Why are we so smart? Really?

A few posts back I wrote about Nicholas Humphrey’s take on the uses of consciousness.  I later found an old  (1976) paper of his that evidently was fairly influential back in the day, “The Social Function of the Intellect.”  He basically asks why are we so smart?  I guess we could be a lot dumber and still thrive and degrade Gaia with our machinations. Humphrey concludes that our intellect serves to maintain society and he provides a wide-ranging discussion to support this idea, believing that the ability to think socially gave our ancestors a keen advantage.

He opens with an anecdote about Henry Ford, who had his minions search junk yards to see what parts failed on the model Ts.  They reported that every part seem to fail except one, which never failed, and Ford then directed that that part be manufactured at a lower quality, thereby saving money and increasing sales of new cars.  Sounds American, doesn’t it?  This anecdote, though, illustrates a key assumption (and bias) about our evolutionary thinking, i.e., the competitive advantage our intellect yields is a commercial one of beating out others.  Like many others Humphrey sees this as the primary advantage of our intellect:  “an animal’s intellectual ‘adversaries’ are members of his own breeding community. If intellectual prowess is correlated with social success, and if social success means high biological fitness, then any heritable trait which increases the ability of an individual to outwit his fellows will soon spread through the gene pool.”  (Just to be clear here at the outset I think any trait which increases the ability of an individual to mobilize and work with our fellows will spread more deeply through the gene pool albeit still with severe constraints).

Later on in the paper Humphrey posits a cooperative impulse, one that constrains our primarily selfish bias:  “the selfishness of social animals is typically tempered by what, for want of a better term, I would call sympathy. By sympathy I mean a tendency on the part of one social partner to identify himself with the other and so to make the other’s goals to some extent his own. The role of sympathy in the biology of social relationships has yet to be thought through in detail, but it is probable that sympathy and the ‘morality’ which stems from it (Waddington, 1960) is a biologically adaptive feature of the social behaviour of both men and other animals – and consequently a major constraint on ‘social thinking’ wherever it is applied.”  My quibble here is that ‘sympathy’, or better, to use my term, empathy, is not just a constraint on social thinking—it is what makes social thinking possible. Remember here the biology of attachment, of parenting, of mirroring, of the myriad ways empathic communication supports relationships, including sexual reproduction.  Also, consider here the empirically developed hypotheses of Michael Tomasello (see posts 7/31/18, 4/30/18 & 12/12/17) that humans are distinguished from other animals by our cooperative nature, e.g., our ability to relate empathically contributes mightily, is even a primary influence, to our cognitive abilities and our social mores, and these would seem to be the intellectual bases of society.

Humphrey gives another interesting anecdote, this one about his early career as a research psychologist.  He studied a monkey whose visual cortex had been ablated to see how much visual function, e.g., 3D spatial vision, could be recovered.  While the monkey recovered some visual abilities, she did not recover 3D spatial vision even after 3 years.  After 5 years she was retired and granted more access to the outdoors. Within 3 weeks she recovered in full her 3D spatial abilities.  Her ‘recovery’ had been constrained by her previously “stultifying” environment. Humphrey looked at the monkeys in other research projects and saw that they were housed in groups which made a much richer, and critically so, environment.

Clearly we are interrelated with the environment, and for us and many other species that includes our conspecifics.  For humans our conspecific relationships become cultural.  Yes, we progress culturally through a ‘competition’ of ideas, but one criterion for winning the competition is the degree to which an idea engenders cooperative success.   Remember Eastern and Western cultures differ considerably in how they implement this criterion (for related posts see 7/20/18 & 2/3/15).  And this may or may not be contributing to our genetic success, because such features take a long time to play out.  Cultural success can take place on the near, short or long term. For example, our president has inflated his success over the short term but over the long term this is being deflated. Are his fiduciary and competitive genes winning an even longer term competition here?  I doubt it but that is oh so complicated a question and I must now travel on.


The genetic advantage of singing is most powerful: And we’ll all go together To pluck wild mountain thyme All around the blooming heather Will ye go, Lassie go?


