This is a crude web
presentation of a talk I gave at the University of Wisconsin Thursday noon
Genetics Seminar series on April 28th, 2011. The lecture text and slides are passed on virtually untouched.
and Constructing the “I”
- The title of this talk is
pretentious - Anyone talking about minds should be mistrusted. Take everything I say with a
grain of salt.
Summary of talk:
I. Evolving brains.
Varieties of “I”
II. Developing brains
III. Modeling the subjective self:
The illusion of
The virtual machine
and virtual organs
Emotions as evolved
organs of consciousness
IV. Embodied cognition
Art and Music
V. Summary - the Self
Here are the topics. I think of these as skipping, hopefully lightly, through
a series of bon-bons. If you were
feeling less charitable, you could call it everything but the kitchen
sink. In my snowbird nest in
Florida over the past few months I wrote down a few things I thought might be interesting, and when
I started to realistically time it early last week it was obviously at least
two hours long, after 10 years of
my retirement philosopause I’ve obviously lost the 50 min. lecture
conditioning. But I've been
hacking away and promise to be on time today. Section II is down to all of 3 minutes.
Thinking about the
"I" between our
ears has to start with at least a
nod to how it evolved and how it develops.
We have Rube Goldberg
brains, like our querty
keyboards, parts built by
co-opting earlier versions in defiance of what might be best engineering
practice - they don’t get off the ground during development
without extensive crafting by the physical and social environment.
So...before we plunge into
'how it might work' we need to do just a bit on what happens on evolutionary
and developmental time scales, (Topics I and II on the outline). After evolving and developing, we can move on to experiments and ideas
on how it works in the present (Topics III, IV, and V).
[Summary Slide, from Evolving Brains - The Beast Within]
Here’s cartoon summary, a
brief fable, that gets us from single cells to vertebrates in one fell
swoop. A single cell or a
human has the fundamental question "Now, what do I do next."
Bacterial chemotaxis is an
early answer, membrane receptors
reporting good stuff or bad stuff and effectors like cilia to respond, along
with membrane voltage changes.
Still in unicellular
organisms, the invention of sex, mating types, sensing each other's
Then, crosstalk between the
parts of radially symmetrical invertebrates mediated by diffusible
hormones, which became the
neurotransmitter used by synapses for more rapid communication between emitter
cells and target cells.
In our development and in
our brains action is usually antecedent to sensing (acting, analysis,
sensing, in slide), embryos start
twitching before much sensing is happening, so that the point of sensing is to answer the 'what the did
I just do' question.
Moving on to our more direct
antecedents.....Brains like this frog brain, less than a gram, maybe 2 cm long
are the precursors to the bulges at the top of our spinal cord.
There is a present centered proto-self here, regulating
breathing, swallowing, body temperature, heart beat, visual tracking, hearing,
etc- interactions with the
physical world elemental to having a self, renewed in
each instant, constantly tracking
and renewing body-environment interactions.
It is a kind of
"being" - internal
states mapping homeostatic reflexes, drives, motivations, feeding, fighting, fleeing, and
fornicating, with these states
presumably unknown (in the sense of their being a feeling of what happens) to
the beast producing them.
These reflexes, instincts, and drives are supplemented in simple mammalian brains like the rat brain shown here
on the left, about 6 grams, by a
new kind of cortex supporting more flexible learned behaviors, cortex that is
elaborated between the brain stem and
the outer layer of the cortex shown here,
Our subsequent version of
this simple mammalian brain is usually referred to as the limbic system (the
pink portion of our brain shown in the figure).
The mammalian limbic brain
offers a more extended consciousness or self, with striking new behaviors, - nurturing and defending the newborn-
an expanded range of emotional behaviors- vocal and olfactory communication
between mother, offspring, and siblings - learning and memory capabilities way
beyond cold blooded vertebrates - remembering food or predator locations,
But there is no hint that
they can recall or re-present a situation to reflect on it, either individually
As mammals develop more
complex social groups and communication, the top layer of the neocortex that
covers both the limbic system and the brain stem becomes much larger [slide
with three brains]. Brain size correlates with group size. You can see how the
smooth cortical surface of the rat brain expands in area and becomes tucked and
The neocortex of primates
takes frontal growth and folding to an extreme, with prefrontal cortex being
central in our advanced strategic capabilities.
