Why have we taken so long to catch up with animal consciousness?

Brandon Keim writes: I met my first semipalmated sandpiper in a crook of Jamaica Bay, an overlooked shore strewn with broken bottles and religious offerings at the edge of New York City. I didn’t know what it was called, this small, dun-and-white bird running the flats like a wind-up toy, stopping to peck mud and racing to join another bird like itself, and then more. Soon a flock formed, several hundred fast-trotting feeders that at some secret signal took flight, wheeling with the flashing synchronisation that researchers observing starlings have mathematically likened to avalanche formation and liquids turning to gas.

Entranced, I spent the afternoon watching them. The birds were too wary to approach, but if I stayed in one spot they would eventually come to me. They followed the tideline, retreating when waves arrived, and rushing forward as they receded, a strangely affecting parade. When they came very close, their soft, peeping vocalisations enveloped me. That night I looked at photographs I’d taken, marvelling as the birds’ beauty emerged from stillness and enlargement, each tiny feather on their backs a masterpiece of browns. I looked up their scientific classification, Calidris pusilla, conversationally known as the semipalmated sandpiper — a name derived from a combination of their piping signal calls and the partially webbed feet that keep them from sinking in the tidal sand flats of their habitat, where they eat molluscs, insect larvae and diatom algae growing in shallow, sun-heated seawater.

I learned that semipalmated sandpipers are the most common shorebird in North America, with an estimated population around 1.9 million. My copy of Lives of North American Birds (1996) described them as ‘small and plain in appearance’, which seemed unappreciative, especially in light of their migratory habits. Small enough to fit in my hand, they breed in the Arctic and winter on South America’s northern coasts, flying several thousand miles each spring and fall, stopping just once or twice. The flock I’d watched was a thread in a string of globe-encircling energy and life, fragile yet ancient, linking my afternoon to Suriname and the tundra. At that fact, I felt the sense of wonder and connection that all migratory birds inspire. Yet not once did I wonder what they thought and felt along the way. How did they experience their own lives, not just as members of a species, but as individuals? [Continue reading…]


Octopus research shows that consciousness isn’t what makes humans special

Olivia Goldhill writes: Whether or not octopuses should be viewed as charming or terrifying very much depends on your personal perspective. But it’s hard to deny their intelligence.

Octopuses can squirt water at an annoyingly bright bulb until it short-circuits. They can tell humans apart (even those who are wearing the same uniform). And, according to Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosophy professor at University of Sydney and City University of New York, they are the closest creature to an alien here on earth.

That’s because octopuses are the most complex animal with the most distant common ancestor to humans. There’s some uncertainty about which precise ancestor was most recently shared by octopuses and humans, but, Godfrey-Smith says, “It was probably an animal about the size of a leech or flatworm with neurons numbering perhaps in the thousands, but not more than that.”

This means that octopuses have very little in common with humans, evolution-wise. They have developed eyes, limbs, and brains via a completely separate route, with very different ancestors, from humans. And they seem to have come by their impressive cognitive functioning—and likely consciousness—by different means. [Continue reading…]


Consciousness is not a thing

Karl Friston writes: I have a confession. As a physicist and psychiatrist, I find it difficult to engage with conversations about consciousness. My biggest gripe is that the philosophers and cognitive scientists who tend to pose the questions often assume that the mind is a thing, whose existence can be identified by the attributes it has or the purposes it fulfils.

But in physics, it’s dangerous to assume that things ‘exist’ in any conventional sense. Instead, the deeper question is: what sorts of processes give rise to the notion (or illusion) that something exists? For example, Isaac Newton explained the physical world in terms of massive bodies that respond to forces. However, with the advent of quantum physics, the real question turned out to be the very nature and meaning of the measurements upon which the notions of mass and force depend – a question that’s still debated today.

