4th Anniversary: Prelude

I look at what humans do every day in the course of living and see biological marvels, then I try to understand them here on this blog. December 5 will be the fourth anniversary of my blog (who would have thought, yet I learn too much to give it up) and I have prepared a series of 5 posts as a celebratory summary.


2-Genetic Watersheds

3-Soma, its Brain and the MEMBRAIN

4-Some Basic Lessons Learned

5-Happy Anniversary

Over the past 4 years I have posted 255 times that were read 2244 times from 10 countries. My most popular post, ‘Arcuate Fasciculus, mirror neurons & memes’ has been viewed 242 times. Travel on but stay tuned.

Movie review: The Red Turtle and some reflections on aesthetic appreciation

The Red Turtle is a 2016 animated fantasy feature from Studio Ghibli by Dutch animator, writer and director Michael Dudok de Witt. It is a beautiful movie and I hope that, if you haven’t already seen it, you see it soon. The film is particularly noticeable because it has no dialogue, just lovely animation with expressive animals, including humans, and scenes of nature, both beautiful and powerful. I write about it today as a follow-up to my recent Aesthemos post and to consider some issues it raised in my mind, e.g., the difference between aesthetic emotions and those emotions depicted or evoked, aesthetic judgment, and the difference between linguistic meaning and artistic import. Travel on then.

The plot is simple and spare. The movie opens with a man struggling in a stormy sea with no context for how he came to such a dire strait. He somehow manages to land on the beach of an isolated tropical island and frantically discovers that he is all alone and that no other land is in sight. He tries to leave the island several times via a raft and each time something rises up underneath and smashes the raft. He discovers this to be a large red turtle. When it crawls ashore he wreaks his anger on it, killing it, though then the shell cracks open and a beautiful maiden emerges. They join together in a paradisiacal life and have a child, who grows up to befriend other turtles in the sea, help his parents in many things as they age, even saving his father when he is washed away along with much of the island’s forest in a tsunami. Eventually the son swims away with his turtle friends and the couple grow old together until the man dies, and then the woman returns to her turtle form and the sea from which she came.

Other events are important, like the father and later the son falling into a cave, the only possible escape from which is to swim through a narrow underwater outlet to the ocean. Many of the events are witnessed by sand crabs scuttling around the beach with humorous expressions. All told, then, the simple tale stands alone as a symbol with other symbols contributing to its artistic import. I use Langer’s term for the deep structure of artistic communication and not the word borrowed from language, “meaning.” I think there is an important difference between, when after watching this beautiful and somewhat enigmatic movie, you ask what it ‘means’ or what is its artistic ‘import’. Both can be explicated further, but the former presumes a concrete clarity already socially sanctioned and so governed by some semantic standard, while the latter presumes that any linguistic rendering of the emotions, aesthetic, evoked, or depicted, and of the symbols’ compositions and implications, is only an approximation to the vital experience symbolically realized and conveyed. That is the essential difference between Langer’s discursive and presentational symbolic forms.

Aesthetic judgment relies upon, or it should, the feelings and symbolic form expressed. In these modern times, meaning the last 15,000 years, I think the pervading power of our civilizing impulses sometimes clouds these facets. Consider Aristotle’s dictum that art, e.g., drama, depends upon the temporary suspension of disbelief. I have friends who would not bother with this movie because it is a cartoon, which, I presume, places it beyond their suspension of disbelief. I have other friends who focus on the details drawing their critical attention, e.g., it is cartoon and so for kids, it is a realistic live action movie but cartoonish (as if that was a bad thing), the actor did not fit their preconception, or something happens that does not fit together, etc. In the Red Turtle I can tell you the tropical island had a single seal (unreal) and one time the moon set over the ocean facing the wrong way (and the rest of the times its depiction was astronomically accurate), but while noticed, the artistic enchantment held together.

In talking with my more persnickety friends I have come to rely on the phrase ‘critical appreciation’. Some people are so bent on being critical they forget the appreciation and others appreciate without much thought. Most, I believe, combine some level of both, and as naturally happens, when they like something and view or hear it repeatedly, their criticism diminishes and their appreciation dominates until with perhaps too many repetitions, the feelings subside to be recalled again when old and grey.

