Conceptual Spaces

In a Nautilis piece, New Evidence for the Strange Geometry of Thought, Adithya Rajagopalan reports on the fascinating topic of conceptual or cognitive spaces. He begins with the work of the philosopher and cognitive scientist Peter Gärdenfors who wrote about this in a 2000 book, Conceptual Spaces. Then last year, there was published a Science paper by several neuroscientists: Jacob Bellmund, Christian Doeller, and Edvard Moser. It has to do with the brain’s “inner GPS.”

Anyone who has followed my blog for a while should see the interest this has for me. There is Julian Jaynes’ thought on consciousness, of course. And there are all kinds of other thinkers as well. I could throw out Iain McGilchrist and James L. Kugel who, though critical of Jaynes, make similar points about identity and the divided mind.

The work of Gärdenfors and the above neuroscientists helps explain numerous phenomenon, specifically in what way splintering and dissociation operates. How a Nazi doctor could torture Jewish children at work and then go home to play with his own children. How the typical person can be pious at church on Sunday and yet act in complete contradiction to this for the rest of the week. How we can know that the world is being destroyed through climate change and still go on about our lives as if everything remains the same.How we can simultaneously know and not know so many things. Et cetera.

It might begin to give us some more details in explaining the differences between the bicameral mind and Jaynesian consciousness, between Ernest Hartmann’s thin and thick boundaries of the mind, and much else. Also, in light of Lynne Kelly’s work on traditional mnemonic systems, we might be in a better position of understanding the phenomenal memory feats humans are capable of and why they are so often spatial in organization (e.g., the Songlines of Australian Aborigines) and why these often involve shifts in mental states. It might also clarify how people can temporarily or permanently change personalities and identities, how people can compartmentalize parts of themselves such as their childhood selves and maybe help explain why others fail at compartmentalizing.

The potential significance is immense. Our minds are mansions with many rooms. Below is the meat of Rajagopalan’s article.

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“Cognitive spaces are a way of thinking about how our brain might organize our knowledge of the world,” Bellmund said. It’s an approach that concerns not only geographical data, but also relationships between objects and experience. “We were intrigued by evidence from many different groups that suggested that the principles of spatial coding in the hippocampus seem to be relevant beyond the realms of just spatial navigation,” Bellmund said. The hippocampus’ place and grid cells, in other words, map not only physical space but conceptual space. It appears that our representation of objects and concepts is very tightly linked with our representation of space.

Work spanning decades has found that regions in the brain—the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex—act like a GPS. Their cells form a grid-like representation of the brain’s surroundings and keep track of its location on it. Specifically, neurons in the entorhinal cortex activate at evenly distributed locations in space: If you drew lines between each location in the environment where these cells activate, you would end up sketching a triangular grid, or a hexagonal lattice. The activity of these aptly named “grid” cells contains information that another kind of cell uses to locate your body in a particular place. The explanation of how these “place” cells work was stunning enough to award scientists John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard Moser, the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. These cells activate only when you are in one particular location in space, or the grid, represented by your grid cells. Meanwhile, head-direction cells define which direction your head is pointing. Yet other cells indicate when you’re at the border of your environment—a wall or cliff. Rodent models have elucidated the nature of the brain’s spatial grids, but, with functional magnetic resonance imaging, they have also been validated in humans.

Recent fMRI studies show that cognitive spaces reside in the hippocampal network—supporting the idea that these spaces lie at the heart of much subconscious processing. For example, subjects of a 2016 study—headed by neuroscientists at Oxford—were shown a video of a bird’s neck and legs morph in size. Previously they had learned to associate a particular bird shape with a Christmas symbol, such as Santa or a Gingerbread man. The researchers discovered the subjects made the connections with a “mental picture” that could not be described spatially, on a two-dimensional map. Yet grid-cell responses in the fMRI data resembled what one would see if subjects were imagining themselves walking in a physical environment. This kind of mental processing might also apply to how we think about our family and friends. We might picture them “on the basis of their height, humor, or income, coding them as tall or short, humorous or humorless, or more or less wealthy,” Doeller said. And, depending on whichever of these dimensions matters in the moment, the brain would store one friend mentally closer to, or farther from, another friend.

