Thursday, December 18, 2014

Homo Evolutis: A Jaynesian Perspective On The Minds Future, Part 2

In my last post I talked about our evolving understanding of how consciousness changes over time, and introduced the idea that we are on the verge of another major change in how our minds are organized.  I stated that in part 2 of this essay, I would allude to the changes consciousness has gone through since it appeared in human history, and speculate on what this change in consciousness we are on the verge of might look like.  I have since realized that trying to give a brief outline of how consciousness has developed from the time of its inception during the era covered by OCBBM up until the present in the space of one post would involve summaries that are too brief to really be interesting or useful.  Therefore, I have resolved instead to dedicate my next several posts to breaking down the history of consciousness and exploring its development through a number of historical epochs leading up to the present.   

For this essay I want to speculate on what might the consciousness of this new ‘Home Evolutis’ I discussed in part 1 be like?  Of course, it is impossible to say with any specificity.  The old utopian and dystopian stereotypes of either a completely brilliant and selfless society, or a world where a sinister elite controls everyone’s minds, are not helpful here.  Although, I do think the next era of human consciousness, whatever ‘human consciousness’ may end up meaning at that time, would be disturbing to us in the present if we were given a look at it.  This is simply because what people identify as their values in a future time, where consciousness has changed enough to be considered a new era for humans, will most certainly be different than ours.  And of course looking at any society that has values that differ significantly from one’s own causes us to judge that community as inferior or corrupt.  Imagine for a moment how people from past cultures like The Holy Roman Empire in the time of Charlemagne or the Mongolian warrior clans in the time of Genghis and Kublai Khan would feel about our modern values of the equality of all races, political authority coming from the common people through elections and women having the same rights as men.  However, you do not have to go back in history to see how people from one era judge the values of another.  Just think of the opinions of parents and grandparents regarding the values of their progenies’ generation.  Lamenting the depravity of the younger generation is one of the oldest traditions humans have!  

Of course, it is possible that a human culture in the future will line up perfectly with my values.  However, normally the values we are most comfortable with are the ones shared by those who are the closest to us, most like ourselves and share the same interests.  Given how people are often uncomfortable with the values of anyone in their neighborhood who is perceived to be different, let alone people who live in completely different cultures, it seems unlikely that those who inhabit a different culture in the future, with at least some significant differences in the nuts and bolts of cognition, are going to have values that line up with our own.  A new book is out, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind by Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban, that addresses how political values are simply a function of self-interest.  In addition to the book, they have created a ‘political calculator’ based on their research.  This calculator lets you select various demographic information and shows the political views that correlate with the selected demographics.  It was fun and interesting for me to select demographic data that correlated to myself or people I know, and see how accurately demographics correlated with the political values of my friends and acquaintances (and myself).  This certainly was a strong demonstration of how a person’s values are a function of their specific circumstances.

One obvious place to start in considering where consciousness is headed would be to think about how our new reality of being constantly plugged in to some form of techno-media may eventually alter at least some of the fundamentals of consciousness.  Naysayers feel that a human population that lives more and more in a virtual reality with everything one wants always at one’s fingertips is going to make us socially inept and self-absorbed.  It is turning out that these critics may be on the right track.  A 2011 meta-analysis by Sara Konrath, et al, has shown that indeed the current generation of young adults are less empathetic and more narcissistic than previous generations were at the same point in their lives. 

So let us speculate for a moment that this trend will only continue and eventually we wind up with humans becoming much more self-centered, with limited social skills, who opt to communicate with others through some kind of technological interface mainly for self-serving purposes.  In this case, we could imagine consciousness has become less a place to introspect on what is authentic, moral and meaningful.  Rather, under these circumstances the point of ‘reflection’ could be simply for preforming utilitarian calculations for the purpose of meeting one’s own needs and preserving the system of social relationships and technical infrastructure that enables the stability of the system.  In a world like this it may be that there is less introspective consciousness as it is less necessary.  It is useful here to remember that Jaynes outlined how consciousness was unnecessary for many forms of higher cognition including reason and thinking.  The narrowly defined reflective consciousness that Jaynes believed emerged only 3000 years ago could begin to fade from human experience as the importance of things like meaning, truth and long term intimacy are less the concern of people and pleasure, consumption and convenience become more of the focus.

This sounds like an Orwellian world to us.  However, to those who occupy this imagined future it could make perfect sense as the logical outcome of a society founded on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  It might seem that people who are less reflective and more limited in their ability to empathize would wind up in a never ending selfish battles with others for resources and commodities (even more than we are at present).  As you may recall from part 1 of this post though, we are getting smarter with each generation.  It very well may be that in the future our ability to reason will continue to improve even if our ability to reflect and empathize declines.  And it is certainly reasonable that if you want a comfortable virtual world with no disruptions to your ability to consume and escape into your pleasures, it will be quite reasonable to make sure the system is set up so everyone else is content with their piece of the pie chart and therefore have no incentive to disrupt the system.  Research on sociopaths has shown that often times they are quite good at understanding what other people want and need even though they lack empathy.  And if fact, therapy with these people often entails, since their own self-interest is all they care about, helping them to understand that committing to prosocial behavior is actually in their interest. This helps us understand how it is perfectly plausible that people in the future we are imagining here could understand what others want and could use that information to create a stable society even if they had little capacity to actually care how others feel. 

