Unraveling Reality {33}

Animals

“The more we look at the behavior of insects, birds, and mammals, including man, the more we see a continuum of complexity rather than any dramatic difference in kind.” ~ American ethologists Carol Gould & James Gould

Animals originated during the Tonian period. The last common ancestor of animals arose nearly 800 million years ago.

The term animal comes from the Latin animalis, meaning “having breath.” But breath does not distinguish animals from plants. Plant pores have a regulated cycle of breathing in carbon dioxide and exhaling water vapor.

Animals evolved centralized intelligence processing centers for digestion and cognition. In later-evolved animals, identifiable brains exhibit electro-chemical activity that simultaneously correlates with mental processing.

“Every mental sequence runs side by side with the physical aspect.” ~ Scottish philosopher Alexander Bain in 1885

Perception takes sensory input, which is rendered symbolically, and turns it into meaningful patterns: it is a multi-stage process of differentiation and interpretive imagining of relations between discerned objects. Perception occurs in synchronic waves; attention temporally quantizes on symbolic objects.

“Our understanding of the world goes through cycles. The senses are not constant but are processed via rhythmic functions. Humans make decisions at the rate of about 1/6th of a second, which is in line with these sensory oscillations.” ~ Australian psychologist David Alais

Brains & Neurons

“There is nothing about a brain, studied at any scale, that even suggests that it might harbor consciousness.” ~ American neurobiologist Sam Harris

The religious error of positing the physical as the penultimate of existence is compounded by neurobiologists, who wrongly identify neurons, not glia, as the cells associated with cognition.

“As long as our brain is a mystery, the universe, the reflection of the structure of the brain, will also be a mystery.” ~ Santiago Ramón y Cajal

In the late 19th century, Spanish neurologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal elucidated and fiercely defended what became known as the neuron doctrine: neurons were the cells of intelligence. Cajal shared the 1906 Nobel prize in physiology and medicine with Italian physician and pathologist Camillo Golgi, who had identified astrocytes, a glial cell type, as important in thought processing.

Despite Golgi’s findings, Cajal’s thoroughly neuron-centric influence prevailed, becoming the mainstream school of modern neuro-pseudoscience. Because of Cajal and his followers, glia went unstudied for 6 decades.

“Until recently, our understanding of the brain was based on a century-old idea: the neuron doctrine. This theory holds that all information in the nervous system is transmitted by electrical impulses over networks of neurons linked through synaptic connections. But this bedrock theorem is deeply flawed.” ~ American neurobiologist Douglas Fields

Misattribution is made by facilely mistaking coincidence for cause. One cannot see what is not looked at, or gain insight from what is looked at with a predetermined perspective. In academic disciplines, only economics has proceeded with as much built-in bias as neurobiology.

Neurobiologists long assumed that neurons were the governors of consciousness, particularly the transition between sleep and the awake state. Instead, that physiological transition occurs through ion flows regulated by glia.

Hunger is monitored and its response controlled by glia, not neurons. This is done by regulating the release of the hormones which control the sensation of hunger and adjust energy expenditure. The effects of metabolic hormones come by commanding neural circuits, which are mere communicators, not controllers.

In all degenerative brain diseases, the first symptom, even before the loss of mental faculty, is losing the sense of smell. Smell receptor cells actively lock onto ambient molecules for detection, which occurs via discrimination of molecular energy vibrations. The coupling of cells with their scent targets requires frequent replacement of these receptors. Hence, the sense of smell is constantly changing, and is an apt indicator of holistic health.

The olfactory bulb, locally responsible for smell, has the highest turnover of cells in the brain. Glia are the stem cells for this turnover.

Neural processing cannot explain the pattern matching that predominates mentation. After extensive study of nerve cells for well over a century, neurobiologists still cannot explain memory via neurons. That’s because mentation physiologically transpires in glia, not nerves.

Cognitive diseases, such as epilepsy and autism, result from defective glia, not neurons. In old age, Alzheimer’s disease comes via crippled glia, not worn-out neurons.

A long-known fact is that brain tumors are almost always glial cells. These tumors would not be so devastating if neurons were running the show.

Glia are the adult stem cells in the brain. They reproduce themselves, and produce neurons only upon need.

