Archive for the ‘neuroscience’ Category

Questioning Capgras

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

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CapgrasSomeone with the Capgras delusion has the stubbornly ingrained belief that a person or persons close to her—her spouse, her parents, her child—is someone else, a stranger, an imposter.

Although rare, Capgras is of interest because understanding it could shed light on the normal processes by which people recognize people. To decide that you are in the presence of your wife, not a stranger who bears an uncanny resemblance to your wife, is to make a personal identity judgement. We make them all the time, usually automatically and effortlessly with people we know well, sometimes with effort when we struggle to place a familiar face encountered in an unusual setting. An understanding of how beliefs about personal identity can go so spectacularly wrong in Capgras and related disorders may afford insight into the ordinary intuitions we rely on to recognize other people and ourselves. (more…)

Amputation Desire (BIID/Xenomelia) and the Human Experience of Self

Saturday, January 18th, 2014

Amputation desire 0222To say that amputees have phantom limbs and whole-bodied people do not is misleading. The so-called ‘phantom’ is the brain’s representation of the body, something everybody has. As neurologist Ronald Melzack put it, “the phantom represents our normal experience of the body.” [Melzack, 1989, p 4]

Amputees differ from other people in that they notice their phantom limbs, while the rest of us do not. They notice them because the corresponding limb of flesh and blood is missing. The difference between representation and reality is what makes the amputee’s phantom salient. The rest of us fail to notice our body phantoms because, when all is well, we cannot distinguish them from our bodies themselves.

I have started to think of the phantom as ‘the brain’s user interface to the body.’ It’s  a very good interface, one that might have been designed by a genius like Steve Jobs. It gives your brain exquisite control over your body while remaining utterly transparent to you, the user. Most people go through life without ever realizing that the interface exists.

The interface is so transparent, it only becomes visible at all when there are discrepancies between representation and  reality. In this blog, I’ve taken brief looks at two kinds of discrepancy: the phantom limbs which almost all amputees experience, and the rubber-hand illusion which allows an ordinary person to observe her phantom from a new perspective by tricking her brain into shifting the phantom from her real hand to an obviously fake, dummy hand. (more…)

The Human Kludge

Friday, July 19th, 2013

Human Kludge (glowing edges)Natural selection—Richard Dawkins’ ‘blind watchmaker’—has come up with some remarkable designs over four billion years. Those that persisted are, to a greater or lesser extent, effective responses to evolutionary pressures. But many of these design solutions are far from optimal. Natural selection is an opportunist, whose default move is to recombine existing resources, cobbling something together from bits of earlier work rather than redesign from the ground up.

When I worked in software development, it was our default move too. Most programmers don’t mind describing themselves as “lazy.” Reinventing the wheel is rarely the best solution, if you have a library of previously developed, de bugged, tested implementations of rims, axles, and drive trains that have seen a few years of revenue service. Programmers like to re-use their old code because they know it works. Also, it’s usually the fastest way to meet a deadline. “Lazy” can be efficient and smart.

Although they may perform reliably, solutions assembled out of a hodgepodge of old components rarely look as nice as if someone had time to sit down and design them from scratch. And because the components were not originally made to work together , there is a greater risk of unintended side effects.

The Free On-line Dictionary defines a “kludge” (pronounced “klooj”) as:

1. A system, especially a computer system, that is constituted of poorly matched elements or of elements originally intended for other applications.

2. A clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem.

Close scrutiny of the human motivational system reveals a kludgy design. A uniquely human, state-of-the-art module for visualizing and planning the future was bolted on to the emotional apparatus of an iguana. The result works, but not well. On the whole it has been hugely adaptive, allowing us humans to flourish, multiply, and dominate our planet, outcompeting all other large species. But it is far from optimal, often working against itself, driving behaviour that is not at all adaptive either for the individuals involved or for our species as a whole. Moreover, it has unpleasant side effects.

In this post I will outline a theory of this design: how it came to be, its primary components, and why it works as well as it does. I will also lay out some of its shortcomings, and recommend an alternative, improved solution. (more…)

Where Did You Say We’re Going?

Saturday, April 6th, 2013

Earthrise (150)This may seem off-topic, but it’s not. I heard a talk last night by Bill Rees, who originated the concept of the ecological footprint. He presented many slides showing that we are on an unsustainable path. Of course, that isn’t news. We’ve known for a long time that we’re on that path. Bill’s slides were just a progress update—a few more data points representing a few more years since Al Gore showed us we were on that path. We have stayed right on track.

