An important experiment

In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Frans de Waal reports what I think is an enlightening experiment. One argument he makes throughout this book is that Darwin was right when he said that the human mind differs from the minds of other animals only in degree, not in kind. In other words, our humanity is biologically rooted and there is no discontinuity in our evolution; all we can do mentally is prepared for by prior evolutionary progress. De Waal shows how other animals remember, think ahead, conceal to gain advantage, show a sense of fairness, organize socially, delay gratification, make and use tools, and diverse other actions that some have said were exclusively human. His focus on the power of empathy and empathic communication is powerful. What about symbolization, I hear you ask after reading the title of this blog (if not before)? Ah, here is that enlightening experiment.

In a design called ‘reversal pointing’ a chimpanzee (because they are so very bright) is taught to indicate which reward he or she wants by pointing, choosing the larger pile for themselves and leaving the smaller pile for a friend. Then the contingency is changed and the reward they are given is the one not pointed to, i.e., the reverse. Now the chimps can learn to cope with many different contingencies, old, new and changing, but when faced with a small and large pile of candies or fruits, they consistently point to the larger even when the reverse pointing condition is in effect (just like human preschoolers probably before we explain it). Somehow they cannot adjust to point to the smaller pile in order to gain the larger.

But some chimps have been trained to use numbers in making their choice so that they point to 9 or 10 before 1-8 because 9 candies are better than 8, etc. Who knew? And here is the brilliant thing: chimps using numbers, i.e., symbols of at least the iconic sort, cope quite readily with the reversal pointing protocol. They will point to 9 to get more than 8, but if the researcher reverses this, they will point to 8 to get 9. See the difference? Using numbers rather than visual appraisal of quantity allows the chimps to control their mental information, understand the tricky contingency, and adapt their behavior for success by ignoring perceptual information. Therein, it seems to me, lies a glimpse of our evolution into symbolizing creatures. No need to travel on from here, just draw from our biological roots and bask in Gaia’s glow. And thank you, Frans de Waal.


5 will get me 10? That blows my mind.

The heirs of Wolfgang Kohler


Wolfgang Kohler

This is Wolfgang Kohler who had a remarkable and distinguished scientific career in Germany and then America where he went to elude Nazi authorities. He was one of the founders of Gestalt psychology and coined the phrase, “The whole is different from the sum of its parts.” He understood the methodological and theoretical limits of introspection and behaviorism, and he studied chimpanzees for awhile early in his career. Thank you, Wikipedia. I refreshed my memory there because his name came up in two very different books.

I have finished re-reading Edelson and Tononi’s How Matter Becomes Imagination, and Kohler is mentioned at the very end. They discuss the necessity of incorporating values and emotions into our theories and experimentation for neuroscience if we are to understand consciousness. They conclude by citing the title of Kohler’s 1938 book, The Place of Value in a World of Fact. Their stance, especially Edelson’s, that the brain is not a computer is noteworthy in this regard. Their analysis focuses on language as a necessary condition for what they call ‘secondary consciousness’. Their ‘primary consciousness’ is what I would call sentience, and while they acknowledge that our minds are embodied in social animals, their analysis slights this facet by neglecting empathy and kinesic communication to focus on linguistic symbolization.

Now contrast their approach with that of Frans der Waals who focuses on empathy and social relations and shows a high level of consciousness amongst the simians at least. I am now deep into his newest book, Are We Smart Enough to Understand How Smart Animals Are?, and he mentions Kohler many times because Kohler advocated getting to know the species by observing and working with them based upon their natural, ecologically driven behaviors. Der Waals says at one point that a human giving human tests to children and chimpanzees in order to compare their intelligence, saying they had treated them the same, is like throwing a cat and a fish in a pool and saying they had treated them the same. Kohler was early on, say 1913, a proponent of species specific talents requiring sensitivity for studying their particular intelligences. One of the great pleasures of reading this book is der Waals’ incredible knowledge of different animals’ different behaviors and what these indicate about their cognitions.


Der Waals highlights another early scientist, Jakob von Uexkull, and his concept of the Umwelt, i.e., “the perceptual world in which an organism exists and acts as subject” (from Wikipedia). The umwelt is the beginning of signifying functions for the organism. In vertebrates the sensorium or ambient of its ecological niche is different from their umwelt which is transformed by the values placed upon or interpreted from the sensorium. Important, yes? Our umwelts differ from that of chimpanzees or bonobos not in our consciousness of others but in the prominence of our conspecific relations (this from der Waals). Mammalian umwelts differ from those of non-mammals by the prominence of social relations in general.