But the usefulness of a cognitive space isn’t just restricted to already familiar object comparisons. “One of the ways these cognitive spaces can benefit our behavior is when we encounter something we have never seen before,” Bellmund said. “Based on the features of the new object we can position it in our cognitive space. We can then use our old knowledge to infer how to behave in this novel situation.” Representing knowledge in this structured way allows us to make sense of how we should behave in new circumstances.

Data also suggests that this region may represent information with different levels of abstraction. If you imagine moving through the hippocampus, from the top of the head toward the chin, you will find many different groups of place cells that completely map the entire environment but with different degrees of magnification. Put another way, moving through the hippocampus is like zooming in and out on your phone’s map app. The area in space represented by a single place cell gets larger. Such size differences could be the basis for how humans are able to move between lower and higher levels of abstraction—from “dog” to “pet” to “sentient being,” for example. In this cognitive space, more zoomed-out place cells would represent a relatively broad category consisting of many types, while zoomed-in place cells would be more narrow.

Yet the mind is not just capable of conceptual abstraction but also flexibility—it can represent a wide range of concepts. To be able to do this, the regions of the brain involved need to be able to switch between concepts without any informational cross-contamination: It wouldn’t be ideal if our concept for bird, for example, were affected by our concept for car. Rodent studies have shown that when animals move from one environment to another—from a blue-walled cage to a black-walled experiment room, for example—place-cell firing is unrelated between the environments. Researchers looked at where cells were active in one environment and compared it to where they were active in the other. If a cell fired in the corner of the blue cage as well as the black room, there might be some cross-contamination between environments. The researchers didn’t see any such correlation in the place-cell activity. It appears that the hippocampus is able to represent two environments without confounding the two. This property of place cells could be useful for constructing cognitive spaces, where avoiding cross-contamination would be essential. “By connecting all these previous discoveries,” Bellmund said, “we came to the assumption that the brain stores a mental map, regardless of whether we are thinking about a real space or the space between dimensions of our thoughts.”

The Political Right that the Political Left Needs

About Jordan Peterson, some of his views are too ideologically simplistic and constrained for my taste, even occasionally leaning toward the ideologically dogmatic which he exemplifies by his very denial of ideology within himself. And it can’t be doubted that, unfortunately, he gives far too much ammunition to the political right. But he also is saying some things of real value.

In a sense, he is ultimately more important for the political right than the political left. And I praise his attempt to save young men from the dire fate of the reactionary right-wing and alt-right. So, he shouldn’t necessarily be criticized for talking with what some might consider right-wing loons, such as Stefan Molyneux who is an anarcho-capitalist guru, aspiring cult leader, and Donald Trump supporter. But that is all the more reason we on the political left should hold Peterson accountable which means taking him seriously.

He calls himself a classical liberal and is what used to be called conservative in the United States, prior to the radical right taking over the label. He is playing a much needed role in bringing some sanity back to the political right, this maybe being possible by his bringing a Canadian attitude to the table. And if that requires him to reach out to radicalized reactionaries with offers of sympathetic understanding, then so be it. Someone has to do it. And I hope he succeeds.

The other end of the political spectrum shouldn’t ignore or dismiss him. If anything, the political left should engage him for the very reason to make clear that he is a worthy opponent. He represents the political right that the political left needs to move forward sane public debate, as those like Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Jill Stein, and Bernie Sanders represent the political left that is needed also to pull our society from the precipice (while Democrats become the new conservative party). These are the people we need to reframe the ideological spectrum in mainstream politics to better match the actual ideological spectrum of the general population.

Iain McGilchrist and Russell Brand, ideologically and psychologically to the left of Jordan Peterson, are able to draw out of him what is actually useful in his worldview. They demonstrate the most optimal approach. There is a necessary meeting point of genuine dialogue and open inquiry. It’s all about fruitful disagreement that allows for the discovery of mutual ground.

“To improve America so it can be a shining light of what the human spirit can accomplish, our nation needs a thoughtful conservative movement, one that argues for holding on to the tried and true, not just holding on to what is, as some conservatives have always done (see slavery, arguments for its economic necessity).