I certainly am not claiming that the brief sketch of the future I have created above is the probable direction we are headed, and I am actually rather skeptical regarding the pronouncements we regularly hear that Facebook and texting is ruining our youth.  My point rather is to help us think about where we are headed in way that is less driven by science fiction versions of the future, and more based on where we are in the present.  I also want us to realize that such speculations are not about some distant future.  In light of the insights we have gotten from Julian Jaynes about how quickly culture and environment change our cognitive/conscious faculties, it appears the consciousness of the future will be upon us much sooner than we realize.  

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Homo Evolutis: A Jaynesian Perspective On The Minds Future, Part 1

The question of what the human mind will be like in the future is a hot topic.  Interestingly, the opinions of many of today’s best thinkers on the subject are aligning with Julian Jaynes’ vision of how the mind changes.

Modern main stream science has always believed the development of consciousness is circumscribed by the glacial pace of evolution.  The assumption by scholars in the not very distant past was that consciousness came on the scene gradually as the physical characteristics of the human brain changed just like the rest of the body via rare adaptive mutations.  However, recent research has indicated that genetic change may be happening faster than we thought.  The paleontologist Peter Ward, in an article for Scientific American, cites a number of studies that show a lot more change in the human genome than we originally speculated since the agricultural revolution 10,000 year ago.  In fact, he cited researchers estimates that “over the past 10,000 years humans have evolved as much as 100 times faster than at any other time since the split of the earliest hominid from the ancestors of modern chimpanzees. The team attributed the quickening pace to the vari­ety of environments humans moved into and the changes in living conditions brought about by agriculture and cities.”

However, even though a large increase in the pace of the brain’s evolution has some bearing on the question of where the human mind is headed, more and more researchers are starting to think that other factors are going to be more important to where our mind is going than classical adaptive genetic evolution. 

Jaynes’ proposed in OCBBM that consciousness emerged not just as a product of changes in the physical brain.  A basic axiom of his entire theory is that the genesis of introspective consciousness came from a reorganization of how the brain functioned that was driven by historical and cultural factors--especially the development of written language.  The implication being there was not just one way the various physical components of the brain could connect to each other and be organized.  Jaynes’ radical proposition was based on the idea that society and the environment had a large hand in determining the way the brains hardware would function, and therefore cognitive processes could transform much more rapidly than if genetic adaptation was the sole agent of change.  This was just too hard to swallow for the many critics of Jaynes’ both 40 years ago and today. 

Even if Jaynes has not yet been completely vindicated, the most recent generation of neuroscientists has had to change their understanding of the basics of brain physiology based on recent discoveries.  As opposed to the understanding of brain physiology they grew up with, that brain cells do not regenerate and the brain does not change after a person reaches physical maturity, we now know that throughout the entire life cycle the brain is ‘plastic’ and is in a constant process of change, and neurogenesis (the creation of new brain cells) happens continually.  When you consider the apparent hyper-increase in genetic evolution I referred to above, and combine that with our recent discoveries that brain organization is much more plastic than we used to believe, Jaynes’ proposition of how consciousness could emerge so quickly starts to appear much less far fetched.  
In fact, clear acknowledgements are being made as to how changing technology, social structure, and experience is driving changes in consciousness.  Peter Ward, in the article I referred to above, considers the proposition that the traditional conception of “human evolution has essentially ceased…evolution may now be memetic [i.e., socially driven]involving ideasrather than genetics.”

This is especially true given the emerging nature of human experience in the face of the break neck speed of technological change.  Juan Enriquez, founding director of the Harvard Business School Life Sciences Project, made the point in a TED talk stating, "...we're trying to take in as much data in a day as people used to take in in a lifetime."  He goes on to say:

"I think we're transitioning into Homo Evolutis...a hominid that's beginning to directly and deliberately control the evolution of its own species...And I think that's such an order of magnitude change that your grandkids or your great-grandkids may be a species very different from you."

The previous quote may sound like science fiction. However, one example that illustrates the point is IQ and how IQ scores have changed over multiple generations.  However, before discussing how IQ relates to the issues we are focused on, IQ measurement has been such a contentious subject I feel I must clear the air regarding the reticence to believe the concept of IQ is legitimate. 

There have been claims that IQ is an artificial construct reflecting the values of those who devise IQ tests.  These criticisms may contain some truth.  That is, ‘intelligence’ is indeed a construction of various skills and abilities that reflect the values of the main stream culture.  In another time and place, say a tribal group 50,000 years ago whose recent ancestors had emigrated from the savannahs of east Africa to what is now Europe, different skills and abilities related to foraging and dealing with the native Neanderthal population may be more important than the qualities we are testing for through IQ tests. 

However, we live in an age where success is driven by flexible and sophisticated cognitive skills involving the ability to manipulate systems of abstract symbols like writing and math--the capabilities IQ tests measure.  So yes, IQ measures what this culture defines as some of the most important traits for humans.  You therefore are within your rights to dismiss the qualities IQ measures as in some sense arbitrary.  That is, as long as you do not see any point in being able to get along and succeed in a modern technological culture based on greco-judeo-christian philosophy and enlightenment liberalism!  And perhaps more to the point, it turns out that IQ scores correlate positively with many of what we consider, in this modern culture, very important quality of life outcomes:  physical and mental health, career success, incarceration, poverty, and, contrary to popular myth, social skills and emotional intelligence.

So enough about the question of IQ’s validity, and back to our point about how IQ can tell us about how the mind changes.  Even though IQ has been shown to be a highly heritable trait, IQ scores have been rapidly increasing across the entire globe for as far back as we have data.  The way IQ scores work is that, by definition, the median score is always 100 for the population.  What has been discovered is something now known as the Flynn Effect:  With each generation IQ tests have had to be changed and scores have had to be revised downward to keep the median at 100.  In other words, each new generation is scoring higher than the last, and this is true across the globe.  In the United States, median IQ test scores have constantly increased about 3 points every 10 years.  That means in the USA a person with average intelligence 100 years ago would now be considered mentally retarded!  (Mental retardation is defined as having an IQ below 70.) 

