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A Box Of Stories




What is the self? How does the activity of neurons give rise to the sense of being a conscious human being? Even this most ancient of philosophical problems, I believe, will yield to methods of empirical science. It now seems increasingly likely that the self is not a holistic property of the entire brain; it arises from the activity of specific sets of interlinked brain circuits. But we need to know which circuits are critically involved and what their functions might be. It is the ‘turning inward’ aspect of the self — its recursiveness — that gives it its peculiar paradoxical quality.
V.S. Ramachandran, neuroscientist best known for his work in the fields of behavioral neurology and psychophysics, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego, The Neurology of Self-Awareness, Edge, Aug 1, 2007
Daniel Kahneman on the power of settings, the power of priming, and the power of unconscious thinking

“We became completely identified with the idea that people are generally wrong. (…) We demonstrated that people are not rational. (…) There is no sharp line between intuition and perception. (…) Perception is predictive. (…)

The main thing in the evolutionary story about intuition, is whether intuition grew out of perception, whether it grew out of the predictive aspects of perception. If you want to understand intuition, it is very useful to understand perception, because so many of the rules that apply to perception apply as well to intuitive thinking. Intuitive thinking is quite different from perception. Intuitive thinking has language. Intuitive thinking has a lot of world knowledge organized in different ways than mere perception. But some very basic characteristics that we’ll talk about of perception are extended almost directly into intuitive thinking. (…)

The confidence that people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence, it is not a judgment of the quality of the evidence but it is a judgment of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct. Quite often you can construct very good stories out of very little evidence, when there is little evidence, no conflict, and the story is going to end up good. People tend to have great belief, great faith in stories that are based on very little evidence.

It generates what Amos [Tversky] and I call “natural assessments”, that is, there are computations that get performed automatically. (…)

So there is a really important distinction between natural assessment and things that are not naturally assessed. There are questions that are easy for the organism to answer, and other questions that are difficult for the organism to answer, and that makes a lot of difference.” “
Daniel Kahneman, Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel laureate. He is notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, behavioral economics and hedonic psychology, ☞ Daniel Kahneman: The Marvels and the Flaws of Intuitive Thinking, Edge, July 17, 2011
The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.
R. D. Laing, Scottish psychiatrist (1927-1989)

Christian Keysers on The Empathic Brain

Mirror neurons in an individual’s brain fire both when the individual grasps a peanut and when she sees another do the same. (…) Our brain mirrors the state of other people. Understanding what they feel then becomes understanding what you now feel in their stead. Neuroscience has discovered empathy. (…)

I think that the most exciting progress in my field is the discovery that the brain does not just mirror the emotions of others. We share the actions, sensations and emotions of the people around us. So if you see me grasp a cool glass of water, you share my intention to grasp the glass, what it feels like to grasp the glass, the cool sensation in my fingers and my satisfaction as I feel my thirst being quenched. This is richer than what the term ‘affective empathy’ suggests, and incorporates goals and sensations that traditional psychology had thought to be the result of much more cognitive processes. (…)

You transform what others feel into representations of what you would feel in their stead; ‘where’ becomes ‘how’ you understand others. When you study mentalizing, and find regions that are not involved in your own experiences, it is hard to know what actually happens within these regions. ‘Where’ remains where. (…)

Where neuroscience is interesting, is by showing us the limits of our natural empathy, and helping us devise ethics that are compatible with how our brain works. For instance, our work shows that we feel what goes on in others by projecting what we would feel in their stead. In this context, ethics that suggest ‘treat others as they would like to be treated’ are harder to follow than ethics that suggest ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’. (…)

Q: Are we ‘homo empathicus’ as much as we are self-interested, individualistic creatures?

As westerners in particular, we were brought up to centre our thinking on individuals – individual rights, individual achievements. (…)

But if you call the state of your brain your identity (and I would), what our research shows, is that much of it is actually what happens in the mind of other people. My personality is the result of my social environment. Even ‘my’ ideas are the result of all the ideas and skills of my forefathers, internalized in my brain through mirror-like phenomena. Also, whenever I take a decision to do something, mirror systems will let me share the pain and joy I make others feel. The fate of others colours my own feelings and thus my decisions. I is actually we. Neuroscience has put ‘we’ back into the brain. That is not a guarantee (…) that some of my actions are not egoistic and selfish, but it shows that egoism and selfishness are not the only forces that direct our brain. We are social animals to a degree most didn’t suspect only a decade ago.”