This is one motivation for my concept of the MEMBRAIN, that part of the brain that processes social communication. Within each MEMBRAIN a self gazes upon an umwelt filled with social objects, procedures and autobiographical memory along with information from the sensorium. With the advent of symbolic capacities the umwelt depends less upon ambient information and more upon information generated within through symbolic control. The common factor in all of this is conspecific relationships.

These two books are both excellent and quite different from each other because the science behind them is quite different. Edelson (now deceased) and Tononi, who have probably forgotten more neuroscience than I will ever know, examine brain functioning from a high theoretical perspective from where they can see neural systems energize, organize, and flow as conscious processes arise to facilitate adaptive mentation. They are quite positivistic in orientation and exemplary in their understanding of the limits such an approach meets. For example, they say that art results from consciousness but that studying the brain does not contribute much to our aesthetic understanding; they say that such contemplations yield only “trivial” contributions. Amen (and someday I might discuss this in terms of a book, Biopoetics).

Der Waals, on the other hand, studies animal behavior through observation of the species in a more natural ecological setting and through experimental designs based upon our current understanding of the animal’s umwelt. In his discussion of animal research we see the power of life as it is manifested in mental control of adaptive processes and the biological roots of our humanity. Travel on.

Embodying the mind

A common phrase these days is the “embodied mind,” and make no mistake, I am for it even though its epistemological basis is murky, for the use of ‘embodied’ carries the implication that the mind was embodied by nature, when it was, truth be told, embodied by us and that only recently in any rigorous sense beginning with Darwin’s statement that the human mind is different from the minds of other animals only by degree and not in kind. Before Darwin established that profound truth, for many centuries and countless generations, we, except for a few skeptical geniuses in ancient Greece and others like Spinoza, disembodied the mind by believing it was a spiritual manifestation from one’s god(s). I will explain below that we continue to disembody the mind today despite the advances of neuroscience, even in its service.

I have begun reading Frans de Waals’ newest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? In the text he says that the title should read ‘how smart other animals are’, and that he uses ‘animals’ as shorthand for all of our relatives. I must say I love his writings; he has broad humanistic knowledge and he is an excellent and rigorous scientist.   And while I acknowledge that mentioning humans and animals as if they were two separate categories is one of my pet peeves, I want to argue that the title is actually quite apt.

De Waals quotes Werner Heisenberg, one of the giants of 20th century physics as saying, “What we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”. Here is an important epistemological observation (I think it is clearer if instead of ‘to’ he had used ‘by’ our method of questioning). Heisenberg ‘discovered’ that the act of measuring imposes limits on what can be known (either location or mass but not both) and that the act itself changes what is measured. This, it seems obvious to me, applies to our understanding the mind, so when de Waals asks if we are smart enough to understand animal intelligence, while he is mainly referring to our denigration of other animals’ minds, I think the question also includes our own minds, and our measurements are often specious given our narrow perspective. And given our current culture, especially its lack of intellectual depth as seen in our political discourse and the media’s reporting of it, I have my doubts.

When we disembodied the mind as something from god, all knowledge came from god and so we have most of medieval philosophy trying to reconcile that with Aristotle who, of course, knew different gods. Quite a dilemma. Then sometime after the Copernican revolution we went the other direction and disembodied the mind by pretending it was rational and orderly. Thus the English, who knew they were the most logical because their trains ran on time, could justify bringing civilized order to the rest of us, and now we have gone even further by disembodying the mind to be an information processing machine, i.e., our minds run by some logical algorithms, even though Freud had thrown a monkey wrench into those works a century ago when he pointed out the power of the subconscious.

I struggle to understand how so many discussions seem pointless as we talk past one another, have no common factual frame, and rarely adjust our thinking given another’s input. (Of course looking at some of that input, I wonder that we even listen). I remember Thomas Kuhn’s books on the Copernican and scientific revolutions where he says that a new paradigm comes to predominate only when the older generation who espoused the old paradigm dies off. I do understand how Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist studying moral and political discourse, came up with his article, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail,” thereby saying the tail wags the dog, i.e., logic over emotions, albit very poorly. These days I watch how our current political discourse confirms research findings that out of 32 or so modernly advantaged nations, the USA ranks 30th in educational achievement. Actually I wonder if it is really that high.