How can a trait that is shown to be so strongly heritable change so fast?  For those of you interested in a detailed explanation, see Flynn and Dickens article, Heritability Estimates Versus Large Environmental Effects: The IQ Paradox Resolved.  To boil their explanation down, the reason is because human culture has become hyper focused on selecting and encouraging the traits related to high IQ. 

The abilities related to IQ scores may not predict by themselves a whole sale change in human consciousness and the inevitability of “Home Evolutis”.   However, the demonstration of how such a heritable trait that is so fundamental to cognition, consciousness and what is means to be a human being can change so quickly lends much credence and plausibility to Jaynes’ willingness to propose that human consciousness can change due to environmental factors related to society and technology.

In part 2 of this post, which I will publish soon, I plan to look from a Jaynesian perspective more specifically at how human consciousness has progressed in the last three millennia and consider what the implications are for the future regarding what consciousness in ‘Homo Evolutis’ might be like.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Metaphor, Language and Struggling to Consciousness the very constitutive ground of language....This is indeed the nub (knob), heart, pith, kernel, core, marrow, etc. of my argument, which itself is a metaphor and ‘seen’ only with the mind’s ‘eye’. (OCBBM, Ch 2)

The relationship of how language and consciousness are related is a contentious subject. Is language necessary for consciousness? Did the evolution of language skills cause consciousness to emerge? Or vice versa? In chapter two of OCBBM, Julian Jaynes gives us particularly insightful and lucid answers to at least some of the most perplexing issues regarding the relationship of language and consciousnesses. In chapter two, Jaynes addresses what he believes consciousness actually is, and he begins by asserting language and metaphor are the basis of introspective consciousness.  Jaynes argues that, as we have new experiences, our faculties for language allow us to understand more and more complex and abstract ideas; and therefore, language is not just a way of communicating, but is an "organ of perception". 

This is based on his insights regarding how metaphor functions to expand language and human understanding. That is, whenever we encounter something new, we make sense of it through the use of metaphor to familiarize ourselves with the object of our attention. This causes us to stretch our language until we can arrive at a more or less satisfactory understanding of what the entity we are perceiving is or what a particular state of affairs means to us.

Say for example, you are traveling in Africa and suddenly you come across this animal:

In trying to understand what you are seeing, you might say to yourself something like, "It's part reptile, part armadillo and part anteater." That is, the first thing you do when attempting to understand something new is draw from what you already know and make associations to what the new object of your attention is like. (In fact, the author of the bog I copied this picture from compared this creature to a dragon, a dinosaur and a Pokemon!) In other words, what we do is use the known as the metaphor that makes the unknown intelligible to us. This is true whether we are trying to understand something that actually exists in physical space, like the animal pictured above (which is called a 'pangolin'), or if we are trying to understand an abstract concept, like love, by comparing it to, for example, the sweetness of candy and the warmth of a blanket.

This process of metaphorical comparison driving our ability to better understand our experience underlies how we generate new concepts through the expansion of language. The first time I got a sense of what this really means was as a youth in my school library when I happened to come across the complete Oxford English Dictionary (OED). I was amazed to see the many volumes stretching down the book shelf, and wondered how this could be, given I had a dictionary of my own that fit nicely into a small back pack with the rest of my books. I reached for a random volume and opened it up, and I saw that the reason it was so huge was that each word not only had a definition, but also contained a history of where the word came from including all the various meanings the word had in the past. I did some further research and discovered scholars began working on the OED in 1878 and did not get the 15, 490 page first edition completed until 1928! I remember when I read the etymologies of some of the words in the volume I was holding how I felt like I was getting a direct look at how consciousness was changing and growing, as I went from a particular word's form and meaning in one era to its new form and meaning in the next.

A good example of how metaphorical comparison expands language can be seen in the way the word 'line' evolved. About 800 years ago, 'line' meant rope or cord and is still used that way at times in the present. However, as history moved forward we developed the need to quickly and easily access in our awareness an abstract representation of the shortest distance between two points. A line in the sense of a rope became a metaphor, and voilĂ , the meaning of the word line expanded to aid our consciousness into becoming comfortable with a geometry concept.

Jaynes succinctly makes the point stating, "The grand and vigorous function of metaphor is the generation of new language as it is needed, as human culture becomes more and more complex....language and its referents climbed up from the concrete to the abstract on the steps of metaphors, even, we may say, created the abstract on the bases of metaphors...." Jaynes gives us a poignant example of this process in action when he discusses the evolution of the verb 'to be':

"It comes from the Sanskrit bhu, 'to grow, or make grow,' while the English forms ‘am’ and ‘is’ have evolved from the same root as the Sanskrit asmiy 'to breathe.' It is something of a lovely surprise that the irregular conjugation of our most nondescript verb is thus a record of a time when man had no independent word for ‘existence’ and could only say that something ‘grows’ or that it 'breathes.'"

Creating a more complex and abstract language has allowed our cognition to expand and develop this new mind-space (metaphorically speaking) we call consciousness in which we effortlessly manipulate and maneuver the objects of our attention both forward and backward in time. The previous example suggests to us how, as our ability to introspect grew, we went from only being able to understand our place in reality through concrete analogies with physical functions like 'grow" and "breathe', to being able to stand back and use this new mind-space of consciousness to, for the first time, be able to conceptualize abstractly something like the whole of our 'existence'. And all this is made possible by the capacity we have evolved for complex language.

