Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Woke Humans

Humans think we’re special. On some level that’s just our delusion of grandeur. Numerous other species are faster, stronger, prettier, more numerous, etc. Some species have actual Marvel Cinematic Universe superpowers, like flying or inflating. 

On the other hand, our species’ accomplishments – for better and for worse – have transformed the planet. Just look at our name. We’re "homo sapiens," which is Latin for “wise men.” Humans are special because we can think. At least we think so.

Other animal species have brains, too. Many animals share similar cerebral structures. Some species even have some of that impressively rational grey matter on top. Nevertheless, other than a few obsessed primate researchers and all devoted pet owners, the rest of us would agree no other species matches the kind of consciousness every unimpaired human exhibits after a certain age.

So how did pre-human brains make the leap to human minds? 

Under some brain/mind models, consciousness arises from sheer processing power. For example, in the Terminator movies, the good Arnold Schwarzenegger warns us not to flip the switch and turn on a scary global “Skynet," because it will lead to computers taking charge of the planet. Similarly, adding more peripherals and memory eventually woke up my personal favorite sentient computer, Mycroft in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. A big-is-better approach made particular sense to mid-20th-century behaviorists, who argued brains consisted of undifferentiated and malleable neurons. 

More recent brain/mind models emphasize particular brain regions and their associated functions. You can expect more from life than lower animals, because they're limited to a reptilian brain stem and cerebellum. Like other mammals, we're also blessed with purely emotional limbic lobes that sometimes think they’re in charge. But even our clever chimp and dolphin cousins would envy the wrinkly grey folds of our well-endowed cortex. 

The newest and most human part of the brain is the “prefrontal cortex." This is the home of executive function and other highly complex mental processes, including key aspects of language and presumably consciousness. 

Regardless of your specific brain/mind map of human consciousness, it’s fun to think about how we got here. Evolutionary biologists and child psychologists have tried to identify when the human mind originated. Both point to the same breakthrough in the development of the human species and in the development of each human individual child:  “Theory of Mind.”

This phrase comes from an influential 1978 paper by David Premack and Guy Woodruff, “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?” Their model is rooted in philosophical writing that goes back to Descartes and beyond. 

In one of those annoyingly postmodern ways, the term is self-referential. “Theory of Mind” is not merely shorthand for a prominent theory about how minds develop. It’s also the essential human brain function itself:  having the capacity to understand our experience and act based on the proposition that other individuals possess a mental state that may differ from our own

Under this theory, a child – or a species – attains the capacity for “Theory of Mind” when their brains have developed enough to perform the following functions:

You and I can each feel, believe, and imagine different things. And we both know it.

To pound the point again, true consciousness doesn’t mean merely having a brain that can feel, think, and envision things. Don't get me wrong, these are impressive feats. A minuscule fraction of all species have accomplished feeling, and even fewer can make a feeble claim for anything resembling thinking. As far as we know, no other species is capable of imagining alternative futures. Nevertheless, having a "mind" also means your brain is powerful enough to recognize there are other folks out there who desire, think, and dream, too.

There’s a second and perhaps more subversive element of the mind/brain theory of Theory of Mind. I’ll skip its history and implications because I am a humble English major, not a "Philosophy Ph.D." [Ed. Note: That’s another annoyingly self-referential term.] Anyway, the capacity for Theory of Mind also means your brain can perform this operation:

I recognize my mental state and your mental state are independent of the real world – we can each feel, believe, and foresee things that are not true and never will be.1

            1Hopefully no one is tediously postmodern enough to ask the follow-up question “Does it matter whether you think recognize that, too?” 

As with other mental health impairments, some individuals’ capacity for Theory of Mind may be diminished in one way or another. This can result from a wide variety of influences on your brain/mind, from autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, and ADHD, to damage from drugs including cocaine and alcohol, to malignant narcissism.

Did you know that when you type the phrase “Theory of Mind” into Google Images, you will find multiple PowerPoint presentations from introductory psychology courses, all including this same cartoon?

Anyway, let me tell you my theory of Theory of Mind.

There’s lots of living things out there. Zillions of species have enough brains to do Me.

Many species can do both Me and That. “That” is everything that’s not “Me.” "That" is not all the same. For example, only some of That is edible.

A creature with Theory of Mind can do MeThat, and They. “They” is sorta like “Me.” As with That, eventually we figure out They is not all the same. For example, only some of They is edible. #chemistry #MeToo.

Ultimately, Theory of Mind allows humans to understand other people, as well as ourselves. Hopefully by working together we can better understand all the That that’s out there, and solve some of the world's pressing problems. Isn't that what thinking is all about?

But maybe, just maybe, there’s a little bit more.

According to Blogger’s statistics, the all-time least-read post on this blog is my essay last month about Pixar movies and brain anatomy, “Inside Out.” I blame Facebook’s rapacious new algorithm. Or maybe the off-putting topics. Of course, Blogger is part of the Separate But Evil Google Empire, so it could be their fault. Math is hard. 

Whatever the cause, my post’s neglect makes me sad. Until now it was probably my personal favorite of all the essays I wrote this year that didn’t involve either my family or Canada. After discussing Fear, Joy, Anger, Disgust, and the brain modules corresponding to those four emotions from Inside Out, this is what I wrote about Sadness:

I started this essay months ago, but I got stuck trying to write about Sadness. 

My life is depressing. Some days when the kids are gone I can't get out of bed, let alone write. More importantly, I didn’t want to characterize this emotion as a mere negative – an insufficient supply of dopamine. To the contrary, the complex relationship between Sadness and Joy is at the center of the movie Inside Out.  

Then at my friend Henry’s suggestion I read Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. Sapolsky is an excellent writer, and he does an amazing job of explaining brain function and its relationship to other physiological and social processes. Behave starts at the level of the individual neuron, and telescopes out to address neural networks, brain modules, hormones, developmental biology, genetics, cultural transmission, and natural selection. 

Sapolsky discusses the role of the brain’s Anterior Cingulate Cortex region. The ACC monitors our internal and external environments for any discrepancies with our expectations. The ACC not only identifies “unexpected pain,” but it also helps us process the "meaning of pain." For example, major depression is linked to ACC dysfunction. 

Significantly, the ACC also plays a key part in a uniquely human trait:  empathy. Observing and understanding pain – ourselves’ and others’ – apparently is essential to our shared humanity.

Under my theory, a healthy Theory of Mind requires another essential brain capacity. Humans are not only the species who can do MeThat, and They; we can also do We. “We” is the portion of They that we treat like an Us – rather than a Them.

So what happens when humans finally evolve enough to feel empathy?

Our brains grow three sizes. Not just our hearts.

Happy Holidays from Bellingham and Vancouver 

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