On cognition

Last time I wrote about some of the ways in which we perceive the world, and this got me to thinking about cognition in general. This idea that what we perceive may not have much to do with what reality actually “looks like” is fascinating to me, and not just because of what it might mean about the physical world.1Although that’s pretty trippy too. If our perception of the world doesn’t match reality, what does that mean about our perception of other things? Like, for instance, our own thoughts?

(This line of thinking is likely to get me down into a lot of rat holes, so bear with me as I do what will probably turn out to be quite a lot of research.)

Okay, so first off — I’m writing this post under the assumption that our thoughts are something we can perceive, which presupposes that our thoughts are separate from our “selves.”2After all, if that weren’t the case, then what would be doing the perceiving? (This supposition is rat hole number one, and I lost a couple hours already going down it, so let’s set that aside for now.) Anyway, I’m going to assume that when I say “thoughts,” you guys know what I mean3”The sky is blue,” for instance, is a “thought.” “Here comes the sun.” “It’s alright.” Stuff like that., and that you agree that “thoughts” are different from other things that go on in our brains.4Maybe some other time I’ll dive more deeply into that “what are thoughts made of” rat hole.

Mindfulness meditation stresses this difference between “thoughts” and “whatever it is that’s perceiving these thoughts.” One of the key techniques in mindfulness meditation is “watching your thoughts,” which makes explicit the distinction between a thought and the observer of the thought. Practicing this awareness leads (ideally) to becoming less caught up in one’s thoughts and more focused on living in the moment — which, in turn, leads to greater happiness and less stress.

This is also part of what works about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), an approach to psychotherapy that makes use of the difference between our thoughts (and our feelings and reactions to those thoughts) and reality. CBT proposes that when people are upset — and, specifically, upset for an extended amount of time, as in anxiety or depression — the events themselves are frequently not the things that are upsetting us, but rather the thoughts we have about them (and the meaning we ascribe to these thoughts).

These sea lions are almost certainly in the act of contemplating the nature of cognition.

So here’s where I start off-roading a little bit. If there’s an “observer,” then it’s possible for that observer to perceive different thoughts differently (or for different observers to perceive the same thought in different ways). It’s not all just “Oh look, a thought.”

We call those different perceptions of thoughts “feelings.” Let’s take the thought “I think I correctly answered most, but not all, of the questions on that test.” One person, who usually gets nothing but A’s on her tests, might have that thought and feel depressed about it. Another student might be thrilled with 70%.

And going back to that “user interface” theory of perception, in which our perception of reality isn’t necessarily reflective of truth, but rather just a way to interact with reality that works for us — well, similarly, those feelings we have about our thoughts aren’t necessarily reflective of the actual thought (or reality), but are rather just a way to interact with those thoughts that works for us.

Or, in many cases, does not work at all.

This brings me (finally) to the thing I really wanted to write about in this post: Relational Frame Theory (RFT). RFT is at its core a theory about human language, but since language is so important to us humans (and in particular, is frequently used to express our thoughts), the theory extends itself to human behavior — and to feelings.

(Another rat hole dive, this one into some of the intricacies of linguistics, could happen here. Instead, I’ll just link to Noam Chomsky and let you run with it if you want.)

Anyhoo, RFT says, in brief, that language is learned (and behavior can be understood) in large part through the act of relating things to each other, or performing “relational framing.” This includes inferring bi-directional relationships (e.g. “A lemon is yellow, therefore an example of something that is yellow is a lemon”), inferring combinatorial relationships (e.g. “A cow is bigger than a dog, and a dog is bigger than a mouse, therefore a cow is bigger than a mouse”), and deriving responses based on relationships (e.g. “Dogs scare me, and a collie is a type of dog, therefore, collies scare me”).

