Other Parts of the Series:
Part 3: Talking to Myself - Who is Listening?
The Story of Me
We are a chatty lot!
Is there a point to all of this verbiage? Why do we talk to others and to ourselves? We can do something that other animals can't do, or can't do nearly as well as we do. We can generate an infinite variety of utterances from a finite set of auditory elements (e.g., phonemes). But more importantly these utterances convey meaning at multiple levels even when governed by a seemingly limited set of rules — grammar. Random utterances won't do. The rules force a speaker to construct utterances that have structure on multiple levels and it is the large-scale structure, along with the “grounding” of the utterances in a particular level (words or lexicon) that cause the structures at higher levels of organization (sentences and paragraphs) to carry meaning or semantic value. It is this fact that provides an evolutionary explanation for language. The meanings in our utterances increase our fitness as a species. They allow us to interact with the rest of the world successfully.
It goes beyond simple fitness, of course. Other animals are successful to the extent they are fit within their environments. But humans have no single environment (niche). By virtue of their generalized physiology (e.g. the omnivore diet) and their consciousness they are able to colonize essentially any Earthly environment (save Antarctica pre-19th century). They are explorers as well as exploiters. And one of the facilities that made them really good at it is the ability to convey to one another their experiences in exploring. They could share their personal histories with one another by telling stories. These personal histories, or the biographical memories I discussed in the previous post, are about things important to human well-being. Those are the things we tend to fix in memory traces in our brains. And, because of the way the world unfolds as a temporal sequence of parallel events, they are stored in sequences of mental images that also constitute our personal models of how the world works.
The stories of our biographical selves are rich in content and the biological meaning of that content. A typical story I might construct would be something like this:
My Story Today (So Far)
As I got dressed this morning the weather report on the radio said it would be raining and cold so I decided to wear warmer clothes. I remembered that I would not be able to eat lunch until later in the afternoon because I would be traveling from a meeting in Seattle that would not get out before 11:30am and I wouldn't get back to my office (and lunch) until 2:30. I decided to eat a more hearty breakfast than usual, which I did - bacon and eggs with toast. I then cleaned up the kitchen (so I wouldn't get yelled at for leaving a mess!) Got in my car and drove to Seattle. Saw a minor accident on the freeway. It slowed us down but thankfully there were no ambulances at the scene and it didn't look too bad... [goes on and on!]
Notice how my story contains a lot of detail. Notice how it pertains often to my situation and my well being. Notice how it contains elements of how I thought about the future, yet to be experienced. Notice how it contains peripheral conditions that might or might not be relevant to anything at the instant but were similar to past conditions that were. I have a lot to tell. Much of it is of no interest to anyone else because it doesn't pertain to their situations, at least not directly.
Contrast my story with that of my cat. What story can she tell? Here is a sample of her “thoughts.”
My Cat's Story (as told to me!)
I just experienced the availability of food. I just experienced a gratifying feeling of not being hungry anymore. I just experienced my human petting me - felt good. I just experienced my owner throwing me out of the warm place - did not like it. [and other stuff as it happens].
My cat has a story of sorts, in that it contains a sequence of events that are meaningful to her personally. She doesn't think in words of course. But each of those sentences contain particular concepts that she is capable of minding. Notice, however, that she is probably the only being affected by the events and the only one who at all “cares.” Notice how her thoughts are basically in the here and now. She has some memory of the past (being hungry, probably a memory of being thrown out), but doesn't seem to have a way to use that memory to make many predictions about the future, except possibly remembering that I always throw her out of the house after feeding her. She might anticipate future states of her being but probably not future processes or pathways and events that lead to those states.
Where my cat's story is just about herself and is only relevant to herself, my story contains a few hints that other people might actually care about those parts of it that involve interactions with them. We don't just talk to ourselves (or more precisely, mind our narratives to ourselves) we communicate with other people. We care about what is in their minds and they care about what is in ours. We often wish to shape their thinking and behavior based on our desires and they are doing the same to us. Language allows humans to cooperate behaviorally in ways that are not remotely possible in the lower animal kingdom.
The Content of the Story
In the case of language using abstract symbols (words), those symbols have to be grounded in meaning from the real world. There are ‘things’, there are ‘relations’ between things, and there are ‘motions’ of things that change them and their relations. Everything gets a name (a noun) used as a placeholder in mental structures (localized neural networks in premotor cortex that if activated would produce the muscle actions needed to voice the word). Such structures are formed when we first learn a word and connect it to its referent in the environment. We learned the concept of a ‘dog’ by seeing an example of a dog and hearing the word dog used in the context of seeing it. It probably takes many iterations of the co-experience of seeing the form of a dog and hearing the utterance from, say, an adult before we can, upon seeing another dog, correctly use the word. Or before we can hear the word spoken and conjure up a generalized image of a dog.