Glia manage nerve cells. Glia guide developing neurons in their growth and connectivity, sop up chemicals used in cell-to-cell communication, and generally contribute to the health and well-being of nerve cells and their environment. But glia do much more.

Glia regenerate and grow locally in order to store more data. Via intercellular calcium waves, glia distribute and process information. Neurons have no memory capacity beyond those of other cell types. That’s because mentation has its physical correlate in glia, not nerves.

The explosive growth of the human brain in the first year after birth owes to astrocyte propagation. Meantime, nerve cell growth is fractional.

Children begin to experience dreams and are able to retain long-term memories by around age 4, after glia grow and establish themselves postnatally. If neurons held memories, people could recall being in the womb.

Nerve cells predominate in the cortex, which is gray matter. Cortex development increases to about age 8, then the brain becomes more streamlined. An adult cortex is considerably smaller than that of an 8-year old.

Learning results in a temporary increase in neurons in the affected area. As the learning takes hold and becomes rote, neural pathways streamline, with neurons atrophying and lessening in number. Conversely, more glia grow and remain robust with learning.

The cortex thinning that occurs from childhood is mostly neuron loss. Autism arises with a failure to prune neurons. Contrastingly, smarter children experience accelerated neural thinning.

“More is not better when it comes to synapses, for sure, and pruning is absolutely essential.” ~ American molecular biologist Lisa Boulanger

An evolutionary perspective highlights the importance of glia. If glia function as the cerebral library, then species with greater cognitive facility should have proportionally more glia. The ratio of glia to neurons increases with what is broadly considered cognitive capacity.* 3% of a leech’s intelligence cells are glial. The rest are neurons. In an earthworm, glia make up 16% of the nervous system. That ratio rises to 20% in flies; 60% in rodents; 80% in apes; and 90% in humans.

We know little of the mental lives of other organisms, so a sweeping conclusion about cognitive capabilities based upon cell types should be taken skeptically; but the evolutionary point about glial versus neural cell percentages remains.

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“Glia are the conductors.” ~ Douglas Fields

Actually, glia are not the conductors. They may rule the roost with regard to intelligence physiology, giving a deceptive appearance of conducting. But the material ruse frays when trying to explain how cogent mentation could possibly arise from disparate electro-chemical reactions.

“We can’t even begin to explain how consciousness, how sensation, arises out of electric chemistry.” ~ English neurosurgeon Henry Marsh

This difficulty may be glossed over when massive tissue is involved: simply hand-wave that so much meat matters. But when brains become tiny and cognitive skills stay sharp, the jig is up.

 Ragworms

Hediste diversicolor is a ragworm: a bristly, segmented worm that may grow to 10 cm, and live many years, if its luck holds. By the time a young worm is a week old, its tiny brain is as developed as it is going to get. This worm’s physical intelligence system has not much changed for hundreds of millions of years. But Hediste is no fool.

Hediste lives in a burrow at beaches and estuaries on northern Europe’s Atlantic coast. It is a dangerous place: ragworms are common fare for fish and birds. Better to eat in than forage afield.

Hediste spins a mucus net at the entrance of its burrow, in which it traps and selectively eats whatever floats in. When flowing food becomes scarce, a ragworm has no choice but to emerge from its burrow and hunt for small insects and spiders, and to forage for seeds. Hediste carries cordgrass seeds into its burrow. Alas, the seed’s tough husk is too much for a worm to crack. But Hediste has patience, and a knack for horticulture: it plants the seeds and waits for them to germinate. The ragworm then feeds on the juicy, nutritious sprouts.

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“It is certain that there may be extraordinary activity with an extremely small absolute mass of nervous matter; thus, the wonderfully diversified instincts, mental powers, and affections of ants are notorious, yet their cerebral ganglia are not so large as the quarter of a small pin’s head. Under this point of view, the brain of an ant is one of the most marvelous atoms of matter in the world, perhaps more so than the brain of man.” ~ Charles Darwin in 1871

 Sahara Desert Ant

“The ability to assess the informational value of landmarks or trails as relevant or irrelevant is another example of the amazing cognitive performance of the tiny ant brain.” ~ Roman Huber

The Sahara desert ant inhabits the searing salt pans of Tunisia. Hardly any other animal survives in this scorching wasteland.

