Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The enigma of Art Part 2 - Memories of the Future

Consciousness and the Enigma of Art 2

In Part 1 we took a look at the psychological and intellectual gap between the make up of Congo the Chimpanzee and Mankind.   In this new letter I want to introduce you to some of the extra perceptual abilities mankind has developed in the seven million years that have elapsed since Chimpanzees and Humans last shared a common ancestor.  This will lead us to examine in future letters some new thinking about consciousness.
Memories of the Future
Imagine you are taking a walk with your partner on a cold mid-February morning and you come across this beautiful sight amongst the dead leaves on the forest floor
(photo : Google images)
You might say "Oh look, snowdrop buds" 
And your companion might reply "Yes, lets come back in a few days time to see them in flower".  And then I imagine that you might walk hand-in-hand enjoying the wonders of nature and sharing in the anticipation of seeing the beautiful flowers when you return.  I have made a drawing of what I imagine you are both imagining you will see.

I hope we have all imagined the same thing: The buds have shot up on long thin stalks before bowing their heads like swans do, and then they unfurled their pure white petals to show the pretty white petticoats that were hidden from view inside the closed buds.  The leaves have grown long and pointed.  These images of the future are only possible because we have stored memories of  snowdrops that we have seen in the past, and from those memories we can imagine what the two buds will look like when they come into flower in a few days time.  We use our memories to create images of the future.  This phenomenon has been studied and is called "memories of the future".  Whilst other animals may have this capacity, in the human brain it has been developed into an ability that is far beyond the ability of other species.  Our human minds are exceptionally good at using past experience to "visualize" what the future will look like. The point I am making  is a simple one; without memories it would be impossible to imagine the future, and the visual world that exists in our heads is dependent on those stored memories. It is a surprising fact that when old people lose their memories of the past through Alzheimer's or dementia they also lose your their ability to imagine how the future will look.
Our highly developed aptitude to make  "Memories of the Future"  is one of the crowning glories of human consciousness. It introduces the concept that objects in the outside world change in predictable ways, for instance we can visualise that when meat is left in the sun it will go rotten, and if it is moved to a cool place in the shade it will last longer.  A squirrel stores food too, but their behaviour is inherited through their genes, they are not storing food because they have visual images of how they might starve in the cold winter to come. 
Images of patterns (in the broadest sense of the word, including musical tunes, memories of smells and subterranean visual images) that are the currency of the human mind.  But our unique abilities for visual gymnastics come at a high cost because they are a brain-power hungry activity. It has been calculated that over 50% of our brain's capacity is used for visual tasks, and although it may seem our brains are a relatively small part of our body weight (just 2%) they consume 20% of our daily energy requirements.  Our expanded heads make childbirth dangerous, our babies arrive in the world more helpless than other animals and our children take decades to grow into adults.
(photo; Scientific American Website)
Evolution would not have invested such a high amount of resources into big brains that take decades to develop if there was not a very big payback for our species. One payback may be this ability to visualise how objects change with time, because it gives us the knowledge to predict what will happen in our world.   Memories of the Future is at the root of these predictive faculties which gives us foresight and choice to adapt our behaviour to sudden environmental change.  It contributes to making us the most cunning species on the planet; able to plan and make choices, use objects to make tools, and visualise strategies to overcome problems and outwit other species that we want to escape from or exploit for food.

Memories of the Future has another unexpected virtue, it changes the way we see objects in the world around us.   To other animals objects must seem static in time, but for us it is quite different because when we see things, even useless things, we see the potential they hold.  For instance when a dog looks at a strawberry flower it thinks "This is not food, it is not dangerous, it is not a warm place to sleep - it is useless and to be ignored"  but we see the flower's potential to bring us food.  Dogs ignore the first green shoots that emerge through the snow, they may are useless inedible things to us too, but they are symbolic of the changing seasons and the coming Spring which will bring warmer weather and new sources of food. 

So when we see the plants responding to the weather like this, we are aware that around us are other living entities that share our wish to see the warmer weather.  They seem to know the winter is over before we do, as if they are the intelligent.  So when we walk hand in hand through the woods in Spring we are in contemplation of the changing of the seasons, and we are in awe of the things around us which also seem to also be contemplating Spring, we sense that they contain spirit like we do. Only our species has this Godly vision of the world to which we belong, perhaps that is why only our species worships God.

