Miscellaneous content from the original enlightened caveman. Some serious, some not. Take your chances.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

You Animal You

A couple of recent posts have generated some lively discussions, and some of them have led to the nature versus nurture debate. I have been arguing that we come with many of our basic emotions pre-wired, and that it is only the relatively new emergence of malleable cognitive faculties that gives us the chance to change the outcome of situations that would otherwise go down as instinctive responses to external stimuli. Basically, the complexities of cognition and consciousness provide us with free will. Some, however, do not agree. They believe that the hard-wired parts of our minds are limited to the autonomic stuff and the basic survival skills (fight or flight, etc.). They think that the only way I can be right is if humans are robots, robots that were designed. I've made my case in comments and will probably attempt to summarize once the dust settles, but I think there's some value in introducing some basic cognitive science into the picture. What follows is taken almost directly from Chapter 3 of my book.

Contrary to what many people like to believe, no need to believe, humans are not cosmically special. We are animals, not uber-rulers of a vast universe. Yes, we are sophisticated and capable of staggering feats of intelligence, but we are also consistently guilty of acts of passion that mirror the instinctive exploits of our animal cousins. What can we say? It’s in our genes. We all have the same basic genetic framework. The same four letter DNA alphabet (A, T, G, and C) serves as the underlying scaffold for all life on earth. Strands of DNA form genes. Throughout the history of life on this planet, genes have given rise to new organisms that were incrementally different from the ones that came before. However, new organisms were not created from scratch every time. Their designs were built upon designs that have worked well all along. This is why it makes sense that we share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, but only 90% with mice. This notion of conservation of design is starkly evident when it comes to the design of the human mind.

The vertebrate brain is divided into three major divisions: the hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain. It turns out that the structure and function of the hindbrain and midbrain in humans are very similar to what is seen in reptiles, birds, and other mammals. All vertebrates have basically the same organization in the spinal cord, brain stem, thalamus, and cerebellum. That goes for rats, lizards, chimps, and humans. To go even further, we know that the same neurochemicals found in the human brain are also found in the nervous systems of leeches and worms, as well as reptiles, birds, and other mammals. Of course, this is not to say that we have the same minds as other animals. Humans are certainly endowed with mental structures and capabilities that far exceed those of any other animals on our planet. The point, however, is that the aspects we share with other animals are playing a leading role in our everyday lives, whether we know it or not. A light exploration of the architecture of the human mind will give us a feel for this.

The fact that we share our emotional infrastructure with other animals has a profound implication on how we experience life and on our search for truth. Consider the following diagram.

Brain Diagram

It depicts the pathway from an emotional stimulus to a bodily response in the brain. The first thing that happens is the emotional stimulus (say spotting a bear when you’re walking in the woods) sends a signal to the thalamus. The thalamus sends the signal to both the amygdala and the cerebral cortex. The amygdala (a brain structure known to be critical in the execution of basic emotional behavior) is responsible for issuing the response as quickly as possible to prepare you for action. The thalamus to amygdala loop constitutes what we’ll call the emotional pathway. The response it issues manifests itself not only in the immediate body response (such as elevating your heart, causing you to freeze, and preparing your muscles to act), but also in a signal to the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex has the luxury of taking its time to receive the signals both from the thalamus and from the amygdala. It also sends signals back down to the amygdala to be processed along with incoming information from the thalamus. So, the conscious emotional experience is separate and comes after the emotional response. The emotional response is what we share with all vertebrates. The emotional experience is reserved for those of us with consciousness. The jury is out as to exactly where that line is drawn, and I won’t dare hazard a guess. But I’d like to believe my dog is conscious. In any case, there are some points to be made about this arrangement between emotions and cognition.

In terms of the brain, there is a “low road” and “high road” when it comes to mentally processing an external stimulus. The low road is the evolutionarily old route. It corresponds to the pathway from the stimulus to the thalamus to the amygdala to the bodily response. This is the basic flow of what we can think of as emotional programs that take place in what is known as the emotional unconscious. It was designed by evolution to produce survival-enhancing responses to stimuli in the real world. This is really the point of the emotions we share with other animals – they are our rapid-response system. The high road, on the other hand, is the evolutionary new kid on the block. It corresponds to the pathway from the emotional stimulus to the thalamus to the cerebral cortex to the amygdala (and back to the cerebral cortex in a loop) to the bodily response. The cerebral cortex is, in a sense, where the cognitive processing happens. While the stimulus is eliciting a response on the “low road,” the cerebral cortex is assimilating both the stimulus and the emotional response into something that can be considered in a larger context. There are two aspects of this arrangement that have implications on our everyday lives.