In my experience, all the above thoughts on how language and consciousness are related have very important implications in our day to day lives. In this modern complex world we are living in, where the pace of change is lightning
 fast as compared to the experience of our ancestors, strong language skills are essential for being able to interpret and keep up with the various demands the social environment continuously puts on our powers of cognition. This is even more true in regard to the interior life each one of us grapples with.

As a therapist, I have spent endless hours with people who repeatedly struggle to name there own experience. On the flip side, it has been very gratifying and inspiring to have witnessed the journey of clients and students who become proficient at articulating their thoughts and feelings. As I have watched this happen in others (and myself), I can see their consciousness expanding as evidenced by the fact that they are less often reflexively parroting what they hear from others, jumping to conclusions based on emotional reactivity and using trite phrases as a substitute for thoughtful dialogue.

Essentially, what I mean when I say "I can see their consciousness expanding" is that, to use Jaynes' terms, it is evident that they are developing an analog 'I' that operates in a clearly intentional manner when considering the objects they are dealing with inside the mind-space of consciousness. We often hear what I am talking about referred to in 21st century language as 'mindfulness'. When a person's modus operandi consists largely of reflex responses and reactions as I mentioned in the last paragraph, what is happening is they have not developed a distinct internal observer, i.e. an analog 'I', that can thoughtfully consider their own emotional and cognitive content at any given moment.

The ability to do this is predicated on having a rich and flexible vocabulary. Or to put it another way, putting in the effort to develop the habit of slowing down and struggling to say what you mean in as nuanced and clear a fashion as possible is the process that creates a distinct analog 'I'. And often times the struggle I am referring to here is, even if it not consciously always experienced this way, the struggle to find appropriate metaphors that are rich enough to encompass and clearly define what it is one is trying to understand; whether that is one's own feelings, a new concept, the meaning of an event, etc.

And this process does not just allow people to become clearer about the feelings and perceptions they already have. Developing a greater and greater array of vocabulary and syntax expands and deepens the variety of emotional and cognitive experience they are capable of. Indeed, Jaynes discusses in the afterword he wrote to the second edition of OCBBM how, as people became literate and introspective consciousness emerged, humans became capable of moving from simple primitive affective responses to the environment, like fear and desire, to a world of what we in the modern era call emotions, like anxiety and hope.

I mentioned above how I have seen people grow in there ability to express themselves, and this implies a conclusion that I do not believe is overstating the point: We are all not equally conscious--especially if what we mean by being conscious is having a rich and reflective awareness of self and the world. I have experienced clients, students and other individuals in my life whose range of verbal responses they have ready access to in large part boils down to canned phrases like "Oh my God, that's so awesome", "Damn, that sucks", "She's killin' it", "That's sick, man", "lol", etc. It is clear to me these people are not going to be able to respond, when receiving the news that a dear friend from their past died yesterday, with, "If only I could cure evils by lamentation and raise the dead with tears! For I can sense a storming torrent rising up inside my breast, and it will surely have its way with me."

Jaynes teaches us the power that metaphor and language has had in building human consciousness. Really understanding what he is saying about this subject also helps us realize we are making a mistake when our culture glorifies the hackneyed use of language under the sexier titles of urban slang, Ebonics, folk linguistics, etc.

Friday, October 31, 2014

All Mixed Up?

This past summer I came across a blog published by Cris Campbell, an aspiring anthropologist.  His blog gets a significant amount of traffic judging by the number of comments to his posts, and a critical post he wrote (though he does recommend OCBBM) on Jaynes' bicameral mind theory titled "All Mixed Up:  Julian Jaynes" has received over 40 comments from readers.  

Campbell does not really make much of an argument against any of the specifics in OCBBM.  However, I am creating this write up here, because many of the responses in the comments section are thoughtful and engaging and would be worthwhile I think for those interested in Jaynes' ideas.

So anyone who wants to explore the various ideas expressed on Campbell's blog regarding Jaynes and bicamerality can use the above link.  Here I am only going to reproduce the comments I made to Campbell.  Campbell sums up his opening remarks with:

“Here is how we know Jaynes is wrong: there is no evidence that historically recent hunter-gatherers were or are biologically-neurologically different or that their minds were metaphorically bifurcated.”

To which I replied:

"Jaynes did not claim there was anything biologically-neurologically different in bicameral people. Rather, his contention was that the neuroanatomy of bicameral people was the same as we all share, but it functioned differently in people living in bicameral societies due to culture.

Maybe I am missing something, but there is much evidence for at least vestiges of 'metaphorically bifurcated' minds in recent hunter-gatherers if by this term you mean what Jaynes meant which is cross hemisphere communication in the brain that was experienced by these people as hallucinations. Just one example would be the Piraha people’s experience of spirit visitations as documented by Daniel Everett."

Cambell's response:

"Over the past 10 years, I’ve probably read 1,000 or more ethnographies and ethnohistories of hunter-gatherer peoples. I have yet to encounter anything in this vast literature which would suggest some kind of bifurcation, whether metaphorical or otherwise.

In fact, everything I’ve read suggests otherwise. Sure, they have different worldviews but those (animist) worldviews are in no way similar to what Jaynes postulated for bicameral consciousness. I can’t think of a single source, ethnographer, or anthropologist who has ever thought, said, or written that hunter-gatherers have a different kind of consciousness or mind.