Another interesting thought is that memories of the future gave us a reason to think with symbols, which is the precursor to language.  Did memories of the future make us into symbol thinking animals that had the potential to go on to invent language?  Just a thought, I have never seen this idea suggested in books!
Time Lines
Memories of the future introduced a new element into our conscious thought, and a new mental ability that led to a new faculty of mind that is not available to other species.  This faculty might have been the golden key that unlocked a treasure chest of new aptitudes that are the hallmark of humanity; things like our "Ego and our Heightened sense of Self", "Reason, Science and Deductive Thought", "Religion and Beliefs", "Language with Grammar and Syntax", "Culture, Imitation and Memes", "A Sense of Good and Evil", "A Guilty Conscience" and "Art and Creativity".  The list can be endlessly extended and subdivided, it could also include "Empathy and Compassion", "Free Will",  "Social Organisation" and "Toolmaking".  The golden faculty I am writing of is the mental time-lines that memories of the future enables us to construct inside our heads. Let me demonstrate what a mental time line is and why it is so special:

A seedling goes through a succession of stages before fruiting.  These successive stages are put in order on a timeline which has been artificially constructed in our heads.  To join up our thoughts onto a single thread of time the mind had to adapt old cloth to serve new purposes; it taken our ability to visualise space to create a completely new sort of visualisation; visualization of time as a line in space.  The way we talk about time is saturated with spatial metaphors; the very word "line" is a spatial metaphor, and we talk of time stretching out before us, things happening before and after each other, and taking a short or long time.   If you observe the timelines you create in your head you will find you imagine the transformations happening in virtual space created in your head;

Memories are not always put on the time line in the same order that we experienced or learnt about them, the order is often worked out in working memory  before being placed in the appropriate position on the virtual time line in your head.  It is very easy to demonstrate this happening: 
Take the sentence "Today John drove to meet Emily who had already gone to London by train to help her parents move into the flat that they had bought in the previous Spring"
The order in which your mind was told the information:
1. (First we are told) John drove to meet Emily
2. (Second we are told) Emily ...had already gone by train to London.
3. (third we are told) parents  and moving into the new flat (which we presume is in London).
4. (Forth we are told) her Emily's parents had bought a flat in the previous Spring

Our mind has to re-order the information before putting it onto a virtual timeline and memorising it.  To make a time line we have to use another sort of memory called "working memory". The term working memory refers to a brain function that provides temporary storage where information can be manipulated for complex cognitive tasks such as language comprehension, learning, and reasoning.  The information held in the working memory is very fragile and quickly forgotten, which happens if you become distracted, like when someone interrupts you whilst you are trying to remember a telephone number.  (If you want to remember the number for the long term you have to go through a procedure of rehearsing the information by repeating it to yourself several times or writing it down.  It can then be stored in your memory banks before you think about something else).

The current model for working memory has three parts; A phonological loop (dubbed: the inner voice and ear) which remembers and organisms language, and visuo-spatial sketchpad (dubbed: The inner eye) that manipulates visual images, and central executive function that is an attention-controlling system that combines the two. One way we use the working memory is to analyse the order in which things happened and place the information as a timeline on our visuospatial sketchpad . When we are satisfied that we have worked out the meaning of a long sentence (full of clauses) it is visualised as a single time line.  Only after we have done this can we put the new information into our long term memory.

Working memory can also retrieve information retained in the long term memory, and combine it with new information that has just arrived.  For instance last year you may have seen the strawberries, but at that time you had never seen the plant's white flowers.  When you see the white flowers the following year you can decide that the cycle goes white flowers followed by red strawberry fruit. (Think of your knowledge of history, where you learn about the Tudors and Romans before you learn about the Plantaginets, this does not stop you finding a space on the virtual timeline for the Plantaginets which is between the Romans and the Tudors)
( diagram : revisewithrachies.com)

Timelines are one useful format (amongst many) in which the information is stored.
Now lets return to the sentence about Emily, John and her parents flat which is no longer in your working memory.   If it never got further than your working memory you will need to read it again to find out what order things happened.  If it is on a timeline in your long term memory, you will be able to visualise what happened by retrieving the timeline.