The pop psychology triune
brain model - that our show is being run by semi-autonomous parallel reptilian,
primitive mammalian, and more advanced neocortical brains doesn't really
wash, because the newer stuff very
thoroughly projects down into, and regulates all the older structures, through
to the brain stem.
[Summary slide, I. Evolving brains - Mirroring]
What you get in terrestrial
vertebrates and particularly mammals increasingly sophisticated systems of
neurons that mirror the actions and emotions of conspecifics, in rats and in humans you can measure,
during observations of another animals purposeful actions or emotions, activity
in the nerve cells (dubbed mirror neurons) that would become active if they
were carrying out the task themselves.
The common assumption is
that these systems have to be a basic substrate for building empathy, a building block for social cognition
and eventually the first-person
perspective, the idea being that our selves are constructed by mirroring, then
internalizing the selves of others. We become ourselves by first becoming those around us.
Our sense of "I" can be described as having several
nested components that originate at different times in evolution.
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.
The idea is 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. With respect to
the emotions regulating reciprocity and retribution, animals would have the
status of being moral patients, not moral agents.
Then mirror self recognition experiments
in monkeys, dolphins, and some birds, a more advanced sense of `mineness' ,
having a self, yet still no evidence that it is reflecting on it, it's history
or its future. A cat looking
in a mirror sees another cat, a monkey can know that it is looking at itself.
A next stage argued for humans is a
vocal, visual gestural mimetic largely pre-linguistic "I" that is
able to reflect on itself as well as a past and a future.
Finally there is our "I" that
recruits language, both inner and outer dialog, giving us our more grandiose
"I" that underlies myth and artistic expression.
Today I'm not going to get
into brain structures necessary for consciousness or self referral - internal midline structures are crucial
but you can lob off the cerebellum, hippocampus, chunks of the temporal
cortices and other parts of the neocortex and still feel a conscious self.
There's a lot of recent interest in neuronal types and
arrangement that are distinctive to humans and great apes. I'll mention just one.
Spindle, or Von Economo,
neurons are a new type of cell found only in the ape lineage, humans have many
more of these cells than apes, they are large, stripped down high performance
cells, making fewer connections and relaying information rapidly mainly
between the anterior
cingulate cortex, and the insular
cortex inside the frontal lobes
the only two areas where they are found in significant numbers.
The insula is essentially the sensory cortex for our
internal body sensations, subjective feelings, sensing what we can of homeostatic regulation, It’s not out there on the top like the
primary auditory, visual, and
somatosensory cortices that are easy to get at with external electrodes. It is tucked on the inside middle as
5-7 folds of the cortex, it’s active in social emotions like trust, empathy,
guilt, embarrassment, moral judgement or revulsion. The anterior cingulate does
our emotional response to pain, is
active in conflict resolution,
I'll mention this area again
[Summary Slide, II. Developing brains - Physical
Now let me flick to the
second topic... a brief hop, skip, and a jump, through development. It's interesting that the major growth areas of the human cortex
during development are those that have changed the most in the evolutionary
expansion from monkey to human brains. So, the idea is that its useful for regions of recent evolutionary
expansion to remain less mature at birth to increase the influence of postnatal
experience on their development.
Starting from a crude innate
template, at lower levels of
processing, the line orientation detectors in our primary visual cortices are
shaped by by real world stimuli, experiments with cats and monkeys show that they are exposed during a
critical period of development to an artificial visual world of mostly
horizontal or vertical stimuli the majority of cells in the primary visual area
come to fire best with those stimuli in the adult.
At a higher level, during
development the brain develops spontaneous brain activity (measured with
multi-electrode arrays) that
becomes increasingly similar to activity evoked by natural scenes. Just as with the more simple line
detectors, this is a wiring of environmentally relevant templates in the brain
caused by interaction with the physical environment, as the brain is
constructing internal models of its environment.
