The Human Mind

Book review: The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, by Joseph Henrich.

This book provides a clear explanation of how an ability to learn cultural knowledge made humans evolve into something unique over the past few million years. It’s by far the best book I’ve read on human evolution.

Before reading this book, I thought human uniqueness depended on something somewhat arbitrary and mysterious which made sexual selection important for human evolution, and wondered whether human language abilities depended on some lucky mutation. Now I believe that the causes of human uniqueness were firmly in place 2-3 million years ago, and the remaining arbitrary events seem much farther back on the causal pathway (e.g. what was unique about apes? why did our ancestors descend from trees 4.4 million years ago? why did the climate become less stable 3 million years ago?)

Human language now seems like a natural byproduct of previous changes, and probably started sooner (and developed more gradually) than many researchers think.

I used to doubt that anyone could find good evidence of cultures that existed millions of years ago. But Henrich provides clear explanations of how features such as right-handedness and endurance running demonstrate important milestones in human abilities to generate culture.

Henrich’s most surprising claim is that there’s an important sense in which individual humans are no smarter than other apes. Our intellectual advantage over apes is mostly due to a somewhat special-purpose ability to combine our individual brains into a collective intelligence. His evidence on this point is weak, but it’s plausible enough to be interesting.

Henrich occasionally exaggerates a bit. The only place where that bothered me was where he claimed that heart attack patients who carefully adhered to taking placebos were half as likely to die as patients who failed to reliably take placebos. The author wants to believe that demonstrates the power of placebos. I say the patient failure to take placebos was just a symptom of an underlying health problem (dementia?).

I’m a bit surprised at how little Robin Hanson says about the Henrich’s main points. Henrich suggests that there’s cultural pressure to respect high-status people, for reasons that are somewhat at odds with Robin’s ally/coalition based reasons. Henrich argues that knowledge coming from high-status people, at least in hunter-gatherer societies, tended to be safer than knowledge from more directly measurable evidence. The cultural knowledge that accumulates over many generations aggregates information that could not be empirically acquired in a short time.

So Henrich implies it’s reasonable for people to be confused about whether evidence based medicine embodies more wisdom than eminence based medicine. Traditional culture has become less valuable recently due to the rapid changes in our environment (particularly the technology component of our environment), but cultures that abandoned traditions too readily were often hurt by consequences which take decades to observe.

I got more out of this book than a short review can describe (such as “How Altruism is like a Chili Pepper”). Here’s a good closing quote:

we are smart, but not because we stand on the shoulders of giants or are giants ourselves. We stand on the shoulders of a very large pyramid of hobbits.

Book review: The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain, by John Kounios and Mark Beeman.

This book shows that insight and analysis are different modes of thought, and that small interventions can influence how insightful we are. It’s done in a clearly analytical (not insightful) style.

They devote a good deal of effort to demonstrating that the two modes of thought differ in more ways than simply how people report them. It’s unclear why that would surprise anyone now that behaviorism is unpopular. Nor is it clear what use we can make of evidence that different parts of the brain are involved in the two modes.

I’m mildly impressed that researchers are able to objectively measure insight at all. They mostly study word problems that can be solved on something like 30 seconds. They provide some hints that those experiments study the same patterns of thought that are used to solve big tasks that simmer in our subconscious for days. But there’s some risk that the research is overlooking something unique to those harder problems.

The “creativity crisis” could have been an important part of the book. But their brief explanation is to blame the obvious suspects: environments of constant stimulation due to social media, cellphones, games, etc.

One problem with that explanation is that the decline in creativity scores since 1990 is strongest in kindergartners through 3rd graders. I don’t find it very plausible that they’ve experienced a larger increase in those hyper-stimuli than older kids have.

It’s almost as if the authors got their understanding of the alleged crisis from a blog post rather than from the peer reviewed article that they cite.

The peer reviewed article suggests a better explanation: less time for free play.

Outdoor activity activity is valuable, according to the book, at least for short-term changes in whether our mood is creative. The “crisis” could be due to less recess time at school and a decline in free-range parenting. Were the tests taken shortly after a recess up through 1990, and taken after hours of lectures more recently? If so, the decline in measured creativity would reflect mostly short-term mood changes, leaving me uncertain whether I should worry about longer lasting effects.

The book provides some advice for being more insightful. It has caused me to schedule tasks that might require creativity after moderate hikes, or earlier in the day than I previously did.

The book has made me more likely to try applying ideas from the CFAR Againstness class to inducing creative moods.

The book hints at lots of room for computer games to promote a more insightful mood than the typical game does (e.g. via requiring players to expand their attention to fill the screen). But the authors aren’t very helpful at suggesting ways to identify games that are more insight-compatible. The closest I’ve come to practical ideas about games is that I ought to replace them when possible with fiction that promotes far-mode thinking(i.e. fantasy and science fiction).

My intuition says that insight research is still in its infancy, and that we should hope for better books in this category before long.