1. What happened first? -  Answer:  Emily's parents bought a new flat 
2. What happened second? -  Answer: Yesterday Emily went up to London 
3. What happened third? - Answer:  Emily helped her parents move into the new flat
4. What happened fourth? - Answer The day after John drove up to London.

Having visulised the order in which events happened we are able to commit the timeline into our long term memory.  What do you do if you are asked a few days later what happened?  You visualise the time line you stored in your long term memory.  You do not repeat the sentences you originally heard, instead you look at your virtual timeline and after seeing the order in which things happened make up a sentence; maybe you would say: "Last Spring Emily's parents bought a new flat.  Emily went to London by train to help them move their things in and a day later John drove up to join them."   When you began your sentence you would have a fuzzy idea of how the sentence would end, this is because as you are speaking you are also consulting the time line which has been retrieved into your working memory from your long-term memory as you are constructing your sentence.

In my limited reading on the subject I have not come across discussion on the relatedness of Memories of the Future and Mental Time lines, but it seems to me that they co-evolved.
Timelines are an essential element for nearly all the other human faculties we value.  Let me take my conjecture one step further:

Knowledge of One's own Identity
We have one Timeline in our heads which is more important than the others, it is the autobiographical record of our own lives.  The record is self knowledge that is collected from memories of our lives as we remember them, it can also contain memories that we have been told about.  Individuals in  our social group will share some of the main events, but the detail will be personal to the individual.

Our autobiographical record will often start with memories of things we cannot remember.  In my case I was born on a farm near Whiteland in 1953, and this information has become deeply embedded on my autobiographical record.  In fact I cannot quite know if some of my earliest memories are really memories at all or false memories implanted from stories I have been told by my mother.  In my diagram I have included stories about ancestors too, because they are part of our history and identity.  If I were black American I might include records of the circumstances behind my family traveling from the African continent to the New World, because this would be an important memory that still affects how I behave towards the outside world.

Antonio Damasio, whose model of consciousness we will discuss when we come to look at the structure of the brain, posits that the evolution of an autobiographical record was the critical event that created a new level of consciousness in our minds.  He has put forward a theory that the creation of an autobiographical record in the human mind gave us an internal knower of the self.  Previous to this event the conscious mind had almost no conscious sense of self.  All living things have a sense of self, but this sense of self is not consciously known to them. Humanity has developed a self aware self that can stand back from our emotional world, and is able to contest and argue against what our emotional drives are telling us to do.  The mind has a new faculty, reason, which can choose to override the instructions that come from out emotional drives and gut instincts.

Visualisation of Time gave us a view of how objects in the world around us have a past and a future, and will change in predictable ways (what I half jokingly call Godly vision), and it also gave us knowledge of how we ourselves also change in the world, and how we have a past and a future. It gave us an opportunity to have knowledge of our place in the world.  Afterwards we were able to control nature and know good and evil. Maybe visulisation of time caused us to be most arrogant inhabitants in the Garden of Eden, but we were not cursed.

The unexpected gifts of having higher levels of consciousness enable us to love on a new level.  Amongst the unexpected features of the autobiographical timeline is our ability to choose to position our thoughts on any point along our autobiographical record, and we can imagine ourselves back to being a previous version of self in an earlier time; for instance you might remember your days at university sitting in the Students Union bar with friends.  When you do this you then think your way back to being that previous self with half-forgotten friends in that half-forgotten place.  Like an actor you can experience to be that person you were all those years ago, with a virtual past that does not include all you know now, a virtual present that is you as a still unmarried single person and a virtual future which does not yet include knowledge of the partner you met some years later and married.  It is as if our mind can be reconstructed and moved about in time and space.
Knowledge of Others
 Theory of Mind 