The ants shelter in subterranean nests. To forage for food, desert ants go out on their own, spending entire days wandering far from the nest. A scavenging ant may chance upon a small corpse: an arthropod which got blown by the wind to die from exposure in this hell; a bit of luck from the unlucky. The problem then becomes taking the prize back home.

Wondrous mathematical navigators, desert ants use the Sun as a compass, and count their steps. But, having traveled far, this is not enough to navigate the barren badlands and get back to the nest; so, landmarks – whether visual, olfactory, vibrational, or magnetic – are relied upon. Therein is another dilemma. Some cues are reliable, others not. Desert ants wisely discriminate between those hints they may depend upon and those which may send them astray. Reliable cues are often a certain combination of indications, which must be remembered within the context of a vast mental map that accurately explains the terrain.

“Ants not only pinpoint their nest by following learned cues, they also take into account which cues uniquely specify the nest and which, due to their ubiquity, are less informative, and so less reliable.” ~ German chemical ecologists Roman Huber & Markus Knaden

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“Experiments with insects and crabs have demonstrated their remarkable ability to learn and memorize complex visual features.” ~ Argentinian neurobiologists Julieta Sztarker & Daniel Tomsic

 Seashore Crabs

Though often crowned with expansive Latin titles, crabs are not noted scholars. Chasmagnathus granulatus is a teensy seashore crab. It leads an idyllic life: digging into the sand for food and doing its best to avoid becoming a meal for a diving seagull, the crab’s nemesis.

Such a seemingly simple lifestyle belies survival needs that conjure considerable cognition. Burrowing crabs have excellent long-term memory: both for good feeding spots, and for places where seagull attacks are more probable. Careful observers, these crabs can discriminate between real seagulls and look-alike decoys.

“These animals don’t have millions of neurons like mammals do, but they can still perform really complex tasks.” ~ Julieta Sztarker

This burrowing crab’s brain is smaller than the point of a pencil; a bitty brain with a tiny fraction of physical substrate to process mentation, compared to mammals or birds. Yet the crab’s mental powers are undeniably sophisticated; quite up to the demands of its lifestyle and then some.

Researchers watched the electrical activity of brain neurons in C. granulatus and came to a fantastic conclusion.

“The behavior of the crab was found to be accounted for by the activity of a small number of neurons.” ~ Julieta Sztarker & Daniel Tomsic

The scientists involved believed that “a small number of neurons” account for “really complex” behaviors. You would be sensible to be skeptical of such a sophistic denouement: a wise crab, wary of the seagulls of pseudoscience.

 Mosquitoes

Flight is commonly cited as an example of convergent evolution, but not all animals fly the same way aerodynamically. For lift, most insects, and some birds and bats, rely upon long wing strokes that create tiny, low-pressure tornadoes called leading-edge vortices: the sharp front edge of the wing splits airflow in 2, creating a bubble of swirling air along the front of the wing. Having low-pressure air above a wing and high-pressure air below generates lift.

Mosquito flight is unique. Mosquitoes rapidly flap their wings up and down at a ~40° angle. Such short, speedy wingbeats make it impossible to generate enough lift from leading-edge vortices to stay aloft.

“The incredibly high wingbeat frequency of mosquitoes is simply mind-boggling.” ~ Dutch American mechanical engineer David Lentink

To fly, mosquitoes flap their wings in a tight figure-8 formation. Leading-edge vortices generate a bit of lift as the wings briefly cut through the air horizontally. Then, as the wings start to rotate into the curve of the figure-8, they trap the wake of the previous stroke to create another series of low-pressure, swirling vortices – this time along the back edge of the wing.

“This doesn’t require any power. It’s a particularly economical way of generating lift.” ~ English biomechanist Richard Bomphrey

Mosquitoes recycle the energy from the wake of a preceding wing stroke. Then they tightly rotate their wings to remain in flight.

As the wings rotate, they push air down, redirecting low-pressure air across the top of the wings. The wings rotate around an axis at their front edge. If the wings go too far past vertical, they start to lose lift. So, a mosquito subtly shifts its wings’ turning axis from the front to the back of the wing. This creates a horizontal surface whereby the wings continue to push air down. It also puts a mosquito in position to benefit from the vortices along the trailing edge of the wing coming out of the turn.

“These mechanisms are particularly well-suited to high-aspect-ratio mosquito wings.” ~ Richard Bomphrey et al

There is no physiological explanation for how a mosquito mentally manages to fly, as its brain is not controlling these refined movements.

