Unraveling Reality {33-11} Humans


A human neonate naturally assumes a oneness with the world. Duality gradually dawns.

Around 3 months, infants begin to distinguish between people, objects that may be biological, and moving inanimate objects. But babies do not recognize themselves in a mirror until they are into their 2nd year of life.

The automaticity of being encased in a body does not develop until later childhood. Until then, children rely upon their sight and touch to confirm a sense of physical self.

Only at around 2 years do children become aware of a distinction between thoughts in the mind and things in the world. The concept of self develops around this time.

“Infants lack a concept of the self. The emergence of self-conscious emotions is a consequence of the concept of self.” ~ American psychologist Lisa Cohen

2-year-olds also start to understand emotional contexts: that they, and others, are happy when they get what they want, and sad if not. They also begin to appreciate that there may be a difference between what they want and what someone else wants.

The temper tantrums of young children occur not only because of frustration, but with outrage that frustration even exists.

“In these moments, children are enraged that they should have to be frustrated at all, that their will can actually be thwarted.” ~ Lisa Cohen

A 3-year-old is apt to speak of what people think and know. These observations are of course limited to what the 3-year-old knows.

A crucial cognitive development occurs around the age of 4 years, when children realize that thoughts in their mind may be false. For example, a child may discover candy in a familiar pencil box. After this discovery, ask a 3-year-old what their friend will think is in the box before looking, and she will think her friend knows what she knows: candy. At 4, the child will understand that a friend could be tricked, as she was. Whereas 3-year-olds also do not remember that their belief changed, a 4-year-old recalls the assumptive self-deception.

By 4–5 years, children realize that people talk or act on the basis of how they think the world is, even though their thoughts may not reflect how the world actually is. With such awareness, 5-year-olds will not be surprised if an uninformed friend looks for pencils in the marked box which now has candy.

These are 2 crucial cognitive developments. The 1st is the discovery of abstraction: that the mind creates its own world, distinct from reality. The 2nd is theory of mind: that others have minds which are different than one’s own.

In misconstruing others’ thoughts and intentions, mind perception – sussing what someone else is thinking – is fraught with the potential for self-deception. Mentalizing is also the preeminent skill for sociality: to sense what someone values and their worldview.

“The most important development in early childhood social cognition is the development of theory of mind.” ~ Canadian developmental psychologist Janet Wilde Astington

Attributing mental states is the basis for empathy. Theory of mind also has nefarious potential. Coupling theory of mind with an appreciation of abstraction provides the basis for deception: that one can convey a convincing illusion.

As we have seen, humans are not the only ones who deceive. Many organisms, perhaps most, practice deception to defend themselves, or as a lifestyle. Femme fatale fireflies deceptively attract males of another species for a meal, with the duped males as the main course.

 The Unreasonable Power of the Mind

Matterists who blabber that the brain does our thinking for us have no explanation for how the mind manages its feats. Instead, a massive body of evidence indicates that the brain is just for show.

“The fundamental problem is that our brain doesn’t work in real-time. The brain actually works rather slow.” ~ American psychologist Gerrit Maus

 Immunity Images

“Mere visual perception of disease-connoting cues promotes a more aggressive immune response.” ~ American psychologist Mark Schaller et al

Simply seeing sick people from a distance, or just looking at photos of those ailing, kicks the immune system into heightened alertness. How such imagery gets translated into mustering the body’s cellular defense system cannot be explained physiologically.

“It makes evolutionary sense that the immune system would respond aggressively only when it’s needed.” ~ Mark Schaller


The power of the will to live is long known – a power with no physiological explanation. Just thinking you are younger than you physically are can grant longer life.

“Self-perceived age reflects well-being in later life. Older people who feel younger than their actual age have reduced mortality.” ~ English gerontologist Isla Rippon & English psychologist Andrew Steptoe

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“This remarkable capacity we possess to understand something of the character of another person, to form a conception of him as a human being, with particular characteristics forming a distinct individuality, is a precondition of social life.” ~ American social psychologist Solomon Asch

Studies have repeatedly shown that people make accurate assessments of trustworthiness, competence, political affiliation, and other traits, within a fraction of a second. All that is needed is a glimpse of a face.

“We can accurately judge a person’s honesty in only 1/10th of a second.” ~ English psychologist Simon Makin

Though we take it for granted, there is no accounting for how our minds manufacture so much from so little. The mind makes bold generalizations, constructs elaborate abstractions, and builds robust causal models surprisingly quickly from inputs that are sparse, noisy, and ambiguous; in every measure, far too limited.

“A massive mismatch looms between the information coming in through our senses and the outputs of cognition.” ~ American cognitive scientist Joshua Tenenbaum, American psychologists Charles Kemp, Thomas Griffiths, & Noah Goodman

Generalization from sparse data is central to learning in several areas, notably language. Terminology, morphology, and syntax are learned from meager references.

“From birth infants can pick out individual words from language.” ~ French psychologist Perrine Brusini

2-year-olds can learn how to use a new word from just an example or two. Because they can use a new word appropriately in a novel situation, we know that young children grasp not just the sound, but the meaning and the context, thus generating a comprehensive conceptualization.

Viewed as a computation on input information, this is an astonishing feat. In understanding new words, how a child grasps the boundaries of objects or actions from so few examples is inexplicable.

The 2 basic lessons of statistics are that sample size dictates correlation quality and that correlation does not imply causation. Yet children routinely, and correctly, infer causal links from a few events: far too few to even compute a reliable correlation.