In a recent series of articles, New Scientist magazine explored what their lead article called “The Great Illusion of the Self.”
The article gave more space to why we don’t know much of anything about our selves than to what we do know, or think that we know, for “While it seems irrefutable that we must exist in some sense, things get a lot more puzzling once we try to get a better grip of what having a self actually amounts to.”
According to the article, we are sure of three things about our selves. We are continuous. We are unified. And we are agents.
“All of these beliefs appear to be blindingly obvious and as certain as can be” ; yet “as we look at them more closely, they become less and less self-evident.”
The pairing of two seemingly-unrelated articles prompts this posting, which examines some of the ways that we can reconsider our “selves” as something other than unitary beings, or even unitary perceptions of dynamic states of being.
In the most recent post on this page (I’ve Mind, Hive Mind), I wrote that “our intellects are unique, in the sense that no other animal more than remotely approaches the power of the human brain.”
Chip Walter made a strong case for this claim in his excellent, soon-to-be-published book, Last Ape Standing (which I recently reviewed on my BOOKS page). Now a new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, gives empirical support to the idea. Continue reading
Human intelligence is unique, and it isn’t.
Our intellects are unique, in the sense that no other animal more than remotely approaches the power of the human brain, a power that includes the remarkable ability both to become aware of its own activity and to think about itself. Cognition and metacognition, on a scale no other animal even approaches.
Our intellects are not unique, in the sense that our formidable mental powers result from the action and interaction of the same neural raw material that compose all synaptic systems, large and small. A hundred neurons or a hundred million neurons is a difference of scale — a very significant difference — not a difference of kind.
The idea that all brains fall somewhere along the same neural continuum is reinforced by David Robson’s “Hive minds: Honeybee intelligence creates a buzz,” published by New Scientist on November 28th.
It’s hard to imagine a case that could bring the questions about moral and legal responsibility that are raised by neuroscience any more front and centre than the upcoming investigation of the motives and culpability of Aurora mass murderer James Holmes.
We now know that Holmes was seeing a psychiatrist before his rampage. And his dazed behaviour during his first court appearance suggests that he may be so seriously unhinged that it will be very difficult to hold him criminally responsible for his actions.
Many people suspect that the neuroscience student’s “insanity” is a carefully and cynically planned “get out of jail free” card. They worry that he’ll get away with it, avoiding the harshest versions of the retribution that his crime deserves.
There have been several posts here on whether and to what extent neuroscience should mitigate criminal responsibility, most recently “But it’s the other guy in my brain who’s guilty.”
Many experts, among them Michael Gazzaniga (article here), have argued that brain science is nowhere near complete nor definitive enough to inform decisions about criminal guilt. One of the most recent forays into this contentious legal arena is a New York Times piece by psychologists John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz.
Two new online articles explore the brain centres that may be responsible for self-awareness.
The first article begins with the question, how do we become conscious after sleep? The question can be rephrased to ask what brain areas become more active as we wake and regain normal self-awareness.
Whatever your definition of consciousness, or your opinion of brain scan studies, unless you’re up for some form of dualism there’s no real disputing that every cognitive state is associated with specific brain processes.
Science Daily published online a summary of new research into the brain states of “lucid dreamers,” people who, though asleep, are aware that they are dreaming and whose brain activity at the moment of achieving this “dreaming awareness” is more easily measured than is the brain activity of typical, non-conscious dreamers.
What accounts for differences in the level of altruism we display? Why are some people generous, while others are not?
Some of the answer is surely cultural, as there are marked differences between cultures in the frequency and forms of altruistic behaviour. But a new study, published in the July 12th issue of Neuron and reported online last week, shows that there is a measurable physical component to altruism. People who are more altruistic have more grey matter in a particular part of their brains, and that region is more active in them than in people who are less altruistic.
The Neuron study shows for the first time that there is a connection between altruism and the anatomy and activity of the brain.
Last time, I wrote a rather frustrated little piece about how hard it is for a species as habitually irrational as we are to have real democracy.
The more I thought about what I’d written, and about the many books and articles that had prompted it, the more I appreciated an article that I had read way back in April. (In online terms, that’s a couple of decades ago, not just a couple of months.)
In a Scientific American blog piece titled “The Irrationality of Irrationality: The Paradox of Popular Psychology,” Samuel McNerney cautions us to tread lightly when we draw conclusions from the recent flood of popularized psychology explanations of how and why we’re not really rational creatures at all — at least, not often, and never entirely.
One recent posting was about the claim of evolutionary psychologists that our basic political orientations are more innate than learned. Today, we take a tangential look at the subject by examining a brain study that indicates that basic personality traits may be tied to neural activity in specific areas of the brain.
Oh, great, some of you must be thinking — evolutionary psychology and brain scans. But patience. I’m not going to advocate anything, just report what the study says.
The great tragedy of Science –
the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.
Thomas Henry Huxley
Human behaviour is so complex – and feels so personal – that some thinkers believe that empirical methodologies will never be able to explain it fully, even if “explain” is correctly understood to mean understanding “what” and “how” rather than “why.”
Yet the research keeps coming, and as it does, the likelihood increases that the good kind of reductionism, the kind that uncovers the more basic structures that underlie the more complex, will someday lead to a thorough knowledge of how what we do works – including what we think and feel.