As a consequence, I’m compelled to treat consciousness as a process to be understood, not as a thing to be defined. Simply put, my argument is that consciousness is nothing more and nothing less than a natural process such as evolution or the weather. My favourite trick to illustrate the notion of consciousness as a process is to replace the word ‘consciousness’ with ‘evolution’ – and see if the question still makes sense. For example, the question What is consciousness for? becomes What is evolution for? Scientifically speaking, of course, we know that evolution is not for anything. It doesn’t perform a function or have reasons for doing what it does – it’s an unfolding process that can be understood only on its own terms. Since we are all the product of evolution, the same would seem to hold for consciousness and the self. [Continue reading…]


Roger Penrose on why consciousness does not compute

Steve Paulson writes: Once you start poking around in the muck of consciousness studies, you will soon encounter the specter of Sir Roger Penrose, the renowned Oxford physicist with an audacious—and quite possibly crackpot—theory about the quantum origins of consciousness. He believes we must go beyond neuroscience and into the mysterious world of quantum mechanics to explain our rich mental life. No one quite knows what to make of this theory, developed with the American anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, but conventional wisdom goes something like this: Their theory is almost certainly wrong, but since Penrose is so brilliant (“One of the very few people I’ve met in my life who, without reservation, I call a genius,” physicist Lee Smolin has said), we’d be foolish to dismiss their theory out of hand.

Penrose, 85, is a mathematical physicist who made his name decades ago with groundbreaking work in general relativity and then, working with Stephen Hawking, helped conceptualize black holes and gravitational singularities, a point of infinite density out of which the universe may have formed. He also invented “twistor theory,” a new way to connect quantum mechanics with the structure of spacetime. His discovery of certain geometric forms known as “Penrose tiles”—an ingenious design of non-repeating patterns—led to new directions of study in mathematics and crystallography.

The breadth of Penrose’s interests is extraordinary, which is evident in his recent book Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe—a dense 500-page tome that challenges some of the trendiest but still unproven theories in physics, from the multiple dimensions of string theory to cosmic inflation in the first moment of the Big Bang. He considers these theories to be fanciful and implausible. [Continue reading…]


Mountains of the mind: ‘I’ve become part of the landscape and it’s become part of me’

Kevin Rushby writes: We begin in darkness and head up towards the light. It is that time just before the dawn when it’s neither day nor night. Down near Lake Coniston, I can hear an owl and a curlew calling, both claiming the hour for themselves. “I like to come this early,” says Sion. “There’s no one else around. I can’t handle crowds. I get confused.”

It’s 4.30am and I am with Sion Jair, 67, and his partner, Wendy Kolbe, 63, and we are heading up the Old Man of Coniston, an 803-metre Lake District fell noted for its sharp ascent and great panoramas of southern lakeland. Or at least we hope so: there are some clouds massing in the east.

For Sion, this has become a daily ritual, adopted seven years ago when a visit to the doctor changed his life for ever. “I had been feeling permanently tired, and suffering some memory problems. It meant I couldn’t get out walking, you see, and when I can’t walk, I really shut down.”

After tests, the doctor diagnosed chronic anaemia from vitamin B12 deficiency. Injections usually sort that out, but Sion reacted badly to the shots and, without them, was given three years to live. Determined not to give in, he set about walking in earnest, covering around 10 miles a day. “Eventually, it worked. I reckon it cured me of the chronic fatigue,” he says.

But there was another blow. The anaemia had been masking signs of dementia. Given the particular type of condition he was suffering from, he was warned that he could expect periods of total memory loss, mood swings and eventually the inability to look after himself. Sion had become one of the estimated 25 million people worldwide suffering this progressive neurodegenerative disease, as feared now as the Black Death was in its day.

“It was quite scary,” says Sion, adding, in something of an understatement, “I didn’t like the idea.”

Sion’s response was typical of him: he walked even more. Not just the Old Man, but other fells, too: Scafell Pike, Helvellyn, Blencathra, Dollywaggon Pike – all the greats. “I’ve done them so often, I know them blindfolded.” And all this he did without any technological intermediaries, smartphone or GPS – just the steady rhythm of his feet. On one occasion he did 12 peaks and 28 miles in 22 hours, raising cash for his three favourite charities: the Alzheimer’s Society, Mountain Rescue and the Great North Air Ambulance. He also walked in Wales – he walked the Snowdon horseshoe more than 200 times – and Scotland, but it was in Coniston that he found his walking mantra. I suppose you could call it his Coniston Old Man-tra. [Continue reading…]


Mice feel each other’s pain

Science magazine reports: To most people, the phrase “I feel your pain” is just an expression of sympathy. But it’s also a real biological phenomenon, a new study in rodents suggests. Healthy mice living in the same room with mice experiencing pain are up to 68% more sensitive to pain themselves, regardless of their stress levels, according to the new study, which found that mice could scent when their fellows were suffering. The discovery suggests that current methods for studying rodent pain may need to be overhauled, and it may even point to a novel mechanism for pain transmission between humans, the authors say.

