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…)
Archive for the ‘Ramachandran’ Category
To 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…)
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…)
“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…)
“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…)
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…)
What is phenomenal selfhood? What, precisely, is the nonconceptual sense of ownership going along with the phenomenal experience of selfhood, or of “being someone”?
In the discussion, he makes a striking comment related to the reality of the self. If the phenomenal self-model (PSM) is “of a nonhallucinatory kind”:
…the system then represents certain aspects of reality as being parts of itself, and it does so correctly. What it achieves is not only self-experience but self-knowledge. (Metzinger 2004, p 607)
In reading this passage, I wondered how Metzinger can reconcile it with his claim that ‘no such things as selves exist in the world.’ Here he says that the system represents itself to itself by means of its PSM, and that it does so “correctly.” Metzinger certainly admits that systems exist. Are we not, then, such systems? (more…)
Our brains represent ourselves, to ourselves, by means of a Phenomenal Self-Model (PSM). According to Thomas Metzinger, the PSM is characterized by transparency, and a phenomenal quality of ‘mineness.’ Its transparency consists in our unawareness of it as a model. We look and act ‘right through it’ – we take our models for our real selves. ‘Mineness’ is a quality that infuses all of our experience which we take to be experience of ourselves. Although Metzinger uses the terms “mineness” and “ownership,” it is more than an experience of ownership. I think “me-ness” aptly captures what Metzinger is after. (more…)
Rationality depends on emotion. A.R. Damasio’s Descartes’ Error – Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain reveals how the human ability to make rational, prudent choices fails unless it is supported by normal emotional responses. His findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom which portrays emotions as enemies to reason – impulsive forces which urge us to make poor choices, and which must be held in check by cool logic and deduction.
Damasio shows that rational behaviour results from a bottom-up process that begins with subconsciously learned emotional responses that can be detected in galvanic skin responses (GSR’s), and other physical signs. This unconscious learning preceeds, and helps to facilitate, cognitive learning.
Moreover, people require these learned emotional responses to make rational, self-interested choices, even after they have cognitively ‘figured out’ what choices are in their interests.
Both results seem counterintuitive, the latter most strikingly. Most people who consider themselves sane think that if they know what is in their best interests, they will choose accordingly. They won’t, says Damasio, unless that knowledge is supported by feeling. (more…)
Like most people (and unlike some philosophers) I will stick to the view that we are persons. In this post I will try to state clearly what persons are according to the theory of persons I recommend, which I call the Information Theory. I will begin to flesh the theory out, by drawing out some of its consequences.
The Information Theory
Here are some claims of the Information Theory of Persons.
- Persons are entities that can be multiply instantiated, like tunes, dances, literary works, electronic files, computer programs, and genes.
- Like all those things, persons are entities that can be expressed as information. A person can cross a spatio-temporal gap in the form of information carried by any convenient medium, such as electronic files.
- Persons are distinct from the living biological organisms they depend on, as software is distinct from the hardware it runs on. (more…)