THE BEAST WITHIN - (Podcast version here)
Or, Human animals, Human selves
OUR ANIMAL SUBSTRATE
This lecture/web essay tries to think about those components of our human actions, feelings, and mental lives that might be similar to those of other animals. Because most of us live mainly in our verbal linguistic minds it is quite easy for us to lose touch with the elemental and basic ways that our human selves are built on an animal substrate. One motivation for my taking on this topic is curiosity about my feelings and actions that might be strongly influenced by mechanisms shared with other animals (especially primates) in addition to those that are distinctively human. This derives from some "Ah ha!" moments during which I have felt or intuited a `primitive' origin of my less voluntary feelings or actions that I hadn't appreciated before, sometimes permitting less automaticity in their expression.
A BOTTOM UP APPROACH
I've tried several approaches to arranging this material, and end up finding most clarity in a bottom-up description of the stages by which brain and behavioral complexity has increased during animal evolution, as learned drives or motivations have supplemented more instinctual or primary drives. For every level of our self consciousness, from basic bodily regulation, to emotional valance, to higher cognition, there is a time in the evolutionary history of this planet when it was exemplified for the first time. We can note what is distinctive to each level of complexity, as well as what introspective access we might have to it. When we come to the level of social emotional behaviors we begin to observe many uncanny similarities between ourselves and other social mammals in an array of non-linguistic vocalizations and gestures that communicate mood, affiliation, dominance/submission, aggression, etc.
CAN WE ACCESS THE ANIMAL WITHIN?
We can ask what kind of access we might have to understanding the behaving animal mind within us, either from introspection - as in the traditions of buddhist psychology, western cognitive psychology, or psychoanalysis - or from third person observations by modern cognitive neuroscientists. A growing literature suggests correlations between different levels and varieties of our subjective experience, the evolutionary functional structure of the brain, and modern brain imaging measurements. Might we be able to know the animal within us in a way that is closed to other animals lacking an "I".
To oversimplify, we can ask - particularly with respect to our emotions, drives, and motivations - to what extent our our enlarged human neocortex that is required for memory, planing and foresight (below, shown in grey) permits us access to the limbic part of our brain that accounts for a much larger fraction of the behavior of more simple mammals (shown in pink), or to more basic brain stem functions. This is the human brain we have had for about the past ~200,000 years. ~15 cm in length and weighing ~1400 grams:
BASIC HOUSEKEEPING AND THE FOUR F'S.
It is with more simple terrestrial vertebrates that we might most profitably begin with this, to construct in more detail a description of what we mean by a `self' and what its components might be. In spite of the romantic sentiments expressed in this victorian holiday card, reptiles and amphibians do not perform happy social circle dances with garland wreathes around their vitals. They see a moment of the passing world as a looming shadow to escape, a moving black dot (a bug) to be eaten, a mate to be mounted, a territory to be defended, levels of moisture, temperature, or light to be sought or avoided, and so on. They appear to live at a level of unreflective habit.
Courtesy of Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington.)
This brain of a frog (~2 cm. in length, weighing less than a gram), is an example of the sort of brain from which our internal derivative of a reptilian brain has evolved. We can actually remain alive if most of our brain on top of this older portion is completely damaged or removed, but we lose all human qualities of thought and emotion - literally becoming a human vegetable with the clinical description of `brain dead.'
Our modern version of this old brain is a complicated array of bulbous regions at the top of our spinal cord that is required to regulate breathing, swallowing, body temperature, heart beat, visual tracking, hearing, etc. This core regulates interactions with the physical world elemental to having a self that we seldom think about - like breathing, supporting ourselves against gravity, seeing, tasting, smelling, touching, hearing. Our existence requires our taking oxygen from plants and returning carbon dioxide to them so that they can use the energy of the sun to make the carbohydrates that we eat. We are nothing without this elemental link to the biosphere. We become unconscious within seconds if our brain is deprived of oxygen, yet pay little attention to this sine qua non of our existence.
CORE SELF, CORE CONSCIOUSNESS
Damasio suggests that this part of our brain is the core of a proto-self which carries out the basic mappings of the biological state of the organism that are required for maintaining its constancy (homeostasis). This non-conscious entity rests in distributed systems (internal milieu, visceral, vestibular, and musculoskeletal systems) that map the body at different levels, and is the biological `ground' from which consciousness can eventually emerge.
