A good study so why quibble?

Because it is fun and improves my mind.  Here is an excellent example of social praxis demonstrated in simians:  PLOSone has a report of another experimental studies designed to investigate whether great apes, e.g., chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans, can distinguish another’s ‘false beliefs’ and act upon that discernment to help them. The researchers used procedures adapted from human studies that demonstrated some understanding of another’s false beliefs at 18 months of age and good understanding by age 3 or 4 years old. The researchers were very diligent in their design and implementation in order to ensure validity and reliability; I will give only a bare outline before going on to deeper issues. You can read for yourself at: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0173793

The basic set-up is this: Actor A comes into the room and puts an object in box 1 and then leaves the room. Actor B comes into the room and switches the object to box 2 and then leaves. Actor A returns. Which box does he go to? The subject has watched this whole scenario knows the object is in box 2 but also, if socially cognizant, knows that actor A believes the object to be box 1. In some protocols the visual gaze preference is measured, i.e., how long the subject looks at agent 1, box 1 and box 2, the assumption of this measure of passive action being that gazing more at box 2 shows awareness of the false belief. A more robust protocol is for the subject to move and help actor A open the correct box. And indeed the results show that young humans and the great apes move to show actor A the true location of the object, trying to help by correcting the false belief. More on this in a bit.

The basic set-up is also modified so that after placing the object in box 1, actor A stays in the room and watches actor B come in and move the object to box 2. I really like this variant; it shows the ingeniousness of scientists in clarifying the data’s interpretation.. When actor A goes to box 1 and tries to open it, little humans and great apes try to help him open box 1, seeming then to understand that actor A knows where the object is but wants to open box 1 for some other purpose. In another variation, if actor A opens box 1 and looks puzzled at not finding what was desired, subjects helped focus on box 2 and so retrieve the object.


Now when was the last time you had your keys?

I think this is a great study along the lines Frans de Waal calls for to help us understand how smart other animals are, and I have some quibbles and want to think about further examples of distinguishing false beliefs from human cultural and symbolic behavior. My first quibble is that in the abstract the researchers state that their results demonstrate that this type of social cognition and understanding, which had been thought to be exclusively human, might now be found in other animals. “Great apes thus may possess at least some basic understanding that an agent’s actions are based on her beliefs about reality. Hence, such understanding might not be the exclusive province of the human species.” If you have followed this blog at all, you know what my challenge will be. What anthropodenialist (see 4/8/16 post on de Waal) and all too precious human assumed (do I detect a false belief there?) this was to be found in humans only? Not good, especially in this day and age when we understand that human evolution includes no discontinuities with our ancestors. Research like this is not really changing our view of who we are (or at least it shouldn’t be) but rather reveals how the biological roots of our humanity grew our species.

Secondly, here is perhaps an obviously semantic quibble: Why call this false ‘belief’ when a much better word would be ‘assumption’, thereby reserving the word ‘belief’ for some thought formed with less ties to sensory data? Consider two known features here, mirroring and the kinesic communication of intent (a basic form of empathy). Mirroring cells in at least the primate cortex are motor cells that fire when the animal sees another perform an action (see many posts here about this, especially my most popular post of all time on the arcuate fasciculus, mirror cells, and memes). In the experiments described above, the subject animal, be it human or great ape, would respond through mirroring to the reappearance of actor A when approaching a box. Further, some studies have suggested that mirror cells are sensitive to the other’s intention, e.g., seeing the other pick up a cup, different cells fire when the other is going to drink from it as opposed to doing some other unrelated task. So the subject animal needs only mirroring and basic empathy coupled with environmental object mapping (quite evident in the rat brain) to identify the false assumption; the impulse to help would be again a basic empathic action that forms the incipient base of social praxis. (Remember watching somebody struggle to do something and your impulse to grab the object and do it for them?) The mirroring system may go a long way in offering some understanding of this social cognition, and the assumption of continuity in the perceptual world along with communicated intent is a basic, so that belief is not really a construct needed to understand this.


I always thought god was a bonobo, and now you tell me . . .

What about the broader, deeper phenomena of detecting (and responding to) another’s perceived false beliefs, real beliefs about abstract matters rather than perceptual data? We humans, at least, seem to have a talent for apprising others of their false beliefs. You know, like someone just knows I am going to hell because of my false beliefs? Or an example of more consequence, people who deny scientific findings because why? The false beliefs of scientists, of course, thereby exposing their own false beliefs, also called ignorance, about the nature and process of science. So much of our world, the human Umvelt, is dominated by symbolic information displaced in time and space, abstracted from experience and formulated with, at times, great creative license, that finding agreement rather than parsing others’ mistakes might seem the challenge. That, of course, is a function of culture, however, and oh, wait, is that part and parcel of the scientific method, and I hasten to add, the basis of democracy? Now, about the emperor’s new clothes . . .