Andrey Ryabinin, a behavioral neuroscientist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, and colleagues stumbled on the phenomenon largely by accident. They were studying the effects of alcohol withdrawal in mice, looking for new ways to help people overcome addiction. One of the most common, but challenging, symptoms of alcohol withdrawal is an intense, generalized pain throughout the body—a difficult-to-define condition that often leads people back to drinking, he says. Recreating those painful withdrawal symptoms in mice is difficult, leading some researchers to question whether the rodents are a good model for alcohol addiction.

Ryabinin and his team were using a standard setup: The mice are allowed to lap freely at an ethanol and water solution, but then go into withdrawal after the bottle is removed. A control group, housed in the same room, drinks only water. Using multiple measures of pain sensitivity—including brushing their forepaws with a thin hair and dipping their tails into hot water, the researchers attempted to gauge how withdrawal might be affecting the addicted rodents.

The initial results were disappointing, showing no significant difference between the two groups. Before giving up, however, the scientists decided to cage the control mice in a different room. This time, the sober controls showed far less pain sensitivity than the controls in the previous experiment, suggesting that the latter group had somehow acquired a heightened pain sensitivity from their roommates, Ryabinin says. [Continue reading…]


Science shows the richer you get, the less you pay attention to other people

Lila MacLellan writes: No one can pay attention to everything they encounter. We simply do not have enough time or mental capacity for it. Most of us, though, do make an effort to acknowledge our fellow humans. Wealth, it seems, might change that.

There’s a growing body of research showing how having money changes the way people see — or are oblivious to — others and their problems. The latest is a paper published in the journal Psychological Science in which psychologists at New York University show that wealthy people unconsciously pay less attention to passersby on the street.

In the paper, the researchers describe experiments they conducted to measure the effects of social class on what’s called the “motivational relevance” of other human beings. According to some schools of psychological thought, we’re motivated to pay attention to something when we assign more value to it, whether because it threatens us or offers the potential for some kind of reward. [Continue reading…]


Can great apes read your mind?

By Christopher Krupenye, Max Planck Institute

One of the things that defines humans most is our ability to read others’ minds – that is, to make inferences about what others are thinking. To build or maintain relationships, we offer gifts and services – not arbitrarily, but with the recipient’s desires in mind. When we communicate, we do our best to take into account what our partners already know and to provide information we know will be new and comprehensible. And sometimes we deceive others by making them believe something that is not true, or we help them by correcting such false beliefs.

All these very human behaviors rely on an ability psychologists call theory of mind: We are able to think about others’ thoughts and emotions. We form ideas about what beliefs and feelings are held in the minds of others – and recognize that they can be different from our own. Theory of mind is at the heart of everything social that makes us human. Without it, we’d have a much harder time interpreting – and probably predicting – others’ behavior.

For a long time, many researchers have believed that a major reason human beings alone exhibit unique forms of communication, cooperation and culture is that we’re the only animals to have a complete theory of mind. But is this ability really unique to humans?

In a new study published in Science, my colleagues and I tried to answer this question using a novel approach. Previous work has generally suggested that people think about others’ perspectives in very different ways than other animals do. Our new findings suggest, however, that great apes may actually be a bit more similar to us than we previously thought.

[Read more…]


Magpies challenge bird-brain myth


GrrlScientist writes: Birds have been disparaged publicly as “bird brains” for so long that most people have lost the ability to view them as intelligent and sentient beings. However, a group of researchers in Germany have conducted a series of studies with several captive European magpies, Pica pica, that challenge the average person’s view of birds and their cognitive abilities.

It is widely accepted in the scientific community that self-awareness is prerequisite for the development of consciousness. Previously, only mammals — humans and several of their cousins, chimpanzees and orangutans, as well as dolphins and elephants — were observed to have self-awareness by demonstrating that they could recognize themselves in a mirror.

However, a new study by a research group in Germany reveals that birds apparently also evolved self-recognition.

