of a Theory of Mind facility and of empathy. Their malfunction was the cause of autism. They brought the rabbit out of the hat without cognition or learning. I must admit that I feel a bit smug and also admit that I feel a little ashamed at how smug I feel. The post traces some of the slow retreat from mirror neuron hype.

The discoverers of the mirror neurons in macaques have re-thought some or their original ideas:

Exciting discoveries in neuroscience over the last several years have revolved around a mechanism that unifies action perception and action execution. The essence of this mechanism — the mirror mechanism — is that each time individuals observe an action done by others, a set of neurons that code that action are activated in the motor system. Because the observers are aware of the outcome of their motor acts, they also understand what the others are doing without the necessity of an intermediate cognitive mediation. In his talk, Rizzolatti will first present some new discoveries on the mirror mechanism in monkeys. He will then present evidence that humans possess the mirror mechanism and that the anatomical location of parieto-frontal mirror networks of monkeys and humans closely coincide. Then, he will discuss the limits of the mirror mechanism in understanding other people. He will stress that the parieto-frontal mirror mechanism is, however, the only mechanism that allows a person to understand others’ actions from the inside, giving the observing individual a first-person grasp of other individuals’ motor goals and intentions.

Hickok believes this does not go far enough:

Now the mirror system has a much more restricted role in which the system allows understanding “from the inside”. It’s still not at all clear to me that this concept actually does any work, but even granting this point, it is worth noting that mirror neurons are only responsible for understanding actions that the observer knows how to perform. This is a highly restricted domain of function when considering the range of actions that one needs to understand yet has no experience executing. For example, I’ve never actually punched someone in the face, but I need to be able to recognize and understand such an action should I see it (and I believe that I can do so).

And he is not too happy with the approach to intention and goals:

There is a shift away from the idea that mirror neurons code particular movements and toward the idea that they code motor goals or intentions. So mirror neurons don’t do their magic via motor simulation, but by activating the goal or intention directly. This sounds like a profound insight, but in fact it pushes mirror neurons right out of the motor system and into the dreaded cognitive system that Rizzolatti and colleagues so wish to avoid: “Because the observers are aware of the outcome of their motor acts, they also understand what the others are doing without the necessity of an intermediate cognitive mediation“… The goal or intention is not the movement itself, it is the consequences of the movement. It’s no wonder one doesn’t need a motor system to understand the goals or intentions of actions: the goals and intentions are not motor!

In a recent paper Hickok (with Hauser) gave some reasons why cognition was avoided in the first place. Here is the abstract:

It is hard to imagine a class of neurons that has generated more excitement than mirror neurons, cells discovered by Rizzolatti and colleagues in macaque area F5 that fire both during action execution and action observation. We suggest, however, that the interpretation of mirror neurons as supporting action understanding was a wrong turn at the start, and that a more appropriate interpretation was lying in wait with respect to sensorimotor learning. We make a number of arguments, as follows. Given their previous work, it would have been natural for Rizzolatti’s group to interpret mirror neurons as involved in action selection rather than action understanding. They did not make this assumption because, at the time, the data suggested that monkey behavior did not support such an interpretation. Recent evidence shows that monkeys do, in fact, exhibit behaviors that support this alternative interpretation. Thus, the original basis for claiming that mirror neurons mediate action understanding is no longer compelling. There are independent arguments against the action understanding claim and in support of a sensorimotor learning origin for mirror neurons. Therefore, the action understanding theory of mirror neuron function requires serious reconsideration, if not abandonment.

Personally I find the biggest part of the problem to be the question of understanding. Understanding is most likely to be the concepts we build and the relationship we build between them. The network of concept-cells that we have built does not mediate understanding, or allow understanding – it IS understanding. The mirror neuron in this model is just a special type of concept. A particular mirror neuron and the nature of its connections to all the other concepts of various kinds that it is related to becomes a small piece of our understanding. We do not understand by magic – we have to learn, create concepts, build models and connect dots. Of course, it may turn out that I have to change how I picture understanding, it happens, but it will not be by replacing it with magic.