In his model a core self then appears at some point in vertebrate evolution as a transient entity, ceaselessly re-created for each instant in which the body and external or internal visceral objects interact - a continuously refreshed higher order mapping of changes in the proto-self caused by body-environment interactions. It is present centered, renewed in each instant, not dependent on conventional memory, working memory, reasoning, or language. Organisms unequipped to generate this core self or consciousness might make images of sight or sound but could not come to know that they did. There would be `being' but not a `feeling of what happens' (the title of Damasio's book on how selves are constructed). In earlier stages of vertebrate evolution internal states signifying basic homeostatic regulation, reflexes, drives, motivations, and even what we we classify as emotions might have been unknown to the organisms producing them. These could include drives that have a central locus in the reptilian brain such as the four F's learned by generations of medical students: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and fornicating.
Our experience of these primary and instinctual basic drives has a very different quality than our experience of thoughts or more complicated emotions. The urge to remedy hunger, to have sex, to approach or avoid, to flee or fight when suddenly presented with very threatening situations have an urgency and automaticity we all have experienced. Perhaps in the unreflective instant when we are overwhelmed by these drives we are as close as we can come to feeling the processes that constitute the whole mental life of a lizard or frog.
THE BUDDHA WAS A BIOLOGIST
We can, in more quiet moments of reflection or meditation note the more muted `flickers' of these primal forces, appearing and disappearing almost as transient quantal energies. The Buddha's Second Foundation of Mindfulness notes these elemental feelings and along with impressions of pleasant/unpleasant/neutral/painful, etc. Indeed, sensing or exploring the nature of our elemental physical existence, our body breathing and homeostasis, is a focus of the Buddha's First Foundation of Mindfulness. The Buddha appears to have been an astute biologist, for his higher foundations, noted below, correspond in an approximate way to increasing levels of complexity of the vertebrate brain.)
With the appearance of mammals, the reflexes, instincts, and drives that center in older central brain structures are supplemented by more flexible learned behaviors that require newer cortical structures. The simple mammalian brain of the rat shown here, weighing about six grams, elaborates a new kind of cortex between the brain stem and the outer layer of the cortex shown here, usually referred to as the limbic system (the pink portion of our brain shown in the figure above). This system is associated with some striking new behaviors.
No matter how far we try to stretch our anthropomorphic empathy the relationship between a lizard or a frog and the large number of offspring that issue from its eggs can not be described as warm and cuddly, nor does a parent reptile get very excited about the demise of its offspring. In even the most simple mammals like a shrew or a rat, however, nurturing and defending the newborn is obvious, along with an expanded range of emotional behaviors centered in the new limbic cortex. There is vocal and olfactory communication between mother and offspring, and between siblings.
You may have observed the extensive nurturing rituals of a parental pet dog or cat, (this cat brain is over ten times bigger than the rat brain above, ~30 grams). Some of our pets' external behaviors can seem so similar to our own (affection, fear, anger, sadness, playfulness), that we project that they must be having internal experiences similar to ours. We feel solace and companionship in their company.
The larger brains of these mammals show clear evidence of having learning and memory capabilities vastly beyond those of the cold blooded vertebrates. They excel at situational analysis and recall (such as remembering food locations, or predator locations), but there is no hint that they can recall or re-present a situation to reflect on it, either individually or collectively. Each individual during its development accumulates a detailed library of things to approach and things to avoid, both in its physical and social worlds. In addition to the present centered core-self or consciousness noted above there appears (to use Damasio's terms again) an `extended consciousness' which can access and apply that learning history to current circumstances. Even if centered in the present, it still generates emotional behaviors obviously influenced by prior experience. (Our human introspective access to, observation of, emotional feelings more nuanced than the basic drives mentioned above is the focus of the Buddha's third foundation of mindfulness, another correspondence of this tradition with what we know about our biology.)
THE SOCIAL BRAIN
Most striking in mammals is the appearance of complicated social structures and relationships outside each family parent/offspring unit. As mammals develop more complex social groups and communication, the top layer of the cortex that covers both the limbic system and the brain stem becomes much larger. Brain size correlates with group size in primates. In these rat, cat, and human brains, shown in side cross sections cut through the middle from front to back you can see how the smooth cortical surface of the rat brain expands in area and becomes tucked and folded.
