I have been reading the excellent book ‘The mind of an ape‘ by David and Ann Premack and also enrolled in a MOOC tiled ‘Origins of the human mind’ offered by Dr. Matsuzawa, so apes have been on top of my mind recently.
Prof Matsuzawa describes an experimental procedure where numerals from 1 to 9 are very briefly displayed on the screen and then masked and the chimpanzee is required to touch the numerals, displayed randomly on the screen briefly, and now invisible as are masked, in ascending order. The chimpanzee is able to perform the task at 80% accuracy, a feat at which if human subjects try they can never succeed (humans perform at 0% accuracy).
We typically pride ourselves as being the epitome of civilization and cognitive abilities, but its humbling to find that there are tasks at which the chimpanzee can excel! This task, in particular, requires immediate memory (sensory/short-term memory) which it seems is better in the chimp.
The different experiments on the chimp also made me think about the underlying structure of memory and reasoning systems. Like humans, it seems chimps too have two different reasoning systems- one tuned to physical world and the other to social/agentic world.
The physical reasoning system is attuned to thinking about causal reasons between psychical objects and events. The question of concern is ‘what caused what?’ . One needs to have a (rudimentary) theory of cause and effect. Some basic understanding of physics is necessary and is instrumental in the development of the capacity of tool use. As a matter of fact too use is one of the ways this physical reasoning system is studied.
The social /agentic reasoning system is attuned to thinking about other con-specifics/ living creatures. It attributes intentions to people and answers ‘who did what to whom?’. One needs to have a (rudimentary) theory of mind to know that others have intentions/ beliefs/ desires etc. A simple paradigm to measure this is whether one understands the visual gaze of a person and can take his/her perspective and know whether the other is able to see something or not.
The physical and social reasoning systems have been show to be different and dissociated in humans and as per one theory are differently accentuated in autistic (more physical reasoning) and schizophrenic (more social reasoning) mind.
Another ability where chimps and humans markedly differ is in their abstract/symbolic representations and linguistic abilities. While chimps can be taught language to a great extent, they don’t develop symbolic language naturally. Language requires abstract and symbolic representation. One can contrast this with the immediate/imaginal representation.
Again, while autistic people have a good immediate/imaginal (thinking/seeing in images instead of words/ symbols) representation system (for e’g’ like in movie ‘rain man’ they can tell the exact number of matchsticks dropped on the floor without counting), their language development is typically hampered , perhaps due to deficits in the abstract/semantic/symbolic representation system.
Thus we see two sets of cognitive functions, and the two sets seem to be slightly at odds with each other: Physical reasoning and concrete/ immediate/imaginal representation; and social reasoning and abstract/semantic/ symbolic representation.
The species (chimps/humans) who are good at imaginal and physical reasoning system may not be as good at symbolic and the social reasoning system. Similarity within the human family, autistic and schizophrenics may excel at different such functions. While we lost or never gained the ability for highly accurate imaginal system since around 5 MYA when we diverged from chimps and bonobos, we gained the ability for abstract/ symbolic representation. Given the limited real estate that the brain can occupy in any body, its inevitable that as you evolve you lose some and you gain some abilities. Like we lost the ability to use four hands that chimpanzee has.
To summarize, one can associate and link the above to human memory systems. One can conceive of four such memory/reasoning systems:
- Visuo-spatial/ short term/ sensory memory: related to immediate memory and imaginal representation.
- Procedural memory: related to Physical reasoning/ tool use /physical skills etc and objects representations.
- Episodic memory: related to social reasoning and agent representations.
- Semantic memory: related to language and symbolism and abstract representations.
Its easy to see how we can apply the same memory/reasoning model to chimps/ other apes without necessarily anthropomorphism. And its equally hard to see and admit that chimps may be better than us at certain cognitive functions and tasks.
I wrote about the four major goals in life on my psychology today blog quite some time back and want to revisit it today in the light of reading Susan Wolf‘s ‘Meaning in life and why it matters’ which is a very accessible and engaging, as well as a short, read.
Susan Wolf claims that there are two usual suspects when it comes to explaining our major striving and actions. The reason why we do something may be to enhance our self-interest (the egoistic principle) or the reasons may lie in ethical and moral considerations (the altruistic principle). In the former case we are driven by an overarching goal of maximizing happiness (for ourselves) and in the latter case we are driven by moral principles that are impartial and do not lace any special emphasis on our own interests. For example, if we are utilitarian in our ethics, we may be driven by the moral imperative of maximizing happiness(utility) of maximum people/ entities.
Thus, happiness and morality are two important goals/ value systems and the corresponding reliance on self-interest or impartial moral imperatives, respectively, makes us decide on our course of action. However, she also claims that this picture is far from complete. Not all our reasons are reasons of self-interest or morality, but some are reasons of love.
To illustrate by way of an example, consider the fact that I may care for my wife when she is sick. Now, this act is neither purely due to self-interest nor can it be considered purely a moral act- there may be better ways of acting morally- maybe some other sick man deserves my help more. But I care for her out of love. And caring for her provides and adds meaning to my life.
Thus, Susan introduces a third phenomena in the mix – meaningfulness. When people act out of reasons of love they make their life meaningful. Now as per Susan this acting out of reasons of love could be love directed towards a person or towards an activity. Thus I may be passionate about psychology or blogging and may devote my life to such an activity and as that activity provides me fulfillment and also adds value to the world, it is meaningful. Her definition of meaningfulness is where subjective attraction meet objective value- you find something or some person worthy of your love (attractive) and are drawn towards it such that you engage in such a way as to make a positive contribution/ difference.
