The Ego Tunnel and Evolutionary Psychology.
How genetic and cultural evolution might work together to predispose central human traits,
moral inclinations and even our uniqueness.
by Robin Dunbar, Louise Barret and John Lycett.
Amazon review: 4 stars.
According to Evolutionary psychology,
the human brain is the product of evolution and natural selection.
Indeed - according to evolutionary psychology -
Evolution shapes everything: Hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys, immune systems etc. and even cognition.
Sure, evolution might seem very impersonal and materialistic.
Still, according to evolutionary psychology, it was evolution that ended up giving us all of our human feelings and thoughts.
And, sure, evolution might be the story of the selfish gene, but evolution might also
tell us something about how we learned to work together. Even altruism can be explained
with the help of evolutionary ideas (i.e. kin selection and reciprocity helps
non-selfish social traits, such as altruism, to arise).
Critics might argue that the evolutionary psychology hypotheses are difficult or impossible to test.
Still, all in all, I found the book persuasive - and certainly an interesting read!
Chapters about 1) early humans, 2) human learning, 3) the human social group, 4) language and our capacity for 5) fifth-order
intentionality are all very interesting and entertaining:
The evolutionary process: From distant ancestors to Homo sapiens:
Going back in time, Homo Ergaster is accepted
as one of our direct ancestors (And an ancestor to hominids such as Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis).
// --- Note: Through most of the period during which Homo Ergaster/Erectus
was present in Africa, there were other hominids alongside it. Indeed, the tree of human evolution is more like a bush, than a straight stem leading
from ape-like people to modern humans --- //
Sure, the world of the Homo Ergasters changed (They moved to the Savannah.
Where they eventually got a larger ranging area, and a more normadic life then their ancestors).
Still, the ergaster/erectus period didn't bring much change
to the hominids themselves. Actually, for more than 1.5 million years there was very little change
in anatomy or the kinds of tools they used.
Nevertheless, eventually modern humans arrived.
A very recent event actually: All humans alive today share a
common ancestor as recently as 200.000 years ago
(perhaps as recently as 100.000 years).
I.e. all living humans are descended from around 5.000
breeding females, who lived 150-200.000 years ago in Africa.
According to evolutionary psychology, the capacity of our brains have
changed and improved dramatically over the ages.
E.g. The neocortex frontal lobe volume necessary for religion arrived
with the Homo heidelbergensis, and the capacities for more advanced forms of religion and
story telling didn't exist until modern humans appeared, around some 200.000 years ago.
This in a process, where ''The genes that code for the brain have been selected expressly to enable the organism to
escape from a genetically driven existence.
Ironically, given the fears of genetically driven determinism,
and the loss of ''free will''. It is the genes that free us from
these deterministic constraints.''
And have allowed us to move away from the basic biological existence of our ancestors,
to the new world of Homo sapiens.
Eventually creating the social cognition that makes us human. I.e. the higher order layer
cognitive mechanisms specifically involved in the social decision making
that lies at the heart of human behaviour.
How we learn: Babies, basic knowledge and an attention system that allows us to learn.
When infants were shown a sequence of events in which two dolls
were placed, one by one, behind a screen, they looked significantly longer when
the screen was drawn back to reveal only one doll (an impossible
event) than they did when (as expected) two dolls were revealed.
This and other experiments leads researchers to suggest
that babies enters the world equipped with a basic
knowledge of three key domains: Physics, biology and psychology.
Just as scientist develop theories to guide their
oberservations and experiments, children use their
basic theories of the world to guide their learning.
Indeed, children could not progress much without ''theory formation
mechanisms'' to guide them towards learning the things that are most likely
to be relevant, to their future understanding of the world.
The human attention system is also rather unique.
By 14 months of age, children are capable of directing an adults attention
to the object they are looking at (for example by pointing).
No other primate is capable of doing this. Monkeys and apes in the wild have
never been seen to point at an object purely to draw another monkeys attention to it! Nor do monkey mothers
and offspring show any evidence of sharing attention. Monkey and ape mothers
do care for and groom their babies, but they dont spend time looking at their faces.
Human mothers and babies, on the other hand, happily spend
hours looking at each others faces:
''Human babies are able to recognize and respond to the psychological
state of others....
In order to produce an adult human, all that is needed is for children
to develop the basic skill of shared attention, which allows them to connect
to other humans, and thus become immersed in human culture.''
''Once children are sharing attention, a feedback loop is set up. Adults will
engage the child, this will improve the babies capacity to respond,
learning more and more skills. Which will change the way
adults interact with the child, such that the child can be let to more
sophisticated forms of interaction. Which in turns allows them to acquire
Human cognition takes place in a group ... Our social world:
Studies of peoples social network suggest that we each
each sit in the middle of a series expanding cycles. That
progressively includes more people. People in the inner cycles means
more to us that those in the outer cycles.