As we get to mammals like the monkeys and apes whose social behaviors and rituals show striking parallels with our own, there can be a concern that in trying to avoid anthropomorphism (interpreting animal behavior in terms of our own) we might be throwing out the baby with the bath water. The obvious similarity of the emotional expressions (especially facial) in humans and higher mammals tempts us to imagine that the non-reflective present centered feelings that we experience while observing or expressing these behaviors might be shared, even if being self consciously aware of them, or recalling and thinking about them, might not be.
MONKEY SEE, MONKEY DO - MIRROR NEURONS AND EMPATHY
"Social" nerve assemblies are found in monkey brains. As monkeys view other monkeys (or humans) making purposeful actions towards a goal, nerve activity is observed in nerve cells of their brains (dubbed mirror neurons) that would become active if they were carrying out the task themselves. There is a monitoring of another's behavior. The activity of these mirror neurons may be the neural correlate of an observation/execution matching system, a rudimentary precursor of the ability to simulate the mental states of other individuals that underlies `mind-reading'. However, the activity of a mirroring system within monkeys or ourselves need not be accompanied by awareness of its presence. These mirroring neuron systems are presumably the basis of the mirroring of non-goal directed behaviors: schools of fish, flocks of birds, and human yawning or laughing spreading through a group without participants knowing it what it is `about'. Capacity to control this mirror system, decouple it from the actual executive motor structure is a precondition for achieving voluntary control. This is lost in some human psychiatric disorders such as echopraxia in which subjects involuntarily mimic others.
Behaviors suggesting mirroring of emotional states is observed in rats and many other social mammals. Rats or monkeys that observe a conspecific being distressed by suspension in a harness or electric shocks (and have had that experience themselves) will press a lever to relieve the distress.
Empathetic mirroring of emotions is crucial for the reproductive success of animals living in groups, and is among the many complex social interactions displayed by the East African Vervet monkeys shown in this picture. They also classify relationships into types, and also classify sounds according to the objects and events they denote (leopard alarm, snake alarm, eagle alarm, each associated with specific behaviors). They have a laser beam sort of intelligence focused to a very narrow sphere. There is no evidence that monkeys attribute mental states to other monkeys. They are skilled observers of each other's behavior, but can't be said to analyze the motives underlying behaviors. The monkeys make subtle and penetrating discrimination in social matters, yet don't seem to transfer this capacity to other matters. They do not seem to have knowledge of their knowledge, to `know that they know', in the sense of being aware of their own states of mind and using this awareness to explain or predict the behavior of either themselves or others.
MIRROR, MIRROR, ON THE WALL.....HAVING A SELF
As we come to troops of monkeys and great apes we encounter social behaviors and emotional expressions (especially facial ones) that bear an uncanny similarity to our own (Charles Darwin wrote the original classic book on this topic). Many chimp facial expressions parallel our own, as in this illustration from Darwin's book:
Chimps show political and moral behaviors that are -strikingly similar to our own. They follow prescriptive social rules and anticipate punishment for their infraction. Rules of reciprocity concern giving, trading, and revenge, along with moralistic aggression against violators. We can recognize analogs of virtually our entire range of human emotions as individuals move between moods of being happy, sad, angry, lonely, tired, embarrassed, etc. In complex rapidly changing social settings we experience, usually without reflection, a range of behaviors so similar to those observed in a group of chimpanzees that De Waal's book on this subject "Chimpanzee Politics - Power and Sex among Apes" is recommended by Newt Ginrich, the former leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, as required reading for any aspiring politician. Both we and chimps communicate a vast amount of social information by facial and body gesture as well as tone of vocalization - a kinesic communication system that in us lies parallel to and is reinforced by language.
Chimps, orangutans, and human infants at about 18 months of age are unique among the primates in their reaction to mirrors. Monkeys and other vertebrates, upon encountering a mirror image of themselves, never move beyond treating the image as another member of the species and frequently make threatening displays.