One striking slide showed the path as it was foreseen by the Club of Rome in its Limits to Growth report. The authors created a computer model showing trends on several measures including world population growth, industrial output, pollution, food production, and resource depletion. Trends were plotted assuming several scenarios reflecting different levels of intervention. The scenarios ranged from business-as-usual to sustainable. The business-as-usual trends, based on available historical data, showed a remarkably consistent pattern. The trend lines passed the planet’s carrying capacity in the 1980’s, moving into what is called “overshoot.” Overshoot is growth beyond carrying capacity—a condition which, if not corrected, leads to collapse. (more…)

Traces of S.A.N.D.

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

I’m back from a few days in San Rafael, CA, where I was invited to speak at the 2012 Science and Non-Duality Conference (SAND). I’m still trying to digest the experience, but that may be a mistake. The message of Non-Duality is partly a caution against over-analysis, a reminder of the limitations of our concepts, which, after all, are human artifacts. I feel it’s inappropriate to write about SAND in my usual analytical style, so I’ll try to break that habit. Just give impressions, and let emerge what may.

I was repeatedly struck by the improbability of the event. It is a confluence of people from many different streams of origin, some of which seem diametrically opposed to others. That creates, as you would expect, turbulence—but very little conflict (at least not open conflict). The atmosphere of the conference invites exploration, in an optimistic and playful spirit, of the radically different minds of others. (more…)

The Dark Doctrine of the Political Right

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Is a viral meme thwarting social progress?

To me Goldstine said, “Kid, don’t listen to him. You live in America. It’s the greatest country in the world and it’s the greatest system in the world. …. He tells you capitalism is a dog-eat-dog system. What is life if not a dog-eat-dog system? This is a system that is in tune with life. And because it is, it works. Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. …. We know what our brother is, don’t we? He’s a shit. And we know what our friend is, don’t we? He’s a semi-shit. And we are semi-shits. So how can  it be wonderful? Not even cynicism, not even skepticism, just ordinary powers of human observation tell us that is not possible.” —Philip Roth, from I Married a Communist

In 2011, the political dialogue became about rampant inequality, framed by the Occupy movement as a struggle between the 99% and the 1%.

If only it were that simple. Even in an imperfect democracy, a genuine class struggle between 1% and 99% should be a foregone conclusion. Yet the status quo persists, because large numbers of the 99% don’t see anything wrong with it. Those who do are frustrated to watch, in election after election, too many people voting against their own economic interests.

Part of the reason may be the Steinbeck effect. As John Steinbeck observed about the difficulty of organizing for change in the Dirty Thirties, “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” [Steinbeck, 1966] This attitude was evident in a letter to the editor beginning, “I do not deride the 1 per cent; I am motivated to join their ranks.” [Globe and Mail, 2011]

But wishful thinking is not the whole story. Plenty of lifetime members of the 99% have no aspiration to join the more exclusive club. They include most of the middle class who voice no objection to their now-endangered status. There is a deeper problem: they have swallowed an idea.

I call this idea “the dark doctrine of the political right.” It is “dark” in two senses: as in “the dark side,” obviously, but also as in “dark matter.” Dark matter neither glows nor reflects light, and is therefore invisible. From its gravitational effects, it is believed to constitute 83% of the matter in the universe. Some ideas are like that too: invisible, because assumed without any conscious weighing of evidence, yet exerting a gravitational pull on behaviour.

The Dark Doctrine is the idea that all human motivation is fundamentally selfish—that we act out of self-interest and nothing else. Although some people may appear to value moral principles, or to be moved by sympathy for others, they only do so because ‘it makes them feel good.’ At bottom, we’re all driven by the desire to feel good. Selfishness drives all. (more…)

Religion as an Antidote to the Self

Friday, June 15th, 2012

“Why does religion exist?” is a challenging question for both the natural and the social sciences. There is a fact to be explained: a large majority (about 85%) of human beings profess religious beliefs and engage in religious practices. For evolutionary biology, the challenge is to explain why religion caught on so well. Did religions confer a competitive advantage on the members of our species who adopted them? If they once did, do they still confer a competitive advantage? Although a ‘gene for religion’ is unlikely, religious affiliation is heritable: the strongest determinant of an individual’s religion is the religion of his parents. [Dennett, 2006, p 86] Religious observance is costly, requiring the erection of places of worship and maintenance of a priesthood, and could be presumed on that account to reduce the evolutionary fitness of believers as compared to their more worldly competitors. Why, then, have religions flourished? Almost the same question confronts economic theory, which assumes human behaviour is best modelled by Homo economicus, an agent who always chooses what he believes is in his own interests. Why would such agents choose religion, which requires personal sacrifice with no clear payback, or at least without the kind of payback that motivates the same agents in their other transactions such as work for pay and pay for groceries. A parallel question faces psychology. Religions commonly advocate self-denial, which can be presumed to be psychologically repellent. Why are people attracted by institutions and practices which ask them to give up pleasures?

