The Human Kludge

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 And because the components were not originally made to work together , there is a greater risk of unintended side effects.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.

Components of the Kludge

Our brains contain many distinct substructures dating from widely separated periods of evolutionary development. Neuroscience is revealing a layered brain of phylogenetically newer structures built on top of ancient ones. Evolution did not discard the reptilian brain, but added distinctively mammalian, primate, anthropoid, and human components. The layers show differences in sophistication that correspond roughly to their modernity. Consciously accessible brain activity—which people can detect introspectively and describe subjectively—is strongly associated with neocortical structures which are evident in mammals but are much less well developed (or entirely absent) in reptiles, amphibians and birds. Despite their discrete anatomy and function, the more recently-evolved layers of the brain are not independent of the more primitive, ancient layers. We cannot do without a brain-stem and the other non-conscious parts of the brain. They all contribute to what we are.

The key components of the human motivational system are the emotions and the imagination.

The human ability to imagine and plan is usually considered to be a function of our highly-developed prefrontal cortex. But the prefrontal cortex does not accomplish this on its own. It draws heavily on resources in other parts of the brain. Imagination requires imagery, which enlists the sensory cortices and other areas. Linguistic abilities, concentrated in specialized regions of  the left hemisphere, are also of great value for detailed planning. Yet imagery, language, and logic are not enough. Another essential ingredient is motivation. Mental pictures and directions show the way, but they can’t make anything happen without desire. Only by being coupled to the emotions does imagination become channelled into the capability of making effective plans.

What is the nature of this coupling? We know introspectively that when we imagine the future, we usually imagine ourselves in the future. It isn’t surprising that our plans and dreams usually revolve around ourselves; they are, after all, our plans, and while we sometimes plan the lives of our children, colleagues, and friends, we usually focus on our personal role: the things we must say and do in order to get others to do what we want.

Think about the imagery you typically generate of yourself in the future. Now consider its emotional salience. If you are like most people, your images of yourself often carry an emotional charge.

We spend time thinking about things we care about. We don’t think, or care, exclusively about ourselves. But a large part of our waking thoughts does concern ourselves. The time we devote to imaginative involvement with any future event is directly related to two things: our emotional stake in the outcome, and the degree to which the outcome depends on our own actions. To imagine the future is, very often, to rehearse it, in hope of making most of our mistakes in a consequence-free virtual reality.

When we imagine getting into trouble, we respond emotionally in much the way we would if the trouble were really threatening us now. At a Christmas party, I am offered a third drink. I imagine the consequences of failing a breathalyzer at a police road block, a prospect so unpleasant that I refuse the drink. The emotion I feel in this imaginative rehearsal is not as intense as what I would feel if I actually flunked a breathalyzer, had my license suspended and car impounded, and faced drunk-driving charges; but it has something of the same quality. It is a sufficient motivator. When events are out of my control—perhaps I face losing my job because my company is losing money, or I am diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, or (like Mark Johnston) I am threatened by a gang of hoodlums—the fear induced by imagining them can approach, or even exceed, what I would feel if the feared events came to pass. [Johnston, 2010, p 162] A threat of personal harm, if it cannot easily be deflected, quickly becomes an object of obsessive anxiety.

The human kludge, I suggest, consists in this: primitive, hardwired emotional responses, to opportunities for and threats to self, became connected to sophisticated, late-model images of self  in order to provide the motivation needed to make those images adaptive for the organism. Natural selection hit on a quick-and-dirty solution which is responsible for much of what we know as ‘the human condition’. The kludge works amazingly well for such a crude design built from mismatched components. It has given our species a huge competitive edge, but at great cost. To be the product of this kludgy design is unnecessarily unpleasant. The human design can be improved on.

Happily, we have reached a point in our evolutionary progress where we can fix the design ourselves. When I explained this idea to my friend Jeff, a talented programmer of long standing, he said, “But if the brain is wired that way, what can we do about it?” My response was that it’s not so much a hardware problem as a software problem. Jeff understood me. Programming is inherently flexible. We cannot change the fact that our brains are hard-wired with neural projections from cortical areas to the fear-generating amygdala; nor is it clear we should want to. But we can change the attitudes that make those projections fire in response to an imagined threat to self.

