Thursday, 24 February 2011

Perspective, and animals again

The problem with science is that after school you only ever encounter it via journalists.  And I'm afraid that there are a lot of things wrong with journalism, for example that idea of an "angle".  But I'm not quite a good enough person to go out there and really try to learn things properly from scratch, journalism-free.

Not that science in school is that great either.  I used to get so annoyed in Physics lessons, which were potentially about the most interesting things ever, but where the lesson plans were basically ten minutes about something, forty-five minutes saying it again more slowly, and then twenty minutes saying it again just in case anyone still didn't get it.  It was another of those instances where you realise that school is at least as much for learning to sit still and listen politely as for learning about the supposed subjects of the lesson.  And it's true that sitting and listening politely is an important skill for adult life.  Nonetheless, what we were told was more or less true, even if Newtonian physics falls apart when you get to a small scale.

The things that have been really bugging me are to do with consciousness, intelligence, and the brain.  I don't blame Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian for this, but it is sort of his fault for raising my expectations.  Some of his columns in the series "This Column Will Change Your Life" are quite interesting examinations of what human brains are actually like.  And I've been thinking a lot about that for a variety of reasons, one of which has to do with faith, and the idea, constantly expressed, that it's faith versus reason.  I have this sense that faith and reason are both subsets of something much bigger, but I don't know what to call that bigger thing, and my thinking on this is really unfinished.  I still haven't read Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind, though I am definitely going to, perhaps for Lent, but maybe she'd call the bigger thing "mind", I don't know, and if she does I don't know if I'd agree with her.  I'm not sure that we really quite know what reason is, even though we talk about it a lot.  (This is another place where I'm being lazy because it occurs to me that philosophers might have some interesting debates going on about this.)  But the human brain is a really fascinating thing.  The easiest thing to ask a computer is something like what is 28 times 317.  But this is one of the hardest things to ask a human brain.  (It's 8876, by the way, I just worked that out completely in my brain without paper but it took me a minute and a half, three minutes if you count that I did it twice to make sure.)  Yet it's a huge feat for a computer to play a basic parlour game.  I have no choice but to use my brain to view the world.  Every single thing that seems to me to be out there is really in my head -- I think I'm looking at the dome of a blue spring sky right now, but it's really all inside the inner curve of my skull.  So I'd like to know more about how it works, especially since, basically, I am constantly being accused, openly or by implication, of misusing it by believing in God (often by people who think they, in contrast, are using theirs entirely correctly, with all the implications that involves about what a brain is for and what sorts of duties we might owe it).

But the problem is how fantastically naive all this stuff is.  I read 59 Seconds by Robert Wiseman, which sells itself as cutting-edge peer-reviewed scientifically-proven insights into the human mind.  And it was full of things "proving" that people are more likely to agree to your request if you touch them on the arm, and suchlike.  Now, I intensely dislike being touched on the arm, and although I try not to resent it because intentions are more important than deeds, deep down I feel that it's an attempt to dominate me by moving into the personal space that is mine.  If you touch me on the arm I will instantly forgive you -- it's a reflex action, I'm afraid, and that's your favour right there, not the one you were asking from me.  Now, of course that particular set of studies was done in America, perhaps in an area where cultural mores are different from here.  Throughout Wiseman's book studies done in vastly different cultures are merrily treated as equivalent.  But let's imagine that an English study got the same result.  Now imagine that you've met me.  (I know some people read this blog who have met me.)  "I could really do with getting Rebecca to help me out by doing a few supervisions", you're thinking, or some equivalent favour.  "I know what, I'll make sure that when I ask her I touch her on the arm, like Professor Wiseman advises."  If you've met me I expect you may have realised that I am not an arm-touching type.  Even if you hadn't noticed, I bet you've got a sense that different people react differently to arm-touching.  If you like, you can disregard this distinction, now that you know that Wiseman's advice about arm-touching is that you should just go for it.  This is the sort of science that makes people stupider, not more intelligent.  It decreases our understanding rather than broadening it, and it's all impeccable in terms of being based on peer-reviewed research conducted according to scientific methods.  It's the advice that Wiseman draws from the research that's at fault here, not the research itself, but it's still pretty disappointing stuff in terms of understanding the mind.

Another one that annoyed me had to do with Benjamin Franklin.  Franklin apparently had a political opponent.  Franklin asked as a favour to borrow a very rare book from this man's library, which was granted, and this made a friendly connection between them.  Wiseman interprets this as meaning that to get X on your side you should get X to do you a favour.  It may be that we do tend to feel warmer towards people we have helped or looked after in some way (haven't centuries of gender politics involved that idea?) but it seems like a terrible oversimplification of the Franklin episode.  It's a delicate compliment to ask to borrow a book, it flatters the book owner on their intelligence and taste, it implies that both parties know that knowledge is more important than politics.  But it seems a bit troublesome to draw from this the idea that asking to borrow a pen during a committee meeting will make the pen's owner feel all fuzzy towards you, instead of just thinking you're a disorganised nuisance.