The Red Turtle (RT), to me, is high art. Using Aesthemos’ taxonomy of aesthetic emotions, RT strongly presents some prototypical aesthetic emotions, e.g., beauty (of several things, events, relationships and nature), fascination with the characters and events, especially the continually composing import of the film as a whole, feeling moved by their isolation and mutual support, awe in the face of nature’s power and beauty, etc. Pleasing emotions are evident with the flippant humor of the sand crabs, the joy of life and their child, and the energy/vitality of their survival. Epistemic emotions also arise with surprises of the red turtle’s changing role in the story, interest in what will happen next and finally, and the challenge to grasp the insight into life offered by this film with no words. Other emotions are depicted, e.g., fear, anger, and evoked, e.g., sadness, isolation, etc.

Aesthetic judgment is a complex process joining aesthetic apprehension and experience of aesthetic emotions, critical appreciation, the comprehension of plot, characters, and emotions depicted and evoked, and above all, the successful reception of the presentational symbol conveying the felt vital experience. Regular readers here know I am fond of Joyce’s taxonomy, drawn from Aquinas, of aesthetical appreciation of beauty: the integrity of the whole, the coherence of its elements, and the illumination the art from provides. Joyce goes further to say high art comes to a static resting place, i.e., nothing else is desired and the consumer rests in the light provided; that is the Joycean epiphany. Lower art is dynamic, i.e., the consumer is left aroused and wanting, as in didactic or pornographic (loosely defined to include car chases, explosions, and scary scenes as well as sex) art. That art, both its expression and reception, is an intellectual endeavor of great scope and depth is, I hope, evident here today. Amidst all the activities of daily life and society’s functioning (maybe over estimating that given our current politics), art as a prominent and essential feature of our humanity is often lost (and some even abandon it) amongst the dynamic welter of what we still call civilization. Remember, though, William Carlos Williams’ lines from his great poem ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.


Once again I come to one of the main motivations for this blog: understanding our humanity, especially our art, as a biological phenomenon. I am preparing a series of posts in celebration of publishing this blog now for 4 years; never thought about going this long but I learn too much to let it go fallow for long. Travel on.

Mammalian Heritage Day

Today, November 2, is Mammalian Heritage Day.  Mammals might be the newest branch on the tree of life but their warm-blooded, live bearing, family bonding have somehow prompted the ongoing evolution of brains. Bacteria, insects, reptiles, and birds have been around longer, much longer, than mammals but the newest kid on the block has produced an increasingly powerful intelligence over the past 300 million years. We are not the crown but the beneficiary, so take today and give thanks by, for example, taking a mammal to lunch or out for a walk.

We humans in our evolution find ourselves benefitting fully from our mammalian heritage. Mammals appeared on the scene around 500 million years ago and have diversified into many different forms since. Consider their (our) primary characteristics. Being warm blooded confers a crucial independence from ambient conditions, an independence humans have taken to an ultimate degree. It is not just that mammals have adapted to many different environments around Gaia, including returning to the ocean, but we have further enhanced our independence by controlling and changing these ambient conditions, perhaps to own detriment but then no species continues forever.

Consider another characteristic: live births. This is especially important for three reasons. First, infants born viably but immaturely permit an incredible amount of post-partum growth. The benefits of this are astounding: increased brain growth and size and critical periods of maturation where experience affects brain development in deep ways. Second, parenting becomes a lot more than regurgitating food into infant mouths and then kicking them out of the nest. Oxytocin, a most important hormone for parenting energy and prosocial behaviors, has been around, according to some estimates, for over 530 million years. Over the course of evolution mammalian brains developed the capacity to respond more powerfully to this hormone—parenting and family life became more prominent in any adaptive success, and that leads us to the third reason: If you want to raise more intelligent children and pass on to them the benefits of prior generations’ experience, birth them live and immature, maintain a nurturing family structure, and extend their juvenile period so that they do not begin to reproduce until they are a decade or so old, and then watch them surpass their education. The discovery of controlling fire was not really that big of a deal; the passing on of this technique, however, was; just ask Prometheus.

