Sun bears are us

One of the reasons I like Frans der Waal books so much is that he leads us to consider how we animals, especially us mammals, are alike in our talents.  One of the great lessons taught by Einstein and Susan Oyama is that theory constrains what we look for empirically, so we had better pay attention to our theoretical lackings.  Most people today understand that humans and other primates are really quite similar in our makeup and functioning.  Some understand that we also share a good deal with cetaceans, elephants and dogs. Some scientists study social animals for critical behaviors.  And a couple of assiduous scientists studied hours of video of sun bears who are rarely social and found, lo and behold, mirroring where we might least expect it given current theoretical leanings.  Oh boy!

Sun bears live in southeast Asia and are known to prefer to live in solitude except for mating and parenting.  I am not sure how they find each other wandering the jungle all alone, but sometimes they do and mate, then go their own way again.  The females bear cubs and they stay together for a couple of years and then they also seek their sweet solitude.  In Malaysia they have a refuge for sun bears that have been injured or are somehow unable to survive in the wild.  They keep them in a large reserve but they still meet each other more in captivity than would otherwise be the case.  And they videotape their encounters.  Yes, they are not real sociable creatures and yes, they prefer solitude, but they still play around with each other and their play involves mimicking one another. Yes, that’s right, they mirror one another just like so many other more sociable animals do.

Remember that mirroring is an incredible social action (or if you don’t remember, read some past posts here like from 7/19/18 & 7/31/18).  I see the theoretical difference between imitation and mirroring this way:  imitation is a behavioral replication of an observed action with little mentation attached and mirroring is so much more because mirroring allows the empathic understanding of another’s mood and intent.  At some point I wrote that the difference between imitation and mirroring is the difference between Skinner and Freud (although I prefer William James’ approach myself) or between surface behavior and inner dynamics.

To illustrate the difference, I long ago worked with a young autistic child who had virtually no expressive language and understood very, very little, like his name, the word ‘mama’ and maybe some foods.  But he imitated all the time.  If you pointed to something for him to look at, he would mimic your pointing while looking at you.  Most amazingly, he could repeat any sentence you said with very good articulation but without any sense that it was meaningful.  Pure and skillful echolalia, but not mirroring.  This ability to process phonemes auditorially and translate those sounds into motor patterns indicated that key areas of his left auditory and motor cortex were functional along with, and this is important, his arcuate fasciculus, the long fiber tract that normally enables mirroring of speech and, probably along with other fiber tracts, gestures and emotional expressions (on the right side—see post 4/24/14 & 5/30/18).

So sun bears have some neuropsychological capabilities to mirror conspecifics and they use these in play and almost certainly, parenting. (Mating I am not so sure about—hormonally driven and how much courtship/bonding do they engage in?)  Again, our mammalian heritage (see posts 11/2/18, 11/2/16) runs deep.  Travel on and check out the NYT article here:


Aww, play time is over?  or  Aww, do I have to play with others?

Male privilege is an ugly cultural trope

So I am talking with a friend, whom I know to be intelligent and fair-minded about Mr. Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford, and I am caught by surprise.  He says first that Dr. Ford has been too inconsistent in her testimony about who was in the room when she was assaulted (she hasn’t), so that he cannot believe her. Then he says the incident is not big deal because he as a teenager tried to “cop a feel” many times, thereby equating perhaps overly aggressive making out with forceful isolation and capture while trying to strip the lady (I heard this too many times when I worked with sexually aggressive youth).  Finally he says the #Metoo movement has gone too far because simply accusing a man ruins his reputation.  Geesh!  If he had ever expressed concern over the centuries old culture of men abusing women with impunity I could give him a break on this one, but he has not. We talked a good deal about his views mostly to no purpose and I have since wondered about the lacuna in his moral outlook and how it is that what we call ‘male privilege’ is inculcated mentally and then so strongly affects perception, action, and judgment and the male seems unaware of the effects.

One analogy here is our accent when speaking. We learn early on to speak with a regional and familial accent; we can recognize speakers from Boston, the Midwest, and different parts of the South.  Our accents can change incidentally when we move to a new region or on purpose as when some train their voices for media work.  Further, we make judgments about people based on their accent.  I lived all over the USA and graduated high school in Japan.  My accent was a conglomerate of family and different regions. Some years after high school and having lived in North Carolina for 12 years, I ran into an old girlfriend.  We had been talking for a while when she said that she knew I was smart but that I sounded so dumb with my southern accent. Who knew?  And after long holidays in Ireland and Scotland I find, and friends remark on it, that my accent has picked up a little of their lovely lilt.