This may seem self-evident, but it’s actually a pretty big deal. For one thing, the possibilities are endless — you can relate anything to anything, and you can do it arbitrarily (i.e. without that relationship having ever been made before).5It doesn’t even have to make any sense. This ability to be arbitrary is how we humans can speak and think in constantly changing ways — ways that might have originally started out as nonsensical relationships, but have come to make sense over time. (For example, one might say that “Alice’s house is smarter than Bob’s house” — that sentence wouldn’t have made much sense 50 years ago, but does now.)6Watch out, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” We’ll get meaning out of you yet.

Traditionally, arbitrariness of language is held to be a human-only skill, and may be one of the ways in which we can differentiate human language from that of animals.7”What makes human language special is that there’s no finite limit as to what comes next.” refHowever, things like dolphin names, “whale-ese“, and the “sonic bullets” of prairie dogs demonstrate that there may be complexity to animal language that we haven’t quite sussed out yet. So, does RFT hold the key to what makes humans special?

Maybe. B.F. Skinner proved that non-humans are capable of “operant conditioning” — in other words, changing behavior (like the response of a dog to the sound of a bell) by introducing reinforcements (like food), and this is obviously true of humans as well. But humans can take this one step further, by changing behavior based on relationships. For example, if a human has been conditioned to expect a reward based on the sound of a bell, and is subsequently told that “a siren is the same as a bell,” then that human will also expect a reward if they hear a siren. A dog would not.

Well, sea lions might be able to. So who the heck knows.

So what does “separate” us from animals, exactly? I’m going to have to do a little research…

–maia

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Although that’s pretty trippy too.
2. After all, if that weren’t the case, then what would be doing the perceiving?
3. ”The sky is blue,” for instance, is a “thought.” “Here comes the sun.” “It’s alright.” Stuff like that.
4. Maybe some other time I’ll dive more deeply into that “what are thoughts made of” rat hole.
5. It doesn’t even have to make any sense.
6. Watch out, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” We’ll get meaning out of you yet.
7. ”What makes human language special is that there’s no finite limit as to what comes next.” ref

On mantis shrimp and user interfaces

In my last post, I learned a lot about eyes. One of the things I find really notable is that there are thousands of different kinds of eyes, and that each critter’s eyes are unique. It’s fascinating to me that a mantis shrimp sees something utterly, completely different from what I see.

So, I — you guessed it — did a little research.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a peacock mantis shrimp.

A peacock mantis shrimp strutting its stuff.
(Photo by Jens Petersen, via Wikimedia Commons)

You’re about 6 inches long, and you’re scuttling along the bottom of the ocean. You’re feeling a little peckish, so you start looking around for a snack. You spot a crab.1And then, you smash through the crab’s shell using your raptorial appendage, which accelerates like a .22-caliber bullet, causing the surrounding water to actually boil. NBD.

Okay, did you imagine that? And when you imagined it, I’m guessing you got at least a little bit of a visual on it, and you probably have a picture of a crab in your head right now.2If you don’t, imagining your last trip to Red Lobster will do just fine.

Now, here’s the thing. That picture of the crab that you have right now is really different from the picture that a mantis shrimp would have of the exact same crab. In fact, a lot of things about that crab are perceived differently by the mantis shrimp than they are by you and me. We think of crabs as having pretty tough shells (so much so that we’ve invented fancy crab-cracking tools to get at the tender, succulent meat inside), but a mantis shrimp just whacks a crab open with their raptorial appendage like you might tear a piece of lettuce. And don’t even get me started on their damned “noses.”

In short, the way a mantis shrimp perceives the world is very different from the way we do, or the way an ocelot would.

So here’s the million dollar question for you: Which one of us is right? What is the reality of the crab? Is it easy to eat or hard to eat? Is it big or is it little? Is it a dull red color, or is it a vibrant whatever-the-heck-mantis-shrimp-call-the-color-of-a-crab?

Donald D. Hoffman of the University of California does a lot of thinking and experimenting around this question of reality versus perception,3I first learned about Dr. Hoffman via David McRaney over at the You Are Not So Smart blog/podcast, which I highly, highly recommend. You can start with his interview with Dr. Hoffman — or, really, anywhere — and prepare to spend many hours catching up on the YANSS archives. and he has a mind-blowing take on it — in brief, that our perceptions (and the mantis shrimp’s, and the ocelot’s) don’t actually tell us much about reality at all. Rather, our perceptions tell us what we need to know in order for us to survive and reproduce.

