Elephants All The Way Up

Cognition by Adam on 2005-12-17 05:55

The growth of scientific knowledge during the past few centuries is staggering. Today we know more about galaxies which existed billions of years ago than people in the 17th century knew about the plants growing in their own back yards. Despite all of this, one subject remains shrouded in mystery: the mind of man.

This is the final frontier of human knowledge, but surprisingly few attempts have been made to explain the sentience of life on earth. Most study on the topic has fallen under one of two banners: neurology, which examines the mind’s underlying machinery (the brain); or psychology, the very general study of the human behavior produced by the mind.

Neurology, though by all means a very important area of research, can’t (at present anyway) provide an answer to the big questions like “What makes us sentient?” or “Why do we laugh?” because it studies the mind at such a low level. Trying to understand human behavior by studying neurons is like trying to understand traffic patterns in Los Angeles by studying fuel injectors.

Psychology treats the brain and body as a black box, where only the inputs and outputs are considered. Its purpose is to help people understand and manage their emotions, especially in the context of achieving their life goals. Clearly this is useful as well, but it is no better at answering the big “Why?” questions than neurology.

To me, the most interesting potential knowledge lies in the middle ground between these two. Memory, emotion, language, attention, pattern recognition - in a word, consciousness. This middle ground is so unexplored that there isn’t even really a name for it, although cognitive science is pretty close.

Theory of Consciousness

To my knowledge, the only comprehensive, scientific theory of consciousness ever advanced is the one documented in Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. The theory described by this book annihilates the “inner me” assumption found it most classic (usually philosophical rather than scientific) theories of the mind, and replaces it with a decentralized explanation. Copious supporting evidence is provided, such as behavioral studies exposing quirks in human perception, effects which are difficult to explain with any other theory.

For members of the audience who are loathe to crack this rather weighty tome, here’s the cliff notes. An individual mind - yours, say - is not a singular entity, as you might like to believe. Instead it is a aggregate of lesser entities, each of which shouts to be heard in the theater of the brain. Each of these entities within your mind is a bit dumber than you are, but together their collective intelligence sums up to be yours. And each of these entities, in turn, is made up of yet lesser entities, each of which is shouting to be heard within that theater. Repeat ad nauseum until you get down to the individual neuron, mindlessly firing in response to electrical signal inputs. In other words, it’s elephants all the way down.

(Aside: I just boiled a 500 page book down to one paragraph, so obviously this is a really simplified version of the theory. There’s a whole other section, for example, which explores the function of our minds as predictive machines for the short-term future. This explains a lot about our processing of sensory input as well as many idiosyncrasies of human nature. I found all of this absolutely fascinating. Read the book!)

The decentralized-shouting-entities part of theory can actually be a little bit disturbing when applied to oneself. We have a lot of emotional investment tied up in our ego identities, and in particular our belief in its singularity. It is an almost universal human affliction to assume that, although absolutely everything else in the universe is made up of smaller parts, our own minds (at least when boiled down to some central kernel) are an indivisible, unified whole.

Theory of Entity-Groups

One of the reasons I found Dennett’s theory so compelling is its neat tie-in with a theory of my own. This theory explains why groups of humans in any size (from a married couple right on up to an entire nation) often appear to be a single uber-entity. This entity may seem to have attitudes, feelings, and thoughts of its own, just like an individual person. There are countless such entity-groups in the world, but for a few examples: “America”, “sports fans”, “people who live on 3rd Street”, “Wal-Mart”, “Metallica”, “the audience”, “gays”, “scientists”, “those smokers out on the patio”, “Al Qaeda”, “Democrats”.

We often speak of these entities or treat them as if they had a single consciousness. My theory says that this is not just a metaphor: they actually do have a consciousness! But the mind of any one of these groups is more than just the sum of its parts. “Scientists” as a whole can produce more intelligent answers than any individual scientist, to take one very prominent example. (If you think that people are dumber in groups, read The Wisdom of the Crowds . I’ll probably do a separate entry on this one at some point.)

Strange as it may sound, I developed this theory when attending raves. I wanted to analyze what ravers meant by “the vibe,” because it was clearly a notable concept, yet an entirely elusive and intangible one. Whether or not you own a pacifier and glowsticks, the vibe is something everyone is intimately familiar with. You feel it the moment you walk into a room. The sounds, the smells, the decorations, the postures and clothing of the people - all of these cues give an immediate sense, a feeling of the prevailing attitude and whether you belong. The people, though, are really they key to the vibe. How comfortable we feel in a restaurant has a lot to do with the people that are sitting nearby, even though we may not know them, interact with them, or even look at them for the entire meal.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to go all new-agey on you here. I don’t believe that the vibe is transmitted by soul energy or psychic waves or any crap like that. The vibe is transmitted through perfectly ordinary (though very subtle) cues that humans broadcast through gesture, facial expression, stance, tone of voice, subtle glances, and so forth. We are finely attuned to pick up on these cues - and hence, the vibe - because our brains have evolved to operate in social settings.

Every time you even come near another human, you become part of an entity-group, though usually it is extremely fleeting and temporary. This means that every one of us is constantly part of many entity-groups, a great sifting sea of them, absolutely all the time. A vivid demonstration of this in its simplest form is a busy sidewalk, full of people each traveling to their individual destination. Despite the fact that most of these people have never met nor even exchange a single word, they all effortlessly coordinate their movements with one another. Watching such foot traffic from a distance, one could almost believe that the city street is a living entity.