I mentioned that we have the ability to move our mindset back in time, and re-imagine how we were experiencing the world when we were younger.  In my example I suggested thinking back to your student days, but this is only a taster for something much more extraordinary; not only can we move back and forward on our autobiographical timeline, we can also can move our mindset on to other autobiographical time lines belonging to other people.  Here is an example of what I mean; suppose you are looking at another person and imagining what is going on in their minds and how they are feeling, how do you do that?  Well you build up knowledge about what is going on inside their heads, which could include a picture of their autobiographical records.  Having managed this you move your mindsets into their heads and imagine how they are subjectively experiencing the world.  For instance we might look at a friend who is drinking too much after losing a girlfriend, and imagine how we would feel in his situation.  When we do this we are empathising with them.  This ability to work out what others are experiencing is called "Theory of Mind".  It is called theory of mind because it is exactly that, we build a theory of what their subjective world looks like from inside their heads, which often starts with constructing their time line in our heads and living it with them.  ToM is very useful because by understanding the mental outlook of another person we can predict their behaviour, be more sensitive and build closer social bonds with them.  It also helps us predict, and outmaneuver the strategies of our enemies.

There are people who have poor Theory of Mind abilities which is called mindblindness.  These people find it difficult to empathise and integrate socially with other people, and mindblindness is thought to be a cause (maybe amongst others) of autism and Aspergers. Mindblindness can be a permanent inability that is rooted in the structure of the brain. The brutal conditions that Romanian orphanages have provided clear evidence that the affects of abuse, lack of affection and isolation during crucial times during early childhood have irreversible affects on the physical development of the brain, and the children's ability to relate socially with other people is permanently lost for life.  On the other end of the spectrum Empathy can also be greatly enhanced through imitation and synchronising your physical behaviour with friends and team mates.  This is called mirroring; smiling when they smile, sitting in the same way they are sitting.  It has also been shown that marching and walking in time with each other makes people bond mentally, and young couples meet and fall in love with each other by going dancing.
(photo: bodylanguagesuccess.com)

Theory of Mind in Infants
Theory of Mind is a big subject in psychology and child development.  Amongst the questions asked is do infants have ToM and when does it develop.  The conclusion is that this ability begins to show itself between the ages of three and four, prior to this age children have very little understanding or appreciation that there are other minds seeing the world from other points of view. They also seem to have an underdeveloped sense of self, for instance if you place a blob on the forehead of a toddler and put them in front of a mirror they do not seem to recognise that the blob is on their bodies.  This test is passed by chimpanzees. 

The tests for ToM are quite complex, and usually involve testing whether the toddler understands that another person can have different beliefs from themselves.  A simple example is the closed candy box which is full of pencils; when the child is asked to guess what is in the box they reply "candy", then they are shown that inside there is not candy, just pencils which they had not expected.  Then the box is closed and if they are asked again; what do you think is in the box they will reply "pencils".  At this point a third person enters the room and the child is asked what she thinks the third person thinks is in the candy box?  A child under the age of four will nearly always say "pencils", but the toddler who is older will say "candy".  The older child has grasped that the third person has their own beliefs which can include mistaken beliefs. 

ToM is a very big asset in social groups because it allows members to outwit other members of the group by leading them into making false assumptions and having mistaken beliefs.  Interestingly very small children are very bad liars; they tell lies that are just obviously not going to deci eve, like games of peek a boo where the child thinks if she cannot see you, you cannot see her.  After the age of four children will invent false stories to evade punishment, very often blaming others for what they have done wrong.   ToM also helps adults predict the actions of others, whether it is being done in the spirit of co-operation or competition.

Do Chimps have Theory of Mind?

There are all sorts of studies that purport to show that chimps have Theory of mind.  The work of  Byrn and Whitten in 1988 who observed the behaviour of six chimps was amongst the earliest work to demonstrate clear evidence of theory of mind in other animals.  Amongst the group was a dominant male called Rock and a timid female called Belle.  The researcher had a routine of taking the chimps out of their enclosure and burying food, whilst they did this only Belle could see where the food was being hidden, if Rock was not present Belle would lead all the other chimps to the food and they would all share the goodies, but if Rock was there he would bite and bully Belle taking all her food.  So Belle began to devise strategies to deci eve Rock into thinking she did not know where food was hidden.