Knowing spontaneity when you hear it

You will know this feeling – listening to a radio broadcast and knowing, just knowing, whether what is being said is being read or just ’said’ without script or rehearsal. Leaving aside the differences in vocabulary, grammar and phrasing between written and spoken language, there is still a difference. This shows when even very well written dialogue is read or memorized rather than delivered by a great actor. I have often wondered about the unknown ingredient, is it a lack of polish or signs of emotional involvement or the ability to ‘hear the wheels’ of the mind churn around, that makes something sound spontaneous.

A recent paper by Engel and Keller in Frontiers in Psychology (see citation) has looked at whether and how experienced musicians can tell the difference between improvised jazz and good imitations of it. Here is the abstract:

The ability to evaluate spontaneity in human behavior is called upon in the aesthetic appreciation of dramatic arts and music. The current study addresses the behavioral and brain mechanisms that mediate the perception of spontaneity in music performance. In a fMRI experiment, 22 jazz musicians listened to piano melodies and judged whether they were improvised or imitated. Judgment accuracy (mean 55%; range 44-65%), which was low but above chance, was positively correlated with musical experience and empathy. Analysis of listeners’ hemodynamic responses revealed that amygdala activation was stronger for improvisations than imitations. This activation correlated with the variability of performance timing and intensity (loudness) in the melodies, suggesting that the amygdala is involved in the detection of behavioral uncertainty. An analysis based on the subjective classification of melodies according to listeners’ judgments revealed that a network including the pre-supplementary motor area, frontal operculum, and anterior insula was most strongly activated for melodies judged to be improvised. This may reflect the increased engagement of an action simulation network when melodic predictions are rendered challenging due to perceived instability in the performer’s actions. Taken together, our results suggest that, while certain brain regions in skilled individuals may be generally sensitive to objective cues to spontaneity in human behavior, the ability to evaluate spontaneity accurately depends upon whether an individual’s action-related experience and perspective taking skills enable faithful internal simulation of the given behavior.

What the authors have to say about the amygdala is interesting. Another nail in the coffin for the idea that the amygdala is all, and only, about fear.

Classical views describing amygdala involvement in threat detection, fear conditioning, and the processing of negatively valenced emotional stimuli have recently been supplemented by accounts of amygdala function in the context of non-aversive events. These accounts range from those postulating general functions, such as the detection and appraisal of stimuli that are relevant to an individual’s basic, as well as social, goals and needs, to these identifying more specific functions. The latter are related to findings that amygdala responses are modulated by stimulus ambiguity, novelty, temporal unpredictability, and – in music- the violation of listeners’ harmonic expectancies. In functional terms, the amygdala maybe involved in heightening vigilance and attention in response to ambiguity in external signals.

So coming back to my original puzzle, I still believe that lack of polish and signs of emotional involvement are important in knowing when someone is not reading. The third guess which seemed a bit lame has become much more convincing in light of this research – it maybe that by stimulation we can hear the wheels of the mind churning.

Engel, A., & Keller, P. (2011). The Perception of Musical Spontaneity in Improvised and Imitated Jazz Performances Frontiers in Psychology, 2 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00083

A request

Recently I received two of those rare communications – comments. What a nice feeling it is to have this feedback. Please consider commenting when you read a posting that interests you. Say if you agree, disagree, have something to add, have a question, have an answer. I will appreciate it.

I don’t know why I get so few comments. I have posted about 380 posts and have had almost 300,000 visits but in the three years that the blog has existed I have had only about a 100 comments. I don’t know if this is unusually low or not, but I suspect it is.

So that you know where I am coming from:

I have struggled with dyslexia since I started school in 1945. I have wondered about my left-handedness most of my life. Over the years I have read what I could find on the brain and until about 20 years ago there was so much of it that was not credible to me. It certainly was not my mind or brain that was being described.

My stubborn intuition about the mind has changed some over the years but the science has changed much more, even beyond recognition. Recent science does fit with my intuition.

Consciousness is only now coming under scientific investigation. It is especially intriguing. I am reading the thinking about it for my own satisfaction. I make notes on what I read for myself. It was noticeable that there was a high fraction of people who were having real problems with the new theories – the same theories that I found so natural, comforting and convincing. It seemed to me that some friends might be helped to understand consciousness by reading my notes. The easiest way to make them available to friends and anyone else who wanted them, was to blog. I thought that I might have a couple of hundred people, at most, following me, but the number has grown way past that.