Core Design of the Emotional System

Emotions are motivators. The words “emotion” and “motivation” share the same Latin root, “movere,” to move. We can often detect an affective colouration in our thoughts about ourselves,. Those episodes of our lives that we remember longer than a few days almost always have emotional significance: a remnant of joy, sadness, anger, pride, regret, or shame. Looking ahead, we tend to think most about events we have strong feelings about, whether desire, eager anticipation, fear, or dread.

The emotional system was shaped in an era when self-preservation was the main imperative for living organisms. Turtles, which evolved some 220 million years ago, are asocial creatures that do not care for their young. Their emotional responses are limited to aversion to dangers and competitors, and appetite for food and sex. The target of these emotions is the organism itself—threats to, and opportunities for, self. Many millions of years went by after the basic emotional system evolved in turtle-like animals, before it became layered up with the complex social emotions we recognize in ourselves. Although primates and other social species have concern for kin and even for unrelated community members as well as for themselves, their emotional system is fundamentally designed around the goal of self-preservation.

At the time the core emotions evolved, animal behaviour was relatively rigid. Behavioural inflexibility and immunity to conscious control have remained hallmarks of emotional response, especially responses to the emotions of self-concern. In my post, “The Neurology of Anticipation,” I described views presented by neurologist Laurence Tancredi in his book Hardwired Behaviour. Tancredi emphasizes the parasympathetic symptoms that invariably accompany the more basic emotions of self-concern. Fear for oneself triggers hyperventilation, racing pulse, and sweating; symptoms that are typically not part of our more altruistic fears for the well-being of others (although they may occur when a loved one is threatened). These involuntary bodily changes support the basic behavioural patterns of flight, fight or freeze that evolved as responses to threats in our primitive animal ancestors.

Charles Darwin performed an experiment on himself to test whether it was possible to overcome a basic fear response by exercising conscious control.

I put my face close to the thick glass-plate in front of a puff-adder in the Zoological Gardens, with the firm determination of not starting back if the snake struck at me; but, as soon as the blow was struck, my resolution went for nothing, and I jumped a yard or two backwards with astonishing rapidity. My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced. [Darwin, 1872, p 21]

Recent neuroscience has shown why Darwin was powerless to stop his backwards jump from the snake. Sensory information is processed first by the thalamus, which performs rudimentary tests for known threats before handing it off to the neocortex, where it is subject to the more considered, but slower, appraisal of conscious processes. If the thalamus detects a threat, it activates the amygdala via a direct connection. The amygdala then orchestrates a fear response. [LeDoux, 1996, pp 161-169] The image of a striking snake is one to which the thalamus responds by virtue of pattern recognition conditioned by natural selection among our African ancestors. (The hypothalamus also responds to learned sensory patterns.) Although there is another neural pathway from the neocortex to the amygdala, capable of conveying the message that the threat is not real because of the thick glass-plate, that message must pass through the slow channels of nuanced conscious assessment, and cannot arrive in time to call off the response. It is fairly safe to say that by the time Darwin was consciously aware that the snake had struck, he had already made his backwards jump.