At first she would go to where the food was buried and sit on the spot until Rock was out of sight, then she would dig up the food.  But Rock got wind of this and as soon as Belle sat down Rock would run up and push her off the food and eat it without sharing it with Belle.  Belle then would go and sit a little distance from where the food was hidden, but soon Rock worked that out too and would dig all around where she sat.  So Belle began to sit even further away and wait for Rock to look in the other direction, and then she would get the food.  Rock worked that out too and began to pretend to look away or wander off, and then bounce back.  Belle then began to lead the group to a completely wrong place and Rock would start digging, then she would amble off to where the food really was hidden

The speed with which the two chimps worked out each other's strategies convinced the observers that there was an intellectual arms race of bluff and counter bluff, and theory of mind was involved.

Kanzi and Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh
More recently the extremely intelligent behaviour of a Bonobo Chimp called Kanzi which has been studied and written up by Dr Sue Savage-Rumbaugh who has been nominated as one of the 100 most influential people in the world for he work with Kanzi.  But she is not without controversies of her own.  She claims this chimp has learnt to make flint tools, use sign language and has theory of mind. 

Best wishes



Anonymous said...

As usual, a very complex and intereting post. One hardly knows where to begin to comment as there is so much to comment on.

But I would like to start by saying that the approach is interesting: to examine the abilities of animals we are familiar with and to see which capabilities we share. Once these abilities have been identified and quantified, we have a tool to distinguish the qualities that demonstrate our differences from other animals (consider that corals and sponges are also animals. Do we share any of their qualities?)

As I said, the post touches on many topics. As to the theory of mind, our dog Zoe, female of three years, shows obvious abilities to remember, learn and anticipate. These are expressed in behaviours not encoded in her genes, like squirels hiding acorns. No doubt, some of her response is based on encoded behaviour, but her ability to recognize the significance of stimuli, such as sounds outside the house, are based on memories an ability to anticipate outcomes.

Another point that seems interesting is the association with hearing and visual memory. The timeline theory is presented in terms of reducing auditory input (or other verbal input) to constructing a visual memory. I'm not sure that you are wrong, but I wish to offer a counterpoint: my father seems to have an almost perfect ability to ingest, understand and recall verbal input. I don't know how he does it, but he seems to do it effortlessly and without any concious intent. I have heard him repeat parts of political speeches word-for-word, even when he doesn't particularly care for the speakers views, and phone numbers that he inadvertantly overheard. I think each of us has an ability to recall information that is a blend of what we have seen, what we have heard, what we understood, what we choose to believe and what we can make of it all. In looking at the theory of mind, I think an examination of what we can remember is fundamental.


Julian Williams said...

Hi Pluck, I think perhaps you are the only one kind enough to read my ramblings!

I saw a program on TV recently about a boy who could not forget; he had an ability which is not unique, but not common either, to remember everything he ever did. So you could ask him what happen on Saturday the 3 July 1995 he could tell he that it was actually a Tuesday and he went to the shops in the morning and swimming with his friend Jack in the afternoon. When they checked his remembrances against records he was always correct.

He did not know how he knew, he said he just pulled it out of his subconscious memory effortlessly. They then put him in a brain scanner and watched the activity in his brain when he was recalling, and they discovered he was using areas of his visual cortex (I think it was that part) as extra processing space.

As a human being he seemed very normal, he did not seem to have lost other abilities.

The brain has something called plasticity. If you have a stroke the brain transfers tasks to undamaged parts of the brain.

I think sensory information is mixed together, so a strawberry has a scent and colour and feel, and when we eat a strawberry we are aware of the mix of sensation. Taken together they make what we visualise to be a strawberry. So when one uses words like visualisation in the context of the brain images we are really using the word in a very broad way. Inter-related Patterns are created in the mind.

Anonymous said...

Your post touches on many topics that interest me and that I have thought about. There is an American actor (actress, if you prefer this form of courtesy) Marilu Henner who is said to possess an extraordinary autobiographical memory capability. She can recall everything she did on every day far back into her childhood. Some neuroscientists describe this capability as hyperthymesia and that it is characterized by spending of lot of time reflecting on their past. The implication is that dwelling on any topic creates the potentiation of our short-term memories leading to the result that such potentiation eventually causes the remembered information (inevitably colored by associations and the workings of our minds) to be transferred to our long-term memories. And then, the memories become grist for the machinery of thought and are organized into our understandings and beliefs.