Normally we have 5 people in the inner cycle (the support group,
from whom we seek support in times of crisis). Next, 12 - 15 people
(the sympathy group, with who we have close relationships), around that
35 people, and eventually our entire world (App. 150 people, equivalent to
the number of people in hunter-gatherer clans).
When we meet people, we arrange them in these circles. However, once all
the boxes in a given circle has been filled, we can not easily add new
individuals. If someone new comes along, and we add them
to a particular level in our network, someone else will have to drop
out to make room.
So, face to face relations is crucial for maintaining relationships.
If we dont meet, a weakening of the tie is inevitable.
Language help us manage our world. How and why language evolved:
- According to one theory, it had to do with the organization of hunts,
or other ways of making plans.
- There are other theories though: The Scheherazade Effect tells us that linguistic skills are an honest
cue of mate quality, and mates use language to keep each other entertained and
keep the bond stable.
- The gossip hypothesis tells us that language is all
about social bonding.
The essence of the gossip hypothesis is the observation that
monkeys and apes use grooming (See ''Dunbars number'') to make social bonds. Grooming
stimulates the brain to release endorphins (the brains own
painkillers), which makes us more trusting and committed to each other.
Physical contact is a form of communication. But there is an upper limit to
the amount of time we can use in the group to groom each other. The limit appears to
be approximately 20 % of the time. The demands of foraging means that it is
not practical for animals to use more time than this on social interactions.
So, with larger social groups we need a more efficient tool for social interaction.
And that tool is language!
Language allows us to ''groom'' several individuals at the same time.
But obviously there is more to language:
- It allows us to exchange information quickly.
- Communicate about things that not all can see.
- And it allows us to comment on, and police, the behaviour of
With language it is possible to pass ideas (memes) about the world
from one individual to another. And human learning is a very fast way
of passing information. The speed of transmission only controlled
by how long it takes a new individual to learn a new rule.
// --- Note: Learning can be fast, but it doesn't mean that cultural phenomenons
will be labile. Sometimes ''learning'' is very slow.
I.e. children do tend to adopt their parents religion, political views and leisure interests..... --- //
From language comes culture, and the views and practices
Becoming an adult means understanding and adherence to institutional
facts. I.e. the facts about the world that only exist because we say they do
(Consider things like: Mariage, government and money).
Social markers like dialects in language gives cues to
whether we should be cautious or cooperate with an individual. Dialects might
even identify biological kinship. Where kinship means that we can
take the risk of behaving altruistically. I.e. investing in individuals that
share our biological ancestry always makes perfect biological sense...
Many have speculated on the connection between language and consciousness.
Some even let language produce consciousness. Still, the mainstream approach would be something like Crick and
Koch (1997): ''Visual consciousness in humans is produced in order to produce the best current interpretation of the visual scene in the light of past experience.
Contemplate and plan voluntary motor output, of one sort or another, including speech.''
See Crick - Kock on consciousness.
Human brains are now large enough to handle fifth-order intentionality:
Success, in the human world, is all about complex things like ''reflecting on the contents of minds''.
Intentionality is a measure of this capacity. The capacity to
reflect on the contents of one's mind. As reflected in the use of verbs like ''suppose'',
''think'', ''believe'' etc. This is first-order intentionality. And most mammels probably can do some parts of this .... If you are capable of reflecting on someone else's mind state
(I suppose that you believe) this is a second order intentionality.
The stage children arrive at age 5, when they first acquire a theory of mind.
Adult humans can aspire to fifth-order intentionality,
but this represents an upper boundary for most people:
I suppose  that you believe  that I want  you to think 
that I intend  .
So, intentionality provides us with a way for scaling cognitive abilities.
And it turns out that these capacities are a linear function of the relative size of the
frontal lobe of the brain (See ''Dunbars Number'').
Fifth-order intentionality and religion, story telling etc.
Religion and story telling requires very
advanced capacities, such as fifth order intentionality.
Mapping achievable intentionality levels in monkeys,
apes and humans to neocortex frontal lobe volume (yielding a linear
relationship) and then in turn mapping this to the fossil
record - Suggest that fourth order intentionality (the minimum for understanding
religion) would not have been achieved until the appearance of
archaic humans (Homo heidelbergensis). And fifth order (more advanced forms
of religion) would only have appeared with anatomically modern humans.
A possible date for the origin of religion is therefore 100.000 years ago among our forefathers
I.e. mapping social cognitive capacities onto the evolution of the hominid brain,
suggest that the capacities for religion and story telling
hadn't evolved until modern humans appeared, around some 200.000 years ago.
