The Humanity In The Mind Of Evolved Apes


I had not thought that I would have any thoughts long or important enough to want to break it up into a series. Recent posts and comments and the fact that Sam Harris is wrong have brought me to this dire point in my blogging experience. Gah!

I have no intention of ever being read seriously so I won’t stuff an outline into this at this point, but rush right into an introduction. There is some required reading or viewing though to get a good feel for what kind of cognitive geography I want to tread. That would be a TED talk by someone who I think is dead wrong – Sam Harris (youtube, TED Talk). He should know better than to do this. He is acquainted with the scientific method. Go watch. It’s about 24 minutes long, has nice slides, and he wears a suit. You should also look for the TED talk by Jill Bolte-Taylor (My Stroke of Insight). You could also spend some time checking out neuroscience videos and websites, perhaps some theory of mind, and last but not least some artificial intelligence information.

Further: This is not a scientific paper or my college thesis. It is my thoughts. I’ll probably work by blurting stuff out onto the blog and go back to study and add reference information at a later date. Consequently, this series is subject to change at any moment and without notice. I shall probably post a final in the series that sums it up nicely and links to the hard work done before hand. For now you’ll have to suffer through my thought processes as I write it all down.

What about the human apes and their big brains?

Where to start…   There is no real way to tell what it was that first caused human apes to drift away from their cousins. Perhaps it was the ability to walk upright, communicate differently, use tools, or maybe to construct abstract thoughts to predict future events better and to better understand cause and effect. Whatever it was I doubt it was because evolution drove us there. It is far more likely that we moved from the trees to the savanna because we could. It probably took 100 thousand years to get it right, but eventually it was possible. As soon as it was we left the forest and kept on going. In any case, evolution gave us the required attributes to make it possible to reach out to sate our curiosity. It may not yet be satiated. Fast forward one or two hundred thousand years and we have evolved into modern human apes. We are different enough from our closest cousins now that we find it difficult to understand how they can communicate, never mind how they do communicate. We look different, walk different, talk different, think different, and are in fact so different that cross breeding is no longer possible. We’re still figuring out how different and why, but the fact that we are is not disputed.

One of the most crucial differences is in how we think. That we think is not really a shocking bit of information. All animals think and make decisions. We are unsure how they do so or to what depth, but it would appear that most mammals have many of the same basic decision-making artifices as human apes. There is so much to learn about how brains work yet. We are learning new facts all the time about our cousins and how they think. Jill Bolte-Taylor’s talk delves into the two halves of the human ape brain and how it works by first person observation of its function during a major failure. There are many human apes who have contributed much to science by suffering brains that do not work right and allowing science to observe them. Sad on a personal level but thrilling on a scientific level.

The human ape brain is an accomplished decision-making machine

Yes, machine. One that is both aware of itself and it’s weaknesses and one that can construct abstract thoughts without relative physical world inputs. You can possibly imagine what it is like to stand on a bridge in St Petersburg Russia in the summer time yet you have very little information about such an event. The trouble is that we have words like memories, feelings, emotions to describe what would otherwise be known as activity in some specific area(s) of the brain. Like any measuring system, our human ape brains cannot easily detect when information is generated by our own brains and when it is something outside us. With so much information input to our brains coming from outside, our first instinct is to assume that all information comes from without. Say you might confuse a conversation with yourself as communication from extraterrestrial beings, or a message from a deity. There is only a thin veil of reason that tells us that it was just us talking to ourselves. We can do that. We have more than one central processor in our brains. Information is processed in several areas all at once. Jill Bolte-Taylor makes a beautiful case for a logical main processor which is time ordered and structured, and an ’emotional’ main processor which is not time ordered or structured; seeing all the sensory input data all at once with no time reference for each event.

The brain of the human ape has evolved to absorb huge amounts of data/input in real-time and compare and contrast that to all previous data which has been stored. The simple question of what is that object? whose answer is “it’s a chair” requires a huge amount of computation. I saw one the other day that looked like a huge, slightly misshapen womans shoe/high heel. But I knew it was a chair within seconds of seeing it. How many times per day do we each do this comparison function? This is one of the primary functions of the human ape brain. Is that noise a tiger? Are those round bits on the tree good to eat? What is a good remedy for stomach ache? How can I catch a fish? In fact that is all that the human ape brain does. Further it makes these assessments to determine if an object, situation, or action etc. is good for self, bad for self, unknown, or simply safe for self.