Descartes’ errors

I have finished reading Damasio’s Descartes’ Error and I was right to suspect that he saw more than one error.  The simplest one was his “I think, therefore I am” (‘cogito ergo sum’) that Damasio says is backwards, because being comes before thinking.  The backwardness is part of a larger error though as Descartes believed thought was a manifestation of spirit or soul and that the body was a mechanical, thoughtless bit of life.  This error, Damasio relates, has rippled out through our science and philosophy since Descartes plopped it down in the sea of intellectual life.  Never mind that many of his contemporaries challenged this, e.g., Diderot as reported in last post; Descartes’ stature was such that his name carried forth the error while those assigned a lesser prestige carried the truth to the discriminating few.

In the last chapters Damasio waxes a little philosophical himself as he extrapolates from his very real scientific understanding of neural processes and mind to what this knowledge means.  One important obvious conclusion that our culture seems to ignore is that given the lack of robustness, e.g., prone to error, in our rational thinking, we ought to cultivate a more rigorous intellectual way of thinking, e.g., perhaps staying closer to data, safeguarding our conclusions from errant assumptions and shortcuts, tending our logical ways more carefully, etc.  In short, ensuring our educational systems work to counter our tendencies to thinking falsely.  (Let’s not mention current political discourse here and keep our tears to a minimum).

Damasio also takes his understanding to a different place.  He writes that given that “reason is nowhere pure”, we need to attend to the vulnerability of the world within, and a most serious consequence of Descartes’ error is that its subsequent versions “obscure the roots of the human mind in a biologically complex but fragile, finite, and unique organism; they obscure the tragedy implicit in the knowledge of that fragility, finiteness, and uniqueness.  And where humans fail to see the inherent tragedy of conscious existence, they feel far less called upon to do something about minimizing it, and may have less respect for the value of life”.  Well now that is saying something so very well:  that ascribing mind to any supernatural forces prevents us from realizing that our biological nature is incredibly special and must be cherished—that this life and our minds that experience it is of the utmost value.  (And that is not done shutting off education, engaging in conspiracy theories, or misconstruing what we know to aggrandize our selves and our positions or beliefs).

Damasio also believes that neurobiology can and does contribute to our appreciation of, he quotes William Faulkner’s words, “the old verities and truths of the heart”.  Damasio points out that our challenge here is to understand how our neurons respond so “thoughtfully,” and that this challenge is literally enormous. The number of synapses is at least 10 trillion and the length of the axons forming neuronal circuits is “on the order of several hundred thousand miles.”  Some of our thoughts are indeed well traveled, eh?  Further, he asks why some events are experienced as suffering and answers, “Because the organism says so”.  Our suffering is a necessary feature of our existence and no wonder I find Buddhism’s percepts here so apt—they keep the cause of suffering in the natural world and the solution in our minds and actions towards others.

Damasio ends with a story about Almeida Lima, a gifted and compassionate neurosurgeon who helped develop a procedure called prefrontal leucotomy wherein pain centers are dissociated from emotional centers.  This is used very rarely in cases for the management of intractable pain—pain that is mind-numbing yet of no immediate consequence for life.  Lima introduced Damasio to one such patient, who, when asked if his pain was gone, replied, “Oh, the pains are the same, but I feel fine now, thank you”.  Though in pain, it was not emotionally excruciating and he did not ‘suffer’ the mind numbing effects.  I am reminded of Reynolds Price, a marvelous author who suffered spinal cancer.  Though it was successfully removed, it confined him to a wheel chair and left him in severe pain, unable to live and think and write.  He learned pain management skills using self-hypnosis at Duke Hospital and went on to enjoy life (I watched him enjoy dinner at a fine restaurant one evening) and write more incredible books.

So read this book or one of Damasio’s other books.  He understands that William James was correct when he asserted that humans have more instincts and not fewer than other animals, and that one of our instincts is a passion for reason, “a drive that originates deep in the brain’s core” for us to be reasonable.  It is still, after all is said and done, an instinct, and means that we must cherish our reasonableness all the more.  Travel on.

Professor Bourdieu, meet Dr. Damasio

I am reading Descartes’ Error by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who always has something interesting to say.  I don’t know which one of Descartes’ errors he focused on yet; Damasio says early on he will reveal this at the end and I am only 2/3 the way through, so more later.  He does emphasize several important modern notions.  Our higher level cognitive abilities are grounded upon lower level processes.  One of these is our emotional capacity, which he says is critical to our thinking adequately about social interaction and thinking through and accomplishing tasks.  He describes several clinical cases illustrating the negative impact on cognition of brain damage affecting emotions, one of which is Phineas Gage, a famous instance from the 1900s.  Gage was tapping some explosive into a hole preliminary to blowing up some rock in the way of construction when the explosive went off prematurely and sent a steel rod through Gage’s head, destroying areas in his frontal lobes.