[Summary Slide, II. Developing brains - Social environment]
At birth our visual brain
already have icon detectors wired for the key elements of human faces, we are
primed for social signals, interactions with caretakers and peers is required
for normal brain development, social deprivations or abuse distort it.
Our selves are constructed
by mirroring, then internalizing the selves of others. We become those around us, then later we start to also become what
Brain wiring is moulded by culture, visual figure/surround analysis develops
differently in Eastern and Western cultures, its moulded by the skill sets we develop - the brains of pianists, tennis players, and talmudic scholars
show elaborations of the appropriate areas.
That’s it, 3 minutes on developing brains.
[Summary Slide, III - Modeling the subjective self: The
illusion of agency]
After this quick gloss on
evolution and development, what
about how the thing works. First, our illusion of
The "I" we all are
experiencing right now isn't where much of the most interesting action is. I want give you thumbnail clips
of several simple observations that point to the martian inside thats really
running the show.
The most simple
demonstration comes if I ask each of you to close your eyes, become quiet for a
few moments, just breathe, and tell you to have no thoughts, images, or feelings in your head, wait quietly
for 3 minutes, and then ask how many of you were able to follow this
instruction. The answer would be
zero, unless a few of you were experienced meditators.
Well, if you’re running your own show what’s
the problem? Thoughts just keep popping up from somewhere, that's the martian inside, a
brain that is is generating this stuff in spite of “our” conscious best
intentions. This is what it is
designed to do, generate stuff, regardless of whether “you” in quotes, want it to or not.
What about action, I pick
up this book and think my conscious intention to do that is what causes me to
pick it up.... wrong, as shown by this simple experiment done
first by Benjamin Libet, which I never get tired of showing...
- the subject is instructed:
"Flex your finger to push the button when you feel like it, and tell us
where the hand on the rapidly moving clock is when you decide to do that."
The time at which an EEG
signal indicating brain activation for movement occurs is set as zero time, the
report of awareness of intention to push the button is about 350 msec (0.35
seconds) later, and the actual EKG, the voltage in the finger muscle doing the
push, happens about 200 msec later than that.
We are 'late for
consciousness', the action had already started. The brain has started on our
acting earlier than our
consciousness of it.
There is a point to this delay in awareness, while its efficient to get an action
underway unconsciously it also useful to become aware of it before its final
execution and edit or veto it, if it is perceived to be inappropriate. Even if we don't have free will,
we have a "free won't" editor.
This is not so crazy,
really, -the consequences of my
action are programmed back into the next automatic startup of the next action
as an anticipation. This information
is presented back to the underground processing that is preparing the next
instant of action that we will retroactively `intend.'
Our brain thus works in an
expanded present that contains the moments antecedent to our awareness of
thoughts and actions and that also persists as their consequences are integrated
into the ongoing cycle.
This was about acting, we can use a simple experiment with
perception to also illustrate a delay in the time it takes us to be conscious
of things that are already going on in our brains
Here the instruction is to
push the button in response to a light coming on. The button push occurs about 200 msec after the light comes
on. If the instruction is: “slow
down your response by the tiniest possible amount,” then approximately 700
msec passes before the button
push. There is a quantum jump of
500 msec, waiting for consciousness to develop if a conscious rather than
unconscious response is requested.
So, both our perceptions and
actions are faster than our consciousness of them.
-What's the point of this
half second delay for consciousness? There is one: our
unconscious mind can shape what we think we are perceiving out there in the
-We compare the information
that comes with our library of images, and frequently assume that the stored
image is the correct one.
-if I quickly flash an
impossible card, a red ace of spades, on the screen, many of you will report seeing an ace of spades or an ace of
= ‘free won’t’ editor
perception = what ought to be there
A brief summary then is that
both acting and sensing are faster than our awareness of them, permitting
editing functions to intervene and shape both our final actions (free won't
editor) and perceptions (what ought to be there).
Here’s another neat
experiment... not only are you late to experiencing yourself as an agent or a
perceiver, you can also put that late self anywhere you like in space.
another hapless undergraduate subject on the left in the dark blue trousers
sees his own virtual body (light blue trousers) in 3D through head mounted
goggles, standing 2 m in front of him and being stroked synchronously with his.