Chimps who first look into a mirror act as though they were encountering another chimp, but they soon begin to perform simple repetitive movements, like swaying from side to side, while watching their images. They then appear to grasp the equivalence between the mirror image and themselves and start to explore body parts such as the genitalia which they can't ordinarily see. If a spot of dye that can't be smelled or felt is placed on a chimp's eyebrow ridge during anesthesia, it will be noticed when the animal first encounters a mirror after waking. (It turns out that Dolphins, which have very large brains, can do this also. This is a remarkable apparent case of convergent evolution, self recognition having been independently invented in their evolutionary line and in ours.) These mirror experiments show the arrival of a new kind of mental representational content, the brain has a self model that identifies itself with an external model (the mirror image). A `self containing' or `mineness' is now possible. We might contrast this with the less rich mental self model of the monkey, perhaps better described as `just is'-ness, or `just being', without a sense of ownership. These are first steps towards having an "I" of the sort we humans experience.
HELLO!, IS ANYONE OUT THERE? - ASCRIBING BELIEFS TO OTHERS
The ability of chimps to manipulate and deceive each
other has been taken to indicate that they might have some sort of second-order
mental state like a `self' and ascribe selves with beliefs to each other. However,
there is a problem with anecdotes about deceptive behaviors, pointed out for
example by Povinelli. Such behaviors
have the goal of getting another chimp to behave in a certain way (to move away
from a piece of food, to turn in a particular direction to not approach, etc.).
What the deceiver has to know is how his or her own behavior will affect the
behavior of others, to have a behavioral abstraction or rule. While in addition
to that it is possible that the chimp might have been reasoning about the mental
state of others, there is no logical requirement that this be the case. The skeptic
would say `Humans sometimes manipulate others by simulating their mental states,
chimpanzees do it by learning all sorts of individual stimulus-response chains.'
would say `Yes, it's obvious that chimps and humans could be doing it different
ways, but it's more biologically plausible to assume that they're doing it the
The problem is brought home by looking at a class of experiments done in Tomasello's lab at Max Planck in Leipzig that have received considerable attention. They used a natural situation involving food and hierarchy - rules for who eats first in groups of foraging chimps - as being most likely to show evidence for `seeing is believing' - attributing knowledge to others.
The schematic drawing shows three opaque cages in a row, with a dominant chimp in the first and a submissive in the third, and two pieces of food in the middle cage. The doors from the outer to the middle cage are opened just enough that each chimp can peek at food and see other chimp eyeing it too.
If the doors are opened so that both chimps can see the two portions of food only the dominant chimps takes the food, as in the wild. If one of the food portions is shielded from the view of the dominant, however, the submissive chimp will take it.
Does this establish that the subordinate understands
the connection between seeing and knowing? As Povinelli points out, unfortunately
not, because a behavioral abstraction "don't go after the food if the dominant
has oriented towards it' is also assumed to be the basis of a theory-of-mind
coding `because he has seen it, and therefore knows where it is'. Increasingly
controls, involving who did or didn't see the food moved to a new location, face
the same irreducible problem: Any experiments that rely on behavioral invariants
(i.e. following largely inflexible rules for looking, gazing, threatening, etc.)
presuppose the chimp has access to the invariant, and thus cripple any attempt
to establish whether a mentalistic coding is also used.
Povinelli suggests that experiments using a different paradigm are required, experiments that would require subjects to make an extrapolation from their own experiences to the mental states of others, and thus avoid the above problems. One suggestion: have a chimp interact with two buckets, one red, one blue. When the red one is placed over her head total darkness is experienced; when the blue one is similarly placed she can still see. How, if she confronts an experimenter with one or the other of these buckets over their head and selectively gestures to the person wearing the blue bucket, we could be highly confident that the nature of her coding was, in part, mentalistic - that she represented the other as `seeing' her.
Perhaps experiments will someday be devised to support stronger inferences that animals are showing not just some functional features of human conscious cognition, but its actual states and feelings. But until such experiments are devised we can only speculate over whether a chimp's mind might make a theory of what is in another chimp's mind ("If I don't hide the banana, the alpha male will hit me and make me give it to him like he did the last time."), to plan or test future scenarios by internally looking at and playing tapes of past experiences, recalling visual images and feelings. It might be doing this without giving us a a glimmer of evidence that it is. Why should it?