Gage survived and recovered much of his cognitive functioning, but while he could think and talk about many things, he could not do so much.  His efforts dissolved into blithering, meandering actions without any focus and movement towards completion.  Along with this his doctors noted that he had very flat affect; he just was not concerned about anything.  Damasio and his wife explored the records and even studied what precise areas were probably damaged, given the early descriptions of the injury, and they explored several contemporary cases where strokes, etc., had damaged patients’ brains similar to that hypothesized for Gage. Investigating these cases very systematically, using modern imaging techniques and neuropsychological tests, they demarcated a clear syndrome wherein almost all cognitive skills were left intact, yet the patients were virtually affect-less and unable to accomplish much due to their dithering.  Ah, says Damasio, emotion is necessary to cognition.  Indeed, while they are different, they are mutually interdependent for adequate adaptive functioning.  Amen!

In developing a hypothesis to understand how this could be, Damasio recognizes the important research of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, showing that our rational processes are far from logically fail-safe and quite dependent upon cognitive shortcuts that they call heuristics (see post 6/11/18).  Damasio finds a linkage between these heuristics, austere thinking and emotional buttressing.  He sees a neurological system with an important nexus in the ventral medial frontal lobe that creates dispositions for action he calls ‘somatic markers’.  His discussion here is quite complex with several perspectives and lines of evidence to support it.  I began to understand it when I realized its relevance to Bourdieu’s habitus, of which more later.

Damasio’s somatic markers come about through the interaction of cognitive processes rendering the situation, actions, and consequences and of emotional processes that render an assessment of the desirability of the action.  They are learned or acquired through experience and that experience is referenced to the body, i.e., the soma, thus the name somatic markers.  As we encounter (read ‘generate’ or ‘delineate’ mentally) situations, we respond based upon these dispositions sometimes and at other times we engage in a more rigorous cognitive evaluation.  This fits with Tversky and Kahneman’s thinking fast and slow—sometimes we use quick heuristics and sometimes we actually think things through. This also fits with Damasio’s observations of patients with frontal lobe damage like Phineas Gage—they know the situations and can even articulate the rationale for their actions, but they fail to change their dispositions and learn from negative consequences.

Damasio discusses current empirical support for his somatic marker hypothesis and what needs to be determined through future research.  One aspect here is that while we primarily process these markers through objectively happening situations, we also, and increasingly so with intellectual development, secondarily process situations “as-if”, i.e., we imagine virtual situations and develop hypothetical or abstract markers, so that our dispositional actions are “as-if”.  This is a necessary level if symbolic activity is to be accounted for in this hypothesis.  Damasio goes on to say that, given the learned nature of these dispositional markers, he expects a lot of individual variation in our acquisition of these proclivities.

Now as I worked to understand this, several things came to my mind.  First is Bourdieu’s exposition of the habitus, our cultural ways of doing things (see post 8/13/17).  Some of our “as-if” somatic markers would be acquired through the processes of acculturation, e.g., how to marry, how to organize group activities, the social mores governing group interactions, etc.  Some somatic markers, primary and secondary (as-if), would be acquired through the processes of socialization, e.g., how our family and culture express emotions, treat with elders, etc.  It seems to me that Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis provides us with a way to begin understanding the neuropsychological underpinnings of the habitus.  Most excellent!

Return to the idea “of individual variation in our acquisition of” these somatic markers and their associated dispositional actions. Here individual variation can mean the variation between people inherent in their socialization, acculturation, and acquired invariant dispositions (after all we each experience our life quite differently from anyone else, so how could our dispositions not vary?), and variation within each person according to the processing systems of our specialized neurological structures.  This latter is the one I find especially interesting, because we can see an important distinction in the acquisition of somatic markers and their dispositions. Damasio refers to it as the distinction between social interactions and the actions needed for praxic solutions, i.e., how to do things, not do with people.  I translate this to convey that we have social dispositions both personal, e.g., differing displays of affect according to audience, and not-personal, e.g., driving a car.  This seems to me two basic modes of processing context and intent that are inherent in our brains.  I think it is not just personal-impersonal—it is also immediate, because most social interaction is most appropriately immediate and so biased to the right hemisphere, or displaced because we deal with so much information that is not immediate by using our language to create context (topic) and figure (intentional propositions) and so biased to left hemisphere processing.