Christian Keysers, neuroscientist, Professor for the Social Brain at the University Groningen in the Netherlands, Roman Krznaric on The Empathic Brain, The School of Life, July 26, 2011 (Illustration source)
Malleability of Vague Information as a Performance Booster

"As William James pointed out, vagueness is not without virtues. Sometimes, precision is dangerous, a closed door keeping us from imagining new possibilities. Vagueness is that door flung wide open, a reminder that we don’t yet know the answer, that we might still get better, that we have yet to fail.”

Jonah Lehrer, In Praise Of Vagueness, Wired, July 21, 2011

“Is the eternal quest for precise information always worthwhile? Our research suggests that, at times, vagueness has its merits. Not knowing precisely how they are progressing lets people generate positive expectancies that allow them to perform better. The fuzzy boundaries afforded by vague information allow people to distort that information in a favorable manner. This latitude positively influences behavior by affecting outcome expectancies.

Conversely, the very nature of precise information prevents people from distorting it and forces them to be objective about their expectancies, which in turn may have a less positive influence on performance. (…)

The malleability of vague information allows people to interpret it in the manner they desire, so that they can generate positive response expectancies and, thereby, perform better. (…) Hence, on certain occasions, precise information is not as helpful as vague information in boosting performance.” “
— H. Mishra, A. Mishra, B. Shiv, In Praise of Vagueness: Malleability of Vague Information as a Performance Booster (pdf), Department of Marketing, University of Utah, and Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, aps, Psychological Science, XX(X) 1-6, 2011
Ian Leslie: Are artists liars?

“Lying is a form of art, albeit of a lower order—as Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain have observed. (…)

We are born storytellers, spinning narrative out of our experience and imagination, straining against the leash that keeps us tethered to reality. This is a wonderful thing; it is what gives us our ability to conceive of alternative futures and different worlds. (…)

Most of the time, as our stories bubble up to consciousness, we exercise our cerebral censors, controlling which stories we tell, and to whom. Yet people lie for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that confabulating can be dangerously fun. (…)

Perhaps this is why we felt it necessary to invent art in the first place: as a safe space into which our lies can be corralled, and channelled into something socially useful. Given the universal compulsion to tell stories, art is the best way to refine and enjoy the particularly outlandish or insightful ones. But that is not the whole story. The key way in which artistic “lies” differ from normal lies, and from the “honest lying” of chronic confabulators, is that they have a meaning and resonance beyond their creator. The liar lies on behalf of himself; the artist tell lies on behalf of everyone. If writers have a compulsion to narrate, they compel themselves to find insights about the human condition. Mario Vargas Llosa has written that novels “express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a furtive and veiled fashion, masquerading as what it is not”. Art is a lie whose secret ingredient is truth.” “
Ian Leslie, journalist and writer, Are artists liars?, More Intelligent Life, May 2011
Carl G. Jung on archetypes and “collective unconscious”

“A more or less superficial layer of the unconscious is undoubtedly personal. I call it the personal unconscious”. But this personal layer rests upon a deeper layer, which does not derive from personal experience and is not a personal acquisition but is inborn. This deeper layer I call the “collective unconscious”. I have chosen the term “collective” because this part of the unconscious is not individual but universal; in contrast to the personal psyche, it has contents and modes of behaviour that are more or less the same everywhere and in all individuals. (…)

Whereas the personal unconscious consists for the most part of “complexes”, the content of the collective unconscious is made up essentially of “archetypes”. The concept of the archetype, which is an indispensable correlate of the idea of the collective unconscious, indicates the existence of definite forms in the psyche which seem to be present always and everywhere. Mythological research calls them ‘motifs’; in the psychology of primitives they correspond to Levy-Bruhl's concept of “representations collectives,” and in the field of comparative religion they have been defined by Hubert and Mauss as ‘categories of the imagination’. (…)

My thesis, then, is as follows: In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. (…)