In spite of the failure of these experiments, as well as efforts to demonstrate that joint attention of chimps might correspond to `shared' or mentalistic notions of attention, it is important to note that chimps and other animals perform acts of thinking about thinking, or metacognition, without self awareness of this fact. Such metacognition is observed in humans, monkeys, and bottlenose dolphins, but not rats and pigeons, in dealing with uncertain situations. In visual, auditory or memory discrimination tasks we are all more likely to decline a task that can involve reward or punishment if uncertain of the discrimination (more/less, same/different) being requested. Thus we are testing possible future outcomes.
VARIETIES OF "I"
We have been carrying forward a distinction of at least two kinds of first person phenomena, an animal ego centric world to which humans then add first person concepts of themselves. Non human animals appear to solve problems by employing perspectival attitudes, while not yet possessing a concept of themselves as a subject. Our human first person in a stronger more interesting sense not only references from a first person point of view but ascribes this act of reference to itself while it is taking place...the difference between a first and third person attribution is cognitively available because we have new kinds of representational structures. This is important in thinking about theory of mind tasks (such as attributing beliefs to others), because one needs to be a thinker of first person thoughts to form a concept of other subjects having first person thoughts. (You can't attribute to others something you don't comprehend yourself!).
We would have to say that our sense of "I" has several nested components. First is the phenomenal animal substrate "I" looking out on a world with a sense of `just being' that doesn't include explicit self referential awareness of being in that state. Then there is, suggested by the mirror experiements, a more advanced sense of `mineness', having a self, yet still not reflecting on it, it's history or its future. Then follows our (pre-linguistic, most likely) "I" that reflects on itself as well as a past and a future. Finally there is the "I" that recruits language, both inner and outer dialog.
Our great difference with this chimp - who, we can be assured, is not in fact able to read this book it is hold - is in our ability to have linguistic access to a vastly expanded past, present, and future - to think and talk about why we do things rather than just doing them.
Apes have very limited ability to acquire even rudimentary aspects of human language, even after extensive training. This suggests that the ability to learn language must depend on some specifically human genes that appeared in the ~six million years since our hominid line separated from other great apes. Deficits in both spoken or signed language can be observed when specific genes or specific parts of the brain are damaged. Many aspects of the sensory input and motor output systems we use for language are shared with other vertebrates, but the core recursive processes that link a finite set of elements (sounds, gestures, meanings) to generate a potentially infinite array of discrete expressions appears to lack any analog in animal communication. Humans not only learn language, they can invent it de novo. In a remarkable recent study, a group of newly assembled deaf children in a Nicaraguan orphanage was observed to invent a signed language in the apparent absence of adult instruction. Language doesn't develop, as in the case of feral human children, unless humans grow up with other humans. Observations on children raised by wild animals suggest that they, like animals other than ourselves, are confined to an episodic present centered intelligence, living on the cusp of the present, looking into events, not reflecting back on them, accessing memory as guide to action, but not necessarily in a human style self conscious way.
To repeat, in animals there is no clear evidence yet of more than a sense of `body-ness' or `mine-ness', and not necessarily declarative self consciousness ("I-ness"). McCrone suggests that "animals do not see into a moment, rather they look out from it. Subjectively, the animal brain would always be facing forward, focused not on where the latest shift in viewpoint has come from, but where it is heading. Rather than feeling like an observer or a passenger, and animal would have a feeling of simply being the vehicle, of doing the journey." Hauser suggests that all of the data on the moral and social behavior of the primates is consistent with their being `moral patients' but not the sort of `moral agents' who have power to reflect on and change what they are doing. Our human feeling of being there during a moment, observing, supervising, and taking decisions, may be a veneer, or habit, grafted onto this kind of basic animal consciousness.
As Daniel Dennett points out, we observe that non-human animals can engage in many voluntary actions. The bird that flies wherever it wants is voluntarily wheeling this way and that, voluntarily moving its wings, and it does this without benefit of language or having an obvious `self'. We humans have added a layer on top of the bird's (and the ape's and the dolphin's) - a functional virtual layer composed somehow in the micro-details of the brain's anatomy. We can engage in the practice of asking, and giving, reasons. Until we came along, no agent on the planet enjoyed the curious non-obliviousness we have to the causal links that emerged as salient once we began to talk about what we were up to.
We have a `self' or `I' that enlists language to generate self images as grandiose as this Maenad.