It seems clear enough that our knowledge does not come from god nor is it rational or logically based; those views arise when we disembody the mind. When we embody the mind (more on that in a future post), we find that our minds are indeed a muddy mess with all epistemology suspiciously complicated. How smart are animals? Without the talents for symbolization and making it up, other animals seem to have a clear, clean intelligence that serves them well enough to escape our clutches when they can. With those talents, whereby we disembody the mind and believe that we are more intelligent than we really are, not so much.

In my clinical training and practice I learned and endeavored to see the object whole, to stay close to the data in my interpretations, remembering by what I measured and how my perspective was lacking. Yeah, I know I will come back soon enough to how our empathy and symbolization are strengths, but right now, those are not particularly manifest in the data. So with this road sign lit up rather brilliantly by the road, “Caution: human minds at work,” travel on.

Back to the connectome

So re-reading Edelson and Tononi’s book, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, I began thinking about the connectome. In previous posts (5/31/15, 6/29/15, 9/23/15) I have talked about how the connectome is the dynamic set of connections and neural activity that is ongoing, shaped by experience, flexible enough for cogitating new circumstances yet set deeply enough to maintain personality, cognitive skills, and autobiographical memory over a lifetime and even beyond when you consider the young lady (see post 1/10/15) who was chilled to death for some hours and then revived well enough with therapeutic help to recover her self more or less completely over time. She put the ‘om’ in connectome.


Connectome picture

Now as best I can understand, Edelson and Tononi’s model for conscious functioning is that some large and specific portion of the connectome organizes into a dynamic core of activity where neural systems in the cortex and their perceptual motor systems switchboarded in the thalamus sustain patternings that then shapes them as needed. Here is where their concept of re-entrance comes in because it is through feeding forward (and backward and sideways) to enhance and diminish certain facets so that the dynamic core is sustained, i.e., by ‘re-entering’ processed results into the same systems to support both invariant information structures and then editing needed variants. The scope and specificity of their conceptualization of a general process capable of operating on many levels is mind-boggling and the reason why I am reading it again slowly.


The thalamus has many divisions that relay and integrate perceptual-motor information with their corresponding cortical areas.

Two things re-enter my mind here. The first is the PLOS article by Eve Marder (see post 5/31/15 & 6/3/15 & 6/29/15) wherein she discusses her rigorous work developing a technique for stimulating, i.e., delivering an electrical pulse, a small number of neurons, even just one, and then studying the resultant spread of excitation. Looking at the image of the connectome, imagine kicking one node and figuring out what changes, i.e., discerning the variance in the patterns. In her article she says something to the effect that the ongoing connectome activity is so powerful that one change is quickly drowned in a sea of complexity and the connectome’s momentum, like a single drop into choppy waters. Change large enough for the dynamic core to be a re-frame comes about through specific events, e.g., startled by the lion’s roar, or through the intelligent re-entrance as the brain clarifies, apprehends, understands, considers and acts.

What I find especially important here is the autonomy and flexible independence of the connectome because this smacks of the animal’s own determinate life impulse.   Living forms are the compositors of their own experience, and we humans are distinctly talented primates in this regard. We not only compose and re-compose our experience as we live but we also compose what is beyond our experience. I do not think we could do this without a well-organized self agency and a virtual mental context generated through symbolization. Further I do not think doing this would matter at all if not connected empathically with other minds.

Here I come back to what has kept my interest for a long time, Susanne Langer’s characterization of mental action as either impactive, i.e., incipience felt from without, or autogenic, i.e., incipience felt arising from within. For example, I startle with the impact of the lion’s roar; my emotional energy rises autogenically to energize and direct my actions. Consider the connectomes and which information or processes were re-entered, i.e., kept in mind, prevalent in a hunter-gather society, in a pre-literate one, in farmers, with the advent of writing, in shaman organizing metaphysical activity, in scientists dedicated to understanding our world and ourselves, and here’s the most interesting one to me, in artists composing their works as an expression of their felt experience, some invariant form communicable to others composed from the variant images, thoughts and feelings of their lives.

Each person’s connectome must absorb much impactive energies to maintain reality orientation and adaptive success, and every person’s connectome is an expression of the autogenic energies from within; indeed, the genome of a fertilized egg is the chemical spark igniting each life that then burns for awhile before exhausting its run. Understanding this life energy as the basis of artistic endeavors is the task I took from reading Langer long ago and again recently as I re-read Edelson and Tononi. Travel on.