We must now turn to the question of how the existence of archetypes can be proved. Since archetypes are supposed to produce certain psychic forms, we must discuss how and where one can get hold of the material demonstrating these forms. The main source, then, is dreams, which have the advantage of being involuntary, spontaneous products of nature not falsified by any conscious purpose. By questioning the individual one can ascertain which of the motifs appearing in the dream are known to him. (…) Consequently, we must look for motifs which could not possibly be known to the dreamer and yet behave functionally of the archetype known from historical sources.” “
Carl G. Jung, Swiss psychiatrist, an influential thinker and the founder of Analytical Psychology (1875-1961), The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 1934, p.3-4, 42-43, 48.
If other people do not understand our behavior — so what? Their request that we must only do what they understand is an attempt to dictate to us. If this is being “asocial” or “irrational” in their eyes, so be it. Mostly they resent our freedom and our courage to be ourselves. We owe nobody an explanation or an accounting, as long as our acts do not hurt or infringe on them. How many lives have been ruined by this need to “explain,” which usually implies that the explanation be “understood,” i.e. approved. Let your deeds be judged, and from your deeds, your real intentions, but know that a free person owes an explanation only to himself—to his reason and his conscience—and to the few who may have a justified claim for explanation.
Erich Fromm, social psychologist, psychoanalyst, humanistic philosopher (1900-1980), The Art of Being, Continuum, 1994.
Daniel Kahneman on the riddle of experience vs. memory

“We might be thinking of ourselves in terms of two selves. There is an experiencing self, who lives in the present and knows the present, is capable of re-living the past, but basically it has only the present. (…) And then there is a remembering self, and the remembering self is the one that keeps score, and maintains the story of our life. (…)

The experiencing self lives its life continuously. It has moments of experience, one after the other. And you ask: What happens to these moments? And the answer is really straightforward. They are lost forever. I mean, most of the moments of our life — and I calculated — you know, the psychological present is said to be about three seconds long. Which means that, you know, in a life there, are about 600 million of them. In a month, there are about 600,000. Most of them don’t leave a trace. Most of them are completely ignored by the remembering self. And yet, some how you get the sense that they should count, that what happens during these moments of experience is our life. It’s the finite resource that we’re spending while we’re on this earth. And how to spend it, would seem to be relevant, but that is not the story that the remembering self keeps for us.

So we have the remembering self and the experiencing self, and they’re really quite distinct. The biggest difference between them is in the handling of time. 

Now, the remembering self does more than remember and tell stories. It is actually the one that makes decisions. (…) The experiencing self has no voice in this choice. We actually don’t choose between experiences. We choose between memories of experiences. And, even when we think about the future, we don’t think of our future normally as experiences. We think of our future as anticipated memories. And basically you can look at this, you know, as a tyranny of the remembering self, and you can think of the remembering self sort of dragging the experiencing self through experiences that the experiencing self doesn’t need. (…)

There are really two concepts of happiness that we can apply, one per self. So you can ask: How happy is the experiencing self? And then you would ask: How happy are the moments in the experiencing self’s life? And they’re all — happiness for moments is a fairly complicated process. What are the emotions that can be measured? And, by the way, now we are capable of getting a pretty good idea of the happiness of the experiencing self over time. If you ask for the happiness of the remembering self, it’s a completely different thing. This is not about how happily a person lives. It is about how satisfied or pleased the person is when that person thinks about her life. Very different notion. (…)

We know that happiness is mainly being satisfied with people that we like, spending time with people that we like. There are other pleasures, but this is dominant. So if you want to maximize the happiness of the two selves, you are going to end up doing very different things. The bottom line of what I’ve said here is that we really should not think of happiness as a substitute for well-being. It is a completely different notion. (…)

How to enhance happiness, goes very different ways depending on how you think, and whether you think of the remembering self or you think of the experiencing self.” “
Daniel Kahneman, Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel laureate, notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, behavioral economics and hedonic psychology,The riddle of experience vs. memory,, Feb 2010
I tell you, as long as I can conceive something better then myself I cannot be easy unless I am striving to bring into existence or clearing the way for it. This is the law of my life. That is the working within me of life’s incessant aspiration to higher organization, wider, deeper, intense self-consciousness and clearer self-understanding.
George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics (1856-1950)
Homo Sensus-Sapiens: The animal that feels and rationalizes

“We modern humans, taxonomically define ourselves as Homo Sapiens Sapiens, that is, wise-wise beings. Apparently, we can dominate the influence of natural forces, no matter if they are instincts, viruses or storms. Homo Sapiens Sapiens represents the overconfidence of the enlightened man who understands and manipulates nature, while making the best decisions. However, we cannot avoid destroying natural resources while consuming more than we need. We cannot control excessive ambition. We cannot avoid surrendering to the power of sex or money. Despite our evolved brain, despite our capacity to argue and think in abstract ways, despite the amazing power of the neocortex, inner feelings are still at the base of our behavior.

The WisdomX2 characteristic typically does not coincide exactly with our neuropsychological reality. To discover it, you can pay attention to your everyday actions, you can trust neurological observations showing how instinctive areas of the brain are active most of the time or you can trust evidence showing how our nervous system is constantly at the mercy of neurotransmitters and hormones determining levels of emotional responses.