“[Our research] shows that the line leading to humans is not as special as many thought,” pointed out lead researcher Helmut Prior of the Institute of Psychology at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.

To do their research, Prior and his colleagues carried out a series of tests with five hand-raised European magpies. [Continue reading…]


Whatever you think, you don’t necessarily know your own mind

Keith Frankish writes: Do you think racial stereotypes are false? Are you sure? I’m not asking if you’re sure whether or not the stereotypes are false, but if you’re sure whether or not you think that they are. That might seem like a strange question. We all know what we think, don’t we?

Most philosophers of mind would agree, holding that we have privileged access to our own thoughts, which is largely immune from error. Some argue that we have a faculty of ‘inner sense’, which monitors the mind just as the outer senses monitor the world. There have been exceptions, however. The mid-20th-century behaviourist philosopher Gilbert Ryle held that we learn about our own minds, not by inner sense, but by observing our own behaviour, and that friends might know our minds better than we do. (Hence the joke: two behaviourists have just had sex and one turns to the other and says: ‘That was great for you, darling. How was it for me?’) And the contemporary philosopher Peter Carruthers proposes a similar view (though for different reasons), arguing that our beliefs about our own thoughts and decisions are the product of self-interpretation and are often mistaken.

Evidence for this comes from experimental work in social psychology. It is well established that people sometimes think they have beliefs that they don’t really have. For example, if offered a choice between several identical items, people tend to choose the one on the right. But when asked why they chose it, they confabulate a reason, saying they thought the item was a nicer colour or better quality. Similarly, if a person performs an action in response to an earlier (and now forgotten) hypnotic suggestion, they will confabulate a reason for performing it. What seems to be happening is that the subjects engage in unconscious self-interpretation. They don’t know the real explanation of their action (a bias towards the right, hypnotic suggestion), so they infer some plausible reason and ascribe it to themselves. They are not aware that they are interpreting, however, and make their reports as if they were directly aware of their reasons. [Continue reading…]


The void of the float tank stops time, strips ego and unleashes the mind


M M Owen writes: The floatation tank was invented in 1954. Amid debates over whether consciousness was a purely reactive phenomenon or generated by resources of its own making in the mind, the neuroscientist John Lilly arrived at a novel way to examine the problem: isola te the mind from all sources of external stimulation, and see how it behaved. Serendipitously, Lilly’s place of work, the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, possessed a sealed, soundproof tank, built during the Second World War to facilitate Navy experiments on the metabolisms of deep-sea divers. The first floatation tank was born. It resembled a large upright coffin, in which the floater was suspended in water, head engulfed in a rubber breathing mask. Despite this grim setup, during his floats Lilly perceived that the mind was far from merely reactive, and that ‘many, many states of consciousness’ emerged from total isolation. He was hooked.

Lilly was the sort of scientist it’s hard to imagine rising to prominence today. Alongside inventing the first floatation tank, he was an evangelist of psychedelics fascinated by human-dolphin communication and convinced that a council of invisible cosmic entities governed reality. Despite a mixed reputation among his scientific peers, Lilly’s almost single-handed promotion of floating in the 1960s caused it to catch on. In 1972, the computer programmer Glenn Perry attended one of Lilly’s floating workshops, and was so taken with the tank experience that, over the following year, he designed the first inexpensive tanks for home use. To this day, his so-called ‘Samadhi’ tanks (after the ultimate stage in meditation) remain among the most popular, with retail prices starting at around $11,000.

Cultural notables such as the polymath Gregory Bateson and the self-help guru Werner Erhard visited Lilly’s Malibu home and tried out his tank. Word spread. In 1979, Perry opened the first commercial float centre in Beverly Hills.[Continue reading…]


The flow of time is central to human experience. Why isn’t it central to physics?

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Gene Tracy writes: The flow of time is certainly one of the most immediate aspects of our waking experience. It is essential to how we see ourselves and to how we think we should live our lives. Our memories help fix who we are; other thoughts reach forward to what we might become. Surely our modern scientific sense of time, as it grows ever more sophisticated, should provide meaningful insights here.

Yet today’s physicists rarely debate what time is and why we experience it the way we do, remembering the past but never the future. Instead, researchers build ever-more accurate clocks. The current record-holder, at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics in Colorado, measures the vibration of strontium atoms; it is accurate to 1 second in 15 billion years, roughly the entire age of the known universe. Impressive, but it does not answer ‘What is time?’