Book review: The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition, by Gregory Hickok.

This book criticizes hype from scientists and the media about embodied cognition, mirror neurons, and the differences between the left and right brain hemispheres. Popular accounts of these ideas contain a little bit of truth, but most versions either explain very little or provide misleading explanations.

A good deal of our cognition is embodied in the sense that it’s heavily dependent on sensory and motor activity. But we have many high-level thoughts that don’t fit this model well, such as those we generate when we don’t have sensory or motor interactions that are worth our attention (often misleading called a “resting state”).

Humans probably have mirror neurons. They have some value in helping us imitate others. But that doesn’t mean they have much affect on our ability to understand what we’re imitating. Our ability to understand a dog wagging its tail isn’t impaired by our inability to wag our tails. Parrots’ ability to imitate our speech isn’t very effective at helping them understand it.

Mirror neurons have also been used to promote the “broken mirror theory” of autism (with the suggestion that a malfunction related to mirror neurons impairs empathy). Hickok shows that the intense world hypothesis (which I’ve blogged about before) is more consistent with the available evidence.

The book clarified my understanding of the brain a bit. But most of it seems unimportant. I had sort of accepted mild versions of the mirror neuron and left-brain, right brain hype, but doing so didn’t have any obvious effects on my other beliefs or my actions. It was only at the book’s end (discussing autism) that I could see how the hype might matter.

Most of the ideas that he criticizes don’t do much harm, because they wouldn’t pay much rent if true. Identifying which neurons do what has negligible effect on how I model a person’s mind unless I’m doing something unusual like brain surgery.

One small part of the recent (June 2015) CFAR workshop caused a significant improvement in how I interact with people. I’ve become more spontaneous about interacting with people.

For several years I’ve suspected that I ought to learn how to do improv-style exercises, but standard improv classes felt ineffective. I’ve since figured out that their implied obligation for me to come up with something to say caused some sort of negative association with attempts at spontaneity when I failed to think of anything to say. That negative reaction was a large obstacle to learning new habits.

Deeply ingrained habits seem to cause some part of my subconscious mind that searches for ideas or generates words to decide that it can’t come up with anything worthy of conscious attention. That leaves me in a state that I roughly describe as a blank mind (i.e. either no verbal content at the conscious level, or I generate not-very-useful meta-thoughts reacting to the lack of appropriate words).

Since I much more frequently regret failing to say something than I regret mistakenly saying something hastily that I should have known not to say, it seems like I’ve got one or more subconscious filters that has consistently erred in being too cautious about generating speech. I tried introspecting for ways to simply tell that filter to be less cautious, but I accomplished nothing that way.

I also tried paying attention to signs that I’d filtered something out (pauses in my flow of words seem to be reliable indicators) in hopes that I could sometimes identify the discarded thoughts. I hoped to reward myself for noticing the ideas as the filter started to discard them, and train the filter to learn that I value conscious access to those ideas. Yet I never seem to detect those ideas, so that strategy failed.

What finally worked was that I practiced informal versions of improv exercises in which I rewarded myself [*] for saying silly things (alone or in a practice session with Robert) without putting myself in a situation where I felt an immediate obligation to say anything unusual.

In a few weeks I could tell that I was more confident in social contexts and more able to come up with things to say.

I feel less introverted, in the sense that a given amount of conversation tires me less than it used to. Blogging also seems to require a bit less energy.

I feel somewhat less anxiety (and relatedly, less distraction from background noise), maybe due to my increased social confidence.

I may have become slightly more creative in a variety of contexts.

I hypothesize that the filtering module was rather attached to a feeling of identity along the lines of “Peter is a person who is cautious about what he says” long after the consciously accessible parts of my mind decided I should weaken that identity. Actually trying out a different identity was more important to altering some beliefs that were deeply buried in my subconscious than was conscious choice about what to believe.

I wonder what other subconscious attachments to an identity are constraining me?

Something still seems missing from my social interactions: I still tend to feel passive and become just a spectator. That seems like a promising candidate for an area where I ought to alter some subconscious beliefs. But I find it harder to focus on a comfortable vision for an alternative identity: aiming to be a leader in a group conversation feels uncomfortable in a way that aiming to be spontaneous/creative never felt.

Thanks to John Salvatier and Anna Salamon for the advice that helped me accomplish this.

[*] – I only know how to do very weak self-rewards (telling myself to be happy), but that was all I needed.

I use Beeminder occasionally. The site’s emails normally suffice to bug me into accomplishing whatever I’ve committed to doing. But I only use it for a few tasks for which my motivation is marginal. Most of the times that I consider using Beeminder, I either figure out how to motivate myself properly, or (more often) decide that my goal isn’t important.

The real value of Beeminder is that if I want to compel future-me to do something, I can’t give up by using the excuse that future-me is lazy or unreliable. Instead, I find myself wondering why I’m unwilling to risk $X to make myself likely to complete the task. That typically causes me to notice legitimate doubts about how highly I value the result.