Observations from experimental psychology and behavioral economics also show that people do not always try to maximize present or future profits. Rational expectations, once thought as the main characteristic of Homo Economicus are not neurologically sustainable anymore. Sometimes people care nothing about future or profit; sometimes, we only want to satisfy a desire, right here, right now, no matter what.

Human beings have unique rational capacities indeed. No other animal can evaluate, simulate and decide for the best, like humans do. However, “having” the capacity doesn’t imply “executing” it.

The inner and oldest areas of human’s brain, the reptilian brain, generate and regulate instinctive and automatic responses, which have a role in preserving the organism. Because of these areas, we move without analyzing the consequence of each action; we move like a machine of automatic and unconscious induction. We walk without determining if the floor’s structure will remain after each step and we run faster than normal when we feel a threat, not because of rational planning, but because of automatic responses.

Only a strict training allows us to dominate instincts. However, for most of us, the “don’t panic” advice only works when we are not in panic. Most of us should be defined as beings firstly moved by instincts, social empathy and automatic responses resulting from perceptions, instead of sophisticated plans and arguments.

Homo economicus and Homo Politicus are, therefore, normative entelechies, behavioral benchmarks instead of descriptive models. Always calculating utility and always resolving social disputes through civilized debates are behavioral utopias instead of adjusted descriptions of what we are. However, for decades we’ve been constructing policies, models and sciences based on these assumptions not coinciding with reality.

Homo Sensus Sapiens is a more accurate image of the human being.

The concepts of the liberal hyper-rationalist man and the conservative hyper-communitarian man are hypertrophies of a single human facet. The first one is the hypertrophy of the neocortex: the idea that rationality dominates instincts. The second one is the hypertrophy of the inner reptilian brain: the idea that social empathy and cohesive institutions define humanity. However we are both at the same time. We are the tension of the sensus and the sapiens.

The concept of Homo Sensus Sapiens allows us to realize that we are at a point somewhere between overconfidence on rational capacities, and resignation to instincts. Homo Sensus Sapiens reminds us that we cannot surrender or escape from rationality or instincts. But this concept is not only about criticizing overconfidence or resignation. It is about improving explanations of social phenomena. Social Scientists should not always choose between rationality/irrationality. They should get out of the comfort zone of positivist fragmentation, and integrate scientific areas to explain an analogue human being, not a digital one, defined by the continuum between sensitivity and rationality. Better inputs for public policy would be proposed with this adjusted image.

The first character of this Homo, the Sensus, allows movement, reproduction, atomization of his biology, and preservation of the species. The second part, the Sapiens, allows this Homo to psychologically oscillate between the ontological world of matter and energy, and the epistemological world of socio-cultural codification, imagination, arts, technology and symbolic construction. This combination allows understanding of the nature of a hominid characterized by the constant tension between emotions and reason, and the search of a middle point of biological and cultural evolution. We are not only fears, not only plans. We are Homo Sensus Sapiens, the animal that feels and rationalizes." "
Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán (Colombian philosopher, Ms. in political science and social scientist), answering the question What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?, Edge: The World Question Center 2011.
See also: ☞ Viruses, information and functionalism
The abstract way we think is really grounded in the concrete, bodily world much more than we thought.
John Bargh, cited in Mariana Soffer, Metaphor and the Mind, Sing your own lullaby
Gilles Deleuze in Difference and Repetition:

“However, how are we to explain the fact that - in the case of Bergson’s clock-strokes no less than with Hume’s causal sequences - we feel ourselves in effect so close to the mystery of habit, yet recognize nothing of what is ‘habitually’ called habit?

Perhaps the reason lies in the illusions of psychology, which made a fetish of activity. Its unreasonable fear of introspection allowed it to observe only that which moved. It asks how we acquire habits in acting, but the entire theory of learning risks being misdirected so long as the prior question is not posed - namely, whether it is through acting that we acquire habits … or whether, on the contrary, it is through contemplating?

Psychology regards it as established that the self cannot contemplate itself. This, however, is not the question. The question is whether or not the self itself is a contemplation, whether it is not in itself a contemplation, and whether we can learn, form behavior and form ourselves other than through contemplation.” “
How gullible are you? Is your gullibility located in some “gullibility center” in your brain? Could a neurosurgeon reach in and perform some delicate operation to lower your gullibility, otherwise leaving you alone? If you believe this, you are pretty gullible, and should perhaps consider such an operation.