Archive for the ‘psychology’ 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…)

Tick…tick…tick—a reply to Ian Brown

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Ship's clock(small)I like Ian Brown’s birthday pieces—about turning 55 in 2009, now 60 in Feb 8th’s Globe and Mail—because they so eloquently express the feelings that come naturally to people on their birthdays, starting around age 30: the sense of time running out, the vision of one’s remaining life as a diminishing resource, the fear that its quality will deteriorate.  He writes:

I began my 60th birthday underslept, with a brewing chest infection, and…not at all pleased to have reached the milestone—standing as I was on the threshold of the no-man’s land beyond sixty. Sixty! I mean, Jesus wept: How did I get to be this old? (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…)

The Illusion of Survival

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

TheIllusion of Survival (small)When people ask what the Phantom Self is about and I have to come up with an elevator speech of a minute or less, I’ve started saying something along the lines of, “There is no fundamental difference between your relationship to your future self and your relationships to other people.” This sometimes strikes a chord, making people want to hear more. It’s better than leading with teleportation, although teleportation is not bad at parties, where people take it as an invitation to play; they light up and start recalling the Hollywood fantasies they enjoyed in their misspent youth, the more outrageous the better. It’s way better than starting off with the idea that we are informational entities, to which people respond as though they’d stepped in something squishy.

There’s no doubt that this material is hard to understand, still harder to explain. It doesn’t help that it’s spread over 60-odd posts written over three and a half years. I can’t distill it all into a one-minute elevator speech. But if I had to pick one key finding—the most important—it would be that personal survival is an illusion. And although support for this claim—which is puzzling and incomprehensible if you come across it cold—is scattered throughout 400 pages or so, no single post addresses this point directly.

So here goes. (more…)

Leary on the Curse of the Self

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Mark Leary begins The Curse of the Self by imagining himself giving a commencement address in which he tells the graduates that in their lives ahead, “The primary cause of your unhappiness will be you.” People make themselves unhappy “because of how the human mind is designed.” That design includes an ability to self-reflect which allows us “to plan ahead, reminisce about the past, consider options, innovate, and evaluate ourselves.” But it also “distorts people’s perceptions of the world…prompting them to make bad decisions based on faulty information.” [Leary,2004,]

Leary’s book is about the self-inflicted suffering and delusions which arise from how human view themselves—a subject familiar to any Buddhist. Although Leary’s views emerge from contemporary Western psychology, Leary is aware of their convergence with those of the Buddha, who had what Leary describes as “a surprisingly modern view of  the self.”  (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…)

Religion and Evolutionary Fitness

Thursday, July 19th, 2012


The practice of religion interrupts the human preoccupation with self-serving activity—which suggests that one function of religion is to keep people from being too obsessed with their personal interests. But why should that obsession, which confers an advantage in evolutionary fitness, be prevented?  Could there be a countervailing advantage in being relieved from the same obsession? Or does this aspect of religion perhaps decrease human evolutionary fitness?  It is a mistake to assume that every characteristic which takes hold in a population increases fitness. Daniel Dennett’s book on the memetics of religion, Breaking the Spell, opens with a counter-example:

You watch an ant in a meadow, laboriously climbing up a blade of grass, higher and higher until it falls, then climbs again, and again, like Sisyphus rolling his rock, always striving to reach the top. Why is the ant doing this? What benefit is it seeking for itself in this strenuous and unlikely activity? [Dennett, 2006, p 3]

The answer, it turns out, is no benefit—to the ant! Its grass-climbing behaviour is prompted by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke, that has penetrated its brain. In order to complete its reproductive cycle, the fluke must find its way into the digestive system of a sheep or cow. By commandeering the motor apparatus of its host the ant, the fluke puts itself in the way of being grazed.

Dennett’s book takes as its starting point Richard Dawkins’ observation that the memes of human culture, like genes, are replicating entities whose populations wax or wane according to principles of natural selection.[Dawkins, 1976]  Among the memes that thrive or die are religious ones. The provocative question animating Dennett’s discussion of religion is, “What is the relationship of religious ideas to their human hosts? Do religions benefit their believers, are they neutral, or are they—like the lancet fluke to the ant—deleterious parasites?” (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…)