Unlike many other bloggers I am not trying to make a name for myself and not a professional doing original work or university teaching. I am retired with no career ambitions in science or writing. I live away from city and university and have very few peers to chat with about consciousness. I read the web and what I find interesting I note in the blog.

So again, if you are at all inclined, please comment when you read my postings – I will appreciate it.

Armchair vampires

On occasion I have read a book, Lord of the Rings was one, and for several days I had difficulty keeping my thoughts on the real world rather than slipping into the fictional one. My reaction was awe at the ability of some writers to create another world so skillfully that is can become an alternative to the real one.

Recent research reported in ScienceDaily (here) by Gabriel and Young investigates Narrative Collective Assimilation. This is the authors’ hypothesis that by absorbing narratives, we can psychologically become a member of the group of characters described therein, a process that makes us feel connected to those characters and their social world.

Social connection is a strong, human need and anytime we feel connected to others, we feel good in general, and feel good about our lives. Our study results demonstrate that the assimilation of a narrative allows us to feel close to others in the comfort of our own space and at our own convenience. In our subjects, this led to a reported increase in life satisfaction and positive mood, which are two primary outcomes of belonging. …

Gabriel and Young asked 140 UB undergraduate students to read for 30 minutes from one of two popular books, “Twilight” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Participants then completed a series of questionnaires that tested their conscious and unconscious responses to the narratives. … on both conscious and unconscious measures, participants who read “Harry Potter” identified with the wizards and their world and those who read “Twilight” identified with the vampires and the realm they inhabited. … Their subjects not only connected with the characters or groups they read about, however. They adopted the behaviors, attitudes and traits that they could realistically approximate, leaving aside the bloodsucking and broomstick flying.

This literary experience is probably a great learning tool. We can in live a dangerous life in safety. We can practice other ways of thinking and acting without committing to them – experiment with our behaviour. We can bring to ‘life’ friends when we are feeling a bit lonely. Our daydreaming default network can have a ready made library of ‘other realities’ to use as required, the product of years of encountering narratives. Our consciousness can be a playground and classroom.

Owning your actions

Talking about animals that can learn from experience – there are some besides humans, maybe many – they must have experiences to learn from, a memory of those experiences, some way of evaluating good/bad experiences, and assessment of their action’s part in the outcome. We achieve this by having conscious experience in which we ourselves are actors and the emotional response to events are remembered with the events. So it is not surprising that an animal like a chimp was aware of and remembers what it does. Still, it is always helpful to have confirmation. What seems obvious is not always borne out by experiment. Kaneko and Tomonaga have published (see citation) experiments showing that chimpanzees perceive their self-agency. The chimps controlled one of two moving cursors and could identify which cursor they controlled.

Here is the abstract:

The ability to distinguish actions and effects caused by oneself from events occurring in the external environment is a fundamental aspect of human cognition. Underlying such distinctions, self-monitoring processes are often assumed, in which predicted events accompanied by one’s own volitional action are compared with actual events observed in the external environment. Although many studies have examined the absence or presence of a certain type of self-recognition (i.e. mirror self-recognition) in non-human animals, the underlying cognitive mechanisms remain unclear. Here, we provide, to our knowledge, the first behavioural evidence that chimpanzees can perform self/other distinction for external events on the basis of self-monitoring processes. Three chimpanzees were presented with two cursors on a computer display. One cursor was manipulated by a chimpanzee using a trackball, while the other displayed motion that had been produced previously by the same chimpanzee. Chimpanzees successfully identified which cursor they were able to control. A follow-up experiment revealed that their performance could not be explained by simple associative responses. A further experiment with one chimpanzee showed that the monitoring process occurred in both temporal and spatial dimensions. These findings indicate that chimpanzees and humans share the fundamental cognitive processes underlying the sense of being an independent agent.

And part of their discussion:

In experiment 1, we demonstrated that chimpanzees were able to recognize which cursor was under their control, even when the appearance and movement properties of the cursor were comparable to those of another cursor. In experiment 2, we confirmed that this performance cannot be attributed solely to simple associations. The results indicated that chimpanzees used information only available when they actually controlled the cursor, which is the congruence between an internally generated prediction about the cursor’s action, and the actual observed action. The results of experiment 3 revealed that these monitoring processes were conducted within both spatial and temporal dimensions. Taken together, these three experiments provide clear evidence for self-agency recognition in chimpanzees.