Our immediate (relatively speaking) ancestors who showed the culmination of these characteristics are the primates who appeared around 53 million years ago. That means mammals evolved for 450 million years before our large brained, visually oriented, socially engaged, and quick intelligence kinfolk appeared and then simians appeared a few million years after that. Our line split off from the great apes around 8 million years ago and our partners, the dogs, appeared around 3 million years ago. Fire was important because it furthered this trend. Cooking food releases more calories, making digestion more efficient, and more energy from food powers increased brain capacity. Fire warms us and draws the family group to the hearth. Civilization began at the hearth (and it looks like it will die in committee).

So this November 2 take a moment to reflect on our genetic heritage and thank a mammal, any mammal, all mammals for continuing this genetic stream and tend to your hearth.

Aesthemos? I like it.

I really do like Aesthemos, a newly constructed self-report measure for aesthetic feelings about a work of art. The authors, mostly European (no surprise), published an extensive report on PLOS about their development of this instrument, the Aesthetic Emotion Scale  (see: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0178899). They reviewed much of the literature on this topic and then gathered questionnaire items from other questionaires and some theoretical considerations, then tested the items to find which ones were most valid and tapped into what they thought was pertinent. This is a brilliant, rigorous and important piece of work, no small undertaking, and one that will help move our understanding forward.

They came up with questions assessing an art consumer’s responses (what word would be better here? Art appreciators?) in several areas: A) Prototypical Aesthetic emotions, e.g., feelings of beauty, fascination, being moved, awe; B) Pleasing emotions, e.g., joy, humor, vitality, energy; C) Epistemic emotions, e.g., surprise, interest, challenge and insight; and D) Negative emotions, e.g., ugly, bored, confused. They worked hard to develop an instrument that could be used across many types of art, visual, dance, music, literary, etc., and that was manageable, i.e., not too long or difficult for ease of administration.

These areas and the specific questions are quite interesting and I am sure I will write more about them later, but for now I want to note what a great literature review they offer, what a cogent theoretical basis for their analysis they have, and one place where I think they could learn from Susanne Langer (you knew that was coming, right?).

Oh, to be young and a library rat (analogous to gym rat) again. One of the great joys in my earlier life was to find a good article or book and then immerse myself in the stacks reading select items from the reference list. Being distant from academic pursuits I must find sources wherever I can these days as I work the farm, and I did not know about many of the journals and books they cite. I had better get busy over the winter when my farm task list shrinks and read about emotion and empathy in aesthetic experience, reactive and reflective models thereof, the pleasures of the mind and sense-making, and how this all relates to our sense of beauty. Lovely, isn’t it?

The first sentence of the abstract says much about their theoretical approach: “Aesthetic perception and judgment are not merely cognitive processes, but also involve feeling”. I knew this was going to be a great read. The introduction starts, “How does beauty feel? The notion that aesthetic appeal is more felt than known has a substantial tradition in philosophical aesthetics.” My variegated readings in psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience suggest that such a tradition has not carried forward very far into aesthetics as a biological phenomena, though the authors here have found some. Indeed, their development of Aesthemos is intended to facilitate the inclusion of a consumer’s emotional responses to art into more experimental paradigms, and that is very exciting.

Reflecting on this article I realized two things. First, that Aesthemos and the theory underlying its development is based upon art appreciation and not art creation, and that the emotional processes serving artistic creation are bound to be very different and more difficult to understand. This is natural because the response of the art consumer is much more amenable to study than is the creative intuition of the artist inspiring the work and its crafting thereafter. How to study that is a challenge for the future (probably, but we should keep it in mind).

Second, Aesthemos is based upon emotions and feelings as a counter-balance to more cognitive approaches, but it still relies on a vocabulary from those latter restrictive ones. Here is where Langer can help with the discussion. Aesthemos found one area of emotional response the authors noted as ‘epistemic’, i.e., “emotions that have been connected to the search for meaning and insight”. They rightly point out that art is not utilitarian; it is not a means to accomplish an end (unless you count symbolic communication and the sharing of vital experience as the goal) but is more of an end in itself. The essential importance of art is its symbolic communication of the artist’s experience, necessarily personal, somehow intimately parsed from the self’s vital life that then inspires the creation of the art work.