Book review: The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, by Olivia Fox Cabane.

This book provides clear and well-organized instructions on how to become more charismatic.

It does not make the process sound easy. My experience with some of her suggestions (gratitude journalling and meditation) seems typical of her ideas – they took a good deal of attention, and probably caused gradual improvements in my life, but the effects were subtle enough to leave lots of uncertainty about how effective they were.

Many parts of the book talk as if more charisma is clearly better, but occasionally she talks about downsides such as being convincing even when you’re wrong. The chapter that distinguishes four types of charisma (focus, kindness, visionary, and authority) helped me clarify what I want and don’t want from charisma. Yet I still feel a good deal of conflict about how much charisma I want, due to doubts about whether I can separate the good from the bad. I’ve had some bad experiences in with feeling and sounding confident about investments in specific stocks has caused me to lose money by holding those stocks too long. I don’t think I can increase my visionary or authority charisma without repeating that kind of mistake unless I can somehow avoid talking about investments when I turn on those types of charisma.

I’ve been trying the exercises that are designed to boost self-compassion, but my doubts about the effort required for good charisma and about the desirability of being charismatic have limited the energy I’m willing to put into it.

Book review: Value-Focused Thinking: A Path to Creative Decisionmaking, by Ralph L. Keeney.

This book argues for focusing on values (goals/objectives) when making decisions, as opposed to the more usual alternative-focused decisionmaking.

The basic idea seems good. Alternative-focused thinking draws our attention away from our values and discourages us from creatively generating new possibilities to choose from. It tends to have us frame decisions as responses to problems, which leads us to associate decisions with undesirable emotions, when we could view decisions as opportunities.

A good deal of the book describes examples of good decisionmaking, but those rarely provide insight into how to avoid common mistakes or to do unusually well.

Occasionally the book switches to some dull math, without clear explanations of what benefit the rigor provides.

The book also includes good descriptions of how to measure the things that matter, but How to Measure Anything by Douglas Hubbard does that much better.

Book review: The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, by Johnathan Rottenberg.

This book presents a clear explanation of why the basic outlines of depression look like an evolutionary adaptation to problems such as famine or humiliation. But he ignores many features that still puzzle me. Evolution seems unlikely to select for suicide. Why does loss of a child cause depression rather than some higher-energy negative emotion? What influences the breadth of learned helplessness?

He claims depression has been increasing over the last generation or so, but the evidence he presents can easily be explained by increased willingness to admit to and diagnose depression. He has at least one idea why it’s increasing (increased pressure to be happy), but I can come up with ideas that have the opposite effect (e.g. increased ease of finding a group where one can fit in).

Much of the book has little to do with the origins of depression, and is dominated by descriptions of and anecdotes about how depression works.

He spends a fair amount of time talking about the frequently overlooked late stages of depression recovery, where antidepressants aren’t much use and people can easily fall back into depression.

The book includes a bit of self-help advice to use positive psychology, and to not rely on drugs for much more than an initial nudge in the right direction.

A somewhat new hypothesis:

The Intense World Theory states that autism is the consequence of a supercharged brain that makes the world painfully intense and that the symptoms are largely because autistics are forced to develop strategies to actively avoid the intensity and pain.

Here’s a more extensive explanation.

This hypothesis connects many of the sensory peculiarities of autism with the attentional and social ones. Those had seemed like puzzling correlations to me until now.

However, it still leaves me wondering why the variations is sensory sensitivities seem much larger with autism. The researchers suggest an explanation involving increased plasticity, but I don’t see a strong connection between the Intense World hypothesis and that.

One implication (from this page):

According to the intense world perspective, however, warmth isn’t incompatible with autism. What looks like antisocial behavior results from being too affected by others’ emotions—the opposite of indifference.

Indeed, research on typical children and adults finds that too much distress can dampen ordinary empathy as well. When someone else’s pain becomes too unbearable to witness, even typical people withdraw and try to soothe themselves first rather than helping—exactly like autistic people. It’s just that autistic people become distressed more easily, and so their reactions appear atypical.

Book review: Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio R. Damasio.

This book describes many aspects of human minds in ways that aren’t wrong, but the parts that seem novel don’t have important implications.

He devotes a sizable part of the book to describing how memory works, but I don’t understand memory any better than I did before.

His perspective often seems slightly confusing or wrong. The clearest example I noticed was his belief (in the context of pre-historic humans) that “it is inconceivable that concern [as expressed in special treatment of the dead] or interpretation could arise in the absence of a robust self”. There may be good reasons for considering it improbable that humans developed burial rituals before developing Damasio’s notion of self, but anyone who is familiar with Julian Jaynes (as Damasio is) ought to be able to imagine that (and stranger ideas).

He pays a lot of attention to the location in the brain of various mental processes (e.g. his somewhat surprising claim that the brainstem plays an important role in consciousness), but rarely suggests how we could draw any inferences from that about how normal minds behave.