The existence of two pathways from the thalamus to the amygdala—one, ancient, direct, and fast, but inflexible; the other, recent, indirect, and slower, but capable of delivering a more sophisticated message tempered by the reasoned judgement of neocortical areas supporting planning, self-control, and working memory—speaks volumes about the design of the brain. This is not the only example of redundant pathways in the human brain. Another redundancy is responsible for the phenomenon of ‘blindsight,’ which allows patients who are deprived of conscious visual experience as a result of damage to the visual cortex or related structures, to receive and respond to visual information nonetheless. Some such patients can efficiently navigate the length of a cluttered hallway without any conscious visual experience, and without feeling their way. As they nimbly avoid chairs, boxes, and protruding shelves, they report that they are simply “walking the way they feel like walking,” without any awareness of the obstacles. The eyes and optic nerves of these patients are in working order. Visual information is received by the thalamus, unconsciously processed, and passed along to other brain centres that guide them along their way, although the more modern pathway to the visual cortex is useless, giving them the subjective experience of blindness. [de Gelder, 2008] The fact that the same brain structures are linked by multiple pathways that originated millions of years apart in organisms of radically different evolutionary complexity, responding to different environmental pressures, not only proves that natural selection operates opportunistically, but demonstrates the brain’s potential for mixed messaging and self-contradiction. Returning to the software comparison, the phrase “spaghetti code” springs to mind. No self-respecting programmer familiar with structured techniques would sign his name to a design with such tangled coupling.

The human emotional system is (1) phylogenetically primitive, (2) inflexible, operating largely outside of conscious control., and (3) fundamentally oriented towards the organism itself. It is coupled to an advanced system for planning which has none of those attributes.

Imagining the Future

Imagination and the capacity to plan are evolutionary latecomers. Whereas the emotional system took its basic shape in reptiles, about 300 million years ago, the ability to imagine and plan the future is only well developed in a single species—our own—and only came into full flower during the so-called Great Leap Forward in cultural development which started about 50,000 years ago. Evidence for this consists in the explosion of innovation in the design of tools and other artifacts which began around that time. Not only did tools become more complex and sophisticated, but a new class of tools emerged, ones designed in anticipation of activities that would take place in the non-immediate future, days or weeks away. The first human seasonal migrations between winter and summer habitats date from this period. Canteens made from ostrich eggs, with carefully carved filling/drinking holes, presumably intended for long journeys, were developed then . [Klein, 2002, p 19] Cave paintings, attesting to human powers of imagination, date to approximately 40,000 years ago. [Wikipedia]

Planning ability is often associated with the prefrontal cortex, a brain region exceptionally well developed in humans, responsible for our distinctively non-receding foreheads. According to Wikipedia:

This brain region has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. The basic activity of this brain region is considered to be orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals. [Wikipedia]

But the exact nature of the association between planning abilities and particular brain regions is still a subject of research. Robert Barton argues that

…many of the high-level abilities that take place in the human brain are carried out by more extensive brain networks involving different areas of the brain and that it’s the structure of these extended networks versus the size of any specific area that is most critical for cognitive functioning. [Nature World News]

For the question at hand, functional capabilities are more important than neuroanatomy. The ability to imagine and plan the future enabled a new level of flexibility in human behavioural responses to problems, especially novel ones. Imagination increases flexibility because it allows us to respond to possible futures.

Imagination lets an organism simulate its own behaviour. An animal that can run ‘what-if’ scenarios of possible courses of action learns from its ‘mistakes’—the scenarios that do not end well—without serious consequences. Confronted by a problem, it can internally simulate and preview several different strategies, and choose the most promising one. The animal avoids the cost of learning by trial and error by anticipating the trial, and the error.

The ability to model their bodies and environments allows animals to run forward projections that keep them out of trouble. If a cat is chasing a rat which runs under a piano, the cat’s model of its body, the piano, and the floor tells it that it will not fit into the space in which the rat has vanished; consequently the cat puts on the brakes rather than crashing into the piano.

The forward simulations generated by animals like cats do not extend much beyond the specious present, roughly defined as ‘what is going on in the present scene.’ A cat may beg for its dinner when its owner enters the kitchen, but cats show no sign of being concerned about tomorrow’s dinner or next week’s. Humans, who can imagine richly detailed scenes far removed from the present scene, are able to engage effectively with much more remote futures. Our ability to run scenarios that help us make adaptive choices for the distant future is thus vastly enhanced.