Accents different from our own can be hard to understand and put people off. My mother grew up in south central Virginia.  She left there in the mid-1940s with my father who joined the Air Force.  In 1960 we moved to North Dakota.  In those days you went through an operator to make a long distance call.  When my mother tried to call home, i.e., Petersburg VA, the operator could not understand her and she could not understand the operator, who spoke and listened with the Norwegian rooted accent native to that area.  My sister stepped in to translate.  When we visited family the next summer, her sisters said my mother sounded strange to them and talked like a ‘Yankee’.  Oh, my.

I use this analogy only to highlight the incidental, mostly unconscious learning of specific cultural facets.  A deeper and broader facet would be sex/gender roles, e.g., boys don’t cry, girls do and that’s ok except that it indicates their lack of rationality. “Boys will be boys” and so much misbehavior, some of it quite serious in its violation of another person, is excused, and aren’t all men really boys at heart so give all of them a break, please. I have posted several times before about gender bias and sexual harassment/assault.  As a clinical psychologist I worked with many young males who had been sexually aggressive.  They wondered what the problem was or thought their actions were completely ok and justified.  The complexity of full consent was unknown to them as it is to many males in many cultures. Why?  Because full consent, in the view of many males, does not apply to them—this is the rotten core at the heart of male privilege.

We go from being young children with instincts for empathy, intimacy, fair play, helping others, & revulsion at seeing others hurt to (especially men now) feeling entitled to catcall and comment on a woman’s appearance, privileged to touch her without either explicit permission or, more commonly, mutually established trust and intimacy, and holding opinions that women do not want powerful and responsible positions because they are too fragile or just prefer someone else to do the heavy lifting.  And opining that the questions raised about a man’s behavior when a women alleges that he has been inappropriate are being handled unfairly, while showing little concern about the incredible numbers of women who endure sexualized mistreatment silently because they are only too aware that speaking out will compound their mistreatment by those who loudly carry forward male privilege.

When we consider how our brains are acculturated in this way, how we inculcate assumptions in our habitus about the rules of social behavior, and how our Empathy Central or EC (that’s ToM or Theory of Mind to most of you) operates with the moral lacunae of male privilege, when we consider such phenomena, our lack of knowledge about this neuropsychology is plainly seen.  But we do know some things; go back a couple of posts and read about Decety’s model of empathy (see post 9/9/18) and Iacoboni’s ideas about existential neuroscience (see post 9/16/18). The latter discusses the centrality of mirroring and mentalizing about others in social behaviors.  Male privilege can be seen as both a defective mirror that distorts the resonance with another (females are so different from us, huh, guys?) and inaccurate algorithms that provide errant empathetic suppositions about the other (she can’t rationally object to what I the man think).  Decety’s model includes the failure to mirror and resonate accurately and fully and he also adds 3 other systemic difficulties [from that post]:

  • Confusion as to the agent of thoughts and feelings. They think their own thoughts and feelings are also the other’s and they may fail to process accurately social feedback when the other tries to disagree or otherwise present their own perspective (familiar, ladies?).
  • This leads to problems with perspective taking. They may assume that their perspective is shared by everyone [males assume females share theirs]
  • Poorly developed emotional regulation presents difficulties for staying on mental task and intent as well as for responding with empathic concern for the other—instead they act upon their own egoistic anxiety and fail to engage socially in an adequate manner

Male privilege is a cultural trope that has maintained its bias through many iterations for a long, long time.  Such bias is inculcated while young in various ways with different forms according to one’s sex/gender, family traditions, social class, and educational level.  Like a linguistic accent, our social behaviors and attitudes have a ‘privileged’ accent.  Many operate with this accent, i.e., bias, without any cognizance that something is different, indeed that something is wrong.  Some do learn to operate socially and morally with a different accent, i.e., they reflect consciously on their attitudes, evaluating their accuracy and fairness, and change the bias acquired earlier in life.

As I posted in January about Oprah’s wonderful speech at the Golden Globes: “Oprah’s promising vision of a world where girls and women meet respect and justice is one beautiful flower of this moment in time and cultural egress leaving a stultified domain of male privilege and entering one refreshed by the inclusion of females in a new and refreshing view of their humanity, the acknowledgment of their personhood and the refusal by everyone to abide by any violation of this inalienable right.” The change needed to fulfill this vision is, given the long history of cultural biases, enormous.  Indeed, it is in a way utopian, but it is also already evident in the cultural path of our civilization.  We are not alone in refusing to go forward with male privilege. That’s a good thing because the heavy lifting necessary for progress has gotten a bit heavier this past week or so. Travel on.