But of course it is not one single entity-group, but a nearly infinite number of them, with extremely fuzzy borders and countless overlaps. This configuration matches the conceptual pool of entities inside our own heads, which collectively form what we consider to be singular entities we call “me” or “you.”

In the context of my entity-group theory, the previously atomic view of humans as individuals decays, leaving a murky boundary between oneself and everyone else. The demarcation of our physical bodies does provide a convenient place to draw the line, but the line is somewhat arbitrary. It’s not only elephants all the way down, but elephants all the way up, too.

This is a threatening concept to grasp, especially for a fierce individualist like myself. But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that it is a truthful representation of reality. Science is the search for truth, and those that pursue it must sometimes challenge their most deeply-held convictions.

16 comments per 'Elephants All The Way Up'

  1. reverend kate says:

    Actually, the study of consciousness is *exploding*. The “hard question” is a very popular question to ask, in this decade.

    gimme a day or two and I’ll get you a book list.

    Oh, and BTW: Dennet is a self-serving armchair hypothesist who surfs Douggie Hoffstadter’s coat-tails. IMNTBHO.

    Check out Ramachandran. If you can get past his love-fest with Oliver Sachs, it makes for great reading. And far less recursive in the citations page.

    On a seperate, but not entrely unrelated note: if you buy that the cell is the individual unit of life, it’s not that farfetched to conceive of a city street as a living entitity. Or an anthill. Or a human..

  2. Cat says:

    “Psychology treats the brain and body as a black box, where only the inputs and outputs are considered.”

    While I understand your point, I do want to clarify something and am going to nitpick a bit. I do not think it is fair to say that the whole of Psychology ignores “the black box”, when the majority of new research is attempting to understand the ways in which the mysterious “black box” functions.

    True, “the black box” was basically ignored completely during the time of the Behaviorists, when men such as Watson and Skinner reined supreme. However, more and more studies showing that “the black box” was indeed important caused Behaviorism to fall from being the main mechanism for studying psychology.

    While stimulus and response, reinforcement, and all that jazz do still have their place in psychology, particularly in various therapies and the treatment of developmental problems, psychology has more and more moved towards creating models to explain the innerworkings of the mysterious black box. This is namely the pursuit of cognitive psych, that you previously mentioned.

    Part of the problem with studying consciousness or sentientness is that it is extremely hard to create a working definition, especially one that can be used in some form of research. Likewise, Social Psychologists constantly do research that functions on the basis that there is a self, even though it is very hard to get a group of professionals to agree on even a simple definition of what the self IS.

    I just wanted to back up the Cognitive Psychologists a bit. It is hard to have much research gathered already when so much time was wasted in believing that “the black box” was useless to study. It is lamented by professors in nearly all of my intro psych courses. They are trying though, and there is currently an explosion of research in their field.

  3. Adam says:

    Kate: I knew this post would get a rise out of you. :) In fact part of the reason I started thinking about this stuff again was our conversation at Blizzard of Oz last week…

    I just ordered “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” by Douglas R. Hofstadter, and “A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness” by V. S. Ramachandran. The altter one is quite short (~100 pages). Does he or she have another work that is more comprehensive? There is also “Encyclopedia of the Brain (4 volume set)”, but at $1100 this seems a bit excessive for an (as you say) armchair theorist like me.

    As for all multi-cellular life on earth being essentially organized groups of cooperating cells, I’m totally on board with that line of thinking too. Not only is it sort of parallel to my theory, but it’s great for freaking people out at parties. “Say, did you you ever stop to think about how your body is nothing more than a complex colony of single-celled organisms which happens to be working in tandem…?”

    Cat: Sounds interesting. Got any authors / books / papers / web pages you can recommend?

  4. Cat says:

    All of what I’ve learned about has been through lecture and textbooks. I have a couple of cognitive psychology textbooks and I would be happy to lend you one. One is pretty much completely covered in highlighter because that’s just how I absorb things, and the other I didn’t touch much because I had already read about most of its concepts in said book covered in highlighter.

    I’d like to keep one with me for reference just in case I need it, but you are happy to borrow the other one as long as you like. The one I’ll hand off to you has a history of cognitive psychology that I think is very interesting, because it goes through the rise and fall of behaviorism amongst other things.

    If you are interested, I also have a number of other psychology books that you could borrow if you like. Cog Psy would probably be the most interesting to you, though. Here’s a reasonable definition that I found online thanks to the wikipedia:

    “Cognitive psychology is the psychological science which studies cognition, the mental processes that are hypothesised to underlie behavior. This covers a broad range of research domains, examining questions about the workings of memory, attention, perception, knowledge representation, reasoning, creativity and problem solving.”

    It’s not quite about sentientness itself, but it is fun to read about research that has been done to try to understand the black box better. Some of the setups are very ingenious!

  5. Cat says:

    “you are happy to borrow”

    Geez. So Engrish.

  6. Cat says:

    Oh! I also forgot to mention that you might be interested in taking my social psychology textbook for a whirl as well. I specifically remember a lot of what you pointed out as being part of “the vibe” being specifically discussed in it, along with all sorts of other fun and interesting topics such as how cults initiate group members, the unethical experiments unvolving authority in the hay day of social psychology, and other fun stuff.

    Sorry to clutter up your comments section because I couldn’t get it all down at once!

  7. bryan says:

    that is some of the best stuff i’ve read in awhile.

  8. Sterling "Chip" Camden says:

    Excellent insights, Adam.

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