The problem with “meaning and insight” is that these terms are loaded with other philosophical, psychological and religious connotations. We gain meaning and insight into how our life has progressed and how we want to live it into the future in many ways, not all of them aesthetically based. Plus, the label of ‘epistemic’ and use of the word ‘meaning’ comes from the discursive realm of knowledge as more or less logically abstract and impersonal (like declarative memory more than episodic) and to this old linguist, that relies on the deep and surface structures of language because meaning there is a conventionalized and internalized system of sematic units expressed by and recoverable through syntactic transformations between deep and surface.

Langer recognized the difference in the deep and surface structures between the two types of symbols, discursive, e.g., language, and presentational, e.g., art, in her 1942 book, Philosophy in a New Key, and she continued to develop the notion of artistic ‘import’ as analogous to linguistic meaning in 1953 Feeling and Form. I like her very succinct presentation of the term in her 1957 Problems of Art. Over the 4 years of this blog I have written about this several times (for example see 9/23/17, 9/13/2016, 2/17/16, and 11/4/2015). Briefly, from a previous blog, presentational symbolic forms, epitomized by art, carry import through gestalt-like forms composed from elements that have no significance outside of that form, while discursive symbolic forms, epitomized by language, carry meaning through linear syntactic combinations of elements that bear their semantic load independently of any new combination. The vocabulary of art, so to speak, may be culture bound but is otherwise unlimited, variant and intuitive with their creation limited only by the creativity of the artist; the vocabulary of language is established through social convention and though invariant, may be used in novel constructions.

Going further, presentational symbols are virtual constructions in which each element has no meaning independent of the total gestalt, as opposed to discursive elements that are lexical items of steady and stable meaning no matter the context. Further, presentational symbols are then not constrained by the necessities of linearization in the form of a grammar transforming deep to surface structure, e.g., sentences. Instead, presentational symbols express some symbolic formulation of an experience in a complex, contextual, non-linear structure, the elements of which depend upon the total gestalt for significance–makes it hard to study empirically). In Problems of Art Langer determines that linguistic meaning is just that and another term is needed for the deep structure of art and this she terms ‘import’, following ideas set forth by Ernest Nagel and other philosophers.

This distinction between meaning and import carries two implications about the issues Aesthemos explores. The first, more theoretical than empirical, is the basic difficulty of verbalizing about a work of art; translating a work of art from one medium to another or giving a rendition of it in the context of critical appreciation or even a literary work from one language to another ranges from fraught with difficulty to impossible. Thus, Aesthemos uses words, i.e., discursive symbols, to report feelings about a artistic work, i.e., presentational symbol. These feelings are part of the process of apprehending and understanding the art work, but are not the import, which is really conveyed when the expressive form is gathered in in its entirety. Langer says the import is an idea of felt experience that “gives us the forms of imagination and the forms of feeling, inseparably; that is to say, it organizes and clarifies intuition itself” (Feeling and Form, p. 397). The artist does this intuitive work in his art production, and the import which the consumer manages from the artwork must likewise follow the intuitive processes of a presentational symbol, its form expressing a complex synthesis of vital experience. I take from this that understanding art is or rather will be an important aspect of understanding the non-conscious processes of intuition, difficult on both the expressive and receptive ends.

The second issue is directly addressed by the authors as they cited the known difficulties of self-report measures, the reliability from one moment to the next for any individual and the necessity of assaying an experience once it is over and when the consumer’s emotions and understanding changed continuously during the artwork’s performance or reading or viewing and then change afterwards with the integration of many past experiences, thoughts, and feelings. This is especially so, I should think, in exploring our aesthetic feelings, but such measures can be very useful in studying human minds and I hope Aesthemos has a long and happy career as a useful measure helping us understand how we produce and receive art.

I have much more to say here; their article started me wandering down several paths of thought. Next up I think will be a reflection on the nature of critical appreciation and artistic import, using a review of a beautiful movie as the platform. I hope everyone has seen or has a chance to see (take it) The Red Turtle.

Travel on, of course, and remember Mammalian Heritage Day on November 2. After that I plan a series of posts as I celebrate the fourth anniversary of this blog on December 5. The farm is frosted and I have time and energy.


We are the champions, my friends.


A rousing tune but champions? All of us? I just don’t know how I feel about that.



no more anthropodenial

One week from today will be my self-proclaimed holiday “Mammalian Heritage Day” that I started last year. I will re-post from those posts next week but today I want to refer you to 2 news reports that illustrate the remarkable path the earliest mammals started us down on some 300 million years ago.