All this said, obviously there is still a long way to go (Before we can say exactly how
genetic and cultural evolution might work together to predispose central human traits, moral inclinations or even our uniqueness).
Indeed, mapping brain functions
like say memory formation
 etc. ,
to actual human traits, like personality types, is not exactly an easy thing.
Look for TED talks
on the subject! :-)
For more about Mind Design read here.
The Ego Tunnel.
The science of the mind and the myth of the self.
by Thomas Metzinger.
Amazon review: 4 stars.
''Our brains create a world simulation, so perfect that we do not recognize it as an
image in our minds''.....
So, according to Thomas Metzinger, we live in a sort of virtual reality: There is an outside world and an inner, unconscious mind, but we directly perceive neither. Instead, both our outward perceptions and our inward consciousness are a kind of interface, a membrane, between the mind and the world. Everything that we experience is ''a virtual self in a virtual reality''......
This obviously leads to some questions: If the interface is not ''real'' then why and how did it evolve? How does the mind construct it? What does it mean to manipulate it? Do we still have souls, free will, personal autonomy and moral accountability, and if not, how can we retain institutions that assume all of these things?... etc.
What your brain does:
Your brain is effectively an onboard computer creating a ''transparent'' real time virtual reality of it's environment...
''Our brains create a world simulation, so perfect that we do not recognize it as an
image in our minds.''
''Then the brain generate an inner image of ourself as a whole. This image includes not only
our body and our psychological states, but also our relationship to the past and
the future, as well as to other conscious beings''.
''The colors of the setting sun is not a property of the evening sky.
It is a property of the internal model for the evening sky,
a model created by the brain'' [p. 20].
''The content of bodily experience is the best hypothesis
that the system has about its current body state. The brains
job is to simulate the body (for the body) and predict consequences
of the bodys movements.... We are never in direct contact
with our own bodies...What we feel is an illusion....not reality,
but virtual reality. Strictly speaking, and on the level of conscious
experience alone, you live in a virtual body and not in a real one...''
So what about consciousness?
According to Metzinger: The main purpose of consciousness is to maximize flexibility and
context sensitivity [p. 203] :
''Ultimately, subjective experience is a biological data format.
A highly specific mode of presenting information
about the world, by presenting it, as it were an Ego's knowledge.''
Indeed. We, Homo sapiens, have evolved the ability to run offline simulations
in our minds, where we can experience worlds that are not
experienced as present. We are capable of imagination and fantasy.
All very well.
But also a bit tricky, because if you loose yourself in daydreams,
sooner or later some other animal might come by and eat you.
So: How, with these capacities, do you avoid getting lost in the labyrinth of the conscious
Interruptions from perceptions, feelings and emotions might attach
us for a moment again to the outside reality, but soon we are again
completely immersed in our own virtual reality.
Strangely, we don't seem to understand that our virtual reality is indeed virtual reality.
Instead we spend much time comparing small parts of our simulations to
small parts of other peoples simulations (Metzinger recalls teachers,
who tried to demonstrate the inferiority of his intelligence by making
very complex and seemingly endless sentences ''make your short-term
buffer collapse, because you cannot integrate them into a single
gestalt anymore. You won't understand a thing, and you will have to admit
that your tunnel is smaller than mine!'' .... Realizing that you live in
virtual reality ought to make comparing short-term buffers etc. kind of irrelevant, small potatoes stuff.... but
apparently not !?).
And certainly, we are a long way from explaining these wondrous conscious simulations:
What we do not know, is how far discovering neural correlates
will go toward explaining consciousness. Correlation
is not causation, nor is it explanation.
So, the great challenge for future work will be to see, if it is possible to extract information
coded in amplitudes and duration of discharges of assemblies of neurons.
And connect such information to our human experiences.
Maybe, we will eventually know a little more about how the conscious simulations
comes about. And perhaps we will eventually know how to alter them.
Which opens up a Pandoras box of new questions:
Would it be morally right to allow people to artificially induce any mental state on demand? What will happen to humanity, if the global population were to face the truth about their own (virtual reality) mortality?
And the fact that reality is not real, at all?
So what about the self?
Consciousness is closely connected to control. In Metzingers words: ''Minimal self-consciousness is not control, but what makes control possible.
It includes an image of the body in time and space, plus the fact
that the organism that creates this image does not recognize it as an image!''
When we can control the focus of attention, when we can draw things from
the fringe of consciousness into the center of experience, then we can actively control
what information appears in our minds.
This again leads to ''self''. In Metzingers words:
Attentional agency plus the realization that the body is
under global control gives us a form of selfhood !
Certainly, Metzinger sees the ''self'' as a product of the brain:
''During the stimulation of the brains right angular gyrus, the patient
suddenly reported something like an out-of-body-experience'' [p. 95].