The first is the notion that emotional processing inhibits cognition. Look back at the diagram and notice how the brain’s cognitive and emotional equipment are connected to each other. As crude as it is (I hear publishers have editors for this kind of thing), the arrangement is deliberate. The emotional low road is connected more closely to the nervous system, and therefore to the environment, than the cognitive high road. This is because, in evolutionary terms, it is much older. It is the part of the brain that we share with other mammals. In a way, our emotions are our brain’s first line of defense. The cognitive loop is “above” the emotional loop in the sense that all stimuli pass through the emotions en route to the cerebral cortex. The thalamus to amygdala loop, therefore, gets first right of refusal in terms of mounting a response to any given stimulus. It gets to decide whether and how to react to a stimulus before the high road is ever involved. This is important because, when the emotions take charge, there seems to be little room for cognition. It’s that simple. And there are plenty of examples in everyday life to prove it.

Ask almost any first time mother of an infant this question. When your baby cries, how easy it for you to think clearly? My straw poll of some well-educated young mothers yielded a pretty much unanimous response, “When my baby cries, I become completely stupid.” They went on to explain that the sound of their babies' crying brought out feelings of anguish to fix the situation. Of course, as the children get older, this effect diminishes. However, the anguish is perfectly understandable. Some of the most basic emotional functions exist to ensure the wellbeing of offspring. They most directly serve the most gigantic of biological imperatives – the perpetuation of genes. It is, therefore, no surprise that the sound of one’s own baby's crying elicits a very strong emotional response. (This was originally written before my child was born. I can now personally attest to this.) What is surprising, however, is how much our emotions are involved in our thought processes.

The second implication of the brain's organization has to do with the congnition versus emotion question. The fact that all cognitive processing happens after emotional processing means that we can’t really be sure about the state of our processing system for any given stimulus (or situation). We can’t be sure how much of the processing that is going on is emotional versus cognitive. In other words, how much of how we are evaluating the world and responding to it is because of what we’re thinking versus what we’re feeling? As much as we would all like to say that we can usually answer that question accurately, the fact is that we really can’t. The odds are against us – for two reasons.

For one thing, emotional processing happens much faster than cognitive processing. Consider the fact that emotions evolved to deal with life and death situations. They facilitate split-second responses when necessary. Cognitive processes, however, are in no hurry. If something is important enough for you to need to respond almost automatically, you can bet there is a basic emotion mediating it. So, emotions are involved first, and they work fast. In the real world, this means that by the time we get around to thinking about something, there’s no telling how much emotional processing has occurred. We can all recall situations where we have reacted emotionally, but denied it vehemently, only to come to our senses and apologize later.

The odds are also against us because of the sheer magnitude of tasks handled by emotions versus those handled by cognition. The brain’s cognitive faculties are evolutionarily new, and they have been built on top of the ancestral emotional infrastructure we share with other animals. We are capable of handling tasks, such as finding food and shelter and responding to threats, with our emotions entirely. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that our animalistic emotions are involved in our daily lives a lot more than we think they are. They’re always on duty; that’s how the brain is wired.

So what does all this have to do with the nature versus nurture argument? It establishes the scientific basis for the idea that what we observe in nature (the phenotype) is the result of a combination of both forces - genes and the environment. More importantly, put this together with the ideas that we share much of our emotional infrastructure with animals and that other animals (primates, big cats, elephants, etc.) have basic emotions that lead to seeking status, anger, jealousy, and so on, but do not have our cognitive faculties, and you can reasonably conclude that a big part of our emotional repetoire is hard-wired. This is not to say that we are doomed to a predetermined existence. The diagram depicted shows quite clearly how the cognitive loop feeds back into the emotional loop, which means that even the most genetically controlled systems can be cognitively manipulated. That really is the scientific basis for the notion of enlightening the caveman in all of us. Am I getting through to you dualists out there?