Existential neuroscience and autonoesis

I read a remarkable article by Marco Iacoboni in Social Neuroscience entitled “The Quiet Revolution in Existential Neuroscience”.  Instead of ‘quiet’ I wish it would be quite loud.  It makes for some dense reading but worth every nerve impulse to do so.  His main argument seems to be that instead of doing neuroscience based on the assumptions that the subjective and objective worlds are clearly delineated and that the subjective world is based upon representations which have been constructed through the accretion of analyzed elements (some pragmatic truth in that), our neuroscience should be based upon “the view of a human brain that needs a body to exist in a world of shared social norms in which meaning originates from being-in-the-world”.  What is important to our minds is not so much the analytic synthesis but the embodied context of experience.  Hey now, I can get behind that one.

Iacoboni marshals evidence for this view from a variety of research, especially studies into the frontoparietal mirror system.  (The frontal lobe has motoric functions that light up when we see someone doing something and the parietal lobe has perceptual and body schema functions that contribute to this mirroring).  Some studies show that mirroring emotions both incidentally and intentionally invokes not just the mirrored expressive actions but also the emotional processes themselves in the limbic system.  We mirror each other automatically on an almost continuous basis and that this leads to (I really like this next part) “a process according to which a certain intimacy is achieved . . . . . What is this intimacy if not the interdependence of both parties”.  What is emphasized here is not our separateness but our communal feelings. Mirroring helps us identify with and understand the other’s intention and emotional state.  This plays, of course, an important role in ‘mentalizing’ about others, what I call EC for Empathy Central and others label it ToM for Theory of Mind.

There is a lot more about this to be said but I want to explore another remarkable idea.  Iacoboni sees our minds interpreting much of our experience in context.  The same actions occur in many situations, so that to understand the other’s acts requires the inclusion of context in our deliberations.  (Be still, O my heart).  If I read him correctly, one major feature of any context is the degree of personal relevance; some situations are impersonal, i.e., without emotional engagement or involvement (think of doing things as a matter of course), and some are more personal, i.e., their emotional involvement leads to episodic memories (the experience is important enough to remember as an autobiographical episode of your life).  Experiences that are important to the self are autonoetic, as was discussed in my recent post 8/22/18, and autonoesis has many implications.


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

Most amazingly, Iacoboni identifies two structures relevant to the mirroring system, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the medial parietal cortex, that light up when the experience is autonoetic (my interpretation).  For example, these two areas are silent during artificial laboratory tasks that have little ecological validity but they become more active when the task is social in a meaningful way.  Iacoboni says our ‘default state’ is to think socially and these two areas help in the ongoing social thinking needed to relate in a authentic, i.e., not rote or cant, manner.  To refer back to his earlier notion, these areas light up more when the situation’s import is based upon intimacy, i.e., engagement with the other, than when the situation is socially sterile.

Now, if you have followed my blog somewhat closely for more than a few months, you may already have a sense of how my dorsomedial prefrontal and medial parietal cortices are fired up.  Consider one of Iacoboni’s preliminary research finding that these areas light up when political aficionados discuss politics and grow dark when politically naïve or disinterested people do so.  I take this to mean that some of us feel politics is relevant to our lives and some do not.  Some do because they are cognitively engaged in issues and some do only because of the chameleon effect, i.e., they are responding by fitting in through social imitation and emotional contagion.  If you have done any phone canvassing for a candidate you might recall conversations based on positions, conversations based upon an emotional identification, and some when the person could care less.

Now consider a study posted about here on 4/18/18 that demonstrated that the closer you are, i.e., developing intimacy, with colleagues and friends, the more your neural responses to watching a movie are congruent with each other.  Also consider (and it may help to re-read my 8/22/18 post) the role of autonoesis in art. My empirical question is when someone ‘gets into’ a work of art, e.g., reading a novel that is hard to put down or seeing a movie that you love, do these areas indicative of autonoesis or personal engagement, i.e., dorsomedial prefrontal medial parietal cortices, light up? If you used an instrument to assess one’s aesthetic response such as the AESTHEMOS (see post 10/31/17), would this correlate with activity in these areas?  A very interesting study there wants to be done—oh to be a younger man in a research setting.  But go one step further with me.

Aristotle in talking about drama but it applies, I think, in some way to art forms in general, says that since we know the art is not ‘factual’, i.e., couldn’t be relevant to our ‘real’ life, to engage emotionally (and aesthetically, I would say) we must have a willing suspension of disbelief.  So I wonder if such a suspension allows what I am calling these autonoetic areas to fire up, and if we find art uninvolving, e.g., we could care less about the characters or the plot of a stupid movie, do these areas remain dark?  Oh my, that is seeking the deep aesthetic in life and mind.  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 . . .