“America needs constructive and serious conservative thinkers because their work will promote public policy debates rooted in facts and reason, as those sons of the Enlightenment, the Founders, intended.

“And this, in turn, will foster better-reasoned arguments and more effective policy solutions from those whose vision is of what America can in time become rather than what it is. That is because they will have to address serious critiques, not bull.”

David Cay Johnston

Bundle Theory: Embodied Mind, Social Nature

I was listening to the audio version of Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction. It’s less than five hours long and so I listened to it multiple times to get a good sense of it. I’ve read plenty about the topic and I’m already generally familiar with the material, but it was still helpful getting an overview.

One part that interested me was about split brain research, something that always interests me. The roles of and relationship between the hemispheres indicates much about how our minds operate. Blackmore discussed one often referenced study where split brain patients had information given separately to each hemisphere in order to see how the individual would explain their behavior. As the left hemisphere typically controls linguistic communication, individuals couldn’t give accurate reasons for what was done by their right hemisphere.

The author wrote that (pp. 72-3),

“In this way, the verbal left brain covered up its ignorance by confabulating. It did the same when the other half was shown an emotional picture – making up a plausible excuse for laughing, smiling, blushing, or whatever emotional reaction had been provoked. This might help to explain how these patients can appear so normal. But it should also make us wonder about ourselves. Our brains consist of lots of relatively independent modules, and the verbal part does not have access to everything that goes on, yet it frequently supplies convincing reasons for our actions. How many of these are plausible confabulations rather than true reasons, and can we tell?

“From these experiments, Sperry concluded that his patients had two conscious entities in one head; each having private sensations and free will. In contrast, Gazzaniga argued that only the left hemisphere sustains ‘the interpreter’, which uses language, organizes beliefs, and ascribes actions and intentions to people. Only this hemisphere has ‘high-level consciousness’, leaving the other hemisphere with many abilities and skills but without true consciousness.”

She points out that there is no way to resolve this issue. We can’t prove what is really going on here, even as it touches upon our most personal experience. But she adds that, “Bundle theory does away with the problem altogether. There is neither one self nor two selves inside the split brain; there are experiences but there is no one who is having them” (p. 74). What this means is that our experience of an egoic consciousness is overlaid on the entire experiential field, one experience presenting itself as all experience. Or else an interpretation of experience that alters what we experience and how we experience it. The self as coherent individuality is a mirage. That isn’t to say it is meaningless. Our minds naturally look for patterns, even or especially within our own minds. Meaning is always what we bring to our experience.

As for actual reading, as opposed to listening to audiobooks, my focus has still been on Daniel Everett’s recent publication, Dark Matter of the Mind. It is a difficult read in many parts because much of the linguistics scholarship goes over my head and the academic language can get tiresome, but I’ve been determined to finish it and I’m now near the last chapter. Parts of it are quite interesting, such as his mentioning the theory that “gestures and speech were equally and simultaneously implicated in the evolution of language” (Kindle Location 5102). He then details the relevance of gestures and the embodied communication (Kindle Locations 5108-5111):

““Mead’s loop,” wherein one’s own gestures are responded to by one’s own mirror neurons in the same way that these neurons respond to the actions of others, thus bringing one’s own actions into the realm of the social and contributing crucially to the development of a theory of mind— being able to interpret the actions of others under the assumption that others have minds like we do and think according to similar processes.”

That is what came to mind while listening to what Blackmore had to say about bundle theory of experience. The parts of the ‘self’ don’t form a coherent whole so much as they are involved in intimate contact and communication.

Our experience is social at the most fundamental level, a social phenomenon within each person’s body and social connection to the bodies of others. Our embodied selves are shifting realities with blurred boundaries, out of which forms patterns of social order and social identities. As others have argued, we develop a theory of mind within ourselves by first sussing out a theory of mind about others. So, our sense of self is built on our sense of others, which is to say we understand the relationships between experiences within own embodied minds as an inseparable understanding of our relationships with the larger world.