“Mosquito nerve cells fire just once for every few wingbeats. Somehow this animal has evolved a complex wing stroke that takes advantage of aerodynamic forces and the mechanical infrastructure of the wing to generate complex motions with very few signals from the brain.” ~ American physicist Itai Cohen

The mosquito flight technique has a sonic effect: mosquito wingbeats emit high-pitched tones. Males and females harmonize these timbres in searching for a mate – another astonishing feat.

“It’s like whispering sweet nothings.” ~ American zoologist Ronald Hoy

 Shrewd Shrews

“Absolute skull size in mammals principally increases until fully grown.” ~ American zoologist Scot LaPoint

“Postnatal size changes in most vertebrates are unidirectional and finite once the individual reaches full size.” ~ zoologist Javier Lázaro

Red-toothed shrews are common in Eurasia and North America. They have long, pointed snouts, and tiny ears which often cannot be seen. Poor eyesight has these wee creatures rely upon smell and hearing to hunt prey: mainly insects, worms, and grubs. Some shrews use echolocation, which is a cognitively demanding way to create mental images from a montage of audible feedbacks.

These shrews have a high metabolic rate, and scant fat storage. They must eat 80–90% of their body weight daily to stay alive.

Shrews cannot migrate to avoid winter, nor go into hibernation to save energy. The only adaptive recourse is to shrink.

“Brain tissue is energetically very expensive.” ~ Javier Lázaro

In anticipation of winter, shrew bodies shrink ~18%, and dramatically rebound in spring. Shrew brains also correspondingly shrivel as the cold comes on, and partly regrow in spring. This dynamic is known as Dehnel phenomenon, after its 1949 discovery by Polish zoologist August Dehnel.

Despite shrunken brains, these voracious hunters lose no mental acumen, as they must continue to eat their way through winter, so they can breed the following summer. If the brain were the organ of mentation, Dehnel phenomenon would be debilitating. But that does not happen. When a brain exists, it is a mere physical facsimile for the mind.

(Common shrews may live to 18 months, but mortality is high, as shrews are on the menu of owls, birds of prey, foxes, and other carnivores larger than shrews.)

“The brain is not an organ of thinking but an organ of survival, like claws and fangs.” ~ Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi

Brain Wave Harmony

Brain waves harmonize when attention is focused. When 2 people look at each other, their brain waves synchronize. This happens even if one of the gazers is a baby.

“Both adult and infant brains respond to a gaze signal by becoming more in sync.” ~ Singaporean psychologist Victoria Leong

Brain wave synchrony appears to be a common phenomenon. Bat brain activity harmonizes when they socialize.

“We don’t know what causes synchronous brain activity.” ~ English psychologist Sam Wass

There is no purely physiological explanation for such synchronization. Fundamentally, brain waves are energetic.

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 Heartbeat Synchrony

Brain waves are not the only facet of physiology which can harmonize. A mother sharing a smile with her 3-month-old infant results in their heartbeats synchronizing within mere milliseconds of each other. This only occurs when the positive emotion is shared between a mother and her own infant. As with brain waves, heartbeat synchrony is a mystery if just considering tissue as being all there is to being alive.

“Mother and infant coordinate heart rhythms during episodes of affect and vocal synchrony. Like other mammals, humans can impact the physiological processes of an attachment partner through the coordination of visuo-affective social signals.” ~ Israeli psychologist Ruth Feldman et al

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“Physiological synchrony has been found in a variety of relationships and environments.” ~ American health physiologist Chad Danyluck

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Matter is made of energy, but the converse is not true: matter does not shape energy. Material transformations result from applying some form of energy different than the energy which sustains an object or body in a seemingly static state. The distinct forms of energy commonly ascribed – thermal, pressural, electrical – are merely reflections of their effect on matter.

All interactions between objects are energetic in nature, but the expression of an energetic interaction is necessarily material. For instance, interference patterns among light waves can only manifest by impinging on matter, such as our physical vision system. Manifestation is, after all, a perceptible expression.

We only experience energy by its effect on matter. Energy itself is immaterial, as is, ultimately, everything.

