Another example of our mental complexity

Last time, I wrote about the incredible complexity of the human brain — and of the mind that it creates. Here’s another example, but the point I take from this one is more squarely focused on the idea that what we like to call “free will” and “choice” are more elusive — more illusory? — than we often care to think.

What would it be like never to feel fear? There are people who don’t. Not very many of them, but still.

In “The curious lives of the people who feel no fear” (March 2013), another pay-walled article in New Scientist, Christie Aschwanden relates the story of a woman known as “SM,” a woman who has no fear of snakes, heights, or anything else. The direct reason is that she has no amygdala.

“SM” has the extremely rare condition known as Urbach-Wiethe disease, an ailment that in her case destroyed the amygdala structures in both hemispheres of her brain.

The general understanding of the amygdala is that it is the seat of our most primitive, primary emotions: fear, surprise, fight or flight. Without this anatomical structure, there is no fear, no surprise, no flight.

It’s interesting in its own right, the thought that our reactions to things that terrify and go bump in the night are generated by a specific and primitive part of the brain.

But more interesting to me is how the case of SM reinforces the ever-more evident reality that much, no, most, of what “I” feel and do goes on without much input or control from whatever it is that “I” am. Perhaps without any.
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Back in the virtual saddle

It’s been almost a year since I last posted anything on this page. I’ve been concentrating on book reviews and longer essays, on my other page, but the modest but persistent interest shown in the old posts on this page has led me to think that it might be time to post some topical articles again. (The two pages have now accumulated more than 75,000 reads.)

I still have strong opinions on the subjects about which I used to write, and so much has happened in the last year that would have been worthy of comment. So, I’m back. Perhaps not with my former frequency, but I hope with as much clarity and specificity as I can muster.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to read the book reviews, which will continue to be posted on More Notes from Aboveground.

See you soon.

 

New evidence that the self is a mental construct

What does it say about the reality of the outside world if we can be fooled even about the state and composition of parts of our own bodies? And what does it say about the reality of our sense of self if we can’t trust our senses even when they report our apparent body states?

More evidence that the world, including us, is a construct, a mental representation of an otherwise un-experienced world “out there,” crops up in reports of a new study that fools subjects into believing that they have a phantom limb.
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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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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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Should the humanities try to be sciences?

It’s an unusual place for it, but a blog in Scientific American argues that the humanities should stop trying to be like sciences and instead embrace their non-quantifiable nature.

In the article “Humanities aren’t a science. Stop treating them like one.”, writer and psychology PhD candidate Maria Konnikova responds to the recent publication of “Universal Properties of Mythological Networks” by writing that some subjects aren’t, never have been, won’t ever be, and most of all shouldn’t be approached “scientifically.”

Konnikova’s critical article goes into greater depth on the subject than I did in my narrower and mostly positive response to the same article, posted here in late July. She critiques the specific study in question, but her real topic is the trend of which the study is but one current example. Continue reading

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

From the frying pan into the fire?

As I head back home to California today for a weekend visit, it’s a good time for another in my periodic forays into the underworld of the American political psyche.

Earlier this week, I posted a generally negative review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.

But my thumbs down was for the book’s political slant, not its core contents. Haidt proposed, quite reasonably, that our politics are founded on our emotions, not on our reason. The most spectacular example of the truth of Haidt’s assertion is the fact that all of the polls show that the U. S. presidential race is, so far, too close to call.

On any rational basis, this seems absurd. Continue reading