How we conceptualize thought and emotion matters

I have finished Mama’s Last Hug by Frans de Waal.  What a great read about animals’, including humans, emotions and feelings and about how we humans understand them.  I will guess that most people have thought that rationality and its epitome, logic, are ‘superior’ to emotions.   This assumption has been a bulwark of men presuming their superiority over women, western nations presuming their superiority over ‘less civilized’ nations, a logical argument wins over an emotional appeal, and humans are ‘superior’ to other animals because their minds are based upon emotions and we are ruled by rationality.  Over the course of history some few bright people have understood that our conceptualization here was out of balance and the brightest of those have understood that they are not separable—both rationality and emotionality depend upon the other, indeed flow one to another almost inseparably, to operate optimally.

One way to achieve ‘balance’ is to lower our notion of rationality’s importance and reliability.  One example here is the wonderful work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman who demonstrated that even trained logicians fail to follow their logical rules and rely on heuristics the same as all the rest of us (see my post on 10/12/17). Another way to achieve balance is to show that our cognitions are dependent upon our emotions—that is the motivation behind Antonio Damasio’s last few books (see my post s on 5/13/19 & 12/9/18).  Yet another way is to study as did Jaak Panksepp the enormous neural complexity of emotions and affect, neural structures that we share with many animals and virtually all mammals (see post 8/19/17 for example).  Of course Susanne Langer understood that art conveys the ideas of feelings, i.e., we abstract our feelings to reveal the vital import of life experience.  Art, in other words, is a high level intellectual operation using feelings. (An aside:  I am reading a biography of Picasso who famously refused to say what his paintings meant—his art was his statement, all of it and complete. The author there, Patrick O’Brian, cites Isabella Duncan, famous modern dancer, saying, “If I could explain it with words, I wouldn’t have to dance it”.  Exactly).

Another way to right our conceptualization of thought and feeling is, as Frans de Waal does so very well, to show that we humans share the same emotional life as do all other mammals, especially primates, cetaceans, and elephants.  In Mama’s Last Hug he examines various aspects of emotions and feelings; he dedicates chapters to empathy, humor, shame, guilt, disgust, desire for power, emotional intelligence, etc., showing in each one that other animals are quite human-like.  This is important because this distinction of thought and feeling is critical in our culture. I see two major ways we denigrate the mentalities of other animals.  One is the ancient bias that humans are special, you know, at the top of the divine tree of life, and so our abilities are god-like.  That bias has been transformed by science ever since we discovered that the earth was not the center of the solar system, but it still exists in muted forms.  The other way is to see animals as unthinking organisms bent only on survival.  Humans are special evolutionarily because we are civilized (oops!  Go see Auschwitz, read about the Inquisition, review the increasing destructiveness of wars and weapons, study the entrenchment of racism, the destruction of our environment as we subjugate nature to our profit, etc.).  Here we treat other animals as engaged in battle for survival of the fittest and we see nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ to justify our violent quest for power.

The important thing here is that both these views are essentially propaganda (see a final aside below) for certain religious and political schools of thought. Rigorous study of animals shows that, as de Waal writes, they (we) “struggle far more against their environment or against hunger and disease than against each other.”  De Waal cites a naturalist, Pyotr Kropotkin, who asked in 1902, “Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?” and decided it was the latter.  Kropotkin “was way ahead of his time.”

De Waal is especially astute when he explains the research showing that animals have a grounded sense of fairness, right and wrong, and even free will (as best we can know, but then do we have free will?  Consider his quotes:  Isaac Bashevis Singer “We have to believe in free will; we have no choice” and Roy Baumeister “Perhaps, ironically, free will is necessary to enable people to follow the rules”).

De Waal gives example after example of expert observations and experimental results that demonstrate the truth of his thesis.  A couple of favorites:  An American neuroscientist, Jim Coan, believes that emotions are interindividual so that testing a solitary individual does not reveal much.  When he studied an individual’s neural response to a signal announcing a mild electric shock, he saw areas of concern and worry (anxiety or fear) light up.  When, however, the individual was allowed to hold the hand of someone close, e.g., a spouse, the worry response dissipated—the upcoming shock was a minor stimulus.  Brilliant! Another:  When young elephants in southeast Asia are given a bell around the neck to help the humans keep up with them, the elephants stuff the bell with grasses so that they can wander undetected.