To declare that question outside the pale of physical theory doesn’t make it meaningless. The flow of time could still be real as part of our internal experience, just real in a different way from a proton or a galaxy. Is our experience of time’s flow akin to watching a live play, where things occur in the moment but not before or after, a flickering in and out of existence around the ‘now’? Or, is it like watching a movie, where all eternity is already in the can, and we are watching a discrete sequence of static images, fooled by our limited perceptual apparatus into thinking the action flows smoothly?

The Newtonian and Einsteinian world theories offer little guidance. They are both eternalised ‘block’ universes, in which time is a dimension not unlike space, so everything exists all at once. Einstein’s equations allow different observers to disagree about the duration of time intervals, but the spacetime continuum itself, so beloved of Star Trek’s Mr Spock, is an invariant stage upon which the drama of the world takes place. In quantum mechanics, as in Newton’s mechanics and Einstein’s relativistic theories, the laws of physics that govern the microscopic world look the same going forward or backward in time. Even the innovative speculations of theorists such as Sean Carroll at Caltech in Pasadena – who conceives of time as an emergent phenomenon that arises out of a more primordial, timeless state – concern themselves more with what time does than what time feels like. Time’s flow appears nowhere in current theories of physics. [Continue reading…]


Why our perceptions of an independent reality must be illusions


Amanda Gefter writes: As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions — sights, sounds, textures, tastes — are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it — or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion — we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.

Not so, says Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. Hoffman has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. What’s more, he says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.

Getting at questions about the nature of reality, and disentangling the observer from the observed, is an endeavor that straddles the boundaries of neuroscience and fundamental physics. On one side you’ll find researchers scratching their chins raw trying to understand how a three-pound lump of gray matter obeying nothing more than the ordinary laws of physics can give rise to first-person conscious experience. This is the aptly named “hard problem.” [Continue reading…]


How LSD helped us probe what the ‘sense of self’ looks like in the brain

By Nicolas Crossley, King’s College London and Ed Bullmore, University of Cambridge

Every single person is different. We all have different backgrounds, views, values and interests. And yet there is one universal feeling that we all experience at every single moment. Call it an “ego”, a “self” or just an “I” – it’s the idea that our thoughts and feelings are our own, and no one else has access to them in the same way. This may sound a bit like post-war French existentialism or psycho-analysis, but it’s actually a topic that’s being increasingly addressed by neuroscientists.

We were part of a team interested in finding out how this sense of self is expressed in the brain – and what happens when it dissolves. To do that, we used brain imaging and the psychedelic drug LSD.

Our sense of self is something so natural that we are not always fully aware of it. In fact, it is when it is disturbed that it becomes the most noticeable. This could be due to mental illnesses such as psychosis, when people might experience the delusional belief that their thoughts are no longer private, but can be accessed and even modified by other people. Or it could be due to the influence of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, when the user can feel that their ego is “dissolving” and they are becoming at one with the world. From a scientific point of view, these experiences of “ego death” or ego dissolution are also opportunities to search for this sense of self in the brain.

Our study, led by Enzo Tagliazucchi and published in Current Biology, set out to probe what is happening in the brain when our sense of self becomes altered by psychedelic drugs (link to Enzo’s paper). We studied 15 healthy volunteers before and after taking LSD, which altered their normal feelings of their selves and their relationship with the environment. These subjects were scanned while intoxicated and while receiving placebo using functional MRI, a technique which allows us to study the brain’s activity by measuring changes in blood flow. By contrasting the activity of the brain when receiving a placebo with its activity after taking LSD, we could start exploring the brain mechanisms involved in the normal experience of the self.

[Read more…]


Brain scans reveal how LSD affects consciousness

Researchers from Imperial College London, working with the Beckley Foundation, have for the first time visualised the effects of LSD on the brain: In a series of experiments, scientists have gained a glimpse into how the psychedelic compound affects brain activity. The team administered LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) to 20 healthy volunteers in a specialist research centre and used various leading-edge and complementary brain scanning techniques to visualise how LSD alters the way the brain works.

The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), reveal what happens in the brain when people experience the complex visual hallucinations that are often associated with LSD state. They also shed light on the brain changes that underlie the profound altered state of consciousness the drug can produce.