All the world’s major religions try to curb human selfishness. They attempt to break their followers’ obsession with their personal lives, and encourage them to care about something larger than themselves. An aim of religion is to alter human motivation: to guide thought and motivate action in directions that run counter to ‘natural’ inclinations.

I want to examine the hypothesis that religion arose as a response to the emergence of the self as a motivational centre in human psychology. (more…)

Mirror Neurons for an “Exquisitely Social Species”

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

“A unifying neural hypothesis on how individuals understand the actions and emotions of others” was presented to the world in 2004 by neuroscientists Gallese, Keysers and Rizzolatti. Our understanding of other minds, they claimed, is facilitated by “mirror neurons,” so-called because they fire when an individual performs or observes an action, and when she experiences an emotion herself or observes that emotion in someone else. The authors described mirror neurons as a system that enables humans and other social primates to simulate each other’s behaviour and internal states, thereby enabling learning, communication, and prediction of others’ actions.

Humans are an exquisitely social species. Our survival and success depends crucially on our ability to thrive in complex social situations. One of the most striking features of our experience of others is its intuitive nature. This implicit grasp of what other people do or feel will be the focus of our review. We will posit that, in our brain, there are neural mechanisms (mirror mechanisms) that allow us to directly understand the meaning of the actions and emotions of others without any explicit reflective mediation. Conceptual reasoning is not necessary for this understanding. [Gallese et al, 2004, p 396]

The mirror neuron hypothesis sparked a storm of interest among scientists and philosophers concerned with the human mind. It sparked controversy too, with some researchers cautioning that the data vastly underdetermines the interpretation placed on it, and that animal studies have been extrapolated to conclusions about the human species. This caution is justified, but so is the excitement. The bare facts of what has been discovered so far are hard to reconcile with any hypothesis that could be considered boring, and the current pace of discovery suggests that we will soon know much more. If the Gallese/Keysers/Rizzolatti theory is even approximately right, neuroscience is giving birth to an intellectual revolution with the potential to profoundly change both scientific and common-sense understanding of how our minds work. (more…)

The Separateness of Persons

Monday, January 16th, 2012

We are born into this world profoundly alone, our strange, unbounded minds trapped in our ordinary, earthwormy bodies—the condition that led Nietzche to refer to us, wonderingly, as “hybrids of plants and of ghosts.” We spend our lives trying to overcome this fundamental separation, but we can never entirely surmount it. Try as we might, we can’t gain direct access to other people’s inner worlds—to their thoughts and feelings, their private histories, their secret desires, their deepest beliefs. Nor can we grant them direct access to our own. [Schulz, 2010, p 252]

The feeling of separateness from other people, so eloquently expressed by Kathryn Schulz in her book, Being Wrong, is rooted in a theory which almost all of us learn at our mother’s knee between the ages of three and six—the theory of other minds.

Human beings are self-conscious creatures. Your brain supports a model of the world, part of which is a model of yourself. When you were around four, your self-model became sophisticated enough to support a secondary, higher-level model—a model of your model of the world, and within that, a model of your model of yourself. You began to draw the subjective-objective distinction. Or to put it more simply, as Kathryn Schulz has, you realized you could be wrong about things. Reality was not always the way you perceived and believed it to be. (more…)

Towards a Scientific Theory of Persons

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Paradigm Shift

I do not expect a theory of personhood to match all our pre-reflective philosophical intuitions, even if deeply considered and strongly felt (especially if strongly felt!) for two reasons: (1) our best intuitions on this subject are demonstrably unreliable, and (2) billions of otherwise sane and competent people hold beliefs about personal identity which are unsupported by empirical evidence, but to which they have strong emotional attachment. These two facts strongly suggest that there is something wrong with what we are naively inclined to believe about our identity. Hence we should not be surprised to find that a satisfactory solution, when it is found, will at first seem counter-intuitive. (more…)