As Wegner puts it, "People become what they think they are, or what they find that others think they are, in a process of negotiation that snowballs constantly." This information grows within each generation, and is passed on to the next, a kind of boot-strapping or ratchet effect which is cumulative. The centerpiece metaphor of this co-evolved human user-illusion is the Self, which appears to reside in a place in the brain. We wouldn't exist as Selves if it weren't for the evolution of social interactions requiring each human animal to create within itself a subsystem designed for interacting with others. Once created, it could also interact with itself at different times. Self that emerges in his and others' experiments as a sort of public-relations agent, a spokesperson instead of a boss. This was the central point illustrated in the first essay in this series.
We have made a stark case that animals cannot know what it is like to be us. There is no evidence that they experience an autobiographical "I" of the sort we know, and also no convincing evidence that they can attribute thoughts to others. Further, given that our sense of self with past and future is so intimately tied to by our linguistic brains to both our personal developmental and cultural history, with the very wiring of those brains requiring patterning communications with caretakers and peers, we have little confidence that we will ever be able to occupy a mental space identical to theirs, to answer such questions as "What it is like to be a bat" (the title of a classic essay by Nagel). These conclusions disappoint me. I started out with this topic hoping to find more positive evidence for congruence between our human experiences and those of other animals.
We humans distinguish ourselves in being able to move from "usually without reflection" to a mental space of looking into moments of our social behaviors to note how and why they form, either as they are taking place, or in retrospect. From external electrical measurements we now know the approximate time scales of brain events that correlate with sensation, perception, emotional coloring of contexts, and initiating actions. We can observe corresponding internal activities in subcortical and cortical regions of the brain using modern brain imaging techniques. We also can introspectively position ourselves to be millisecond observers of the epochs of sensing, feeling, thought, and action that occur in the second or less after some new input leads to a new feeling or behavior.
If we slow down and get quiet enough to move upstream and watch, before normally automatic routines cut in, we can see more of them. Attending to experience at a low level of interpretation permits several things to happen: things seems a bit more clear and objective and assumptions or interpretations which have previously been dissolved surreptitiously in perception now become visible in their own right. They operate, if they still continue to do so,'downstream' of the moment of conscious perception, on the surface, rather than upstream, invisibly. This kind of processing is less bound by self reference, considerations of personal advantage and disadvantage, a little more spontaneity and creativity can be released. (This kind of noting or deconstruction of how thoughts and feelings are produced, to finish one thread from above, is a focus of the Buddha's fourth foundation of mindfulness.)
To summarize then, I have been repeating the point that we have introspective capabilities that permit us to distinguish sensations and feelings that correspond to regulatory levels of our brain and nervous system, from basic homeostasis through innate drives and reflexes to learned emotional behaviors and social rituals. We sense the qualitative difference in feeling that goes with just breathing, reacting rapidly to a falling object, or rapidly deciding our rank with respect to a novel conspecific. We can distinguish in ourselves the behavioral repertories that appear to have been permitted at various stages of vertebrate evolution. This is not a radical proposition, it is our everyday experience. We are able to introspectively note how and when these experiences occur, to appreciate a `natural history' of the brain actions that compose us, and thus gain a degree of freedom in the expression of our behaviors that is completely closed to other animals.
Listing correspondences between our internal experiences and the evolutionary levels of our brains - or subcortical and cortical brain activities observed by modern imaging techniques - does not prove the causes of our behaviors.
Still, I would assert that they bring us closer to understanding them.
Why have different meditative traditions made approximately similar descriptions of layers of mind that lie below our verbal intelligence and storylines? I think it is because letting our awareness open to pre-verbal systems within us similar to those of other animals (breathing, standing against gravity, instinctive drives, learned motivation, emotions whose expression links to the physical and social environment) serves as a balance or antidote to our constant internal narrative chatter, our internal discursive traffic jam. With insight there can be calming of the mind.
Introspective techniques that bring different levels
of complexity to the forefront of awareness may be the closest we can get to
subjective experience of the Beast Within. There is a resonance of these correlations
with our own experience that makes us feel that they are probably also causes
that experience. They suggest origins of our behavior that seem naturalistic
- an alternative to folk psychology or religion, to possession by demons or saints.
This is reassuring to those of us who wish to be guided more by what meager scientific
insight we do have than by divine revelation.