It’s hard to get at what this might mean. But one important factor is that of language. As Julian Jaynes argued in his book about the bicameral mind, “language is an organ of perception, not simply a means of communication” (p. 50, Kindle edition). Perception is always embodied. In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist offers a summary that resonates with what I shared above by Everett (pp. 122-123):

“language originates as an embodied expression of emotion, that is communicated by one individual ‘inhabiting’ the body, and  therefore the emotional world, of another; a bodily skill, further, that is acquired by each of us through imitation, by the emotional identification and intuitive harmonisation of the bodily states of the one who learns with the one from whom it is learnt; a skill moreover that originates in the brain as an analogue of bodily movement, and involves the same processes, and even the same brain areas, as certain highly expressive gestures, as well as involving neurones (mirror neurones) that are activated equally when we carry out an action and when we see another carry it out (so that in the process we can almost literally be said to share one another’s bodily experience and inhabit one another’s bodies); a process, finally, that anthropologists see as derived from music, in turn an extension of grooming, which binds us together as physically embodied beings through a form of extended body language that is emotionally compelling across a large number of individuals within the group.”

Both Everett and McGilchrist are concerned with the evolution and development of language. They see it as inseparable from the embodied mind and the enculturated self. As Everett discusses the importance of gesture, McGilchrist explores the role of music and poetry. There is a strong argument that non-linguistic communication (gesture and/or poetry-music) was well established and highly effective among the earliest hominids, including pre-linguistic homo sapiens. It seems likely that this was the base upon which was built language as we know it.

Jaynes argues that written language was one of the factors that weakened the bicameral mind, a particular pre-egoic bundle theory. Prior to that, oral culture dominated; and in oral culture, language is intertwined with other aspects of human experience and behavior. Some of the evidence supporting this is how ancient humans sometimes spoke of body parts as having their own minds (a way of talking that continued into late Axial Age such as the New Testament canon, such that hands and eyes aren’t necessarily considered part of an integrally whole self; and it should be noted that the New Testament tradition was passed on orally for a number of generations before being written down). This is an experience still spoken of by some of those with schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. Even otherwise normal people will have voice-hearing experiences where the voices heard aren’t located in the head, sometimes in or around other parts of the body.

Most of human cognition and behavior is unconscious. The same goes for most of human communication and much of that non-conscious communication is also non-linguistic. This is the bodily or embodied unconscious. This relates to the social nature of our psyches, as with rapport where people mimic each other unawares (gestures, posture, breathing, etc) along with how yawns and laughter can be contagious. What I’m wondering about is how does the body-mind create rapport with itself in order to coordinate its vast multitudinous complexity.

Because of hemispheric divisions, for example, parts of the mind act rather independently. The corpus callosum doesn’t just allow the hemispheres to communicate for it also inhibits and restricts that communication, in ways and for reasons we don’t yet fully understand. Even when the corpus callosum is entirely cut making direct neurological communication impossible, the two hemispheres are able to coordinate behavior such that a person appears normal, even as two separate minds seem to be operating within the skull. Without directly communicating with one another, how do the hemispheres accomplish this?

The simplest answer is that both hemispheres have access to the sensory organs on the opposite side of the body and so can indirectly observe what the other hemisphere is doing (and, in the case of the left hemisphere, hear it’s explanations). But interestingly the two divided hemispheres can come to different conclusions based on different their separate input and processing. They can also act independently, a literal scenario of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

Here is a different kind of example from Everett (Kindle Locations 5071-5076):

“At age nineteen, IW suddenly lost all sense of touch and proprioception below the neck due to an infection. The experiments conducted by McNeill and his colleagues show that IW is unable to control instrumental movements when he cannot see his hands (though when he can see his hands, he has learned how to use this visual information to control them in a natural-appearing manner). What is fascinating is that IW, when speaking, uses a number of (what IW refers to as) “throwaway gestures” that are well coordinated, unplanned, nonvisually reliant, speech-connected gestures. McNeill concludes that at a minimum, this case provides evidence that speech gestures are different from other uses of the hands— even other gesturing uses of the hands.”

