brain


Continuing, it just dawned on me that when we begin to talk, the mind had already decided, some 600 milliseconds earlier, what we are about to hear. Too late then, we are left bothered and think of what we should have said instead. The experimental evidence for our mind having been made up before we are aware of it made people wonder whether we truly have a free will.  3

From thought to speech occurs in distinct steps. I read about an experiment in which subjects were shown some words; they were recognized 200 milliseconds later, then it appeared that at 320 milliseconds grammatical processing occurred, and at 450 milliseconds it appeared that the brain was getting ready to talk. It took 500 milliseconds in all, from start to finish, with all three steps occurring in a small region of the brain's Broca's area.*  4

Compare a 600-millisecond period to the times it takes for people to take their turn in a conversation. Measurements showed a typical gap of 200 milliseconds, but also that it depends on the language used, rising to 470 for Danish and falling to only 7 for Japanese. In other words, participants in a conversation are already preparing their responses to one who is still talking.* This finding, it seems to me, affects the conduct of social intercourse, including education, business affairs and politics.  5

Awakening  6

I am guessing that most grown ups feel they have a good idea of how children learn. I also have come to believe that parents in their, probably unwitting, role as educators, however well-meaning, ought to have a better grasp of how their children learn than some inflexible notion.  7

Over the last two decades, an understanding has gelled among evolutionary psychologists that children learn about the world in much the same way scientists do: by conducting experiments, analyzing statistics, and forming intuitive theories in the realms of physics, biology and psychology. "Obviously children are not doing experiments or analyzing statistics in the selfconscious way that adult scientists do." I am quoting Alison Gupnik, who specializes in cognitive development.*

      "The children’s brains, however, must be unconsciously processing information in a way that parallels the methods of scientific discovery. The central idea of cognitive science is that the brain is a kind of computer designed by evolution and programmed by experience."

      "One of the greatest mysteries of psychology and philosophy is how human beings learn about the world from a confusing mess of sensory data."  8

Quoting Pascal Boyer, who we met in my previous essay,*:

      "From birth (and indeed some time before that) infants spontaneously pay special attention to speech, as opposed to other sounds, and can recognize the typical rhythm and prosody of their mother's language, perceived in a rather muffled form during the last months of gestation. In the first months of life, this leads them to pay attention only to recurrent sounds that are pertinent in their language and to ignore everything else as noise. That selective attention is reflected in babbling, which starts as a wonderfully catholic mixture of all possible sounds one can make with vocal cords, a mouth, and a tongue, and gradually restricts itself to the sounds of the local language. Paying attention only to specific sounds in turn allows infants to identify the boundaries between words, a pretty difficult thing to do, as the stream of speech is generally continuous. So learning takes place in steps, ... Each step, obviously, requires some previous expectations.... At each point these expectations allow the organism to orient to a special aspect of the sonic environment, and at each step these expectations are in turn modified by the kind of information that was picked up. These expectations make children orient to some properties of speech as carrying meaning but not others—they expect that the recurrent difference between ship and sheep, or between chip and cheap, may carry some diference in meaning, but they ignore the difference in te word 'ship' pronounced by a man and a woman—even though the accoustic contrast is just as great. Children can acquire their native language, from interaction with other speakers, because some very specific mental systems are prepared to attend to specific properties of sound."  9

These steps are made by a range of mental mechanisms referred to as "intuitive inference systems" or "modules" or "domain-specific systems." They are perceived as properties evolved from our genetic makeup.  10

Returning to Prof. Gupnik,

      "Baby brains are more flexible than adult brains. They have far more connections between neurons, none of them particularly efficient, but over time they prune out unused connections and strengthen useful ones.

      "The adult capacities for focus, planning and efficient action that are governed by this brain area depend on the long learning that occurs in childhood. This area’s wiring may not be complete until the mid-20s.

      "Babies and young children are exquisitely designed by evolution to change and create, to learn and explore. Those capacities, so intrinsic to what it means to be human, appear in their purest forms in the earliest years of our lives. Our most valuable human accomplishments are possible because we were once helpless dependent children and not in spite of it."  
11

Genes, we learn, are the wellspring of brains and of mind, both. And mind itself, we saw before, is part of the environment from which it draws information.* It seems to me therefore that we have here a feedback mechanism reminiscent of the Fisher paradigm: "What we think, we do. What we do, we become."*  12

Via dolorosa  13

I recently came across a news item that within the next five years a part of the Earth's magnetic field is expected to be penetrated by cosmic rays. The phenomenon is referred to as the Southern Atlantic Anomaly. It affects electronic communications to the point of rendering them impossible. The International Space Station is already feeling the effect and communication satellites will be affected next as the cosmic rays penetrate deeper toward the Earth's surface and on. This news item reminded me of a warning that an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack by some nuclear power on the U.S. would ultimately wipe out 90% of the population. It is found in Forbes of October 2017.  14

It is obvious that a possible destruction of electronic communications calls for preparing a worldwide economy without it, especially where food supplies are affected.  15

Our Canadian Senate's primary role is legislative. Next is its investigative role. Years ago, I recommended that this role be expanded to an investigative, anticipating, and critical problem-solving role. With major global events threatening us, I was invited to submit a Brief to a Special Committee for Senate Modernization, which I since followed up with a second Brief.* Neither one received a response. Which left me wondering why not?  16

L'on y danse tous en rond  17

Shedding an evolutionary dependence on parents allows other properties of mind to come to the fore. Prof. Boyer devoted a chapter of "Minds Make Societies" to the root of conflicts between groups which comes along with cooperation within groups, for example in racial and ethnic groups. Visible similarities within racial groups have an impact on out-groups. Ethnicity often entails shared ancestry, language, and cultural traditions.  18

Boyer:

      "Evolutionary psychologists seek answers to such questions as , 'Why are individuals committed to their groups? Why do they persist in that commitment when it might be to their advantage to defect from their group? How can groups survive at all as cohesive units in the face of individual, divergent interests? Why are groups often locked in intractable conflicts even when all partners realize there is litte benefit to be expected from prolonged rivalry? Why do group conflicts, especially ethnic ones, flare up in outbursts of extraordinary violence? How can that occur between groups that had coexisted in peace for decades or centuries?