Dark is the actual body, light is the virtual body seen in the head goggles.
This is a
multisensory conflict, vision of
the virtual image being stroked is telling him something different from the
felt touching on his back. In a
case like this, vision typically dominates over proprioception and touch, and
the subject starts to feel that the virtual body seen in front of him is his
own body and he mis-localizes himself to the virtual body, to a
position outside their bodily borders. This indicates an amazing
plasticity, with spatial unity
and bodily self-consciousness being computed from multisensory and cognitive
processing of bodily information.
our subjective I is late to acting and sensing, it’s an after the fact report,
and we can place our subjective bodies outside our actual one... I could continue to show experiments
showing how flexible our assignment of agency is, how easy it is to think we
are responsible for an action when we are not, and vice versa, or experiments showing how our unconscious emotional
brain puts a good or bad label on virtually everything we sense. Is it something to
go for or to avoid? Helping with
the 'what should I do next?" question I started the evolution chunk with.
Slide, III - Modeling the subjective self - The virtual machine and virtual
Well, these few fragments on relativity of
our selves and our illusion of agency provide a backdrop for moving on to ask
‘what kinds of models do we have for a conscious self.
think there is a consensus view emerging among many philosophers of mind and
cognitive neuroscientists, ...it describes our subjective I as a virtual machine. Thomas Metinzger has done
one of the most clear and accessible summaries, and I follow some of his
virtual machine of consciousness
“I” = Complex property of neural
correlates of consciousness
Space of attentional agency
A new kind of evolved virtual
Support from evolved hardware
What he calls the Ego Tunnel
(or PSM) is a complex property of the global neural correlate of consciousness
(NCC which could be the subject of many lectures) - what make “Mineness” or “I” possible - a vastly reduced
model of what is really 'out there'
- It is a transparent mental
image that allows the conscious experience of being a self to emerge. (Transparency is our not
seeing the firing of neurons in our brain, only what they represent for us).
- The model at a given
moment is transparent because the brain has no chance of discovering that is is
a model - it is a higher order representation integrating its information in
longer time window than the lower order information processing in smaller time
Our visual perception time
window is much larger than the time windows of primary visual processing and so
those more rapid underlying processes are completely invisible to it (the same
thing as not being able to see the individual frames in a movie reel, because our visual integration time is
much longer). It is a
metabolically efficient, quick and dirty way of knowing only what our evolution
has deemed it necessary for us to know.
- Our ancestors did not need
to know that a bear-representation was currently active in their brains or that
they were currently attending to an internal state representing a slowly
approaching wolf....All they needed to know was “Bear over there!” or “Wolf
approaching from the left!”
-In this view, Consciousness
is taken to be the space of attentional agency, that set of information currently active in our brains to
which we can deliberately direct our high level attention. Low level attention is automatic and
can be triggered by entirely unconscious events.
-Metzinger makes the further
assertion that consciousness is epistemologically irreducible: one reality, one kind of fact, but
two kinds of knowledge: first-person knowledge and third-person knowledge, that
never can be conflated.
-There is a long list of
ideas on why consciousness evolved, what it is good for, doing goal hierarchies
and long-terms plans, enhancement of social coordination, etc.
-Old things in the evolution
of consciousness are ultrafast and reliable (like qualities of sensory
experience) and transparent. In contrast, abstract conscious thought is not
transparent or fast, it is slow
and unreliable, experienced as ‘made.’
I like Metzinger's
description of consciousness as a as a new kind of virtual organ - unlike the permanent hardware of the
liver, kidney, or heart it is always present. Virtual organs form for a certain
time when needed (like an immune response, or like desire, courage,
anger)...they are a new computational strategy, that makes classes of facts
globally available and allows attending, flexible reacting, within context.
[Summary Slide, III.
Modeling the subjective self - Emotions as evolved organs of consciousness.]
The fast acting hardware of
our autonomic and neuroendocrine emotional chemistries evolved to support the
new classes of transient virtual organs.