Materiality is only the sensation of it. All perceptions are symbolic constuals. Your experiences are completely consumptions of concepts within your mind, which you may falsely believe reflect an objective world. But all you ever know is your own subjective experience. That events may appear common – shared subjectivity – suggests that Nature is a showtivity: a presentation within an integral Ĉonsciousness, of which individual consciousnesses partake.

Precocious Knowledge

“Precocious knowledge can help naïve individuals in making correct predictions and deciding whether to approach or avoid an object, and how to cope with a situation encountered for the first time. Evidence of precocious knowledge has been documented in species with a short life span, where learning by trial and error could be too costly.” ~ Italian evolutionary biologist Elisabetta Versace & Italian cognitive psychologist Giorgio Vallortigara

For animals, a primary evolutionary dichotomy exists in developmental strategy that determines the extent of innate knowledge. This trade-off (life-history variable) involves the degree of maturity that an animal has when it begins its life.

An animal may be precocial or altricial. Newborn precocial animals come into the world equipped to cope independently. By contrast, the offspring of altricial species are dependent upon parental care to survive, as they are born or hatched in an immature form. Humans are altricial to an extreme, but they too possess precocious knowledge.

“From the time they are born, infants already link aspects of their own mind and emotions with those of others. Newborns imitate the facial expressions of others. To do this, they must link what they see on the face of another person with how it feels to be that other person on the inside.” ~ American psychologist Alison Gopnik

The precocial and altricial modes of development evolved based upon food availability and predation pressure. Birds exemplify. Female precocial birds must be well-fed to produce the energy-rich eggs needed to support greater in-egg development of chicks. Eggs of precocial birds may have twice the calories per unit weight as those of altricial birds. Altricial avian females do not have such large nutritional needs before egg-laying; but, with help from their mates, they must be able to find enough to feed their fledglings.

Birds that depend on stealth to stay safe need to be able to signal their chicks to stay still. Such species all have a call that instantly immobilizes fledglings, which keep quiet until they hear an all-clear signal. Obviously, such chicks are born knowing what the “be quiet” call means.

While in the nest, an entire brood is vulnerable to predation, and so dependent upon concealment and parental defense. In contrast, precocial birds quickly leave the nest with some ability to avoid predators. There is much less chance of an entire brood of precocial chicks being killed.

In altricial species, embryos develop relatively rapidly. The neonatal brain will grow from its small size after birth. In contrast, development before birth is longer for precocial species, and the neonatal brain larger. There is no consistent difference in adult brain size between altricial and precocial species.

The distinction between precociality and altriciality is especially broad in birds. Altricial chicks hatch with their eyes closed, covered in little or no down, are incapable of leaving the nest, and must be fed by their parents for an extended period. Precocial birds open their eyes upon hatching, are covered in down, and leave the nest within a couple of days. Chickens and several water birds, including many ducks and geese, are precocial.

Some birds are superprecocial. Megapodes are stocky, chickenish birds, endemic to Australasia. They hatch with a full set of feathers; some can fly on that same day.

Parrots have the best of both worlds. They are altricial, but parrot eggs are nutrient-rich, like those of precocial birds.

Parrot life history is like humans: both are highly intelligent, born with eyes open and large brains; but developmental success is predicated upon significant investment in parental care.

Like megapodes, some mammals are highly precocial. Common wildebeest calves can stand within minutes of being born and walk about within 30 minutes. Within a day, a wildebeest can outrun a hyena.

Precociality gives this wildebeest (aka blue gnu) a great advantage over other herbivores. Blue gnus are 100 times more abundant in the Serengeti ecosystem where they live than their closest relative, hartebeests. Hartebeest calves can take up to a half-hour after birth before they can stand up and are unable to keep up with their mothers until they are over a week old.

A key need for precociality is being born with the wiles to deal with a dangerous world. How is this possible?

“Solid evidence shows the existence of unlearned knowledge in different domains in several species.” ~ Elisabetta Versace & Giorgio Vallortigara

Though we know that savviness can be innate, there is nothing to support the idea that genetic matter manages to encapsulate expertise. Besides lacking evidence, it is simply inconceivable that nucleic acids store knowledge which comprises actionable concepts and categories pertinent to the outside world.

There is no way to explain the cognitive abilities of precocial animals by material means – within genes. Consider instead that a species-specific knowledge set is energetically embedded in an embryonic consciousness coupled to a mind-body, and precocial knowledge makes perfect sense.