Footnotes -
1. Some of the info on the wiring of the brain comes from Joseph LeDoux’s The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (Touchstone, 1996).
2. Aspects of the discussion on the evolutionary origins of emotion come from Descartes' Error : Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio (Avon Books, 1994).


Blogger Mephistophocles said...

You're making a logical leap from chemical response into conciousness. At what point exactly does chemical response end and conciousness begin? This assuming, of course, that conciousness is what gives us the ability to override these hard-wired tendencies you are asserting that we have. I think this is important, because we need to decide at what point humanity aquired it. A case could possibly be made asserting that without it, humanity would not only have not made it as far as we have, but that we likely would be extinct. A human being naturally cannot compete physically with many animals. So Caveman, what is this thing called conciousness? And more importantly, where did it come from? If I understand you correctly, you seem to be asserting that the ancient cavemen didn't originally have the ability to override this hard-wired behavior, but somehow aquired it out of nowhere somewhere down the line. If that's correct, then you conveniently pulled it out of thin air yourself to support a theory you already had in place. Or are you asserting that the ancient caveman did have the physical brain capable of this conciousness, but had to learn to use it? I may actually be willing to accept that - but we'll still have to return to a question of origin at some point.

Another point I'm not convinced about is your statement regarding the emotions of animals closely related to humanity. Zoology is way out of my field, so I'll have to research it a bit to get up to speed on it, but I think it's at least somewhat possible that humanity is the only animal that posseses emotions of any kind - it could be possible that the things you're describing in other animals are merely hard-wired instincts, which we humans assume to be emotions. I'm not prepared to argue that point convincingly, so maybe I'll say more on that later.

Honestly, I'm beginning to wonder if we're really as far apart as I originally thought. I think that really the only point of contention between us lies in a few simple, primitive emotions that you stipulate to be hardwired. I'm wondering now why you have such a problem with the statement I originally made - that is, that human response is based entirely on social or experiential influence instead of an unchangeable hard-wired genetic makeup. You seem to state that even the emotions we contend are erased by conciousness (I would say experience and social influence) pretty much beyond recognition anyway - so my question is, does it really matter if these things are pre-programmed? It seems to me, based on your argument, that conciousness will rid us of them anyway. If you agree with this, then really I think we've been thinking along the same lines all along.

But if not, then I'll bring up another argument that I tried to bring up before, but that you failed to answer. If all behavior is hard-wired, and we can't change it, or even if only herculean concious effort will negate it, then western democracy and most of modern western civilization was founded on a bogus principle - the idea that all men and women are born equal. If I was born to derelict parents, thereby recieving a bad set of genes, then I should be put to death at birth, or enslaved from birth, thereby ensuring that my bad genes do not contaminate the gene pool, and ensuring that I am never given a chance to hold power and responsibility of any kind. There's absolutely no reason to waste resources and time educating a human born with a bad set of genes, or even allowing them to live unless they are enslaved. Of course, this is very pure Nazism, and if you're going to take this stance, Caveman, then you've got to accept the obvective conclusion of the argument. When you acknowledge that not every human is born with a level playing field, then you acknowledge the superiority of one human to another. At this point, only a subjective argument will allow any human in the lower end of the gene pool to live past birth. Objectivity forces them out - or at the very least, assigns each human an irresitable, unchangeable place in society based on their genetic makeup.

This is one of the primary philisophical reasons I have some serious difficulty accepting an argument which puts the entire spectrum of human thought, behavior, emotion, and intellect into a hard-wired genetic scheme. Whatever has been hard-wired into us - none of it really matters in the end. It is experience and social influence that make us what we are. This is the reason that children born into unthinkably harsh conditions can rise through it and do unbelieveably well for themselves. It is simultaneously the reason that so many of these same children will never leave the conditions they were born into.

This is the conclusion then - if we are hardwired, and this is unchangeable, then our destiny was written from birth. Nothing we can do will ever change it, and only a mass cleansing of the human race will allow us to move forward in the evolutionary process. If you're going to argue for an unchangeable hard-wired genetic human being, and not accept the objective conclusion of that argument, then I hereby call you out as an intellectual coward, and believe that if you won't follow your own ideas to an objective conclusion, then your ideas are not worth my time or the time of any other objective thinker.