Computers have unlimited abilities to remember things. With their interconnection through the world-wide web, their current collective memory is vastly superior to that of any individual, yet computers have no ability to think for themselves, no consciousness, no curiosity, no self awareness, no theory of mind and no future memories. They have no ability to visualize or organize their thoughts.

You might as well expect a clay tablet to think for its self.

Your investigation of thought from the perspective of an animal capacity is very informative. I have spent many years reflecting on why computers don’t share this capacity. What is it that is lacking? Can it be added? What would be the result?


Anonymous said...

I loved this. Ths shows that not only animals can also have theory of the mind and not just Humans. I have leared about some of these topics in my psycology class but you presented it in a much more intresting way. Thank you for you time and effort on your research as it will not go to waist. -A.W.

Anonymous said...

Part I:

I have been looking forward to commenting again on this topic but was delayed having been quite busy. In spare moments, I have allowed myself to reflect on this post and have discussed some of the points with my friends and children. They possess talents and insights quite foreign to me. Drawing on them and amalgamating them with the substance of the post, I believe that I have gained some useful perspectives on… well…, perhaps I am getting a bit ahead of myself. Perhaps I should back up a bit, and then it will be seen better what the perspectives are and whether they are of any use.

I suppose a modicum of background is necessary. Not having an artistic temperament is very limiting. I can attest to this as I don’t have one. The artistic temperament apparently compels those who possess it to attempt and to do extraordinary things. It also appears to convey an understanding of things that are decidedly important, but difficult to reduce into a system of axioms and theorems. Axioms and theorems are not especially attractive things, and they seldom “wink” back at you when have understood them or mastered their meaning. You could cover a hundred canvases with the most brilliant axioms and theorems and display them proudly at the best venues, but you wouldn’t be able to pull in the crowds. Not even if you used highly stylized scripts and colorful backgrounds. I, for one, wouldn’t come.

That’s something easier to understand after reading and reflecting on this post. I have always had a kind of savage disregard for the intellect. I have always adopted the view that intellect is the ability to remember facts, to recognize patterns, to reason closely and draw fine distinctions. In short, intellect is the ability to analyze problems and to penetrate the veil of proximate circumstance in order to perceive root causes.

Your post challenges that view.

You are addressing what it is to be human. More specifically, you are investigating the characteristics such as the ability to communicate, anticipate, understand and respond and pondering whether we, as a distinct species or creature, share the ability with other species or creatures.

Anonymous said...

Part II

To be quite honest, that question does not really interest me. I am of the opinion that all animals share the ability to learn to some degree, even simple sponges and corals (although I would attempt to elucidate the mechanisms). Tracing specific capabilities and activities to portions of the brain is interesting but I don’t know if it is highly informative, especially in light of the thought that the brain is highly plastic. As a youth, I volunteered for a short time at a local nursing home. We were required to perform a project of social or educational value as a graduation requirement. I ended up working with stroke patients (especially those who had no family to visit them). I learned a lot in that short time. I learned that a person can lose abilities to speak or walk or impose self-control. A person may even lose to the abilities to recognize and remember. But for some reason, the person, despite the diminished, sometimes highly diminished, capabilities, seems to remain the same person and, in some ways, even more so.

Here’s the thing that captured my interest in the post. It is the artistic temperament. I don’t have it to any measurable degree, nor do I understand it. I do enjoy it’s products (or perhaps, its by-products if that is an allowable way of putting it). When I walk through the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., or even through the more humble local galleries, I of course appreciate the skill with which the sculpture or paintings have been rendered, but I appreciate it with a critical eye and frankly derive no element of enjoyment from the most virtuoso rendering. It leaves cold. Envious, but cold. I fully appreciate the native skill, the patience, the study, the practice and the labor that must have gone into crafting the representation. Still it leaves me cold: not hostile or aggressive; at the same time, not really interested.

The “works” of art that captivate me seem to have a common element. They are telling a story: not a story that I can relate in a narrative form or reduce to a system of axioms and theorems. They convey much more at the level of “Theory of Mind” and “Future Memories.”