The difference between humans and most other animals is apparent in the way they behave when their immediate needs have been met, and their physiological states are in homeostatic balance. When a lizard, a cat, or a tiger, has eaten its fill, and is neither thirsty, too hot, nor too cold; if it is not aware of danger, or competitors, or opportunities for sex; it is likely to enter a somnolent state. It will bask, snooze or sleep. Humans—especially modern humans—tend not to do this. Having met our immediate needs, we work towards goals that are not immediate. We worry about risks, even ones very unlikely to occur. While we are still young, we start saving for old age. We install burglar alarms, assemble earthquake-preparedness kits, and buy disability insurance. Increasingly, in industrialized nations, people fail to take all the vacation time they are entitled to. They complain of discomfort, even anxiety, when they are not being ‘productive.’ And they are more and more likely to receive and respond to messages from the office, 24/7 times 365.

This increased, and longer-term, engagement with the future has been adaptive for our species. Because we worry, plan, and work, our population has vastly increased over the past few millennia, while populations of other large species (excluding domestic animals) have declined. Since we have become the alpha species on our planet, our competitive energies have been redirected, less towards other species and more towards our own. This shift can be seen in the relentless upward price pressure on real estate—a limited good—and in the ever-widening gap between rich (hence powerful) and poor. Whether the shift towards intraspecies competition will prove to be adaptive for our species as a whole is, at present, an open question—one that warrants serious examination, as there are many signs that it will not.

But imagination cannot produce adaptive behaviour on its own. Mere mental pictures need not have any more effect on action than photographs, movies, or dreams. Somehow, imagination must be translated into motivation. And that’s where the kludge comes in.

The Kludge and its Defects

Here is how I think the kludge works: the organism identifies a mental image as a representation of itself. Identification consists in adopting the emotional attitude of self-concern towards the represented entity. To call the image oneself—to attach self-concern to it—engages the emotional structures of the brain that respond to threats and opportunities related to self. When the organism imagines a threat to itself, its amygdala generates a fear response, and when it visualizes a reward, its appetitive emotions are aroused.

If, as evidence suggests, humans are the only species which can imagine the future well enough to support the kludge, then it is an exclusively human feature, and can be redescribed in terms specific to our species. What we describe in psychological terms as ‘identifying with’ an imagined person is, I claim, nothing more nor less than having the attitude of self-concern towards the person. The same state can be described in neurological terms as activation of pathways connecting the cortical areas that produce the image to the brain structures that generate the emotions of self-concern. To believe that an image represents oneself is to have self-concern for what the image represents.

As we have seen, self-concern is plastic. People can, and do, experience self-concern for imagined entities that bear all sorts of different relations to their present selves, and which may resemble them little if at all. Some people believe that, after their biological death, they could be reincarnated as an otter, or as their niece’s next-born child; others think they could survive as a replica, resurrected out of new matter; others expect to survive as disembodied spirits in heaven or hell; some believe they might survive in their own biological bodies, but utterly transformed mentally by dementia and personality change; and some think they could be uploaded to a brand-new robotic body or even to a virtual body modeled by computer software. [Kurzweil, 2004]

The plasticity of self-concern—the fact that different people, and the same people at different times, self-identify in such impressively different ways without making any obvious factual or logical mistake—suggests that this feature of the human condition can be changed. We aren’t stuck with self-concern in the way we are stuck with our gross anatomical features; it is more flexible than that. Reducing or eliminating self-concern is something we can choose, as we can choose to improve our physical fitness with aerobic exercise. We only need to know how to go about it. The first, and essential, step is to abandon the belief that each of us has a special, unique relationship to just one person alive at any time in the future, which justifies looking forward to having that person’s experiences and no one else’s. To have given up that belief, and come to realize we have the same kinds of connections to other people as we have to our future selves, makes it quite natural to replace the attitude of self-concern, which has oneself as its exclusive target, with an even-handed attitude of sympathetic concern for oneself and others. In so doing, we can redesign our own motivational system.

There are good reasons for doing so. Self-concern is not optimally adaptive either for individuals or for the species.

