The compelling complexity of the mind

I’ve been accessing online courses for a while now. I like that I can learn as much or as little as I wish about any subject out there, with no mandatory tests, essays, or lab reports. And without any direct cost.

The most recent course that I’ve been following is “Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life,” by Dr. Peggy Mason of the University of Chicago. This is not the place to go to find sophisticated presentation or innovative instructional methodology, but there sure is a lot of detail.

So much detail, in fact, that I come away from each session with two fundamental thoughts. First, we sure are a smart bunch of primates to be able to figure out all of this stuff. Second, the brain — and the mind it creates — is one damned complicated place.
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Small evidence for the primacy of co-operation

I share with many others the view that one of the best ways to understand human behaviour is to observe other animals in similar circumstances.

More often than not, this approach is applied to “higher” animals such as our chimpanzee cousins. But if our individual and social traits are products of evolution — and what else could they be? — then we should be able to find some pretty basic understanding from looking at older, “simpler” animals.

Ants, for example.

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Babies, bonobos, and brains

I’ve written fairly often here about the behaviour of our nearest primate relatives, typically with a view to deflating the idea that there’s something special about the human animal. Of course, there is something special about us. But my contention has always been that our specialness is much more a matter of degree than of kind.

That is, to pick just one felicitously phrased example, I believe that we are specially creative, but not the product of special creation. Our superior mental abilities are extreme versions of similar or analogous abilities in other creatures; these abilities are not one-off gifts from a benevolent creative force, natural or supernatural.

I’m back to this topic thanks to the conjunction of three sources: a book, a journal study, and a popular science article. Although these sources are quite independent, taken together they highlight a number of connected points about primate mental development. And this set of overlapping sources adds yet another layer to the arguments that (1) evolutionary biology is the key to any deep understanding of human nature and behaviour and (2) our proudest achievements are extensions of the skills of other creatures.

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Busy baby brains make all the difference

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

I’ve mind, hive mind

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.

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Jellyfish immortality isn’t for me

At six thousand six hundred and some words, you’d think that Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality? (New York Times MAGAZINE, December 2, 2012) would have something of consequence ot say about its subject.

It doesn’t.

After a rather perfunctory summary of the research into the so-called “immortal jellyfish,” Nathaniel Rich’s article devolves into a mostly tongue-in-cheek profile of the weird Japanese hydrozoan researcher and karaoke song-writer who is the most enthusiastic proponent of the peculiar kind of immortality represented by the Turritopsis dohrnii.

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How scientific is the ape “mid-life crisis”?

I’ve written before (such as here) about my unease with interpreted behavioural studies, especially those that purport to show that other animals, usually near-relative primates, “share” with us mental characteristics such as empathy and jealousy.

My discomfort was not eased by last week’s trendy “scientific” news that apes may suffer from a “mid-life crisis” equivalent to our own.

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New look at baby study shows weaknesses of behaviour interpretation

I’ve argued here more than once that, when it comes to psychology, measurement trumps interpretation. That’s one big reason that I am less critical of brain scans than some others are. To the extent that you have to interpret a game or speculate about a gesture, you’re on potentially shaky ground.

A newly-published study provides evidence of some of the potential problems that can plague research that may appear to be empirical, but really isn’t.

The study, “Social Evaluation or Simple Association? Simple Associations May Explain Moral Reasoning in Infants,” published by PlosOne on August 8th, re-evaluates a landmark experiment that used a toy scenario to conclude that infants have an innate preference for “moral” helpers. Continue reading

Why would atheists study religion?

Just when you thought that it was safe to ignore the “debate” between science and religion, along comes The Chronicle Review with a long article on the emergence of a “new” science, “evolutionary religious studies.”

From the start, let’s get the oxymoron jokes out of the way by noting that it’s not called “evolutionary religious beliefs.” The point isn’t to prove religion right; it’s to examine religion’s evolutionary character, its origins and its impact on individuals and societies.

When the suggestion arose that we consider the social origins of religion, a member of my Monday morning discussion and coffee group (not to be confused with my Wednesday morning coffee and discussion group) demurred, likening the suggestion to inviting a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses for tea and a chat. His distaste for the whole idea was clear.
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