In this new tree of life mammals would be found in the green projections in lower right corner.

The first report is about the empirical support now in for the ‘cultural’ brain hypothesis’, i.e., essentially that our brains, especially as primates and before that as mammals, enlarged with our increasing sociability, meaning the rich domain of information our empathic and signal communication contributes to our lives and experience. Over the past several years researchers have documented deep similarities between human society and cetacean society. Check out this story from Earthsky.org: http://earthsky.org/earth/whales-dolphins-live-human-like-lives. This list covers some remarkable evolutionary developments that have culminated with primate and cetacean species. Consider that we all are

– Working together for mutual benefit
– Teaching others how to hunt and cooperative hunting
– Using tools
– Complex vocalizations -‘talking’ to each other – including regional group dialects
– Signature whistles that are unique to individuals
– Name recognition
– Interspecific cooperation (working with humans and other species)
– Adult animals looking after youngsters that aren’t their own
– Social play

The second story comes from researchers who have documented that chimpanzees, both in human captivity and in the wild, show stable personality traits quite similar to ours, to which we now say, “of course”. Consider this NYT story: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/24/science/chimpanzees-goodall.html. This report accompanies the release of a new documentary about Jane Goodall’s early research. What a brilliant human she is, first as a scientist with immense vision and courage developed through the most rigorous fieldwork imaginable and now as a wise and astute advocate for Gaia and especially its creatures under duress of extinction. When she began her studies back in 1960, her findings were belittled as anthropomorphic projection. Now we have Frans de Waal cautioning us against anthropodenial by which we deny and ignore the evolutionary continuities between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom (especially mammals like primates and cetaceans). Our similarities run deep from our shared genetic heritage up to, as research continues to demonstrate, our social selves and groups. Makes me glad to be alive, so I think I will travel on with a little swing to my step.


2 genetic studies and a bit of poetry

One study demonstrates how an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics, and the other demonstrates, gee, I don’t know, the value of humility in scientific reasoning? For the first see NYT:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/science/skin-color-race.html.  These researchers studied which genes influenced skin color across several populations. The details are interesting so please read the article for more. Basically they found that we, including Neandertals, all have many of the same genes for lighter and darker skin, but they express differently in different populations because of other genetic factors. The gene promoting the lightest skin tones are actually very recent, appearing, they think, roughly 30,000 years ago primarily in northern European peoples and have spread because of the advantage conferred by the ability to absorb more ultraviolet light that is more limited in northern latitudes.

Their search for understanding also leads them to an important conclusion about ethics. Skin color is not a good indicator of racial differences; I don’t know what is but it is not our skins because we all share so many of the same genes influencing this particular trait. The scientists here have contributed importantly to the growing understanding that our definitions of race are based more on our proclivity for defining in-group/out-group in a discriminatory, defensive manner and not on any significant biological facts. To paraphrase Te-Nehisi Coates: the concept of race is an invention of racists, i.e., one group of people wants to define another artificially in order to rationalize their own greed for power and exploitation. (See post here on race 5/17/17). As Monod hoped, an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics. I wonder when our ancestors first used skin color to define in/out-groups—I bet it was relatively recently. Remember Homo sapiens interbred with Homo neandertals some 35,000 years ago so that speaks to some inclusion.

The second study is a bit more puzzling to me. I have seen it reported a couple of places such as earthsky.com: http://earthsky.org/human-world/aging-breakthrough-mainz-genes-autophagy.   These researchers studied the aging process. Why is it that our molecular mechanisms begin to break down after a relatively predictable amount of time? They found some genes, studying a worm, that promote autophagy, the process whereby the body eliminates damaged or malfunctioning cells and allows new ones to regenerate the systems. This functions very well in young organisms but falls off after reproductive age and even more with older age. It is important to note here, I think, that we humans have a relatively long juvenile pattern before our reproductive age and we do seem to live long after that age has passed. This research is an important contribution towards understanding and treating neurodegenerative diseases and such.