Relations are covered by most spatial and temporal prepositions (and phrases). “The man sat on the horse” signals a spatial (and by implication a temporal) relation between two objects, a man and a horse. Verbs signal actions that lead to relations. The man had to ‘mount’ the horse in order to be on it. All words are either placeholders (abstractions) for these three aspects, or are used to enhance and put focus on one of the three types.
The various grammars that have evolved in different cultures do seem to be based on a universal template for how to further relate these three aspects. There is a subject (a noun), an action (verb), and an object (another noun, explicit or implicit, as when the subject is also the one affected by the action). Language, then, is a tool to model the dynamical possibilities for things working in the world. It can be used to describe the world because it so well models the way the world works, that is, how the world is a system of subsystems. In this sense I have claimed that humans (and animals too) have a built-in model of systemness which they use to construct memories of actual things that happen in their experiences. Those memories build up the complex that constitutes a biographical self. But in humans there is a secondary set of images coupled with the primary set of sensory-driven images. That set is derived from motor images (voiced sounds) and contains abstract representations of the things, relations, and motions in the primary set. This secondary set is governed by the rules of systems dynamics or, in other words, the universal grammar. And it generates models that are temporally ordered stories of what the observer perceives or what the thinker thinks.
The contents of stories aren't just plain descriptions of the world. Stories are not simply recordings of what happened to be played back for future reference. Every story has semantic value, and that value is based on biology. Every being is mandated by their biology to maintain biomass, grow and replicate more biomass whenever possible. To that end, every thing that happens in the world around the individual and their offspring has significance. Events and states of the world, the things and their dynamics in the world, have potential to thwart or support the biological mandate. Therefore all stories are tagged with meaning relative to those potentials. While it is true that many events and states in the world might seem neutral in any one episode, the fact that relations (causal ones in particular) can change in nonstationary ways means that even supposed benign states of the world could, in the future, turn threatening. Thus we tend to integrate such stories into our store of understanding just in case it does become biologically meaningful in the future. For example the political turmoil in a distant land might seem too far away to be of concern: How could it affect me and my family? But as events like 9/11 have shown us, the capacity for distant turmoil to affect us much more directly cannot be dismissed.
Damasio identified affective semantic tags, calling them “somatic markers”, in which a memory of a story (the narrative) and its integrated form in our larger model of the world is associated with a state of the soma (body) resulting from the progression of events and states observed. His reason for calling it a somatic effect is that our bodies are biophysically changed in response to things we encounter. No one (with normal brains) who witnessed the events of 9/11, even on TV, could not have had a gut wrenching feeling or experienced an emotion of horror. Feelings are associated with every body state even when they do not produce strong emotional reactions. And when memory traces are formed, there are affective connections also encoded in the traces (these arrive in the neocortex from limbic sources). Every sentence in our developing narrative takes on meaning in a hierarchy of abstractions, from the concrete biological needs of the self to how those are met by interactions with the rest of the world, most especially other people. Our social narratives, in fact, are the most compelling of all; William Shakespeare understood that.
Our memories thus have two kinds of content in strong association. The first is the stream of concepts strung together according to the rules of the grammar (dynamics of the systems) forming the story or narrative that is minded. The second is the affective meaning of the stories insofar as how they relate to our personal biology. When we relive a story (recall events and states of the world) we also relive, to some extent, the states of our bodies, our feelings, and emotions that attended the original story as it unfolded.
Some cognitive scientists have suggested (at least in the past) that consciousness depends on language; that consciousness is a result of the language facility. Or, at least, that consciousness and the language facility are co-extensive. But the evidence from studies of self-consciousness in animals like apes, dolphins, and elephants clearly indicate that, at least with respect to self-consciousness, languages of the human sort are unnecessary. The mind of these creatures can still form the images of things, relations, and actions. They can even store memories of stories to be used to generate models of how the world (their world) works and make predictions or anticipations of the near future. It is likely true that language and the advances in consciousness in humans (as compared with our progenitor species) co-evolved. That is, as one became marginally more complex, the other may have been spurred to up the game. For example, one theory holds that nouns were the first verbal utterances made (probably in a species prior to modern sapiens). People were in the business of giving names to objects but did not yet know how to indicate actions (verbs) so needed to “act out” stories involving the named objects not unlike we do with the game of charades. The acting compelled humans to form images of action that acted as a selective force on the developing language complex (now recognized as Wernicke's (listening) and Broca's (voicing) areas in the left hemisphere). We still act out stories even when we have an adequate vocabulary to describe everything. We use hand gestures and body movements to add emphasis to our speech. And, indeed, acting as a form of entertainment persists because it was and is such a powerful way to convey how we think the world works to others.