De Waal wants all of us, especially scientists, to understand the importance of emotions and feelings.  He cites Antonio Damasio as a fellow champion of emotions, as I have recently in a post on 5/13/19.  De Waal also gives a special mention of Jaak Panksepp and I very much appreciated this portion of the book.  As regular readers will know, I think Panksepp’s book is the best text I have ever read.  What? An astute and very intelligent reader wants to know why I think that.  Let me tell you why:

  • Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotionsis a textbook, not one written for the general reader. Look at the detail of research cited, etc.
  • Panksepp gives a comprehensive yet still detailed review of the research literature.
  • He has integrated this information so that he provides solid generalizations.
  • He is careful to distinguish between data based inferences and more speculative thinking.
  • He takes us on brief excursions into what might be true given this data, extending some ideas into the cultural realm.
  • He writes in marvelously clear prose, sometimes even inspired, about very complex issues.
  • His organization and perspective are enlightening. This is not stultified orthodox science but science pushing for greater understanding.

Enough said?  Now when I previously read his book, and re-read portions, I thought that Panksepp’s ideas were obvious and well accepted.  Oh, no, they were not, I learned from de Waal.

De Waal relates an exchange he had with Panksepp shortly before he passed away. Panksepp encouraged de Waal to be more specific and explicit about animals’ feelings and de Waal says he was right to do so.  Further, he says that Panksepp had to fight for his views all his life, resisting ‘establishment forces’ while placing “human and animal emotions on a continuum” and he was “the first to develop a neuroscience covering all of it” as he himself founded the field of affective neuroscience.  He was ridiculed and had trouble obtaining funding and still he managed to “make animal emotions a respectable topic.”  So Wow!  Now I cherish that book even more.

I could go on for a long while about how much I appreciated finding reinforcement for some of my ideas, e.g., the distinction between sentience and consciousness, the basic properties of all organisms, etc., but I want to move on to emphasize the cultural importance of all this.  We humans seek authority for our beliefs and especially our values. De Waal shows clearly that such authority can be found in our biological heritage.  (As does Michael Tomasello in his book, The Natural History of Human Morality).

My culture, western culture, has valued rationality and logic at the expense of a fuller understanding of the roles emotions and thought play in our intellectual operations.  Rationality and logic are not all that we thought they were and emotions and feelings are much more important than most give them credit for.  This constrains our science, our philosophy and our cultural worldview.  Consider, for example, how females are ignored because some (males?) think they are more emotional.  Ugh!

In my former life as a speech-language pathologist, I gave a popular parent workshop entitled “How to argue with your child”.  Catchy idea, huh?  I had found that much of the standard parenting advice was anemic and while parents might use these tips to help their children behave compliantly, they did little to foster a proper sense of discussion and sharing of ideas.  So I explained that parents should not argue over the inarguable, e.g., limits for safety and health, but should argue appropriately when the topic was arguable.  A good argument happens when both present thoughtful reasons and are passionate about their perspective.  We all need to learn how to argue based on reasons, beliefs and data, and how to maintain our composure when differences become divisive.  I even suggested having silly arguments about the color of the sky, for example, because children love and learn from silliness and they need to win an argument once in a while.  (Don’t we all?)  I still think this advice applies, though when I look at our political discourse, I know some powerful forces are working to derail ‘good arguments’.  My point is that our over-valuing logic and under-valuing emotions is counter-productive; both are needed and important.