Many writers have documented its limitations for the individual. The following list draws heavily from Mark Leary’s The Curse of the Self:

  1. Emotional behaviour. The emotions of self-concern frequently give rise to crude, clumsy or ill-considered actions which the individual later regrets. It is widely recognized that strong, self-directed emotion can colour perception of reality and cloud judgement. That is why we often see more clearly what our friends should do than what we ourselves should do. This is unsurprising, given the primitive evolutionary origin of these emotional responses.
  2. Self-conscious dysfunction. Self-concern can cause performance anxiety and choking under pressure, especially when the stakes are highest. When playing a cup game before a home audience, some athletes find the awful fear of letting their fans down hurts their game. Sports commentators have christened this phenomenon the ‘home-field disadvantage’. [Leary, 2004, pp 33-36]
  3. The self-image strait-jacket. “Once formed, people’s self-concepts strongly influence their behaviour.” [Leary, 2004, p. 103] Leary describes how self-perception can lead to risky or sub-optimal behaviour. Men, who typically have a social investment in being perceived by others as risk-takers, will spurn the use of safety gear. Women are more likely to risk damaging their health for the sake of body-image. [Leary, 2004, p. 130-131] In a talk, “Doing therapy with nobody,” therapist Meghan Roeckle described how her patients’ self-images kept them from what they most wanted to do. A woman named Angie wanted to volunteer at a wolf sanctuary, but felt she couldn’t. Roeckle asked, “What would you do if you weren’t Angie?” Her answer: “I’d be at the wolf sanctuary.” Angie later signed up to volunteer. Apparently, the momentary dissociation from her self-image increased her freedom to choose.
  4. Bias. Self-concern is prey to distortions of perception. The “better-than-average” bias was shown in university students who rated themselves better than the average student of the same sex on 38 out of 40 measures. Leary argues that self-serving distortions are maladaptive, holding people in “situations, jobs and relationships” to which they are poorly suited, while at the same time blinding them to the need to improve. He suggests this kind of bias may be a kind of “back-door route” people have unconsciously discovered to “reduce anxiety, uncertainty, and other unpleasant feelings,” but which is, ultimately, disadvantageous. [Leary, 2004, pp 53-77]
  5. Worry. Self-concern gives rise to obsessive worry, which, besides being unpleasant in itself, can cause side-effects including insomnia, health problems, and sexual dysfunction. Although worry can be adaptive, it is not optimally so. Excessive worry can lead to burn out, when further cognitive effort becomes ineffective at solving problems. The Terman study, begun in 1921, that tracked 1500 Americans throughout their lives, concluded that the best predictor of longevity was not the tendency to worry, but conscientiousness, characterized as being “thrifty, persistent, detail oriented, and responsible.” [Friedman and Martin, 2011] Worry is inseparable from perceived threats to self; whereas conscientiousness is compatible with a selfless attitude of sympathetic concern.
  6. Egotism and ego-defensiveness. Arrogance and misplaced competitiveness can damage social bonds, undermine cooperation, and interfere with the pleasures of companionship “Egotism,” says Leary, “is aversive to other people.” Road rage is a familiar example of ego-defensiveness with consequences that are often destructive. [Leary, 2004, p 118-120] Egotism and ego-defensiveness are impossible without self-concern.
  7. Robbing the present to pay the future. Self-concern constantly drags our attention away from what is going on around us, replacing a rich experience of immersion in the present scene with impoverished, inaccurate, and often dismal imagery of what might happen in the future. Obsession with our futures can steal our lives away, leaving us wondering where our time went—noticing that our kids have grown up, and regretting not having had a richer experience of their childhoods.
  8. Angst. At least since the Buddha, it has been recognized that people`s thoughts about their own limited life span, their inevitable decline. and their looming death, cause suffering. This frame of mind is vividly captured by Derek Parfit`s `glass tunnel` metaphor, which portrays the ever-diminishing quantity of future subjective experience as the source of all of life’s value. [Parfit, 1984, p. 281] This focus on the subjective also generates oppressive feelings of metaphysical isolation from other people.

Human self-concern is also poorly adaptive for our species as a whole.