A major finding of the research is the discovery of what happens in the brain when people experience complex dreamlike hallucinations under LSD. Under normal conditions, information from our eyes is processed in a part of the brain at the back of the head called the visual cortex. However, when the volunteers took LSD, many additional brain areas – not just the visual cortex – contributed to visual processing.

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, who led the research, explained: “We observed brain changes under LSD that suggested our volunteers were ‘seeing with their eyes shut’ – albeit they were seeing things from their imagination rather than from the outside world. We saw that many more areas of the brain than normal were contributing to visual processing under LSD – even though the volunteers’ eyes were closed. Furthermore, the size of this effect correlated with volunteers’ ratings of complex, dreamlike visions.”

The study also revealed what happens in the brain when people report a fundamental change in the quality of their consciousness under LSD.

Dr Carhart-Harris explained: “Normally our brain consists of independent networks that perform separate specialised functions, such as vision, movement and hearing – as well as more complex things like attention. However, under LSD the separateness of these networks breaks down and instead you see a more integrated or unified brain.

“Our results suggest that this effect underlies the profound altered state of consciousness that people often describe during an LSD experience. It is also related to what people sometimes call ‘ego-dissolution’, which means the normal sense of self is broken down and replaced by a sense of reconnection with themselves, others and the natural world. This experience is sometimes framed in a religious or spiritual way – and seems to be associated with improvements in well-being after the drug’s effects have subsided.” [Continue reading…]

Amanda Feilding, executive director of the Beckley Foundation, in an address she will deliver to the Royal Society tomorrow, says: I think Albert Hoffman would have been delighted to have his “Problem child” celebrated at the Royal Society, as in his long lifetime the academic establishment never recognised his great contribution. But for the taboo surrounding this field, he would surely have won the Nobel Prize. That was the beginning of the modern psychedelic age, which has fundamentally changed society.

After the discovery of the effects of LSD, there was a burst of excitement in the medical and therapeutic worlds – over 1000 experimental and clinical studies were undertaken. Then, in the early 60s, LSD escaped from the labs and began to spread into the world at large. Fuelled by its transformational insights, a cultural evolution took place, whose effects are still felt today. It sparked a wave of interest in Eastern mysticism, healthy living, nurturing the environment, individual freedoms and new music and art among many other changes. Then the establishment panicked and turned to prohibition, partly motivated by American youth becoming disenchanted with fighting a war in far-off Vietnam.

Aghast at the global devastation caused by the war on drugs, I set up the Beckley Foundation in 1998. With the advent of brain imaging technology, I realised that one could correlate the subjective experience of altered states of consciousness, brought about by psychedelic substances, with empirical findings. I realised that only through the very best science investigating how psychedelics work in the brain could one overcome the misplaced taboo which had transformed them from the food of the gods to the work of the devil. [Continue reading…]

Just to be clear, as valuable as this research is, it is an exercise in map-making. The map should never be confused with the territory.


What I learned from tickling apes


Frans de Waal writes: Tickling a juvenile chimpanzee is a lot like tickling a child. The ape has the same sensitive spots: under the armpits, on the side, in the belly. He opens his mouth wide, lips relaxed, panting audibly in the same “huh-huh-huh” rhythm of inhalation and exhalation as human laughter. The similarity makes it hard not to giggle yourself.

The ape also shows the same ambivalence as a child. He pushes your tickling fingers away and tries to escape, but as soon as you stop he comes back for more, putting his belly right in front of you. At this point, you need only to point to a tickling spot, not even touching it, and he will throw another fit of laughter.

Laughter? Now wait a minute! A real scientist should avoid any and all anthropomorphism, which is why hard-nosed colleagues often ask us to change our terminology. Why not call the ape’s reaction something neutral, like, say, vocalized panting? That way we avoid confusion between the human and the animal.

The term anthropomorphism, which means “human form,” comes from the Greek philosopher Xenophanes, who protested in the fifth century B.C. against Homer’s poetry because it described the gods as though they looked human. Xenophanes mocked this assumption, reportedly saying that if horses had hands they would “draw their gods like horses.” Nowadays the term has a broader meaning. It is typically used to censure the attribution of humanlike traits and experiences to other species. Animals don’t have “sex,” but engage in breeding behavior. They don’t have “friends,” but favorite affiliation partners.