Is the experience being learned from as we form a somatic marker part of our autonoetic or autobiographical/episodic record, which is heavily biased towards interpersonal activity and so emotionally engaged and infused, or experience dominated by abstract and semantic memories, which are heavily biased towards accomplishing intentions and so emotional control and dissociation are paramount?  Damasio discusses the VMPFC, the ventral medial prefrontal cortext, as a nexus for composing somatic markers.  What else goes on there?  Damasio says this region is special for its connections to virtually all the rest of the brain, saying there is no experience to which it does not have access.


DMPFC=dorsomedial prefrontal cortex MPC=medial parietal cortex Illustration provided by Georg Northoff – Georg Northoff Brain and self – a neurophilosophical account Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 2013, 7:28.

The prefrontal cortex is important to human cognition because it links with so many other areas and because it processes this information in some specific ways.  Damasio says the lateral or outside side processes information from the outside, e.g., objects, consequences of actions, etc., and thus can be dissociated from more personal engagement.  This stems from its connections with posterior areas that provide information about perceptions and body orientation and with motor planning and enactment areas, plus areas giving rise to plans and intentions in general.  The inside or medial prefrontal cortex, those areas hidden down in the cerebral commissure, function quite differently, as I have posted in recent weeks.  Damasio notes that they work with bioregulation and social interaction, i.e., they maintain emotional control and govern relationships.  Hmm, core (inside) areas work with somatic and personal engagement and lateral (side) areas work with actions with non-social environment. For a complex example using both, consider your ancestor who cooperates with his clan, with one of whom he just had an argument, while hunting a larger animal and moving silently through terrain and coordinating the use of his weapons.  It takes a whole brain to make a functional mind.

Recall now two recent posts, one on autonoesis (9/16/18: Existential neuroscienceand autonoesis) and one on Decety’s model of empathy (9/9/18: Whose brain could we study?).  Autonoesis refers to experiences that are important to the self, i.e., the self is engaged emotionally and socially as opposed to those humdrum activities that bear little import for the self, e.g., adding numbers, driving, washing dishes (unless doing so mindfully).  Marco Iacoboni thinks that our mirror system plays an important role here; specifically the medial parietal cortex (posterior and part of Empathy Central) and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (frontal area important for motor and intentional activity) light up together when the experience is deemed important. He cites research showing that these areas light up when political aficionados discuss politics and do not light up when someone is bored by that topic.

Jean Decety’s model of empathy emphasizes that our brains distinguish our autonoetic experiences from those we empathically feel from another person, that we are able to set our own autonoesis in the background in order to fully consider the other person’s perspective, and that we can regulate our emotions in order to maintain our focus and keep diverse information in mind regardless of the social context.  These same prefrontal areas contribute to these empathic functions, including processing social feedback from others about ourselves (and that shades into autonoesis very quickly).

The formation of Damasio’s somatic markers and behavioral dispositions involve both autonoesis and empathy. We acquire (or not—consider our president per 9/9/18 post) our cultural ways of forming autonoetic experiences and of empathizing with others as we are socialized and acculturated.  These developmental steps are at the root of Boudrieu’s habitus.  We can see this in how different cultures manage such phenomena.  Autonoesis is different between Asian and Western cultures. Asians see the self as defined by and subordinate to social relations; showing off is extremely poor manners. Westerners see the self as defined by individual achievement, so showing off is only ‘natural’.  Similarly empathic expression differs with Asian cultures maintaining a more stoic expression around non-intimate others.

A more deleterious example of differential empathy development comes with our acquisition of racial or other constructs, e.g., our habitus holds some other people distinguised by their skin tone, religions, or other markers to be inferior, even the enemy not worthy of humane consideration.  These cultural features can be changed in an individual when we understand that commonly held assumptions are wrong, e.g., rejecting our family prejudices against another race, and they can shift over time, as when our art shows us a deeper truth, e.g., Brokeback Mountain,Call Me By Your Name,Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner, or South Pacific (see my post 3/6/18: art and cultural shifts).

