In his new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,David J. Epstein investigates the significant advantages of generalized cognitive skills for success in a complex world. We’ve heard and read many praises for narrow expertise in both humans and AIs (Watson, Alpha Go, etc.). In both humans and AIs, however, narrow+deep expertise does not translate to adaptiveness when reality presents novel challenges, as it does constantly.
As you ingest this highly readable, non-technical book, please add your observations to the comments below.
Humans have some intentional control over our brains (and minds and bodies) and focused breathing is one of those control mechanisms.
“This recent study finally answers these questions by showing that volitionally controlling our respirational, even merely focusing on one’s breathing, yield additional access and synchrony between brain areas. This understanding may lead to greater control, focus, calmness, and emotional control.”
A Nieman Reports article highlights four startups seeking to improve public discourse. Let’s hope efforts to create methods and technologies along these lines accelerate and succeed in producing positive outcomes.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.
This particular hyperbolic gem has been doing the rounds on Tumblr for a while. It resurfaced in April 2018, in response to a viral Twitter challenge posed by the US podcaster Whitney Reynolds: women, describe yourself the way a male writer would.
The dare hit a sweet spot. Many could summon up passages from books containing terrible, sexualised descriptions of women. Some of us recalled Haruki Murakami, whose every novel can be summarised as: ‘Protagonist is an ordinary man, except lots of really beautiful women want to sleep with him.’ Others remembered J M Coetzee, and his variations on the plot: ‘Tenured male professor in English literature sleeps with beautiful female undergraduate.’ It was a way for us to joke about the fact that so much great literature was written by men who could express perfectly detailed visual descriptions of the female body, and yet possessed such an impoverished understanding of the female mind.
This is why the philosophical project of trying to map the contours of other minds needs a reality check. If other humans are beyond our comprehension, what hope is there for understanding the experience of animals, artificial intelligence or aliens?
I am a literature scholar. Over thousands of years of literary history, authors have tried and failed to convey an understanding of Others (with a capital ‘O’). Writing fiction is an exercise that stretches an author’s imagination to its limits. And fiction shows us, again and again, that our capacity to imagine other minds is extremely limited.
It took feminism and postcolonialism to point out that writers were systematically misrepresenting characters who weren’t like them. Male authors, it seems, still struggle to present convincing female characters a lot of the time. The same problem surfaces again when writers try to introduce a figure with a different ethnicity to their own, and fail spectacularly.
I mean, ‘coffee-coloured skin’? Do I really need to find out how much milk you take in the morning to know the ethnicity you have in mind? Writers who keep banging on with food metaphors to describe darker pigmentation show that they don’t appreciate what it’s like to inhabit such skin, nor to have such metaphors applied to it.
Conversely, we recently learnt that some publishers rejected the Korean-American author Leonard Chang’s novel The Lockpicker (2017) – for failing to cater to white readers’ lack of understanding of Korean-Americans. Chang gave ‘none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us’, one publisher’s letter said. ‘For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes …’ Any failure to understand a nonwhite character, it seems, was the fault of the nonwhite author.
Fiction shows us that nonhuman minds are equally beyond our grasp. Science fiction provides a massive range of the most fanciful depictions of interstellar space travel and communication – but anthropomorphism is rife. Extraterrestrial intelligent life is imagined as Little Green Men (or Little Yellow or Red Men when the author wants to make a particularly crude point about 20th-century geopolitics). Thus alien minds have been subject to the same projections and assumptions that authors have applied to human characters, when they fundamentally differ from the authors themselves.
For instance, let’s look at a meeting of human minds and alien minds. The Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin is best known for his trilogy starting with The Three-Body Problem (2008). It appeared in English in 2014 and, in that edition, each book has footnotes – because there are some concepts that are simply not translatable from Chinese into English, and English readers need these footnotes to understand what motivates the characters. But there are also aliens in this trilogy. From a different solar system. Yet their motivations don’t need footnoting in translation.
Splendid as the trilogy is, I find that very curious. There is a linguistic-cultural barrier that prevents an understanding of the novel itself, on this planet. Imagine how many footnotes we’d need to really grapple with the motivations of extraterrestrial minds.