[Summary Slide, IV. Embodied
cognition - Social emotions]
These are the basis of an
array of cognitions that include the social mirroring neurons which I mentioned
already in section I. They include
the neuroendocrine circuits being recruited in transient social emotions, expressions of anger, happiness,
disgust, surprise, sadness, and fear.
Paul Ekman first documented
that these are universal across cultures.
The core facial muscle groups used in these emotional
communications are similar in humans and chimps.
These emotions and their
muscles are guarantors of authenticity, across cultures people unconsciously
and easily distinguish genuine Duchenne smiles, which automatically recruit
muscles around the eye and mouth, from fake smiles, which mainly move only muscles around the mouth.
Keltner and others have
documented the slightly more subtle facial and body language of signals of
embarrassment, smiling, laughing, teasing, touching, loving, compassion, and
awe - all reflecting evolved social repertoires. These involve subtle variations in the contractions of at
least 45 different facial muscle in humans, way more than a chimpanze uses.
[Summary Slide, IV. Embodied mind - metaphor]
Emphasizing the basic
embodyment of our mind - versus a more brain centric or ‘brain in a vat’ sort
of perspective - offers a way to
link together core biology and our higher cognition - our capacity to express social emotions, to use symbols, metaphors, analogies,
parables, working on a plausible
story about how various brain areas became able to perform these
concepts are physical brain circuits that include linkages to the body. What we
can think or understand is shaped by, made possible by, and limited by our bodies,
brains, and our embodied interactions in the world.
idea is that our cognition, up through the most abstract reasoning, depends on
and makes use of concrete and "low-level" facilities like the
sensorimotor system and the emotions. What our bodies are like and how they function
structures the concepts we can use to think.
thoughts, and emotions reciprocally link together - we can bias emotions by following neutral instructions to
hold the muscles associated with them in a particular configuration, a neutral
instruction to hold face muscles in a smile configuration makes it harder to
feel angry, holding them in a frown configuration makes it harder to follow an
instruction to feel friendly.
can measure subtle muscle motor activity associated with different classes of
thought (future thoughts, slight muscle movement ahead; past thoughts, slight
muscle movement back).
operations based on fundamental bodily functions are a basis of language
operations of language have their foundation in muscle action in the world (up,
down, sideways, in, out, containing, rotation)
verticality schema comes out of the tendency we and other animals have to
employ an up-down orientation in picking out meaningful structures like other
animals. An in-out schema
gives rise to container metaphors based on our own bodies' in-out orientation.
view our minds as containers, thoughts are like physical objects inside
them, natural language utterances
inside our heads. If you say "part of me doesn't believe he is telling the
truth," you are using the convention of talking about mind parts as
Our brains link the literal and the metaphorical by duct-taping
metaphors and symbols to whichever pre-existing brain areas have provided the
I mentioned earlier the insula areas
of our cortices that a central site collecting our subjective feelings about
our bodies, sending information on up to prefrontal cortical areas via the
spindle neurons. Here’s the
picture I showed earlier, this hidden internal lobe of the brain with 5-7 gyri,
or folds. Ours is larger than apes or monkeys.
The insula registers gustatory disgust and other kinds of
sensory disgust. Humans have
developed sophisticated capacities to be disgusted by moral failures. We didn’t
evolve a new brain region to handle it. Instead, the insula expanded its portfolio. It does moral disgust, which is why gustatory and
moral disgust can feel so viscerally similar.
of new and old stuff happens also in the anterior cingulate, again relatively bigger in humans than
apes, that’s involved in the
subjective, evaluative response to pain as well as conflict resolution. As humans evolved the ability to be
more accurately feeling the pain of others, mirroring their emotional
pain, it seems reasonable that the
anterior cingulate took it on, so
that it “does” both physical and psychic pain.