''Recent findings show that the phenomenal experience of disembodiment
depends not just on the right half of the temporo-parietal junction,
but also on an area in the left half, called the extrastriate body area.
A number of different brain regions may actually contribute to the
''In its origin, the ''the soul'' may have been, not a metaphysical
notion, but simply a phenomenological one; the content of the phenomenological
Ego activated by the human during out-of-body experiences.''
Dreaming and the self:
So who are we then when we dream?
Certainly, in dreams you cannot control your attentional focus.
Metzinger puts it: ''The dreaming self is a confused thinker. Short term memory is impaired
and unreliable. Attention, thinking and willing are highly unstable.
Whereas short term memory is commonly impaired, long term memory can
be greatly enhanced. As long as the dream last, we have access to
all self knowledge '' [p.135].
Metzinger cleverly speculates that it might be possible to build a machine
that dreams all the time but never wakes?
But something is wrong with this idea: Obviously, when the brain is ''offline'' it is to benefit the brain
''online''. Evolution has not produced ''dream only'' animals.
And worse, there is a self that does the dreaming, so perhaps Metzingers idea about ''attentional agency''
leading to selfhood is not the full story.
In the end we must probably acknowledge that much is still unknown about dreaming
(See my Minsky review - The section about dreaming -
All we know, is that we dream because we are sleepy....).
Lucid dreaming is especially interesting. Here, Metzinger speculates that
the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is selectively deactivated during sleep,
may become reactivated, so that the dream comes under conscious control.
This means that Daniel Dennett was wrong to say that there
is not such a thing as a Cartesian theater:
In the lucid dream,
the executive ego wakes up and watches the dream show put up on the
consciousness screen by the pons, thalamus, cortex and
limbic system! Metzinger puts it like this: ''Eat your heart out, Daniel
Dennett!'' [p. 157].
Creating Ego's in machines:
So, will we eventually be able to understand how ego's are created? Will we eventually
be able to create artificial machines with real Ego's?
Much is obviously still unknown. But Metzinger doesn't hesitate
to give us some steps engineers must pass through, if they want to build
artificial systems with real ego's:
And you wonder if creating machines with ego's is such a good idea after all:
Morally, it might be a rather dubious thing to
do. Pain, negative emotions and other undesirable
internal states now becomes owned by someone (with an ego): ''The system
can now suffer ... because there is now introduced ownership''
[p. 193]. Such machines might help us, but the overall suffering in the universe will go
up, when we start producing ego-machines......
- Its internal information must be organized in such a
way that it creates a psychological moment, an experimental
now. Individual events must be picked out, and presented
as being contemporaneous.
- The internal structures of the system, cannot be
recognized by the artificial system as internally constructed
images. They must be transparent.
- The decisive step in the construction of an Ego machine,
is the integration of a transparent internal image of itself into the
phenomenal reality. I.e. the Ego will appear to itself.
A strange new world.
As we go deeper into these vitual worlds, it becomes obvious that the future is going to be very strange indeed...
Certainly, it is easy to envision a virtual future, where people goes much further that just playing video
games and experiment with virtual reality for fun.
Soon, it might be fashionable to explore universes of altered states of
consciousness in a quest for meaning, or have your temporal lobes ticled
in OBE shops etc.
This will then lead to neuro-ethics: Which brain states should be legal?
Which regions of phenomenal-state space (if any) should be declared
People have for ages liked religious ecstacy, intoxication etc.
And with better tools comes new experiences. Which ones should be integrated into our
culture and which are to strange ?
And certainly, our self models will also be influenced by these new possibilities.
Nothing new here! According to Metzinger: Our self model changes all the time.
E.g. the ''internet has already become a part
of our selfmodel. We use it for external memory storage,
as a cognitive prothesis, and for emotional auto-regulation.
We think with the help of the internet. And it assists us
in determining our desires and goals'' [p. 234].
Hopefully, we can help each other make sense of it all. And provide guidance if needed.
According to Metzinger: ''Living in a virtual reality, with social relationships, is a sort of resonance
with other Ego Tunnnels. You become a moral agent by taking
the coherence and stability of your group into account'' [p. 165].
But, perhaps, we will need to extend human ''childhoods'' to many more years,
in order to really comprehend these new virtual opportunities:
''The longer the period of infantile dependency, the greater the opportunity
to develop complex emotional and cognitive strategies of communication.
Where increased communication leads to cultural evolution.''
It might even be necessary to come up with new religious insights:
Where ''religious belief is the attempt to endow your life with deeper
meaning. To outsmart the hedonic treadmill'' [p. 211].
Surely, exciting times ahead!
Amazon: , .
From: Simon Laub
Sent: Sunday, March 13, 2011 11:16 PM
Subject: The Ego Tunnel. Being a virtual self inside a virtual reality.