I was driven to the conclusion that novels are probably the best answer we have at the moment.  Read War and Peace and you'll understand how Natasha comes to run away with Kuragin even though she's in love with Prince Andrei.  I'm not saying it's necessarily impossible for cognitive science to get at that particular problem, just that it's going to take a long time.  And any novelist or short story writer could get dozens of different possibilities out of that Franklin exchange.

The thing that reminded me of all this was this fascinating article about monkeys and self-doubt.  Whenever you read something like this it's hard not to see it as a sort of double-edged experiment -- the scientists test the monkeys on something, while the scientists are themselves tested on their ability to come up with experiments.  In this one monkeys were given a series of pictures to react to, and three different possible options to choose.  For two of those options the consequences varied according to the picture the monkey had been shown; the same response would produce either a treat or a pause depending on what the picture was.  However, the third option consistently produced neither, and if the monkey pressed it then he or she could move at once on to the next picture.  The fact that these monkeys sometimes chose the third option when they knew it definitely wouldn't get them a treat, but would move them more quickly into a situation where a treat would be available, does suggest that they were aware when they weren't sure what answer the monkey-researchers were looking for.  (Though it doesn't necessarily mean that this is *self* doubt, it could be monkey-researcher doubt -- "Ah," thinks the monkey, "this is one of those middle-of-the-range pictures, and I have noticed, oh bringer-of-food-to-monkeys, that you aren't very consistent when it comes to pictures like this, so let's skip on to get something where you'll find it easier to understand that it's time for me to have a treat".)  I think this is fascinating.  I think it gives an interesting insight into both humans and monkeys.  But I'm not so sure about the bit where a contrast is drawn between New World and Old World monkeys.  That two different groups of monkeys react differently in the same situations is interesting.  But there's so much evidence that lots of animals have rudimentary culture, in the sense of things that they learn from each other which lead to slight differences in behaviour between separate groups, that it seems like the previous experience of both sets of monkeys would be pretty relevant here.  How far are they from a wild existence?  A wild monkey, which probably knows hunger and glut, might have a different attitude to waiting from a monkey which has always been given a reasonable amount of food at the same time each day.  Maybe the New World monkeys were more trusting, or in less of a hurry -- maybe the scientists haven't yet come up with the test that provokes New World monkeys into expressing doubt.  Maybe the New World monkeys were more hopeful about training the researchers better -- "I keep telling you that pictures like this belong with the first set of pictures not the second, and even though you don't listen, and pictures like this still seem to confuse you, I'm not going to give up on you, oh bringer-of-treats-to-monkeys, I know you want to give me a treat, and if I persist I know you'll understand me eventually." I'm not being entirely facetious here -- I think there was a definite equivalence between the times when we would shout "wait" to Elly, thinking that the fool dog had forgotten what wait meant, and the times when she would, essentially, shout "give me some of that delicious cheese you're eating" and get increasingly frustrated by our inability to understand that she would like some delicious cheese, both of us forgetting that understanding and compliance are not the same thing.  Anyway, basically, I think the monkeys come out of this one looking pretty good as personages who know what they want and know how to get it, while I remain to be entirely convinced by the more extravagant claims of the researchers, especially the claim that this is a big leap forward for understanding human cognition.


  1. I don't know how you'd get close to understanding what the current thinking is in several relevant disciplines without a few years' heavy reading. At least you have an idea of what questions you want to ask, which is better than not knowing what you don't know.
    I recognise the 'understanding is not equivalent to compliance' point, it happens with small children as well as dogs. My daughter repeatedly asks for a rice cake while I'm driving; I'm not sure whether she doesn't understand I can't comply, or thinks I don't understand her pressing need for instant snacks. I'm not sure which of us is the monkey in this scenario.

  2. I wish someone would do the heavy reading for me and then write a book about it... The Wiseman one disappointed me, as you may have gathered.

    Small children are fantastic in how well they make the world adapt to them. My little nephew's like that too. It's impossible to know whether he doesn't understand the word "later", or whether he just refuses to accept it, but consciously or not he's a master at getting things to work around him. I think it would be really interesting to see what little children did in that monkey-testing scenario. I bet children with different personalities would behave differently. In fact, maybe all such experiments which are used to deduce things about animal minds should be repeated with both young and adult humans too, as a sort of control. That experiment where they put a dot on a child's or animal's face without them noticing, and then show them a mirror to see if they touch the dot as a sign of self-awareness, is apparently "failed" by children from a lot of cultures, and is far more culturally-specific than you'd imagine. So the fact that certain monkeys fail it is not proof that they aren't self-aware. The failure in self-awareness here is on the part of the scientists who designed the test. They may be more self-aware than, say, an elephant, but they are not self-aware enough.

    I did read about an experiment done dually on rats and humans. It was about discarding learned behaviour when it was no longer productive. They had a maze for the rats, and a bigger similar thing for the humans, and if it was successfully negociated there was a treat or some cash in the middle. When they stopped putting out the treats and cash both groups took a while before they stopped looking for it, but the humans persisted much longer than the rats, to the extent that some people actually broke into the facility to look for the money after the experiment was over.