Our imaginings of artificial intelligence are similarly dominated by anthropomorphic fantasies. The most common depiction of AI conflates it with robots. AIs are metal men. And it doesn’t matter whether the press is reporting on swarm robots invented in Bristol or a report produced by the House of Lords: the press shall plaster their coverage with Terminator imagery. Unless the men imagining these intelligent robots want to have sex with them, in which case they’re metal women with boobily breasting metal cleavage – a trend spanning the filmic arts from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the contemporary TV series Westworld (2016-). The way that we imagine nonhumans in fiction reflects how little we, as humans, really get each other.
All this supports the idea that embodiment is central to the way we understand one another. The ridiculous situations in which authors miss the mark stem from the difference between the author’s own body and that of the character. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be someone else if we can’t feel it. So, much as I enjoyed seeing a woman in high heels outrun a T-Rex in Jurassic World (2015), I knew that the person who came up with that scene clearly has no conception of what it’s like to inhabit a female body, be it human or Tyrannosaurus.
Because stories can teach compassion and empathy, some people argue that we should let AIs read fiction in order to help them understand humans. But I disagree with the idea that compassion and empathy are based on a deep insight into other minds. Sure, some fiction attempts to get us to understand one another. But we don’t need any more than a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else in order to empathise with them – and, hopefully, to not want to kill and destroy them.
As the US philosopher Thomas Nagel claimed in 1974, a human can’t know what it is like to be a bat, because they are fundamentally alien creatures: their sensory apparatus and their movements are utterly different from ours. But we can imagine ‘segments’, as Nagel wrote. This means that, despite our lack of understanding of bat minds, we can find ways to keep a bat from harm, or even nurse and raise an orphaned baby bat, as cute videos on the internet will show you.
The problem is that sometimes we don’t realise this segment of just a glimpse of something bigger. We don’t realise until a woman, a person of colour, or a dinosaur finds a way to point out the limits of our imagination, and the limits of our understanding. As long as other human minds are beyond our understanding, nonhuman ones certainly are, too.
Kanta Dihal is a postdoctoral research assistant and the research project coordinator of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Our discussions all, to some extent, relate to cognition. An important area of inquiry concerns whether some form of physical embodiment is required for a brain to support cognition in general and the self-aware sort of cognition we humans possess.
Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind And Its Challenge To Western Thought, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Please note, while the title includes “Philosophy,” we are not a philosophy group and the book and discussion will revolve around scientific concepts and implications, not spiritualistic or metaphysical ideas.
– Amazon (used copies in the $6 range, including shipping)
RSVP by email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you plan to attend our discussion on the afternoon of Saturday, November 3, 2018.
While our group enjoys socializing and will plan other events to that end, this meeting is for focused discussion among people who invest the time in advance to inform themselves on the topic. As a courtesy to those who will do their ‘homework,’ before the meeting please read and consider Part 1 (the first eight chapters) of the book. As you read, jot down your thoughts and questions on the book’s claims, supporting evidence, and implications for our core topics–brain, mind, and artificial intelligence. If you are not able to invest this effort prior to the meeting, please do not attend. Thank you for your understanding.
From David Barash, evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at University of Washington.
“Brief explanatory excursion: it is a useful exercise to ask what brains are for. From an evolutionary perspective, brains evolved not simply to give us a more accurate view of the world, or merely to orchestrate our internal organs or coordinate our movements, or even our thoughts. Rather, brains exist because they maximise the reproductive success of the genes that helped create them and of the bodies in which they reside. To be adaptive, consciousness must be like that. Insofar as it has evolved via natural selection, consciousness must exist because brains that produced consciousness were evolutionarily favoured over those that did not. But why? One possibility is that consciousness gave its possessors the capacity to overrule the tyranny of pleasure and pain.”