By this theory descriptions of relations came last as these involve more subtle ways of describing. In any case it is no longer considered that the evolution of language preceded that of consciousness or was the cause of the emergence of consciousness. What the evolution of language permitted is the sharing between individuals of their stories. Body language and facial expressions helped convey the semantic (emotional) content and sentences, etc. conveyed the systemic content. People could learn from one another rather than always rely on direct experience to form new stories (e.g. how to shape an arrow head by description rather than demonstration). Our modern education system is largely based on learning by telling (lectures). Only in those subjects that rely extensively on hands-on experience do we supplement telling with experiential learning (labs).
The co-evolution of language and higher-order consciousness extended to the realm of social interactions and may be the reason that individuals started to construct more expanded narratives of themselves and not just their world. That is, a person did not just have a sense of self, as all animals do, but a story of self, an identity and autobiography. They possess a model of who they are and what they are like. We call this a self-image.
These stories come from how other people react to things we do. Their words and actions tell us something about ourselves that we incorporate into our self stories (it turns out every individual maintains multiple, sometimes conflicting stories about who they are!) Watching how we affect other people is essentially looking at ourselves in a behavioral mirror. Social psychology posits that our self identities are largely defined by our social life. It could even be that if one did not live in a social group, one might not develop a “theory” of who they are.
Our stories of the world are also mostly stories of other people. We construct models of others, in particular what they are thinking, as part of trying to predict how they will respond to our actions in the future. This theory of mind is thought to be based on our own recognition that we, as individuals, have a mind and hypothesize that those who are much like us (our fellow beings) must also have minds. Since we have an autobiographical story available to our minds, we assume others must have their own version of such a story. Since we each have intentions, we assume others do too based on their own stories and thus if we could empathically grasp their stories (by building a model of them within our own minds) we might be able to understand their intentions and, thus, their motives and action choices under various situations.
When I say that people construct models of others and assume they have minds, etc. I do not mean that people do these things consciously. Quite the contrary, most of our propensity to build such models is intrinsic in the way our brains work. It is done subconsciously and the results come into consciousness only in the form of social judgments we make when actually interacting. On rare occassions we might consciously consider what another might be thinking at a moment in order to anticipate their next move. Most of the time our social interactions (and here ‘social’ includes all kinds of interactions at all levels of intimacy with others) are pretty automatic. We don't actually have to think about what we are going to say or do next. The better our subconscious model of the other is, the more fluid our responses and actions will be.
Society depends critically on every member building a model of itself and all the others that have interactions with it. Love, liking, disliking, hatred, etc. are the somatic markers that attach to the intricacies of those models. Suspicion, fear, etc. also can be attached based on internal biases or just plain caution when we do not have a model of a particular individual we come in contact with. One way or another we all have feelings about everyone we come in contact with even if only because they remind us of someone we do know and have stronger feelings about. “That guy reminds me of my uncle Joe. Now there was a worthless lout!”
One thing is certain. The success of social interactions depends on just how veridical our models of self and others are. The more accurate our representations, the more effective our interactions should be. Every human starts out life motivated to cooperate — that motivation is built deeply into us biologically. Competition is fallen back on when warranted, but the ideal of a cooperative society is actually able to produce conditions in which competition need not predominate. There are very many examples of indigenous communities where cooperation (within the community) led to stable and sustainable living for the majority. In fact, one of the prevailing explanations for the evolution of so-called mutual altruism in humans is the theory of group selection in which tribes of cooperators out-competed tribes of individualists for the extant resources, thus giving an evolutionary (fitness) edge to cooperation in social groups.
The Higher Order of Human Consciousness
Language doesn't make us conscious in the way that we are. It does provide us a tool to be used in our consciousness for expressing complex relations and making fine distinctions between similar objects as well as providing a way to manipulate thoughts of things, relations, and motions in an abstract way. Language is crucial to the kind of thinking that we do, but it is not the origin or cause of the kind of consciousness we have.
Chimpanzees are conscious of themselves. They can even learn to associate a small set of signs (symbols, including spoken words and sign language expressions) with things, actions, and to a lesser degree relations. They can reason about their world because they, like us, have a kind of systems grammar that guides the manipulation of images of those things, motions, and relations. They can even back-relate their knowledge of the signs once they have thought through a particular manipulation and express the outcome. For example a chimpanzee that knows sign language can be thinking about a food item, say a banana, and feel hungry. So it would give the sign for eating (action) and banana (thing) indicating it wanted a banana to eat. It probably didn't think, “Gee, I'm feeling peckish. What would taste good right now? What might be in the pantry? I know, a banana fits the bill. I want a banana, please.”