When you begin to pile many such decisions on top of many other such decisions and their outcomes, we get a complex trail of decision-making. Likewise, the results of such activities give our thought processes feedback when we assess how the results make us feel in view of the decision we made. Happiness would not exist if there was no reason to feel sadness or depression etc. Without changing states, we cannot experience any states. Our brains have evolved so that we assess everything, absorb the feedback, and adjust our future decision-making information. That is to say that we learn from our mistakes – most of the time. In the process we have evolved to constantly seek to get the chemical reward for making good decisions and getting good outcomes. Good in this case is relative to the decision maker and not to morals in general. A person can get good feedback and chemical reward for doing things which most others feel are bad. The brain and it’s processes are very complex. Consequently they are subject to myriad ways of disrupting them or skewing them in this direction or that. Drug addiction is one way. Love is another way. Anorexia is yet another.

Amazingly, the human ape brain operates almost open loop in as much as it can decide what feedback or information to assimilate into it’s repertoire for future decision-making. It is open enough that many of us crave feedback and visual guidance from others so that we feel we are doing things correctly. There are introverts and extroverts, meek and charismatic, fearful and brave. People seem to follow some sort of primacy in their brain functions such that some attributes are accentuated while others are suppressed. We mostly judge ‘normal’ to be those who are well-rounded, or distorted in a direction the rest of us admire. Very few people will not view a charismatic and confident person as admirable in some way(s).

I say all this because if forms a kind of basis for much of what will follow in the rest of this series of posts.

We are the result of a thinking machine which is self-aware, operating nearly open loop, capable of abstract thought constructs, and very capable of learning complex ideas. We are not limited to what our senses can show us. As far as we know there are no other life forms which have as many artifices as we human apes. We are intelligent enough to know that we don’t know all there is to know.

Decision making processes

We use decision tree templates in our decision-making. Templates which we construct on our own based on our understanding of the world around us and how we understand ourselves and others. These templates set up a set of ‘tests’ in our brain where we simulate the sensory inputs such that our brain is ‘experiencing’ the same things (or close to it) as the person in a story or movie, or someone who you know etc. When you think of that person you have a crush on, you imagine what they might be thinking. When you do that you have used a framework, and used it to project your thoughts into the world of the other person trying to understand how they would be thinking and feeling in the situation they are in as you understand it. When we apply such frameworks to other animals, it is called anthropomorphizing. Things such as ‘he was so happy to see me’ and ‘the cat was angry with me’ are such projections. No matter how much these things might be true, since dogs and cats don’t talk we can only use our framework and projection to guess at what they are thinking. This forms a basic but very important part of how we understand one another. It allows us to empathize with others or with a situation etc. We do this so often that is practiced, very fast, and basically not noticed when we do it. However, we are always certain to carefully observe the feedback from this projection exercise. It is why we are fond of stories and movies. I’ll cover music in another post. They encourage us to project through a framework and experience things that are otherwise unavailable to us. Why do we do this? Because we can, and because it is (to our brains) a real experience. This has been demonstrated on 3D virtual world games on-line. The player very often does experience real world feelings from participating in the game via projection through a self constructed framework which is augmented by the game world.

The human ape brain has a vast array of artifices? Not really, but the ones that we do have are very well adapted at interacting with the world around us. Evolution has brought us this skill set. Among the many evolutionary pressures, the desire to not want to breed with dumb people or weak people slowly weeds such genetic material out of the available gene pool. We generally do not view them as successful or admirable, and biology tells us not to mate with them. That is a very basic way to state it, but the effect is the same. The process is much more complex than that, but the basic principle is there.

What is my point?

The human ape brain is a decision-making machine. That is all that it does, ever… even if you can’t tell that is what your brain is doing because you only see the higher level reports, that is all that it is doing.

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