“Even more intriguing than its use as a facilitator of impulse control is the possibility that consciousness evolved in the context of our social lives. Human societies privilege a kind of Machiavellian intelligence whereby success in competition and co-operation depends on our evolved ability to imagine another’s situation no less than our own. That isn’t so much out of intended benevolence (although this, too, could be the case) but because such leaps of the imagination allow us to maximise our own interests in the very complex landscape of human societies. Thus, consciousness is not only an unfolding story that we tell ourselves, moment by moment, about what we are doing, feeling and thinking. It also includes our efforts to interpret what otherindividuals are doing, feeling and thinking, as well as how those others are likely to perceive us in return.[…] The more conscious our ancestors were, according to this argument, the more able they were to modify — to their own benefit — others’ impressions of them and, hence, their evolutionary success.”
“It therefore appears at present that human beings, although probably not unique in possessing Theory of Mind, are nonetheless unusual in the degree of its sophistication, specifically in the extent to which they can accurately model the minds of others. It seems highly likely that those who possessed an accurate Theory of Mind enjoyed an advantage when it came to modelling the intentions of others, an advantage that continues to this day, and was an active ingredient in the evolution of human consciousness. And it is at least possible that the more conscious you are, the more accurate is your Theory of Mind, since cognitive modellers should be more effective if they know, cognitively and self-consciously, not only what they are modelling, but that they are doing so.”
“Evan Thompson discusses Embodied Cognition, 4E Cognition, and the problems with studying the mechanisms of mindfulness from a brain-only perspective. Evan is a writer and professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He works on the nature of the mind, the self, and human experience by combining cognitive science, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, and cross-cultural philosophy, especially Asian philosophical traditions. Evan holds a thoughtful, critical view in these times of turbulence regarding mindfulness research and methods of delivery, ‘Mindfulness is not in the head. Being mindful is an embodied, social practice not a private mental state or special pattern of brain activity. Mindfulness is embodied understanding.'”
“We are the ones that create human nature by inculcating cooperation and care over selfishness and power.”
The view you express, Ed, contesting Harari’s claim in Homo deus, seems to edge up closely to the “pre-modern” standard social science of model of human nature, i.e., that it is almost solely a product of culture, with no or minimal influence of naturally selected genes and very fancy naturally selected epigenetic mechanisms for gene regulation. It is the idea that we pretty much are born, mentally, a blank slate. That is demonstrably wrong. There is a deep and mighty pan-cultural, species-typical human nature that impacts all our intrapsychic life and behavior. It is designed only to be impacted in very specific and limited biologically fitness-enhancing ways by local cultural influences. Harari is correct, at least in the sense that our basic nature is only contingently to value truth, that is, only to the extent that it increases our power to generate greater lifetime inclusive fitness.
Yet, and here is where you and I can find, IMO, great and expansive common ground, natural selection in our species created a mind designed to compete in complex multi-partner, multi-currency socioeconomic bargaining, and thus for status (i.e., power), with great acumen, during an ongoing intraspecific arms race with other humans, including close social partners, over the last several hundred thousand years. Importantly, non-trivial metacognition and mentalization (theory of mind) capacities evolved as part of our package of competitive cognitive capacities; these can be used to evaluate, predict, and manipulate others, and to observe and study ourselves. Imaginative capacities and an ability to believe deeply in both fantasy and evidence also evolved to allow us to cohabit “adaptively subjective dreamworlds” (ASD) that hold human groups together. For example, one example of a written down, very dear and pretty darn auspicious ASD is the US Constitution.
Natural selection has zero foresight. This is the only reason we have any chance of beginning to alter how our minds operate. Down the road, once some leaders develop the capacity to make good decisions about how to genetically modify ourselves to be more compassionate and sustainable, probably with the help of evolutionary psychology, a massive program of intentional genetic evolution may be what’s really necessary to get us through our current very dangerous technological adolescence.
Robust, transparent (nonconscious), sly and clever neurological regulatory mechanisms assuredly have evolved to more or less (denoting very slight individual variation in brain development) lock us into making effective and efficient (i.e., powerful) use of our outstanding cognitive abilities to maximize lifetime gene propagation, whether we know this is what we are up to or not.
Yet, this same program of natural selection, epiphenomenally, gave all or most of us the potential — almost always hard won and seldom truly accessed — to employ evolutionarily novel intrapsychic maneuvers, learned from our most sophisticated ancestors, to weaken or “get ahead of” the above-mentioned regulatory mechanisms. Here I am referring to introspective techniques that help us see our own mental operations more objectively, not techniques that just lead to relaxation or greater happiness. This unnaturally objectified seeing can happen in real time (best) or during reflection upon past events (dicey).