Here is my final aside as mentioned above that is relevant in today’s world. Consider propaganda and pornography, both of which manipulate our feelings (and thoughts/behavior) but how? I do not think that they do so simply by virtue of their emotional appeal, but because their emotional appeal is based upon corrupted rationality, e.g. propaganda uses selected distorted and errant facts, pornography uses fictional accounts laundered of critical elements like intimacy or the feelings engendered in a relationship.  James Joyce considered any art pornographic that ended by moving the emotions because true and fine art is achieves stasis, an epiphany from the insight generated through artistic import.  And Hannah Arendt has shown us the pathogenic properties of propaganda and totalitarianism.  Some understand these distinctions and cherish the authenticity of fine art and real political discourse, but all too many have fallen down through the media hole to a world where curiosity focuses on sports and celebrity and the only perspective that matters is the one through personal tunnels. And the sequelae of poor art?—I don’t have the time to go there right now.  Ah, well, the world has gone a different direction, much to my dismay, and there is no way to go but forward.  Travel on and find a better path, one where the intellect based upon respect for both rationality and feelings is the grounded (and orthodox) assumption.  Better pack for a long journey and be sure to follow reliable guides such as de Waal, Damasio, Panksepp and Langer.  See you on the Way.

animal attachment and grief

I have started Frans de Waal’s book Mama’s Last Hugabout animal feelings and making the case that we, humans and other animals, experience many of these in common.  The story of Mama is quite interesting.  She was a remarkable chimpanzee who was the organizing force in her group for many years, not because she was physically formidable, though for a female she was, but because of her personality and social IQ.  Her human researchers came to respect her a great deal and were quite attached, so that when her death was immanent, one of her old human friends came to say good-bye.  Their reunion was heartfelt on both sides and she died some few days later. De Waal uses this story to introduce several facts about chimpanzees, their humans and how research is conducted/interpreted.

Then De Waal goes where few have gone before—he discusses how other animals view death.  What a scientist, doing the research and communicating it to us.   He first recounts what the humans did after Mama’s death.  Breaking with protocol the humans let her body lie in state, as it were, for the other chimps to view.  The males hit and tossed the body as if to wake her up; the females were gentler, lifting an arm or leg and letting it drop, looking into her mouth, etc. When one female tried to move her body, a foster daughter, whom Mama had raised after her friend had died leaving her infant behind, protested and prevented the body being moved.

De Waal recounts another observation wherein a younger chimp came up to an elder female who had been quite sick for some time, looked into her eyes and gave a scream of alarm.  Another chimp, too far removed to have observed this interaction, took up the cry of alarm and others followed.  A few minutes later the sick chimp fell to the floor and passed away.

De Waal gives many more anecdotes about how animals experience the death of another and he cites Barbara King’s 2013 book How Animals Grievein establishing observational guidelines for determining if an animal is grieving, e.g., a marked change in behavior.  Many species, including most mammals and some birds, show such changes.  Animals show awareness that the other is dead and if they were attached, they grieve.  Chimpanzee and cetacean mothers have been known to carry/support their dead offspring around for days.  Elephants visit the site of another’s death and pick up and hold a remnant, e.g., a bone or a tusk, of the deceased (remember this happens repeatedly over a long passage of time) and even pass it around to others in the herd.  And of course, we have many stories of dogs waiting for their dead humans’ return in the spot where their reunion used to occur, e.g., Greyfriar’s Bobby.

Working from a human’s sense of mortality, i.e., our awareness of our own demise, that we cannot confirm in other species, de Waal suggests perspicaciously that these others have at least a sense of finality—that a life is irrevocably over.  Consider how such a sense of finality works when an animal loses someone to whom they are attached.  Jaak Panksepp discusses the biological basis of attachment and loss in a chapter of his wonderful book, Affective Neuroscience.   Two systems operate in an oppositional tandem, one he calls the PANIC system that deals with separation from caregivers and another that inhibits that system in response to renewed social comfort.  The two systems depend upon different neurotransmitters yet still interact quite a bit.