So, gestures are connected to speech. And gestures happen spontaneously. But even without proprioreception, other senses can be used to bridge the gap between conscious and unconscious expression. There are clearly different areas of behavior, cognition, and communication that relate in different ways. We are embodied minds and we know our minds through our bodies. And most of what our mind does is never accessed or controlled by consciousness. As research has shown, consciousness often only plays a role after behavior has already been initiated (less a power of will than a power of won’t).

So, what kind of mind is it that we have or rather that has us?

On Being Strange

The human mind is fascinating. Did you know that? I thought I should mention it, just in case.

The capacity of the human mind leads in various directions. Many have wondered what psychiatric conditions say not just about those who are ‘afflicted’ but for human nature in general.

Take schizophrenia, which is always a popular topic, as it is fairly common. Schizophrenia includes several types of experience that get me thinking.

There is the oceanic feeling that is typical, something they share with many mystics, meditation practitioners and anyone who has imbibed psychedelics. It is a loss of boundaries or rather a fluidity between self and other.

This is part of a generally fluid way of experiencing reality. Schizophrenics often think others can hear their thoughts and that they can hear the thoughts of others. It also goes along with hearing voices, especially command hallucinations. Instead of thinking ‘I will do such and such,’ they hear ‘You will do such and such’.

This is where we touch upon the theories of Julian Jaynes and Iain McGilchrist. If we take the ancients at their word, we have to conclude that command hallucinations were considered a normal experience. Even today normal people hear command hallucinations when under extreme duress and stress. What if we all possess immense potential in how we can experience reality and identity? What might this mean for societies, in the ancient world and maybe in the future?

A different aspect is how schizophrenics view the world. People, objects, and concepts aren’t perceived as being individual. Rather, they are experienced as inseparable members of ever larger subclasses. This emphasizes a sense of larger wholeness beyond individuality.

Related to this, Iain McGilchrist explains this in terms of hemisphere functioning (p. 51):

“At the same time it is the right hemisphere that has the capacity to distinguish specific examples within a category, rather than categories alone: it stores details to distinguish specific instances. 148 The right hemisphere presents individual, unique instances of things and individual, familiar, objects, where the left hemisphere re-presents categories of things, and generic, non-specific objects. 149 In keeping with this, the right hemisphere uses unique referents, where the left hemisphere uses non-unique referents. 150 It is with the right hemisphere that we distinguish individuals of all kinds, places as well as faces. 151 In fact it is precisely its capacity for holistic processing that enables the right hemisphere to recognise individuals. 152 Individuals are, after all, Gestalt wholes: that face, that voice, that gait, that sheer ‘quiddity’ of the person or thing, defying analysis into parts.”

This isn’t just about schizophrenics. This difference between hemispheres exists in everyone, even if it doesn’t normally show so starkly as in psychiatric conditions.

In terms of bicameral societies, this makes me think that it isn’t an issue of there being no boundaries. It simply would be different and larger boundaries. Society itself, instead of the individual, would define self and reality. Individuality wouldn’t be the locus of experience and so individual perspective wouldn’t necessarily be understood as such, much less privileged as the basis of all else. This is shown in the odd examples throughout ancient literature where body parts are spoken of as if they had their own minds, their own thoughts and emotions.

This brings to mind a book I’ve been reading. It’s Evolution and Empathy by Milton E. Brener. He doesn’t reference either Jaynes or McGilchrist, but his thinking is in line with theirs. Brener discusses how the ancients apparently didn’t see spatial relationship between things as we moderns do. Closer and further objects lacked perspective, both being shown the same size. And multiple sides to a person or object would be shown simultaneously (e.g., all wheels of a wagon shown equally or different body parts shown from different angles).

Why did the ancients portray their world in such strange ways? And why do some people even today experience the world in strange ways that seem to match aspects of what the ancients portrayed? Maybe we are all a bit stranger than we realize.

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Here are a few previous posts of mine:

Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond
Making Gods, Making Individuals
Synesthesia, and Psychedelics, and Civilization! Oh My!
Developmental Differences: Preliminary Thoughts

Also, if this kind of thing fascinates you as it fascinates me, you might want to check out another blog:

Gary Williams’s Minds and Brains