An analogy, accidentally constructed by the Wachowskis (?), for using the introspective techniques I’m referring to is vividly given in “The Matrix” trilogy, when Morpheus and his team, eventually especially Neo, purposely send their minds into the matrix via skillful intrapsychic hacking procedures. They are not going in there to sunbathe… even though that would be nice. They cannot. The regulatory mechanisms that already are in place are quite, albeit imperfectly, adaptive in real time. They have the ability to learn. They are seldom are far behind and their prime mandate is to encapsulate or literally destroy the complex neural circuits (i.e, symbolized by Matrix characters like Trinity, Morpheus, Mouse, Sipher) that may collaborate to enable biologically subversive attempts at gaining deep objective self-knowledge. These regulatory mechanisms are key to biologically adaptive neurodevelopment, and they are extraordinarily resourceful and ruthless. They may be limbically based, but any part of the brain can be recruited to help them fulfill their mission, as was “The Matrix” character Sipher.
My own mind largely has been ruined, I feel, by engaging in this process. A lot of my essential “freedom circuitry” has been repeatedly hammered. But, I still believe success is possible for some, particularly if they can learn from the mistakes and rare successes of others. Call it faith in consciousness.
A new analogy has hit me. We are born into a cognitive-emotional prison cell full of delights as well as sources of suffering. (As per astute Buddhist teachings, it’s really all suffering.) But, we may notice that hanging from the ceiling, outside the cell bars but more or less within reach, there are various sets of shiny keys. Usually, one of them opens our cell door. Others keys in the set open additional doors spread throughout an unknown intrapsychic labyrinth. Opening some of those doors triggers an instant alarm, others a delayed alarm, maybe others no alarm at all, especially if the key is inserted and turned correctly. Some sets of keys open doors that lead to traps and cul-de-sacs. You can easily end up in a seemingly nicer jail cell. Or a worse one. Perhaps you can end up in enticing cells, but with no keys hanging outside the bars. It may be hard to tell if one has progressed in any meaningful way.
A legitimate teacher, or cultural tradition, and/or a modern scientific tradition may help us learn something of the labyrinth, and which set of keys to pick that lead to real freedom, or at least time-limited degrees of it. We can learn to go farther and farther. But the prison is larger and more complex than we typically can conceive, especially anywhere near to our starting position, and especially if we try to do so alone.
Perhaps the best path is right around a nearby intrapsychic corner. But if anyone tells you so, beware. — Paul
PS: I’ll try to post this on our web site, since it took a couple hours to write, and may have some value for our upcoming discussion(s).
Will new readers develop the more time-demanding cognitive processes nurtured by print-based mediums as they absorb and acquire new cognitive capacities emphasized by digital media? For example, will the combination of reading on digital formats and daily immersion in a variety of digital experiences — from social media to virtual games — impede the formation of the slower cognitive processes, such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy, that are all part of deep reading?
Wolf first addressed the evolution of reading and its implications in her earlier book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. She summarizes her thesis in this interview (14 min video).
Stanislas Dehaene, an author whose work we’ve discussed, also investigated the brain circuits involved in reading. Hear him speak on the topic in this video (33 min).
Some excerpts in Scientific American from John Horgan’s experience. The retreat cost was $1800, plus a teacher donation, an expensive lesson.
“But enlightenment, I decided by the end of the retreat, is banal. It means simply appreciating each moment, no matter how mundane and annoying, as an end in itself, not as a means to another end, like making money or impressing others. Like, be here now, Dude.”
“Is it worth devoting weeks, months, years, decades to cultivating hyper-attentiveness? Is that the best thing to do with life? No. There is no best thing to do with life, and Buddhism errs in implying otherwise. The exaltation of enlightenment makes us vulnerable to abuse by sleazy gurus. And seeking enlightenment is pretty self-indulgent. The world isn’t all fireflies and goldfinches. It has problems that need fixing, as I was reminded whenever I looked across the Hudson at the West Point Military Academy.”