But I have a quibble here. Aging and death are described as a “quirk” of evolution because according to their rendition of Darwin’s theory, living longer would enable more of one’s genes to be replicated and passed on: “In theory, this should give rise to individuals with traits which prevent aging as their genes could be passed on nearly continuously. Thus, despite the obvious facts to the contrary, from the point of evolution aging should never have happened”. Ah, now, if this is orthodox, let me put forward the heterodox. From the point of view of evolution, longer lived individuals would slow down the evolving adaptability, so that as conditions changed but the genomes remained the same, the organism would be left high and dry, so to speak, and less well adapted. There is no “point of evolution” except to hold off entropy and continue the genetic line into the future. To do this the soma must ameliorate exigencies and exploit chance. Nothing here speaks to long life as a necessarily positive trait and everything else speaks to evolutionary change as an important facet to life passing by on Gaia. Consider what the longer life spans and increasing survival rates of humans mean for our increasingly overpopulated planet. Consider the dysfunction of monoculture in agriculture. Consider the lack of genetic change over 50 million years in cockroaches with their prolonged adaptability. This is what the ‘quirk’ saves us from.

Clearly a limited life span is an integral part of evolutionary mechanics and not a quirk. With the rise of human consciousness and the realization that our life is but one act with a beginning and end, some humans have sought to escape those bounds. Consider the idiotic superstition of Ponce de Leon, then the dignity of an Inuit elder who, in times of famine, wanders off into the snowy land so that younger ones have a better chance of survival. Consider the death with dignity movement nowadays. We are better when grounded in the knowledge that death is natural even as we promote health. And while an ethic of knowledge can lead to knowledge of ethics, that can also go astray. The vital impulse to live is strong but limited. The spark of life shines and burns to an end; that is life and that is the universe. Best we remember that.

I remember a statement by Charles Sanders Pierce around 1900 that should we live forever, everything that we know would pass, that institutions and groups would break down, and we would be left with an ongoing and growing sense of loss. Instead, said Pierce, we have death. Finally remember the bears and then travel on while we may:


I am some bears,

One at a time per occasion, if you catch my drift,

But still I am some bears,

Like polar or black or panda or grizzly or teddy

Or Kodiak brown or koala;

Oh yes, I am.


On occasions of white and my world harsh with cold,

I pad about on grainy sharp ice,

Protected by fur and fat from the fury of a young arctic storm,

Mindful ever that the possibilities and necessities of life

Crystallize briefly on earth.


When beneath the gloriously coloured forest,

I splash and swim to feast on fish and plant,

When tickled by the warm bright sunlight near summer’s solstice,

I roll on my back and bare my belly

To the world’s richness.


After such occasions, slowed by the sweet tastes

of berries and nuts

I amble through thickets and savour the lushness

of plant and fruit

Until I sleep in the heat of the season,

Sweetly complacent about winter’s approach,

Dreaming of life’s possibilities and necessities.

Oh yes, I do.

I read and question and worry

I am finally reading the whole of Michael Lewis’ book, The Undoing Project, about the work and friendship of two Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Their collaboration and friendship seemed unlikely to others because they were so different in personality, but they worked closely, intensely and brilliantly for many years before they broke up in a storm of resentment. Their simitlarities are also important. Both were descended from Russian Jewish emigres, were atheists, served in the Israeli army in several wars, and were keenly interested in how the mind works and found insight through studying human errors. Both were incredibly intelligent and creative; Tversky was more outgoing and happy while Kahneman was more reclusive and described as depressed. Tversky was gifted as a mathematical psychologist and Kahneman was gifted as an applied psychologist. He advised the Israeli army on several issues over the years about training and selection of talent for military specialities. Together and singly they made pioneering contributions to the founding of behavioral economics. Tversky won a MacArthur genius award but died before receiving a Nobel and Kahneman won a Nobel prize for economics. One of the many who followed their inspiration, Richard Thaler, was just awarded the 2017 Nobel in economics. What I like about their work is that they demonstrate that our rational mind makes mistakes because of cognitive biases, i.e., our rationality is riddled with irrationality. Once again it seems that we can see plenty of truth, none of it absolute, if we look carefully.

The biases they uncovered operate on two levels. The first is ongoing across many situations and the second operates with each framing of a situation. In the first instance they found that people did not respond logically according to a cogent analysis of probabilities. That may be no surprise but they extended their research to include professional statisticians and found the same biases leading to the same errors and that is interesting. Many of their experiments involved posing scenarios and offering choices as to winning/losing/risk/certainty money and I confess this old clinical psychologist found them to be a bit arcane and begging for ecological validity. Still their results have been shown to be robust and to operate somewhat in the real world outside of the experimental design.