On the other hand, if you believe (as I think you do) that there are certain things hardwired into the human psyche that are changed and manipulated by society, experience, and even one's own free will into oblivion,(and, by the way, this could lead to a very interesting discussion on ethics), then I really don't think you and I are that far apart in our thinking. Our only contention will be over which emotions or survival instincts are hard-wired into the human mind, and if you're admitting that it all gets overwritten or erased anyway, then I think this entire argument was a bit trivial. Fun, but trivial.

2/03/2005 07:11:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

About animal emotions - I just bought & read ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION. Dr. Grandin has a lot to say about animal emotions, all of which (the part I've had any experience with) agrees with my own observations. And she's a world-renowned expert. (Though she doesn't have enough about cats, being a dog-lover primarily.)

Idiot Grrl/Catmommie

2/03/2005 08:21:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes I find your analysis very much on the money...and on the right track. This is intensely important work.

I have always felt the emotional side is conveniently absent in most discussions of how our intellect works. To be “emotionally mature” is a very important part of being “intellectual”.

There is a constant balancing act and give and take taking place between emotions and intellect. For instance, take LSD and the balancing act becomes completely dysfunctional. If you haven’t done this...it’s worth doing it a few times just to see the profound effect of losing one’s emotional bearings. I had experiences where I thought I had stumbled onto a psychic awareness that was akin to what someone often experiences in a dream...an awareness or separation from the body that appears to bring forth a higher sense of being...and an apparent sense of creativity. So...I took a tape recorder and taped myself for 3 hours once, talking through this apparent intellectual brainstorm...only to come and find it was the ravings of a lunatic when played back later.

Many of the intellectual “sensations” we experience are actually deep rooted in emotional “connections”...and our thought process becomes an inextricably tangled web of the two. I understand what you’re saying on the “pre-wired part” which is so very important...but what I’m trying to convey here is a sense of the overall balancing act or possibly “feedback loop” you might want to add somehow to your diagram. Because of this feedback and give and take there is an "emotional-intellectual" product that flows forth.

The effects of the emotional connection are profound and can be used as "emotional templates" for us to understand a certain way. I would like you to consider this aspect as part of your "pre-wiring". Yes there is a machine which is prewired, but then the machine creates new "emotional-intellectual" templates in order to function.

Possibly a bad example....just as many will watch our wonderful president and actually think he’s on to something...what’s actually going on is the mind fitting certain emotional templates which correspond to apparent levels of intellect or awareness.

Although we hold the human mind in such high esteem, and it is for all we know the highest form of intelligence in the universe...we must come to better understand how it works...and we’d be much better off....so I in generally highly applaud your work. I will be brief here because this is my first post....but will possible logon later and expand if possible.

With the exception of basic mechanics, math theory, definable logic, etc...most of our "intellectual work" is comprised of shades of emotionally created intellectual perceptions.

Another quick story. I worked with 2 people who fought all day long, day after day....could never agree on anything. Finally the one guy goes out and buys a book..."how to win an argument". The principle thing he finds is an amazing revelation he had not considered up to this point..the ability to understand the other side of the argument!!

In order to get along with each other...it is key to embellish this most basic principle. In “seeing the other side”....one inevitably finds oneself comforming to a new emotional-intellectual template....which some losely refer to as a “feeling” the way the other person does. To be very good at this...one finds oneself saying...yes...”I can see how you feel”. As a matter of fact, taking this route can sometimes even allow one to articulate the counter argument better than what was given in the first place! You understand at least 2 emotional-intellectual templates and can possibly even form a 3rd, 4th, 5th etc.

Possibly a better example. To sit down and read a good book is not so much to gain the naked logic of the discussion...which could probably be reduced into a dozen compressed tables of information...but to partake in the emotional rollercoaster that took one’s mind through such intellectual conclusions....and in a good book this could consist of a 100 emotional-intellectual templates of understand. It’s hard to really put into words the full content of what I’ve read in certain books, without putting myself into this “frame of mind” that encapsulates the important emotional-intellectual connections and templates.

None of this subject is trivial at all. It is intensely relevant to our lives and how we live. It goes deep into how we respond to emotional stimulus, how we respond to political architectures...and in short, how we form a framework to successufully live together.

And since we haven't been so good at that...well....

I hope some of this makes sense...this has been a rush job cause I’m at work...but soon hope to have more time for those thoughts and feelings to coalesce!!!

- Wadestock -

12/05/2005 11:38:00 AM


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