Given how partial our species is to intellectual distinctions, we apply such linguistic castrations even more vigorously in the cognitive domain. By explaining the smartness of animals either as a product of instinct or simple learning, we have kept human cognition on its pedestal under the guise of being scientific. [Continue reading…]


In order for our minds to go beyond syntax to semantics, we need feelings


Stephen T Asma writes: After you spend time with wild animals in the primal ecosystem where our big brains first grew, you have to chuckle a bit at the reigning view of the mind as a computer. Most cognitive scientists, from the logician Alan Turing to the psychologist James Lloyd McClelland, have been narrowly focused on linguistic thought, ignoring the whole embodied organism. They see the mind as a Boolean algebra binary system of 1 or 0, ‘on’ or ‘off’. This has been methodologically useful, and certainly productive for the artifical intelligence we use in our digital technology, but it merely mimics the biological mind. Computer ‘intelligence’ might be impressive, but it is an impersonation of biological intelligence. The ‘wet’ biological mind is embodied in the squishy, organic machinery of our emotional systems — where action-patterns are triggered when chemical cascades cross volumetric tipping points.

Neuroscience has begun to correct the computational model by showing how our rational, linguistic mind depends on the ancient limbic brain, where emotions hold sway and social skills dominate. In fact, the cognitive mind works only when emotions preferentially tilt our deliberations. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio worked with patients who had damage in the communication system between the cognitive and emotional brain. The subjects could compute all the informational aspects of a decision in detail, but they couldn’t actually commit to anything. Without clear limbic values (that is, feelings), Damasio’s patients couldn’t decide their own social calendars, prioritise jobs at work, or even make decisions in their own best interest. Our rational mind is truly embodied, and without this emotional embodiment we have no preferences. In order for our minds to go beyond syntax to semantics, we need feelings. And our ancestral minds were rich in feelings before they were adept in computations.

Our neo-cortex mushroomed to its current size less than one million years ago. That’s a very recent development when we remember that the human clade or group broke off from the great apes in Africa 7 million years ago. That future-looking, tool-wielding, symbol-juggling cortex grew on top of the limbic system. Older still is the reptile brain — the storehouse of innate motivational instincts such as pain-avoidance, exploration, hunger, lust, aggression and so on. Walking around (very carefully) on the Serengeti is like visiting the nursery of our own mind. [Continue reading…]


Crawick Multiverse: A former opencast coal mine transformed into a cosmic landscape

Crawick Multiverse

Philip Ball writes: When work began in 2012, the excavations unearthed thousands of boulders half-buried in the ground. [Charles] Jencks used them to create a panorama of standing stones and sculpted tumuli, organised to frame the horizon and the Sun’s movements.

“One theory of pre-history is that stone circles frame the far hills and key points, and while I wanted to capture today’s cosmology, not yesterday’s, I was aware of this long landscape tradition,” Jencks says.

The landscape also explores the idea that our Universe is just one of many.

Over the last decade or so, the argument for a plurality of universes has moved from fringe speculation to seriously entertained possibility. One leading multiverse theory supposes that other universes are continually being spawned in an ongoing process of “eternal inflation” – the same that caused our own Universe’s Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

These are the theories explored on this Scottish hillside. [Continue reading…]


Stories about our deepest values activate brain region once thought to be its autopilot

University of Southern California: Everyone has at least a few non-negotiable values. These are the things that, no matter what the circumstance, you’d never compromise for any reason – such as “I’d never hurt a child,” or “I’m against the death penalty.”

Real-time brain scans show that when people read stories that deal with these core, protected values, the “default mode network” in their brains activates.

This network was once thought of as just the brain’s autopilot, since it has been shown to be active when you’re not engaged by anything in the outside world – but studies like this one suggest that it’s actually working to find meaning in the narratives.

“The brain is devoting a huge amount of energy to whatever that network is doing. We need to understand why,” said Jonas Kaplan of the USC Dornsife Brain and Creativity Institute. Kaplan was the lead author of the study, which was published on Jan. 7 in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Kaplan thinks that it’s not just that the brain is presented with a moral quandary, but rather that the quandary is presented in a narrative format.

“Stories help us to organize information in a unique way,” he said. [Read more…]