That aside, the single best explanation for Jaynes’ identification of a difference between early and later Greek epics/poems is quite simple: writing and literate society. Minds did not change, but external symbolic storage and literate technology did. Jack Goody, Eric Havelock, and Walter Ong have all assessed Jaynes’ work in this way. They are right."

My response, which starts off by addressing Campbell's statement that no anthropologist or ethnographer he is aware of has ever noted a different kind of consciousness in the people they write about:

"Yes, they don’t. I would attribute that to: 1) Since the age of writing and documentation, hunter gatherer societies have faced many of the same pressures Jaynes describes which brought about consciousness, so these people only show vestiges of the bicameral mind to a greater or lesser degree depending on the case. 2) It would be too politically incorrect to assign a different kind of conscious to the people they study for fear that the difference may be interpreted by those who read their work as racist. 3) They don’t know how to interpret the phenomenon they are seeing, being conscious creatures, they have difficulty conceptualizing what is going on.

For example in regards to my third point, I once read an account by a researcher who spent time with a group of aboriginal people in Australia. He insisted that there was a kind of mental telepathy going on between these people. He noted that there were times he would observe an individual drop what she was doing to respond to a command, summons, etc. she received when no one else was around. The only way this modern westerner could interpret this was to attribute it to telepathy, though it sounded much more to me like they were experiencing command auditory hallucinations ala Jaynes.

In my example I used in my original post re: the Piraha, Daniel Everett does not just describe the Piraha as having an animist worldview. He states that they report a direct experience of spirits speaking to them. I am not suggesting the Piraha are not conscious. But I am suggesting Everett’s description sounds like they do have vestiges of bicameral experience.

Jaynes stated that he believed there has not been any truly bicameral people on earth in a long time (which is another reason modern ethnographers and anthropologists don’t report hunter-gathers as having a different consciousness than anyone else). However, as you said, if Jaynes were right human history 'would be filled with fantastic and unbelievable tales'. To my mind, you don’t even have to go to any record of past hunter gatherer societies. Fantastic tales of people communicating with spirits of one sort or another reflecting remnants of bicamerality abound in just about every type of account left to us from the past. The Bible is one great example as James Cohn shows in his book Minds of the Bible. Modern scholars want to write off as something like a symbolic literary device references from past generations of their experiences of talking directly to their gods and ancestors. However, these reports are so constant and ubiquitous across all cultures that it makes more sense to attribute the explaining away of these experiences as a reaction of those who correctly cannot accept the idea of spirits and ghosts, but have no idea of how to account for these phenomena other than to simply insist that the people who report them are not telling us the truth about their experience.

Nor do we have to look to the past for vestiges of bicamerality. The auditory hallucinations of schizophrenics in our modern world, and what recent research has shown to be the very common experience of hearing voices in people not judged to be suffering from a mental illness, are phenomena that lack any good evolutionary explanation of how they came to be so common. That is, unless you understand Julian Jaynes."

I want to add one reference not directly related to the main arguments above, but rather to an issue I alluded to in passing.   That subject being that some anthropologists are blinded by leanings toward political correctness on certain topics--in this case the possibility that people in some cultures may inherently have a more primitive mentality than others.  In that regard, there is a new study out, where sociologists are the subjects, showing a strong bias against any explanations that would suggest certain sensitive differences among people could have evolutionary roots; thereby, under cutting a sacred cow of politically correct social science that all differences between people that appear to be a deficit of some sort for one group are due to oppression, politics, etc.  The idea that some differences between people's abilities are due to evolution would mean its a difference that you cannot fix through raising the consciousness of the oppressors, and is relatively permanent. 

Being a liberal myself and spending lots of time close to my fellow liberal academics, I am not surprised.  Sociologists are not anthropologists, but my experience with the field would make me confident in placing a large wager that if the same study were done on anthropologists, it would result in the same findings. The study itself is behind a pay wall, but the Washington Post has a good review of it: Liberals Deny Science, Too

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Searching for Consciousness, Redux

I am following up on my last post, because a few days ago I happened to stumble onto a journal article that is certainly the best amalgamation I have come across of where our current scientific understanding of consciousness is taking us:  The Source of Consciousness by Ken A Paller and Satoru Suzuki.  And more to the point, the information the authors present reads practically like a point by point summary of the empirical findings that have emerged since Jaynes wrote OCBBM that support his contentions that I addressed in my last post about how introspective consciousness is not needed for so many of our cognitive functions.  

I would strongly encourage anyone interested in the topic to read the whole article, as it is brief and, uncharacteristically for an academic journal article, well written and easy to follow.  In it they summarize, with references to the research, how, for example:
  • One can can closely examine an object or image and still be unaware of it.
  • One can apprehend something, study it and make a judgement about it without using conscious introspection.
  • There are certain blind people who actually do see moving objects and can respond to them--its just that the visual information they take in is not accessible to consciousness.  (The phenomenon is know as 'blindsight'.)
  • Through brain damage or induced illusions a person can perceive her own conscious awareness being disassociated and separated from parts of her physical body or entire body.  (Think "out of body experiences".)
  • Free will may be an illusion as there is mounting evidence that we make decisions unconsciously and then afterward consciously rationalize those decisions to ourselves.  (It's just that it is only obvious to us when we see it happening in uncle Harry and our teenagers.)
Apparently, I am not the only one that was impressed.  A group of seven leading researchers in the field of cognitive science published an equally short and well written piece in support of Paller and Suzuki's article titled Consciousness Science: Real Progress and Lingering Misconceptions.  The broader point of both pieces is to argue that scientific inquiry into consciousness is the only legitimate way to explain it (as opposed to metaphysical and philosophical accounts).  However, the response to Paller and Suzuki does site a variety of sources that support Paller and Suzuki's contentions about the limitations of consciousness and particularly empathizes, "We now know, contrary to many peoples intuitions, that attention and awareness are dissociable:  attention of various types can function in the absence of consciousness..."