This is a pretty big deal, although it might not be obvious at first. The mind-blowing thing here (for me, anyway) is that we have absolutely no idea how different reality is from our perception. It makes a certain amount of sense to me that my vision isn’t showing me what a mantis shrimp’s vision shows her, but I assume that we both see, well, a crab. Maybe she sees it as a different color, or through a different lens, but we both still see a real live thing.

Something like this.

Part of what Dr. Hoffman is proposing is that neither I nor the mantis shrimp has any f’in’ idea what a crab really is; instead, we perceive something that allows us to interact with a crab in an effective manner. Maybe a “crab” is really the toenail of a massive dog-like creature that we can’t comprehend the entirety of. Maybe a “crab” is really a hologram being projected forwards in time by the creatures we called “dinosaurs.” Maybe a “crab” is really a collection of nanobots that exist everywhere and everywhen in the universe, and we just see the few that form a crab-like shape at any given time. Or maybe a “crab” is really something I can’t even imagine.

His analogy for this is excellent — he likens our perception of reality to the user interface of a computer. My user interface might be like the screen of an iPad, and the mantis shrimp’s might be more like a punch card (or more likely, it’s the other way around). But neither of those interfaces is anything like the electrons and magnetic fields and relays that make a computer compute.

Let that sink in a bit, and imagine some of the ways in which reality might differ from our perceptions. Time. Distance. Causality. Mind blowing, right?

I’ll revisit this perception vs. reality question in a future4Well, my future. It might end up being your past, if you’re reading this after I’ve already written that next one. You get the idea. post. In the meantime, go watch Dr. Hoffman’s TED talk (maybe a couple times), and check out some of their other consciousness talks while you’re at it.

Leave me a comment and let me know what you think the nature of reality truly is!

‘Til next time,

–maia

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. And then, you smash through the crab’s shell using your raptorial appendage, which accelerates like a .22-caliber bullet, causing the surrounding water to actually boil. NBD.
2. If you don’t, imagining your last trip to Red Lobster will do just fine.
3. I first learned about Dr. Hoffman via David McRaney over at the You Are Not So Smart blog/podcast, which I highly, highly recommend. You can start with his interview with Dr. Hoffman — or, really, anywhere — and prepare to spend many hours catching up on the YANSS archives.
4. Well, my future. It might end up being your past, if you’re reading this after I’ve already written that next one. You get the idea.

On seeing

In my last post, I looked at the Zulu greeting “Sawubona” and its translation, “I see you.” It got me thinking about the verb “to see,” and the depth of meaning that it has. “I see what you mean.” “Can I see that?” “See, the way to solve a quadratic equation is to complete the square.” “Seeing is believing!”

The word “see” conveys far more than just the action of looking at something, and it’s frequently used to communicate a sense of understanding — even by those who aren’t able to see physically. Vision is a pretty big deal for us humans.

So I did a little research about eyes.

Proponents of creationism and intelligent design frequently use the eye as an example of an organ that is “irreducibly complex” — in other words, they hold that eyesight is too complex a system to have developed through natural selection. On the flip side, those who support the theory of evolution argue that complexity, even in something as complicated as an eye, can easily arise through natural selection if you wait long enough. (And 3.8 billion years is a really, really long time.)

I’m entirely on the side of evolution, and so the rest of this post will take that as a given. (If that’s going to piss you off, you may want to stop reading now and move on to another post.) Other people have done a great job of hypothesizing the process by which natural selection might go about shaping an eye (National Geographic’s description is one of my favorites), so I’m not going to go into it here. Instead, I’d like to highlight some of the things I find fascinating about eyes.

First off, there is such an astonishing variety of eyes out there. There are compound eyes, which are drastically different from human eyes; rather than the usual eyeball + lens + retina + rods/cones + optic nerve setup, compoundedly eyed insects have thousands (or tends of thousands) of ommatidia “eyeballs.”