I want to post again about Damasio’s book, which I find to be informative, provocative and leading to a wisdom of sorts.  And I want to connect these ideas to my conceptualization of the soma, its brain, and the MEMBRAIN.  So, hasta la vista and travel on.


Inky is my hero

NY Times science writer Carl Zimmer has an interesting article about the high intelligence of octopi, which is now fully recognized but not clearly understood.  Good stuff:  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/30/science/animal-intelligence-octopus-cephalopods.html.  Back in the day (early 80s) when I was thinking about returned to grad school for my PhD, I took a course in biological psychology.  One of our assignments was to do a paper on a researcher who studied other species, and I was assigned someone (can’t remember his name) who studied octopi.  He was a pretty strict behaviorist (and even then I said, “Ugh,”) who tried to condition an octopus to go from one side of the aquarium to the other with very little success.  His conclusion was, of course, that they were not very intelligent since they did not learn from his experimental setup.  Nowadays we understand that the scientist wws not very intelligent because their experimental setup was ignorant of the species being studied.  Remember Frans de Waal’s book Are We Smart Enough to Understand How Smart Other Animals Are?

More rigorous studies are now ecologically based, so that we know that octopi use shells to create shelter, squirt ink to confound predators who hunt visually and flee from those who hunt using olfaction, can open jars to obtain food, and so much more.  Zimmer reports that scientists are not sure how their intelligence evolved because they are barely sociable, have a more decentralized nervous system (much of their ‘brain’ is distributed in their 8 legs, and they are relatively short lived; all 3 traits are correlated with higher intelligence.  They do have a well-developed visual system and the ability to almost instantaneously change the coloration of their skin to camouflage with their surroundings.

Zimmer reminded me about Inky (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/14/world/asia/inky-octopus-new-zealand-aquarium.html) and then I followed links to two other examples.  Inky was a reluctant resident of a New Zealand aquarium who disappeared from his tank. The keepers figured out that he (?) slipped out of his tank through an overflow pipe, traversed the floor to a drain, and squeezed (he was the size of a soccer ball but they are flexible and soft animals) down to escape into the bay below.  Ah, the intelligent wanderlust of the eight-legged creature is an inspiration to us all.  Another story comes from a London aquarium where an octopus repeatedly at night (they are nocturnal by nature) left his tank, went over to a fish tank to dine, and then returned to its home tank.  Fine dining, no reservations needed.

The third example comes with an ethical question.  Octopi are rarely sociable except when they mate; they are otherwise solitary. They share some neurotransmitters with mammals, however, and some researchers gave one a low dose of MDMA (ecstasy on the street) to stimulate the warm sensual feelings humans feel under its influence.  This seemed to work as expected—the octopus became more social and interested in other octopi for awhile.  Now I am trying to remember a movie about a mentally challenged man being given a drug which made him smarter for a brief period but then he returned to his former state with some consequent feelings about the whole affair.  I assume that an animal rights’ committee approved this octopus research based in part upon the assumption that the octopus’s cognitive, mnemonic and emotional abilities were insufficient to suffer harm, but we don’t know that, do we?  I read so much research where someone assumes that an animal does not feel or understand something when in fact we know that they do, just in their own way.

So did this experimental subject, i.e., the octopus, remember the drug induced episode with positive feelings, e.g., it was a good ‘trip’, guilt, e.g., can’t believe I hugged that other octopus for no good reason, or regret, e.g., how do I get those warm feelings back.  I know this is putting an anthropomorphic frame on the experience but in actuality we have little way of knowing what the mental consequences were of drugging an animal whose intelligence we are only now beginning to understand.  I am not sure that I would not have approved the experiment if I been on the committee.  I am pretty sure the researchers had a rationale justifying this experiment in terms of helping humans but that is not reported in the news, nor are any ethical questions about research with other species.  Some scientists are acting unethically with our own species—consider the quack in China who created GMO human twins.  It’s a brave new world we have here and caution is advised.  That is why one of my heroes is Inky, who found a way to escape to the wild and freedom (from us).  Travel, really travel, on.