Humans have obviously taken the thought process to a new level. They can think in the abstract and attach words to the thoughts to motivate actions (by someone else?) They can fine tune or shape the way the actions are going to play out by how they construct the sentences. And they can use this facility to actively (that is consciously) think about the state of things sometime into the future. This is typically what we mean when we talk about human level consciousness. It isn't particularly different from that possessed by chimpanzees it is just much more elaborate (in content), more comprehensive (in including both immediate and hidden things), and much longer in time scope (past and future).
However, it turns out that even though human consciousness is more elaborate than our predecessors possessed, our brains still retain the same kind of thinking that underlies all animal thinking. Here the questions might be asked, such as where do thoughts come from in the first place? What causes a chimp to consider specifically a banana for food? What causes you to consider what kind of ethnic food sounds good for dinner? Thoughts seem to come into consciousness from some mysterious, deeper part of the mind and we are not aware of the process that produces them. Once in consciousness we can actively manipulate ideas and talk to ourselves about whatever the subject is about. But why those thoughts in the first place? Where do they come from? How do they get into conscious awareness? These are the kinds of questions I will be exploring in a future posting.
Once thoughts are in consciousness humans take things one step further, aside from expressing thoughts in language. Humans can also be conscious of being conscious of thoughts. That is a person could have, “in the back of their mind” a secondary kind of thought, a thought about the thoughts that had been occupying their consciousness. Everyone has an experience of, for example, thinking about someone out of the blue (maybe in a daydream) and then that thought might lead to a question such as, “Gee I wonder why I just thought about so-and-so?” That is just one kind of thought leading to another in a train of thoughts. But some people will recognize a different kind of situation. The second thought does not follow from the first thought, nor is it quite so explicit in nature. Instead it is felt as a vague sort of question or more likely just an awareness of a puzzlement siting on top of the thought of the person. In other words, both kinds of thoughts happen simultaneously. The latter does not displace the former in explicit consciousness. They are both present concurrently as if there is yet another self in the background observing the foreground self having a thought.
Such experiences are fleeting and usually rare. I suspect there are some people who never quite recognize the phenomenon because the second kind of thought is so faint. Nevertheless, I postulate that there is something very real going on here. Namely, if you look back at figure 3 in the blog of April 19, Who is 'I' the top-most ‘map/model’ is labeled Planning Model and is responsible for the consciousness of one's own agency. I suspect that while much of the functionality of this map is subsumed under the working of Brodmann area 10 (BA10), as explained in that post, I believe that radical expansion of BA10 in our late evolution brought much more to the human mind. There might be yet a higher order map/model that is monitoring (observing) the planning model in that figure. In other words there may yet be an observer of what we had thought of as the top level observer. My coming exploration of thoughts will provide an entrée into this conjecture. I think it has a lot to do with the ancient mysticisms regarding the nature of a non-physical soul or the experience of what is referred to often as “pure consciousness”. The latter is often described as ineffable, something experienced but not really describable. My suspicion is that this is because it is the newest facility to evolve and is related to sapience in a deep way. Ordinary humans have just not quite got a handle on it like we do on conscious thinking with language. But who knows what evolution might yet produce. Is it also possible that this “experience of experience” is strengthened by various meditative practices? That might be an interesting topic!
Damasio, Antonio (1994). Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, HarperCollins Publisher, New York.
Damasio, Antonio (2000). The Feeling of What Happens, Mariner Books, New York.
Damasio, Antonio (2010). Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, Random House LLC, New York.
. Interestingly one of the possible differences between cats and dogs is that the latter do seem to form memories of processes or stories that make predictions of future events. Moreover, dogs seem to have fairly long-lasting working memories. We've all heard stories of the dog who waited by the door patiently for his owner to return home. Experiments on distracting dogs who are waiting for something important to them have shown that after the distraction they are able to go back to what they were doing as if they remembered. One explanation of this more human-like memory and thinking (even if concepts are not voiced) is that dogs and humans evolved very similar lifestyles in terms of running in groups, hunting, etc. Our minds are quite similar because we evolved under similar conditions and in similar niches.
. Ants communicate with one another to affect coordinated behaviors. They do it with chemical excretions called pheromones. These are like odor-producing (vaporizing) chemicals that ants use to send messages to their nest-mates. The pheromones trigger fixed behaviors in the receiving ants thus achieving a form of cooperative response. The pheromones evaporate after being emitted so that the signal is strong initially and then fades over a matter of minutes to hours. This is a kind of communications short-term memory that decays unless reinforced with more pheromone emissions.