I have to confess to a particular fondness for Renoir. Somehow, even a face hidden almost completely behind a straw hat, it “winked” at me and I understood it. Completely. Even though I couldn’t see it; it winked and I understood.


Julian Williams said...

Pluck, I think that if/when you accept my view of art, which I am still a long way from explaining clearly, you will have to admit you are an artist too.

My theory is that Art it has roots in the way our brains are set up by nature (through the evolutionary processes).

If I were to define speech by studying quotes in books I would get a very distorted impression of what speech was. Likewise if you try to define art from what is hung in art galleries you will get a very distorted picture of why we make pictures and how we use them to communicate our emotions.

Anonymous said...

Part I

I have continued to think about the points that you have raised: they continue to raise fresh thoughts as to the nature of consciousness, future memories, theory of mind, empathy and communication. There are many topics tangent to these: is language an extension of instinct, theory of mind, or empathy. When I regard our pet dog, it seems quite clear that she posses future memories, at least short-term future memories: at the sound of a school bus in the street, she analyzes which family member is returning home, even if sleeping. If it is her favorite human, my middle son Arthur, she rouses herself and races down stairs to greet Arthur when he comes through the door. Similarly, she recognizes the meaning of sounds coming from the kitchen, which is not too surprising. But she also she also knows when it is time for Lilly to rise and get ready for school in the mornings: she starts to run between rooms whining and barking as necessary until Lilly is dressed and ready. As for empathy, she seems quite distressed when some members of the family take a shower: she knows what a dreadful place that can be and when you safely emerge from the ordeal, she seems genuinely relieved and showers some members of the family (but not all) with a great show of affection. There seems to be no question that she participates in two-way communication, not only as a direct response to stimuli, but also in an emotional way as a means to communicate happiness or unhappiness. This communication takes on many forms: the high-pitched whine, the stamping of a front foot, the hard, intense stare, a frustrated short bark and, toward the younger members of the family, a low growl when disturbed. When she is happy or content, she emits low sighs of contentment and, if that is not enough, she will yelp short barks and attempt to actively gain your attention. When I return home in the evening, she greets me at the door barking and jumping and then by racing in circles around me, nudging at the back of my legs, she herds me upstairs to my desk and computer. She then allows me to rub her throat and chest, placing one paw over my arm to ensure that I don’t quit too soon. Suddenly the ritual is over and she selects a spot to curl up and rest.

The point here is that this dog displays many characteristics that could be interpreted as being largely or solely in the domain of humans. Much of this behavior could be ascribed to instinct and the rest to training. However, not to be unkind to the animal, she is not the smartest dog we have had, nor the most trainable, nor have we attempted to train her beyond simple commands like, “sit,” “stay,” “come,” and “go,” (which she does not always obey and sometimes resists with an almost human stubbornness).

I have fallen into the habit recently of analyzing the dog’s behavior in terms of the descriptions and insights that you have been advancing. It has been interesting and instructive and has led me to consider other facets of cognition such as consciousness, self-awareness and will.

Anonymous said...

Part II

I suppose that we should regard ourselves as being as primitive in our faculties as we tend to regard the faculties of other species should we be able to conceive of more advanced modes of thought. If I could advance a suggestion along those lines, I suggest that a more advanced mode of thought could be described as “proper feeling.” I often feel that a common shortcoming among otherwise estimable people is a tendency to despise, mock or hold in disdain. It is, of course, quite proper to not accept things at face value. On the other hand, to dismiss everything with derision is no improvement and can become an unfortunate habit. I think that “proper feeling,” has an essential function in intellect just as “due process” has in law.

While animal intellect seems tangential to ours, I think it interesting to contrast it with the transverse mechanical intellect memory devices and machines. They have a huge capacity for extensibility and a simple method of composition: you need only connect one device to another, distribute the storage and computational tasks and, miraculously, you have a vast reservoir of information-processing capability that far exceeds that of any one person, or even that of all the living persons on earth combined. But, can you teach it to think? Is it like expecting a library of clay tablets to understand the information that they contain? There is a wide chasm of difference between animal and mechanical intelligence, but I cannot even begin to put my finger on what that difference is. I think that your postings are advancing into fringes of that, for me, unexplored territory.