[repeat summary slide, point
[Summary Slide, IV. Embodied mind - ART and MUSIC
The aesthetic spontaneously arises in all cultures, representational art and music, this
invites speculation about its adaptive function, and arguments that the development
of higher artistic functions has recruited our embodied mirroring social
Here, for example, is an
argument from one of the guys who discovered mirror neurons and wants to
challenge the primacy of conscious cognition to emphasize how esthetic
responses also consist of universal embodied simulations of actions and
emotions conveyed through visual art. He might consider experiments looking at the activities of different
classes of mirror neuron systems while subjects are viewing visual art that
engages different kinds of empathetic response, for example to Michelangelo's
guy struggling to escape from a block of stone.
Semir Zeki argues that
registering the constant and essential characteristics of objects is the
primordial function of the visual brain and of art. ... that the modularity,
parallel processing and temporal hierarchy in visual perception is reflected in
visual aesthetics, Mondrian's
lines, Calder's motion mobiles, etc. and Margaret Livingstone has written a nice book on correlations between
how our visual brain and different artists handle luminance, color, and
Its easy to get into some
rather mushy evolutionary psychology, the sorts of landscape pictures preferred
by 8-year-olds around the world seem to mirror the types of flat, savannah-like
vistas of their paleolithic ancestors, or that the desire of these ancestors to
impress potential mates by developing artistic skills is the ultimate cause
behind Arthur Rubinstein’s saying
that “what he really liked in a recital was to fix his eye on some lovely
sitting near the stage and imagine he was playing just for her.”
Being a performing classical
pianist, I'm much more friendly to
arguments that music is an evolutionary adaptation ... and really don't like
Pinker's dismissal of music, as he says " auditory cheesecake, an
exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of
our mental faculties" ...
Music as an evolutionary adaptation
-Use by other species
-Universality, social bonding and
-Promoting cognitive development
-Specialized brain structures
-As usual, back to Darwin,
proposing a role for music in sexual selection, advertising reproductive
fitness to potential mates, other
animals do it, birdsong. Whales,
frogs, chimpanzees, gibbons, prairie dogs, etc. use musical vocalizations to establish territory, signal predator approach, musical animal calls are analogous to
the vocal prosody in our language that adds emotion to the syntax.
-It's universal across
cultures, with evidence for musical instruments dating now back to over a
100,000 years ago. ..starting as a communal embodied fusion of musical sounds
and body movement, serving social bonding
and cohesion, group togetherness and synchrony. Music is better than language for arousing feelings that
through mirroring and emotional resonance can bind a group of humans together
in joy, love, compassion, anger, or aggression.
Nearly every culture has a
genre of music geared towards infants, consistent in how they sound - slow, repetitive and featuring
descending pitch contours.
One speculation is that
musical meter and the hierarchical organization of pitch are cognitive
developments that enabled pre-human ancestors to start up speech communication by refining the
fine muscle control required to either vocal or gestural signed speech.
Finally, specific brain lesions as well as brain
imaging suggest specialized structures for music - you can
dissociate rhythm, metrical extraction, melody outline and analysis. Dedicated memory systems for music can
sometimes remain intact after other declarative or episodic memory systems
Pleasing music ramps up the
reward circuitry in our brain, just like food, sex, and drugs. Anticipation of the musical high
activates the caudate relatively more, and during experiencing the high with
chills the nucleus accumbens turns on more..... this is going with the release of feel good dopamine.
V. Summary - the self illusion
So, what is a take on all of
these everything but the kitchen sink chunks of information I've been cruising
through. In one part of this talk
I’ve made the point (point to illusion of agency) that we are this alien,
almost Martian, machinery that is actually running our show at the same time we
can experience being its emotionally rich product that generates language, metaphor, art, music. The virtual machine model and the idea
of transient organs of emotions
These are evolved
capabilities supported by evolved hardware, with the “I” that is doing this being a virtual machine, a
veneer of illusion that imagines itself to be running the show, sort of like the instrument panels of
your car taking themselves to be the driver.
Accepting the evidence that the
"I" illusion of our
subjective self is a virtual model can feel disconcerting, can have a sort of
an arid or 'dry' feel. But, not to
worry, these self models or
illusions piled on top of apparent mental causation obviously work just fine as
the building blocks of our psychology, social life, art and music. They are what makes us a
dominant, possibly transient,
species on the planet.