In turn, Paller and Suzuki published a one page thank you (included in the previous link), and allude to a few different lines of research that could prove fruitful for further exploration.  They sum up their understanding as follows:

"Consciousness reflects a specific mode of information processing wherein information is explicitly available for intentional (goal-directed) control of attention, memory, and thoughts. By contrast, information can remain largely intangible to intentional control mechanisms via the unconscious mode of processing, but still automatically direct attention, evoke memory, and induce thoughts."

Even though most of these ideas would be shocking to the general public, the above conclusions of all these researchers indicate that the field of cognitive science has moved swiftly forward and has become quiet comfortable with much of what Jaynes was telling us 40 years ago!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Searching For Consciousness

Have you ever had to deal with someone close to you who is caught up in an addiction, or have you struggled with an addiction yourself?  If so, you have seen a particularly extreme example of how flawed introspective consciousness can be and how little influence it can have over behavior.  Remembering the experience of how broken consciousness mental processes can be under the influence of addiction may make it easier to digest Julian Jaynes' excellent summary of the limitations of consciousness in the first chapter of OCBBM.  Here he discusses all the cognitive functions that consciousness is not necessary for.  The list includes concept formation, learning, and even thinking and reason.

Certainly, most people when they first encounter this outrageous proposal are ready to reject it automatically.  One's own experience of directing one's own internal conscious process and in turn consciously directing one's own actions is all the evidence needed to see there is a major flaw somewhere in Jaynes' argument.  However, really understanding how limited consciousness actually is, is the bedrock of being able to understand the bicameral mind theory, because, as Jaynes states, “unless you are here convinced that a civilization without consciousness is possible, you will find [the bicameral mind theory] unconvincing and paradoxical.”  Therefore, it is important to note that since OCBBM, there has been a mountain of research from a variety of fields that has shown what a small roll our conscious awareness has in our various mental processes—even to the point that many researches and philosophers have adopted a deterministic perspective and doubt that free will exists.  

“We think our decisions are conscious, but these data show that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg,” says John-Dylan Haynes in an article from the journal Nature.  Haynes and his colleges have published one example of the many studies that demonstrate how much of our decision making process is done unconsciously.  They show how decisions are made in a person’s brain up to 10 seconds before the person becomes conscious of the decision!  We think of our introspective consciousness as the command center for all the mental processes that control our actions.  However, this is largely an illusion.  

Some of the most profound examples of how unrelated introspective consciousness is to how we understand and judge experience has come to us from the study of split brain patients.  The cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga is famous for his work with these people.  He describes in an interview published as A Split Brain: A Tail of Two Halves how when only the patient's right hemisphere was given information, “The left hemisphere [which is where language and abstract reasoning are based] made up a post hoc answer that fit the situation.” 

Steven Pinker, in his book The Blank Slate, looks at several examples from Gazzaniga’s work.  He recounted the story of one subject who’s right hemisphere (but not the left) was shown the command “Walk”, but, when asked why he got up and started walking, replied he was going to get a drink.  That is, his left hemisphere, in charge of formulating a conscious response in words, made up a “rational” explanation rather than saying he did not know.  Pinker, after reviewing much of the evidence from all this research, labels the brain’s language and abstract reasoning left hemisphere the “baloney generator” and stated, “The conscious mind…is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.” (p. 43)  

Going back to the issue of addiction I bought up at the beginning of this post, I have seen a plethora of poignant examples in my clinical work which illustrate how little control consciousness can have in our lives.  Much of the work I have done has been dedicated to helping those who suffer from addiction.  I have seen this curse from the perspective of an outreach worker frequenting the hang outs of addicted homeless people, to a crisis hotline counselor in the late hours of the night listening to addicts and their family members pleading for help, to a therapist creating a safe space for the addicted person sitting in front of me to confront the destruction drug dependency has rained down on his life.

There is much denial that goes on with people who are suffering from addiction.  However, for most of these people at some point, when the winds of the building storms that have been their lives eventually become strong enough to blow back the smoke screen of denial, they are forced to view the wasteland they have made of their health, relationships, finances and vocations.   This is a deeply traumatic experience characterized, many times literally, by much wailing and gnashing of teeth. 

For the addict, relatives and friends, reaching this point in the process, while painful, is also seen as a hopeful time now that the truth is finally staring the addict in the face.  Surely, this will lead to that person doing everything possible to move beyond the behaviors that have caused such devastation.  However, amazingly for those who are experiencing this cycle for the first time, rarely does the carnage end when the addicted person finally acknowledges she has a problem. 

The addict will swear to all that will listen that she has had her last drink, snort, injection, etc.  She will be convinced she has seen the light and will now be focused on being abstinent and cleaning up the mess she has made.  Then, she finds herself horrified the next morning to wake up and realize that, the evening before, as soon as she made her passionate declaration to her best friend, she went straight to the bar and got so smashed she does not remember what happened for the rest of the night.  And this roller coaster of sincere desire to be in recovery and inability to control the impulse to use goes back and forth for weeks, months and often times years. 

To put it a little differently, all the deliberations in consciousness dedicated to changing the behavior around the addiction are like charging at the Great Pyramid of Giza and trying to knock it over with the force of one’s shoulder.  Though they don’t understand it and cannot explain what is happening, these people are getting an abject lesson on how little consciousness has to do with living day to day life and how much our mental life and behavior are controlled by unconscious processes. 