  1. Group identity. Identification with groups is an important aspect of self-concern in a social species like our own. Although evidence suggests that group bonding contributed to the evolution of in-group altruism, sympathetic concern, and such pro-social attributes, the same arguments blame it for inter-group conflict. [Bowles, 2009] Group loyalty is one of our less rational psychological traits. People become emotionally attached to groups, with corresponding cognitive distortions (‘Our group is better than others’), even when group membership is assigned by a process as arbitrary as a coin toss. [Leary, 2004, p. 105] In-group favouritism takes hold in individuals who don’t share values, kinship, or any other important attributes with the rest of the group. This phenomenon can be seen in the passionate support of sports fans for teams named for, but lacking any players from, their home cities. In the present era of weapons of mass destruction, in-group identification poses a risk to the survival of our species.
  2. Over-consumption. Self-concern fosters individual self-aggrandizement, often expressed in conspicuous consumption and accumulation of superfluous wealth, a trait that has contributed to growing inequality. A case in point is the Walton family of Wal-Mart heirs, seven of whom have acquired $115 billion, an amount roughly equal to the net worth of the bottom 40% of the US population who are hooked, as a matter of economic necessity, on shopping at the family’s discount chain. [] Such distortions are one reason our species’ ecological footprint has reached unsustainable proportions.
  3. Pillaging of shared resources. As self-concern promotes individualism, it draws energy and resources away from collective projects, exposing our species to a series of escalating tragedies of the commons. The latest, perhaps most dangerous example is climate change caused by carbon pollution.

Another of self-concern’s shortcomings for both the individual and the species is that, because it taps into hard-wired emotional circuits, it tends to be inflexible. Fight, flight, and freeze responses are not the best ways of coping with most problems humans face in the 21st century. They stop us from making the best use of our subtle, nuanced brains. Seeing one’s way to the best solution of a problem in today’s complicated world requires the ability to contemplate alternatives. Because humans are changing the rules of the world we live in at an ever-increasing pace, more and more of the situations in which we find ourselves are unprecedented. Novel problems are best addressed by novel solutions.

A Better Design

The cure for these ills is to disconnect self-concern from our kludgy motivational design and substitute the more advanced module of sympathetic concern. Making this substitution is analogous to porting a legacy software application to a new platform on which it will run better. Instead of self-concern, with its hooks into emotional subsystems that evolved to meet the needs of turtles, our updated motivational system will use the sophisticated sympathetic concern which appeared recently in highly socialized primates, enabling helping behaviour and enhancing group fitness. From an evolutionary point of view, sympathetic concern is far more advanced than self-concern. It is less intrusive, less prone to co-opt the body, and better integrated with recently-evolved cognitive faculties. Sympathetic concern leaves us in charge.

To identify with an entity in the imagined future is to believe that one could survive as that imagined entity. But as we have seen, there is no fact of the matter whether or not one survives as a given entity in the future. Believing, or not believing, that one survives as someone consists entirely in having, or not having, the attitude of self-concern towards that person. That is a good thing, because facts are what they are, but attitudes can be changed.

It is possible to replace the attitude of self-concern with the more even-handed attitude of sympathetic concern. Replacing self-concern with sympathetic concern for yourself, the same kind of emotional concern you feel towards others, is the essential step in achieving what Parfit called “liberation from the self,” the dissolution of the metaphorical “glass tunnel” (so strikingly like Thomas Metzinger’s image of the “ego tunnel”). With this change in attitude, the rational compulsion of prudence dissolves, replaced by a sympathetic and moral concern for yourself in the future, the same sort of attitude that you might have for another person whose interests are affected by your present actions. In absence of competition from self-concern, the attitude of sympathetic concern is enough to motivate an adequate level of self-care, as well as an increased level of care for others. And, because it avoids the phylogenetically ancient, hard-wired motivational circuits, it is able to take better advantage of the nuanced, flexible, state-of-the-art problem-solving abilities that are uniquely human.

We know the brain is plastic, a fact we exploit to redesign ourselves in many ways—learning a musical instrument or foreign language, improving our skills in golf or statistical analysis. Using the same plasticity, we can redesign our own motivational apparatus.