Genetics put on quite a show at the molecular level, but like so much else, the story of existence is incomplete until the intangibles of Nature are factored in. An intelligent force of harmonious structuring will never appear under a microscope; but it most certainly is here, there, and everywhere.

 Emperor Penguins

Endemic to Antarctica, the emperor penguin is the biggest such bird. It is the only penguin that breeds during the frigid winter: trekking 50–120 kilometers over the ice into the continental interior to form huge breeding colonies. When bitter cold comes, thousands tightly huddle together to keep from freezing to death.

“Penguins in a huddle are packed so tightly that individual movements become impossible.” ~ German physicist Daniel Zitterbart

Holding precious eggs between their legs, huddled fathers-to-be travel 5–10 centimeters every 30–60 seconds. When one penguin moves a single step, others must also move to close the open space and stay warm. Each step creates a cascading wave of movement. If 2 waves travel toward each other, they merge. To stay warm, gaps just 2 centimeters wide instigate a reorganization.

“If you look at the huddle in real-time, it seems very steady – every penguin seems to stay at a fixed location.” ~ German zoologist Richard Gerum

“Individual penguins do not change their position relative to their neighbors, and they do not force their way in or out of a huddle.” ~ Daniel Zitterbart

The coordinated wave movement allows optimal warmth for the entire huddle by circulating penguins from the colder outer region into the warmer inner region, and vice-versa.

“They definitely have to be altruistic in their behavior to survive.” ~ Daniel Zitterbart

Emperor penguin huddle movement is an example of complex social behavior from precocious knowledge, as there is no way this slow-motion ballet is learned; and it is impossible to imagine how such savvy could be imparted by DNA.

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

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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.

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“Why do we expect that Nature is nice and clean? Because it’s more convenient for us. It’s up to us to figure it out, not to demand that it’s one way or another.” ~ American botanist Barbara Ertter

The deepest academic accomplishments are the constructions of knowledge systems. Overarching theories of physics, psychology, and biology are inferred on scales far surpassing the facts on which they are based. Such induction is an intellectual hubris with which the mind contents itself that it knows what is going on. Yet, as with learning language, sometimes the mind is on the right track.

The mind’s algorithms are clearly probabilistic. Generalizations from examples appear to be structured as representations in various mathematical forms: clusters, rings, trees, grids, and directed graphs, to name a few. Learning progresses from simpler structures to more complex.

Children initially assume exclusive clusters when learning words. Only later do they discover that nomenclature has a treelike hierarchy.

Science advances similarly. Biologists have long sought to systematically categorize the multitudinous forms of life on Earth. In the mid-18th century, Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus fumbled the specifics of life’s lineages rather spectacularly with guesswork. In 1866, German biologist Ernst Haeckel, inspired by Darwin’s work, laid the foundation for modern biological taxonomy by proposing a tree of life rather than the existing linearity.

Biological classification progressed from how organisms looked to how they may have speciated through time. This involved distinguishing clades: groups based upon evolutionary descent. The ability to analyze genetics greatly aided the effort.

The cladism approach revealed that life’s diversity was much more sophisticated than could hang on any tree, but no more sophisticated structure could be arrived at.

In 1869, having noticed patterns in the properties of chemical elements, Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev published the modern form of the periodic table. While illuminating, this grid only begins to capture the wizardry by which molecules exist: a complexity which has defied embodiment within any known geographic or mathematical structure.

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Our mind’s algorithms only suss slivers of Nature. These fractional captures are nonetheless impressive, less for their logic than for their mystique.

“Such structural insights have long been viewed by psychologists and philosophers of science as deeply mysterious in their mechanisms, more magical than computational.” ~ Joshua Tenenbaum et al

Generally, human learning proceeds top-down: getting the big picture first, then using an established framework to fill in gaps. Only when the structural framework is stressed does the mind search for something more robust.

That search is not always successful. Mathematical discoveries have revealed structures to which our mind simply cannot fathom. Science has repeatedly shown that the human mind is limited by more than cultural convention, which is quite a constraint unto itself.

Beyond broad characterization, the mechanics of perception and mentation defy understanding, especially the fluid facility by which learning transpires. To attribute the mind’s intricate workings to physical substrates is more mystical incantation than science.

“It is the nature of appearance to appear to be real, even though it is unreal.” ~ Vasistha