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.

de Waal admits tickling chimpanzees

Please read Frans de Waal’s op-ed in the recent NYT entitled, “What I learned from tickling chimpanzees.” Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/10/opinion/sunday/what-i-learned-from-tickling-apes.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region&_r=0

It is a brilliant and clear statement of how many scientists and others think wrongly about our own species and how we can go about understanding our place in the biological world more fully. Ah, this is a subject dear to my heart, not just that humans are animals but our thinking, religion, culture, art, science, etc. are all products of our biology.   Two of his points are most memorable at the first read (but read all of it, not that long and full of insight). One is that we continue to follow Aristotle’s classification of higher and lower animals and of course you can guess which animal is on top. Western religion adopted this wholesale in the great chain of being, if you took and remember some English literature classes, where God appoints the pope, king and nobles and then each class in its turn. Anyone who rebels against his ‘place’ is guilty of breaking the great chain. Learning from Darwin and evolutionary genetics we understand that there is no chain but rather many streams of genetic speciation, some similar, some related, some both, and some quite divergent. He says it better.

The other memorable point is his explanation of the proper place of anthropomorphic thinking.  Many scientists are phobic of using words normally used for humans to label the behaviors of other animals, thus the ‘tickling’ chimpanzees which results in laughter (you know, the positive affectively charged hooting with lips retracted but not showing teeth). Of course folk wisdom and culture attributes many human attributes to animals, e.g., cats are aloof, dogs feel guilt, horses paint artistic pictures, etc. but the misuse of such attributions is no reason to deny the continuity of abilities and functions across species, including us. Yes, birds and humans do sing, their songs differ in many regards yet are similar in others and we can learn about music from understanding these biological roots. De Waal offers another term ‘anthropodenial’ to denote the refusal of some to recognize our commonalities—read what he has to say.

I have written several times about what I have read in 2 of de Waal’s books, The Bonobo and the Atheist and The Age of Empathy. One story from my post on March 9, 2015 “Memory and regret”, de Waal tells of a bonobo that accidentally bit off the finger of scientist-caretaker and immediately showed all the signs of realizing his transgression.   When that worker returned for a visit some years later after taking another job, the bonobo ran to the window in greeting and recognition and kept trying to gain a view of the hand he had bitten. To deny he remembered his action and felt bad about it would violate empirical observation. My question back then, unanswerable without engaging in symbolic communication with the bonobo, was if the bonobo over the years had recalled, not just recognized, his misdeed, say in a reflective moment or falling asleep or waking with insomnia, the memory held invariantly through guilt as we humans are wont to do, or only remembered in recognition of the worker and the associated memory based upon the mechanisms of recognition. A big difference.


Well, that is certainly a mystery to me too.

I will say more about this in a few days as I begin my discussion of Ellen Dissanayake’s book Homo Aestheticus, which opens making just the point de Waals makes, that humans are distinct and have special abilities, as do every other species, and that these have common biological roots in our evolutionary past. Our notion of human exceptionalism misleads us from a better understanding, in her instance of art.  For now though, read Dr. de Waal’s piece. He is one of my champions and I say once again, “Thank you.”


memory and regret

I have read another book by Frans de Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist (previous one, The Age of Empathy, was discussed here on 1/28/15 and more so on 2/25/14). I really admire his work and feel much kinship to his way of thinking. I plan on a couple of comments, today on autobiographical memory and later on altruism. Dr. de Waal is an amazing and pioneering primatologist and his books show his research and his anecdotes show his experience. He challenges anyone who thinks an ape, e.g., chimpanzee, is not conscious or does not have an identity to spend time with a chimp relating face to face and still maintain that prejudice.

So you say I'm not conscious or reflective?  Probably a projection on your part.

So you say I’m not conscious or reflective? Probably a projection on your part.

One of my favorite stories is about an alpha male bonobo who took care of an elder female who was blind and deaf, leading her outside by day to a favorite sunny spot and inside at night. When she had a seizure, he stayed with her until she recovered. Then one time a veterinarian was handing out vitamins when this male bonobo bit down too hard on her finger, breaking the bone and indeed taking off the end.  The bonobo immediately looked like ‘uh-oh’ and released the finger. A few days later the veterinarian visited again and held up her bandaged hand. The bonobo ran to a far corner, hiding his face. The vet a few months later took another job and did not return to the first facility until 15 years later. The old bonobo recognized her in the crowd outside the exhibit right away, ran to the glass greeting her in a positive bonobo manner, and then tried persistently to view her left hand hidden by the exhibit wall that he had bitten years before. Clearly this anecdote provides signs of both agency and autobiographical memory, which I take to be hallmarks of an evolving self.

Now here is a question. The bonobo recognized her and remembered his action, so we are able to infer some contents of his mind. Did he, like we humans so often do, remember her over the years (through recall, not just recognition), appreciating her relationship yet regretting his mistake? Without a richer capacity for symbolic thought and communication, we do not know how he processed and reflected on his experience, but I’ll bet he did. Bonobos are big on reconciliation after a conflict as are most primates, so I am sure we share at least part of this biological root of humanity with him (and them).

Even though it was accidental, I'll regret biting her finger off until my dying day.

Even though it was accidental, I’ll regret biting her finger off until my dying day.