Just like us, an active animal needs to know what the results of its actions are likely to be. Which actions does it own? This is a universal and ancient problem and so the mechanisms for solving it are likely to be widespread. We and chimps share a predict-and-monitor type mechanism. Variations on the experimental protocol in this paper would be useful in identifying what other animals also recognize their self-agency and how they do it.

Kaneko, T., & Tomonaga, M. (2011). The perception of self-agency in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0611

good advice in the end

I enjoy reading PsyBlog (here). The information is straightforward, backed up with scientific evidence and well explained. I recommend it. That said, I am having problems with one of the recent postings, ‘How to Live With an Unknowable Mind’, not with the main message but with the intro.

We can accomplish things by pulling on strings but never by pushing on them. Some things only act in one direction. We have to get over the old Freudian idea that there are two minds and they both can act, often in opposition. There is one mind, it is us, and its processes are unconscious, so we are aware of only a small set of cognitive results - those that are made conscious. The mind can make unconscious ideas conscious but there is no conscious mind forcing conscious ideas into the unconscious. We can’t push the string. I believe it is not helpful to encourage people to distrust their own minds as in the first paragraph of the PsyBlog posting:

How do you imagine your own mind?

I sometimes picture mine as a difficult and contrary child; the kind that throws a stone at you for no reason and can’t explain itself. Or while at the beach it sits silent, looking miserable. But, at a wedding is determined to scream at the top of its lungs through all the quiet bits.

One reason minds can be frustrating is that we only have access to part of them, by definition the conscious part. The rest, the unconscious, lies there mysteriously, doing things we don’t understand and often don’t seem to have requested.

Who is this ‘we’ doing the requesting? It is the mind (real working unconscious-type mind) talking to itself through the medium of conscious awareness. When will we get comfortable with consciousness and forget about a conscious mind? Minds think; consciousness displays. I am not saying that consciousness is without function (far from it) or that the brain can work well without it – just that we don’t do cognition consciously.

What the blogger says is lack of self-knowledge. We do not have accurate notions of our personalities, attitudes, self-esteem. I have to say that I have never been particularly curious about these entities. There are times when I am introverted and times when I am extroverted but I should not be labeled as either. Other personality traits are the same. The important thing to me is whether I act appropriately to the situation, whether I can notice when I am inappropriate and whether I learn from it. I know my justifications for my actions are guesses and the important thing to me is to try and make good guesses if I have to and not to bother if I don’t have to. My self-esteem varies from high to low depending on what I am trying to do. Again the important thing is how appropriate it is to the situation. I do not wish to over-estimate or under-estimate my skills. Self-knowledge is important to me but not these kinds of self-knowledge.

Now just went I am really disappointed in the posting, it is turned around. So here is the final advice from PsyBlog (and my wholehearted agreement with it):

Taking all this together, here are my rough-draft principles for living with an unknowable mind:

  1. The mind is a tremendous story-teller and will try to make up pleasing stories about your thoughts and behaviour. These aren’t necessarily true. (Right, they are always guesses – no way to know how true or false a guess may be)

  2. Using introspection you can’t always (ever?) know what you really think or who you really are. (Right, introspection is never reliable)

  3. Using introspection to work out what you are or what you think can be damaging, encouraging rumination and depressive thoughts. (Right, playing mind-games with yourself is destructive too)

  4. This isn’t depressing, it’s liberating: now you know it’s perfectly normal not to understand some/most aspects of yourself, you can relax. (Right !!!)
  5. If you must push for greater self-knowledge, try to become a better observer of your own thoughts and behaviour. Notice what you do and when, then try to infer the why. But don’t push it, always remember points 1-4. (Right, but don’t think of the goal as self-knowledge but as better living – better goals, better behaviour, better learning from mistakes, better problem solving, better forecasting etc.)

And I would add a 6. whatever you do, don’t divide yourself in two (into a conscious mind that is ineffective and a unconscious mind that is unreliable). Be one person with one brain which contains one mind with consciousness just a small by important part of that mind.

Again, the blog is a good one, recommended, so don’t let my disagreement with the intro to this particular posting put you off following the blog.