      "From an evolutionary perspective, having very high group solidarity and intergroup conflicts is just like having claws on your feet or antlers on top of your head—something that requires explanation in terms what it did for organisms over evolutionary time'."  
19

Reading the book makes me drowsy. I am an old fogey (93 in a few weeks) with a poor short-term memory and I keep on losing the thread of page after page after page of details. I take notes to help me along, but even so .... No point complaining. All I can do is my best to focus on what makes us better understand what is under the hood of our mind. For example, whereas our conscious harbors words such as "nationalism" and "tribalism" and "culture," when it comes to evolutionary psychology those words don't explain a thing.  20

Boyer:

      "The idea of a nation implies that each state corresponds to a community of people united by traditions, cultural values, language, and the idea of a common past."

But nations are fairly modern concoctions on an evolutionary scale. How far back in history are their citizens united by traditions, by cultural values, by language, by a common past? Consider that the number of independent states has about tripled since World War II. Consider that Canadians are very diverse on all those four scores, that, in fact, many Canadians hardly consider themselves Canadian. And yet! We are a group, a group "under" one Head of State. We have a national currency, we pay taxes to the same federal government, we rely on our Canadian Armed Forces, we expect to, if we do not so already, enjoy our Canadian Pension Plan.  
21

Members of a group contribute to the group (for one, pay taxes in this case) and expect benefits in return (here; protection and pension). This is not a straight-forward exchange interaction, such as between seller and buyer, because it does not follow that contributing more to the group bring greater benefits. We should also bear in mind that citizens belong to other groups as well, contributing to those and expecting benefits. And so, with groups overlapping, allegiance to the state is diluted. Quoting Boyer:

      "So groupishness is not a blunt instinct to follow the herd, so to speak. People behave in ways that seem to favor in-groups [In-goups: any of the social circles they belong to. HvE] because they explicitly use a ... set of assumptions about how the social interaction is presented to them (evaluating different individuals or allocating resources between them) is a form of reciprocal cooperation [Which we know is not actually reciprocal, only seems so. HvE]. Obviously, they need not to do that consciously. All they experience is the value they attribute to particular individuals. But the computations are taking place away from conscious access. Which is why it makes sense to explore in more detail this hidden world of mental computation that makes groups possible."  
22

Experimental evidence suggest these computations are done easily and unconsciously. It seems that the psychology underlying coalitions includes an inborn alliance-detection system. People also unconsciously monitor fellow members' commitment and potential defection to avoid a wasting of their own commitment. Defection is consciously perceived as morally reprehensible, even by members of the group one defects to.  23

These unconscious computations, according to coalitional psychology, go hand-in-glove with many of our genetic bases.  24

circles

In the Red Chamber  25

For years I have been curious about what it is that prevents our Senate to better meet the needs of Canadians, to say nothing of human beings worldwide. What group loyalties, I wonder, override loyalty to our country as a whole? Which, for our any senator, comes first, Canada, his province, native language, race, membership in the Senate, political party, social class, esteem, family, offspring? Whatever. And if we can find the answer or answers, will we be able to improve our Senate to better serve our country? Well, let's put that last question on the back-burner for now.  26

It seems well to bear in mind that at the very instant a senator is sworn in, a major part of their expectations evaporate—all consciously overt good intentions notwithstanding—for then job and pension have become already assured. At the same time, they gain enhanced esteem in their other social circles. This, I am inclined to think brings about a shift in the strenghts of their allegiances. Consider further that the main groups in the Senate are now the Independents and the Conservatives and that the Independents' lack of political party allegiance allows Conservatives to play a relatively stronger stance in the Senate and gaining greater effect on Senate decisions.  27

My senate essay envisions a functional distinction among our senators:

   • Those with a thorough knowledge of our regions and cultural/religious communities.
   • Those with professional expertise and well-connected in a wide array of fields.
*  28

I provisionally labelled them "citizen contacts" and "complex problem solvers." But now it seems that my suggestion of senators mingling with lower-class folk is naive. After all, what have ordinary Canadians to offer them? As for complex problem solvers, this calls for Senate diversity to include a large fraction of senators with a strong mathematical and scientific bent, something that diminishes the esteem of the others, especially so because scientists so noticeably need to "dumb-down" their opinions. I already sensed that from closely following the Modernization Committee's televised debates.  29

I feel that working on this piece has given me a good chunk of the answer to why it is that my Briefs to the Modernization Committee were left unanswered. It is mainly found in predominantly subconscious computations of expected, yet uncommitted returns for efforts invested in competing groups.  30

On a concluding note, I began writing this piece with Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 in mind. However, I believe that continuing the kind of explicit music-related experiment of my previous two rhapsodies bewilders readers. This subject is too important for that. I am pretty well convinced that a comprehension of evolutionary psychology is essential for improving how we are governed. But then, this old fogey still has a lot to learn.  31


Footnotes

Reference (October 2009).  *   fn1


An overview (January 2016).  *   fn2

Alison Gupnik, "How Babies Think" (July 2010).  *   fn3


Pascal Boyer, "Minds Make Societies" (2018).  *   fn4


Environment  *   fn5


Fisher paradigm  *   fn6


"Toward a Guardian Senate" and "On guard in a global environment"  *   fn7


Functional distinction among senators *   fn8

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