Panksepp makes several interesting points.  The social comfort system is based upon one of the opiate receptor systems and the oxytocin system.  When the PANIC system is aroused, that motivates seeking social contact and comfort, i.e., gregariousness.  When social comfort is obtained, the opiate system inhibits the PANIC system. (Consider the important factor of joblessness and depressed communities in our current opiod epidemic).  Mammals become attached to a home location, so that just being ‘home’ reduces separation distress. (Our mostly warm feelings upon returning to the old home place may be another manifestation of this). Different species and different individuals within a species have different sensitivities to social distress. The famous example of the two voles, one monogamous and one not, show different sensitivities here.  Also, in general males are less sensitive to separation distress, presumably mediated by testosterone, than females (this in most species) and we are all less affected by separation as we age.  All of these phenomena reflect the neurochemical balances in our brains and body.

Panksepp cites research showing that chicks give a distinctive peep when distressed and that putting a mirror in their enclosure or petting them reduces the frequency of those peeps because the chicks ‘see’ or feel that they are not alone.  Most interestingly, listening to music also calms the PANIC system and so represents a form of social comfort.  Panksepp and others have studied how some music gives us ‘chills’, a sign of distress, and also warms us up, a sign of social comfort.  That music operates at such a basic level in our neurological systems is of profound interest.  Remember that Alzheimers’ patients often keep musical memories better than other sorts of memories—our brains preserve this form of social connectedness even as other functions deteriorate.

I always learn something new when I review sections of Panksepp’s book.  In this instance, the social regulation systems, i.e., PANIC and social connection/comfort, are anciently tied to the thermoregulation system that promotes homeostasis (thus all mammals share something of this).  Music, as it interacts with these systems, chills or warms us; it motivates small variations around the homeostatic range, and this feels good (or lovely or beautiful or aesthetically pleasing, etc.).  He finishes his chapter 14 with this, that some music generates “a wistful sense of loss and the possibility of reunion”.  (Hmmm, did he love listening to Americana and Celtic tunes like I do now?)  But also, we animals grieve with loss, knowing the other is finally gone yet still yearning for more contact, and that helps us maintain our homeostatic balance set in place over the years of social comfort with our intimates.  So Greyfriar’s Bobby, that wonderful dog who waited for his human to return from work for years after the human’s death, was listening to the neural music of attachment and grief and keeping it steady as she goes.

I will conclude this post with an observation by Susanne Langer (of course) who said that humans’ distinctive minds began when we realized that our lives are but single acts with a beginning and an end.  Knowing this began a cascade of insight into our existence and understanding of our ownmortality.  And reflecting on this illuminates how this sense/knowledge of our ownmortality lies at the heart of much cultural development, including our religion and philosophy, as we share our feelings about cope with the loss of others and ourselves.  And our science helps us to understand this more deeply.  Travel on.


Another from Frans de Waal coming soon

Frans de Waal has a new book coming out next week, Mama’s Last Hug:  Animal Emotions and What They Tell us About Ourselves.  I have pre-ordered it and will review once I have read it.  He is a great champion of science and animals everywhere, coining the term anthropodenial for those who deny other animals have minds and emotions like ours to oppose the old saw and accusation, ‘anthropomorphism’ that humans have hurled at those who see human traits in other animals.  Frans de Waal sees animal traits in humans because, yes, the secret is out and can be said aloud, we are animals.  He has a brief op-ed in the NYT previewing his new book you can check out:

I have posted before in response to some of his other books (see posts on 4/8/16, 8/26/17, 12/3/18).  He is the epitome of a good scientist as his conceptual integrity insists on seeing us as we are, animals with some cognitive talents, e.g., symbolification, but otherwise unremarkable (except, perhaps, for our destructiveness).  Yes, we cannot know directly what another animal is feeling, but I think that includes us. Best to observe the kinesic communications of empathy for such information.  Yes, we tell each other with words what we are feeling, but I have to wonder how reliable that information is, just like I have to wonder (actually I don’t–I already know–it is obvious) how well our intelligence is working these days.

The title, Mama’s Last Hug, refers to an aging chimp whose life is fading away quickly.  A researcher who worked with her (worked ‘with’, not ‘on’, understand?) came to pay his last respects, as it were.  When Mama saw him, she smiled and patted him on the head and neck, the way chimps do.  An appreciation of mortality by recognizing that our living connections are what matter.  Anyway travel on now to your next read.

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:  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 ( 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.

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:

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.