There are critters like bees and parrots, who can see in ultraviolet.

Bumblebee on butterfly bush
Here’s looking at you, kid.

There are huge eyes, and little eyes on stalks, and no eyes at all.

There are the mantis shrimp, which have the most complex eyes ever discovered — 12 types of color receptors (as compared to 3 in people); the ability to see ultraviolet, infrared, and polarized light; independently moving eyes; and three sections per eye (giving them “trinocular” vision, even if they were to lose one eye). Someday, their eyes may even help us detect cancer. In short, mantis shrimp eyes are amazing.

And why did mantis shrimp get this nifty vision, and not, say, us? Well, the short answer is that they got these interesting mutations in the first place primarily due to luck (well, and exposure to mutagens, but mostly just luck). And they got to keep said mutations because they make the shrimp better at finding mates (and living long enough to reproduce in the first place) — natural selection and all that. (For instance, male mantis shrimp may “chat up” female mantis visually.)

Lizards are cool, too. You know how most of us have two eyes? Turns out that most lizards (and frogs, lampreys, and some fish) have a third “eye,” called the parietal eye. This eye isn’t very complicated and is primarily just used to figure out how bright it is outside, although some lizards can also use it to differentiate between blue and green light. Scientists believe that these features of the parietal eye help lizards figure out where and when to bask in the sunlight.

What’s even more fascinating than just the fact of this parietal eye is that it may help explain both the process through which our own eyes evolved to see color, as well as shedding light (pun intended) on mammals’ transition from ectotherm to endotherm.

In general, eyes are just really interesting to look at.

At the end of the day, though, the really interesting things are the people and animals behind these eyes. Most people are extremely good at telling what someone’s feeling just by looking into their eyes. And if you’ve ever wondered if your pet doghorse, or jackdaw is trying to tell you something when they look into your eyes — well, you may be right.

It’s not for nothing that we call eyes “windows into the soul.”

See you next time.

–maia

Sawubona

Hello, you.

I see you. Sawubona.

I learned of this lovely and nuanced Zulu word today in a post at Wayfinders Collective, where Ashley is building a place for discovery and the finding of ways forward — which resonates quite strongly with me right now. (Hi, Ashley! I see you.)

So I did a little research about “sawubona.”

First, pronunciation. Turns out it’s pretty much what you might expect: sah(woo)-bone-ah. Forvo has a couple clips of (what I understand to be) native speakers, if you want to head over there to hear them. (C’mon back when you’re done.)

The nuance of this word is deep and fascinating, and I strongly recommend this video at the Global Oneness Project of Orland Bishop explaining its meaning. He talks about how the “seeing” of sawubona doesn’t just refer to me, myself, doing the seeing, but rather to me, my ancestors, and the divine; that this seeing is being done by both me and the Universe. He explains that this word says so much more than just “I see you” — it establishes me as a witness to your existence, affirms your reality, and invites your participation in my life (and mine in yours).

“I see you” in English is used this way, too, although perhaps not quite as poetically.  The Urban Dictionary (in which definitions are crowdsourced and tend towards the slangier uses of words and phrases) includes several entries that define “I see you” as confirming existence, validating identity, or recognizing accomplishments. And most native English speakers use the phrase “I see” to communicate “I understand,” or “I acknowledge.”

As for incorporating this meaning into the word(s) used for greeting, it certainly isn’t unique to the Zulu language. “Namaste” is another greeting that communicates so much more than a simple “hi there” — its translation is closer to “I bow to you,” and it carries with it a recognition of the divine, in both of us. “Aloha” similarly implies love and compassion. And let’s not forget Na’vi, from the movie Avatar; oel ngati kame (“I see you”) communicates an acknowledgement of the essence of the person being greeted, and an opening of heart and mind to them and to the Universe.

So, I see you. Aloha. Namaste. Sawubona. Hello. And welcome to my journey of discovery.

–maia