But how? It is not enough to recognize self-concern and try to suppress it. People need motivation. The trick is to replace the primitive, inflexible, and largely unconscious motivational apparatus of self-concern with the more sophisticated, recently evolved, highly conscious motivational attitude that developed in socialized primates. The attitude of sympathetic concern for others is available to everyone, except perhaps sociopaths. Applying it to yourself as well as others is not all that difficult, if you can free yourself from the illusion that self-concern is somehow rationally required. After a while, to think of yourself in the third person, as just one person among many, becomes as natural as thinking of the earth as one planet among millions.

But the key is not so much in the thinking as in the feeling.

Some may doubt that sympathetic concern can provide sufficient motivation for self-care. This thought, I suggest, stems from the perception that, for most people, self-concern vastly outweighs sympathetic concern for others. But what I propose is replacing self-concern with sympathetic concern. My view is that sympathetic concern is adequate for self-care in absence of competition from self-concern.

For evidence, look at the lives of so-called ‘selfless’ people. Although they are often very engaged with helping others, who may be in dire need, most altruists manage to look after their personal needs. Exceptions like George Price, who took his own life after sacrificing his prosperity and health in service to the homeless of London {Harman, 2010], may be considered pathological. Price was kind to others but not to himself; that is not even-handed. Airline safety videos capture a useful guiding principle: secure your own oxygen mask before assisting other passengers.

Adopting the even-handed attitude of self-concern does not entail treating oneself, one’s nearest and dearest, and complete strangers all in the same way. It does not mean distributing one’s time, attention, and resources evenly among seven billion human beings. There is still a place for local engagement. Sympathetic concern does not demand a Communist ideal of equal allocation of all resources. It is compatible with a high level of self-reliance, because there is virtue in self-reliance. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, we know that centralized planning is a poor organizational model; distributed, local planning works better. The best decisions are made in the light of detailed local knowledge. Much can be said for giving earners the right to spend their own earnings, for they are in the best position to know whether a trade is a good one.

I will draw your attention to a model with which we are all familiar, which may help to make these recommendations concrete. When you are responsible for dependents, such as children, you naturally devote more attention and resources to them than you do to strangers. You are effectively motivated, although not by self-concern. In the absence of self-concern, your future self stands to your present self in something like the role of a dependent: the quality of his life hangs on decisions you make now concerning this future person, and the attention and care you devote to him. Your relationship to your future self becomes like the relationship of parent to child—which is, ideally, one of care and affection.


Bowles, Samuel (2009) “Did Warfare Among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherers Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behaviors?” Science vol. 324

Darwin, Charles (1872) The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, John Murray, London.

de Gelder, Beatrice, et al (2008) “Intact navigation skills after bilateral loss of striate cortex” Current Biology, Vol 18 No 24.

Friedman, Howard and Martin, Leslie (2011) The Longevity Project, Penguin Group, New York.

Harman, Oren (2010) The Price of Altruism, WW Norton, New York.

Johnston, Mark (2010) Surviving Death, Princeton University Press. (Page numbers cited are from the e-book edition.)

Klein, Richard G. (2002) The Dawn of Human Culture, Wiley & Sons Inc., New York (Kindle edition)

Kurzweil, Ray (2005) The Singularity is Near, Viking.

LeDoux, Joseph (1996) The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, Simon & Schuster, New York.

Leary, Mark (2004) The Curse of the Self, Oxford University Press, New York.

Metzinger, Thomas (2009) The Ego Tunnel, Basic Books, New York.

Parfit, Derek (1984) Reasons and Persons, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Tancredi, Laurence R (2005), Hardwired Behaviour, Cambridge University Press.


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One Response to “The Human Kludge”

  1. susan kahn says:

    Gordon, this is a wonderful article. It gives the reader a most in-depth and comprehensive look at the neurology and psychology of our human situation. I think you should consider publishing it on I’ve seen Metzinger’s articles offered there and this would fit right in!

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