And it’s not just because the chemicals these people are ingesting are inhibiting the executive functions in their brains.  I have also worked with people struggling with behavioral addictions that do not involve ingesting anything.  I have observed no difference in the behavioral and internal psychological digression of people addicted to their sexual impulses or their need to hoard every object they can possess as compared to people addicted to a drug of one kind or another. 

At this point I must mention that the information contained in the last few paragraphs based on my own professional experience should not be considered simply anecdotal evidence.  This is because of the voluminous written records from people’s diaries, memoirs, letters to the editor, popular books, thread posts in cyberspace, etc., that describe the exact process over and over again that I refer to above. 

In fact, the millions of people worldwide who participate in 12 step groups squarely acknowledge the lack of power conscious will has to change behavior.  Instead, they base the foundation of recovery on the individual’s acknowledgement that their life is “unmanageable”, and their only hope is to turn their recovery over to God.  That is, their behavior is beyond any hope that their conscious thoughts and commitments can rule their actions directly.  And its not just addicts who have this experience.  How many times have you and I said to ourselves we really are going to lose weight this time, or get our spending under control, or be nicer to our relatives, etc.

There has been much resistance to the central point of Jaynes' bicameral mind theory: Whole societies can exist without any of its members being capable of conscious introspection. We all experience our conscious awareness as the essence of who we are; therefore, we almost literally can't imagine civilization could be inhabited by people who lack this distinguishing feature. The problem is we are caught in the limitation of what we might term the "subjective paradox". That is, our subjective conscious minds can only be conscious of what we are conscious of. It could be that 99.999% of our mental processes that control our decisions and behavior are unconscious, but the conscious mind by definition would have no direct experience of that. However, recent research has done nothing but support Jaynes' arguments about how little conscious is needed to function, and looking at the example of addiction helps us see how limited our power of conscious will and reflection can be.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Neuro-computational Consciousness?

In the introduction to OCBBM, Jaynes chronicles the various paradigms that have arisen during the course of modern science to explain where consciousness comes from.    He takes us on a brief tour from the theory that consciousness is just a component of matter like gravity or magnetism, to the view that consciousness was grounded in the associative process we call learning, to the school of behaviorism which asserted conscious is an illusion and does not exist at all!  Jaynes finishes with the theory that consciousness is a product of the reticular activating system in the brain that regulates the sleep/wake cycle and aspects of how attention is focused.   

Back in the 70s when the OCBBM was published, identifying the reticular activating system as the cause of consciousness was an initial foray into trying to understand consciousness strictly in terms of neuroscience.  Since then, neuroscience has flourished and using its fMRI, PET, and CG scans is generating one discovery after another.  The rise of neuroscience has also accompanied the meteoric rise of computer science and the corresponding ubiquity of computer technology into the routine of every day life.   

During this ride into the information age of the 21st century, computer scientists and neuroscientists have been influencing the imaginations of each other and the public.  The result has been the information processing computer has become the dominant metaphor animating the public and scientific communities' conception of what cognition is.  The new field of "computational neuroscience", developing mathematical models of how information flows through the brain, and its associated fields of study are now held up as the best bet for finally being able to solve the question of consciousness once and for all.   And so the media and the researchers have developed the habit of thinking of sentient beings as information processing systems, and this has become the next paradigm to add to Jaynes' list.  We are computers made of organic matter with components like, for example, hard disks (regions in the brain where long term memory is stored), software (how our "plastic" brains become organized via genetics and development), and computer chips (neurons and their connections). 

Of course, people do not literally believe we are simply organic computers mechanically processing the data we take in through our senses.  Well, maybe the hardcore determinists and behaviorists among us do.  However, my point is we must be very cautious about letting today's zeitgeist sweep us up into models that only work at the level of metaphor as they relate to consciousness and ultimately limit our ability to understand the complex and enigmatic problems associated with understanding the amazing phenomenon of introspective self awareness. 

 Jaynes describes the phenomenon I am talking about perfectly:   

"Note how the metaphors of mind are the world it perceives.  The first half of the nineteenth century was the age of the great geological discoveries in which the record of the past was written in layers of the earth’s crust. And this led to the popularization of the idea of consciousness as being in layers until...unconscious sensations, unconscious ideas, and unconscious judgments made up the majority of mental processes.  In the middle of the nineteenth century chemistry succeeded geology as the fashionable science, and consciousness...[became] the compound structure that could be analyzed in the laboratory into precise elements of sensations and feelings.  And as steam locomotives chugged their way into the pattern of everyday life toward the end of the nineteenth century, so they too worked their way into the consciousness of consciousness, the subconscious becoming a boiler of straining energy which demanded manifest outlets and when repressed pushed up and out into neurotic behavior and the spinning camouflaged fulfillments of going-nowhere dreams.  There is not much we can do about such metaphors except to state that that is precisely what they are."

I am in no way claiming that research in cognitive science using the tools of computational neuroscience and the like are not legitimate fields of inquiry.  They are, and the worlds of neuroscience, computer science, artificial intelligence and others are making astounding contributions to the compendium of human knowledge.   