They described several biases, which they termed heuristics (a question here later) underlying these cognitive errors. One of these is availability, i.e., judgments and decisions are made with the information easily available, and I would add, given the ocean of information in which we moderns are drowning, information that is easily selected and usually in accord with our given beliefs. Another is representativeness, i.e., how prototypical is the phenomenon under review. This matters a good deal because we tend to think we know what will happen or what is going on if some similarity exists between phenomena. Kahneman and Tversky listed several other heuristics about base rates (failing to understand the frequency of categorical occurences in estimating deviation), sample size (believing small samples are valid), misunderstanding randomness (plenty of patterns to find though not significant), and anchoring (judgments made relative to starting point), and so on, you get the idea. They, especially Kahneman, also saw the influence of emotions. (Again, this is not news to clinical folk).

For the second level they investigated the influence of framing, i.e., how a situation is defined, and found, for example, that if a choice was framed in terms of financial loss, people took greater risks, and that if that same choice, i.e., exactly same outcomes, was framed as a gain, people were risk aversive. Again, many cognitive psychologists and pollsters understood this to be the case. Part of Kahneman’s and Tversky’s impact was based not on their rigorous systematizing and generalizing their ideas but on the fact that they were entering into the field of economics where tradition held that people, like the economists themselves of course, acted rationally. Discounting the fact that economic theories fail repeatedly to be predictive, in part because of irrationality in the system and in larger part, I think, because they are certain when they should be doubtful. (Ah, I hear the whisper of a tale about yet another civilization coming to an end.)

As I read along I wondered this about heuristics and framing: are they innate, based upon some neural algorithm or grammar like linguistic syntax, are they cultural developments like the acquired predispositons of the habitus? Are there individual variations even then? How we frame situations would seem cultural but also affected by personality, e.g., pessimists frame one way, optimists another, reclusive creative Kahneman one way, blithe and logical Tversky another. The judgment that something is an heuristic that serves us well except in key situations is based upon a knowledge of statistics and probability, and these are modern refinements of cognitive operations. It is telling that those whose intellect has been trained in statistics make the same mistakes as those who have not.

The larger issue for me is that we are animals, that our native talents for logic etc. are biological, and that our feelings, however inaccurate they may be in some modern situations, are the evolved basis of our intellect. To understand the embodied mind requires an understanding of our biological roots, how our capabilities are adaptive and maladaptive. Heuristics are both.  Consider this speech given by Kahneman in 1974 entitled “Cognitive Limitations and Public Decision Making,” where he said he worried about “an organism equipped with an affective and hormonal system not much different from that of a jungle rat being given the ability to destroy every living thing by pushing a few buttons.” Further, “crucial decisions are made today as thousands of years ago in terms of intuitive guesses and preferences of a few men in positions of authority” and “the fate of entire societies may be sealed by a series of avoidable mistakes committed by their leaders.”

Consider a message Tversky gave to historians, essentially that as they formulate the patterns of history, seeking to explain what, why and how events transpired, their efforts are marked by the same heuristics and biases as any other such efforts. Tversky’s and Kahneman’s research had shown that two more biases important in this field. One is that once people form an intellectual product they hold on to it despite evidence to the contrary. The other is that people think their predictions based upon hindsight are more certain than they really are. Further, Lewis states that their work countered Santayana’s famous dictum, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” because knowing the past actually contributes to repeating it, i.e., making the same mistakes again. And that makes a lot of sense to me.

My intent here is always to understand how our humanity arises through our biology, hormones, emotions, heuristics and all but especially our empathy and symbolization. Tversky and Kahneman have little to say about our biology but their work points to the messiness of our biological selves and contributes importantly, I think, to Monod’s ethic of knowledge. Now I live in 2017 America where many citizens and leaders do not understand the fragility of life and society, do not understand the importance of making decisions through a rational decision-making system that takes into account the vulnerability and limitations of our mind, and all too many actively reject an ethic of knowledge. Oops! How has American society come to this (end)? Travel on while still we can.