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!
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.
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.