The Ego Tunnel and Evolutionary Psychology.


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 further skills.''

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 others.....

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 of culture. 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 [1] that you believe [2] that I want [3] you to think [4] that I intend [5] .
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 in Africa.

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 ([1], [2]), like say memory formation [3] 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.

Amazon: [4], [5].


Simon Laub

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''.....
Thomas Metzinger.

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...'' [p. 114].

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 mind?

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 experience.''

''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......

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 off-limits?
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: [6], [7].
Blogspot: [8].
Posterous: [9].

From: Simon Laub
Newsgroups: sci.psychology.misc,alt.psychology
Sent: Sunday, March 13, 2011 11:16 PM
Subject: The Ego Tunnel. Being a virtual self inside a virtual reality.


Simon Laub

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