The problem appears to me to be, as it relates to consciousness per se, that we are changing the terms of the debate to fit the metaphor we are currently excited about.  Christof Koch is a neuroscientist who partnered early in his career with Francis Crick, one of the co-discoverers on the structure of the DNA molecule, to try and understand where consciousness comes from and how it actually works.  He has worked on developing  a model for understanding consciousness called Integrated Information Theory, and has become one of the leading researchers and spokes persons for a computational approach to consciousness.  He defines consciousness in a Scientific American article as "the ability to feel something, anything -- whether it's the sensation of an azure-blue sky, a tooth ache, being sad, or worrying about the deadline two weeks from now. Indeed, it may be possible that all animals share some minimal amount of sentience with people, that all animals have some feelings, however primitive."    I would argue this is a definition, with the possible exception of the example of worrying about a deadline two weeks out, that actually is focused on perception and emotion-- not consciousness.    

To some degree, the issue is a matter of semantics.  That is, if the field of neuroscience insists on defining consciousness as encompassing the entire realm of the perceptions and reactions of sentient beings, that is their prerogative.  For a concept like consciousnesswhere the definition is hotly debated and is far from reaching any consensus, in order to do any serious inquiry into the matter you have to begin with your best approximation of a definition in order to have a starting point to work from and a standard to judge the analysis by.  However, I would say defining consciousness as boiling down to stimulus, response, and association, obscures more than it makes clear.    

When we ask questions about what it means to be ethical and moral, or how to live a productive and worthwhile life, or even "Who am I?", we are challenging our ability to introspect deeply.  This is what Jaynes is addressing as consciousness.  Ultimately, when we want to understand what it means to be a conscious being, I think most of us are talking about this uniquely human ability we have to make meaning through an intentionally directed narrative we "see" within ourselves; or again, a "hidden hermitage where we may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do", as Jaynes puts it. I realize the above description is not an operationalized, scientific definition of consciousness.  In future posts I will address in more detail exactly what I understand to be Jaynes' specific formulation of consciousness.  For now, I am just trying to make clear that the essential nature of the "consciousness" that means the most to us personally and has given rise to a long history of inquiry by novelist, philosophers and saints, is not what 21st century high tech research is focusing on when they talk about consciousness. 

In the BBC's documentary "Human Consciousness", Koch describes how he and his team are searching for the "neural correlates of consciousness"; that is, specific groups of neurons that correspond to particular conscious experiences.  One of the examples he uses is an area of the brain in one of his research subject's who, when shown a series of pictures, had that area of the brain fire only when the subject saw the 6 pictures of Jennifer Aniston that were mixed into the series.   

I would argue this is not telling us anything about specifically human consciousness.  What this example does tell us is that the research subject has made a strong association with Jennifer Aniston's image, probably cemented in the part of the brain Koch is looking at by repeated, strong emotional reactions that are associated to her image.  That is what I would call learning, and, as Jaynes states, you don't need anything approaching a uniquely human consciousness to learn.  Pavlov taught his dogs to salivate when making an association with a metronome.  We all know the stereotypical process of a scientist in a lab teaching a rat to find its way through a maze.  We have evidence that even insects can learn, as shown in a study on moths where the researcher discovered moths can be taught to distinguish which odors mean food.  Stemming from this discovery, the intent it is to train moths to recognize biological and chemical weapons!   

If you are captivated by mapping the brain and discovering which areas correlate with which specific functions, great!  Many fascinating discoveries are being made that tell us about cognition in humans and other animals.  However, as Jaynes puts it regarding the desire to understand the essence of human consciousness through the study of neuro-anatomy: 

"...there is a delusion in such reasoning. It is one that is all too common and unspoken in our tendency to translate psychological phenomena into neuro-anatomy and chemistry. We can only know in the nervous system what we have known in behavior first. Even if we had a complete wiring diagram of the nervous system, we still would not be able to answer our basic question. Though we knew the connections of every tickling thread of every single axon and dendrite in every species that ever existed, together with all its neurotransmitters and how they varied in its billions of synapses of every brain that ever existed, we could still never — not ever — from a knowledge of the brain alone know if that brain contained a consciousness like our own."

David Chalmers, co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness at NYU, in his TED talk, How  Do You Explain Consciousness?, echoes Jaynes by making the same distinction between the "easy problem" of how neural phenomenon are correlated to components of behavior and the "hard problem" of actual subjective, introspective consciousness: 

"The centerpiece of the science of consciousness in recent years has been the search for correlations, correlations between certain areas of the brain and certain states...But it doesn't address the real mystery at the core of this subject: why is it that all that physical processing in a brain should be accompanied by consciousness at all?...I banged my head against the wall looking for a theory of consciousness in purely physical terms that would work. But I eventually came to the conclusion that that just didn't work...the core idea is just that what you get from purely reductionist explanations in physical terms, in brain-based terms, is stories about the functioning of a system, its structure, its dynamics, the behavior it produces, great for solving the easy problems — how we behave, how we function — but when it comes to subjective experience...we're at a kind of impasse here. We've got this wonderful, great chain of explanation, we're used to it, where physics explains chemistry, chemistry explains biology, biology explains parts of psychology. But consciousness doesn't seem to fit into this picture. On the one hand, it's a datum that we're conscious.  On the other hand, we don't know how to accommodate it into our scientific view of the world. So I think...radical ideas may be needed."

Chalmers, unlike many others wanting to understand consciousness, gets credit for being able to distinguish the objects of the current research in neuroscience from the phenomenon of introspective conscious experience.   

The current paradigm for investigating consciousness, fueled by metaphors of computers and information processing, indeed is producing astounding discoveries related to many areas of cognitive functioning.  However, I am afraid this paradigm is going to end up, like all the others covered in Jaynes' introduction to OCBBM, falling short as a framework for understanding the phenomenon of introspective consciousness.  It appears to me David Chalmers is correct that we still need radical ideas.  40 years after OCBBM, it is still radical, and it is still needed.