Meaning as per Susan is due to reasons of love -either for a person or an activity -she doesn’t distinguish between the two, and in my opinion causes some confusion. IMHO, its important to make a distinction between acting out of love for a person and acting out of love of an activity. Also she mentions two conceptualization of meaning- one driven by feelings of fulfillment and the other by getting involved in something bigger than oneself.
How does all this relate to the four major goals I have talked about previously? To recap, the goals are:
- Happiness (maximizing pleasure and ‘self’ focus)
- Morality/Integrity (living morally and ‘group’/community focus)
- Meaning (living authentically and ‘other’/ family focus)
- Success (making an impact and ‘task’/ work focus)
Susan has already delineated how happiness and morality are the two primary reasons for our actions, and she introduced meaning as the third major one; however, imho meaning (living authentically in accordance with ones values ) needs to be differentiated from living successfully or making an impact in the world. Meaning is intimately tied to others- our lives can never be meaningful out of context- they are meaningful only in relation to others appraisal of them as such and also our appraisal of them as such. Meaning is inter-subjective. It lies in between. If happiness can be deemed more or less subjective (only you can know if you are truly happy) and success as more or less objective (there can be objective criteria on which to measure the success of a life) , meaning is more about a common inter-subjective appraisal (whether both parties found the interaction meaningful). I caring for my wife is meaningful both to me and to my wife and its power lies in that inter-subjectivity. Morality on the other hand can be said to be neither objective nor subjective but transcending all.
Thus, while happiness can only be known from a first person perspective, and success judged accurately only from third person perspective, perhaps meaning can be formulated best from a second person perspective – that of the other!
Interestingly, while happiness is more about living in the present, and success more about what you have already achieved in the past, Meaning in my view is directed towards the future- if I am engrossed in meaningful relationship or project, I am looking forward to how the relationship or the project grows. For example, to sensitize my clients to the importance of meaningfulness, I ask them to think about their epithet or what they would like to be written on their tombstone- this exercise inevitably makes them reflect on what is actually meaningful to pursue (relationships) and what can be ignored or de-emphasized (workaholism) .
in summary, we are driven by four types of reasons or motivations – reasons of self-interest, reasons of morality/altruism, reasons of love for individuals and reasons of engrossment in activities/ projects. Thus the four major goals of life worth striving for Happiness, Morality, Meaning and Success!
PS: you may also like my Times of India blog post about differentiating happiness from meaning.
S. Nassir Ghaemi, in his book, A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the links between Leadership and Mental Illness, makes a case for the fact that while ‘normal’ leaders are good in times of stability and peace; in times of crisis, mentally ill or mentally abnormal people make for better leaders.
He does this via historical analysis of leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King jr, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln etc. Some of these leaders he classifies as being predominantly depressive, others as manic while the rest as being of bipolar proclivity. In the book he writes:
The depressed person is mired in the past; the manic person is obsessed with the future. Both destroy the present in the process.
He lists four traits that distinguish a manic/depressive leader from other normal leaders: Empathy, Resilience, Creativity and Realism! I can easily map these to the ABCD dimensions: empathy is an Affective trait (the ability to feel emotions), resilience is more about Behaviors (bouncing back from failures), creativity is related to Cognition (ability to think in a divergent manner) while realism can be linked to Desire/Dynamism (do we do realistic assessments).
He claims, and I find that claim very attractive and true, that depressive people typically are better at empathy and realism, that is, they have heightened empathy and realism as compared to the normal population; in a similar vein, manic people are typically better at creativity and resilience than the normal population.
If one views depression and mania as somewhat opposed to each other. at least on on some dimensions, it goes without saying that depressive people may be less creative (they are typically stuck in ruts)/resilient (they often cant cope and sometime stake the extreme step of suicide); similarly, in a manic phase, people may be less realistic (may even become psychotic losing touch with reality)/ empathetic (may not be able to get inside the head of others).
While a depressive or manic phase may be debilitating, the relatively ‘normal’/symptom free period may confer advantages on depressives, manics or bipolars by making them leverage their resilience, creativity, realism and empathy, especially to tide over crisis.
Why should it be the case that in normal periods a ‘normal’ leader may help, but in a crisis only an ‘abnormal’ leader may be able to rise to the occasion? The answer lies in evolution and genetic diversity. Consider moths that are generally gray in color, but some are darker (closer to black) while some others lighter (white in color) . The majority gray moths are the ‘normal’ moths, while the minority black and white are abnormal ones. Now these moths are exquisitely adapted to their environments, and typically gray moths will flourish. However if the area has suddenly become polluted such that darker color moths are now less easier to detect than the gray moths by the predators, then dark moths will thrive at the cost of light moths.
A similar analogy can be applied to humans. Normal leaders are adapted to stable conditions; while in times of crisis, more atypical brains may suffer greater advantage.
So next time you select a leader, be mindful of whether its a change/crisis situation or a stable situation; if a crisis/ change situation, you may do well to do some reverse discrimination and select a mentally ill/ abnormal person as a leader!!
In one of the earlier posts we looked at the four existential givens and linked them to the ABCD model. I also related them to personality and emotions here. To recap, the four existential givens, are:
- Life (vs death): We all live, yet we also all know that one day we will die.
- Freedom (vs determinism): We are in charge of (some of) our actions, and yet we are also driven by outside forces.
- Community (vs isolation): Man is a social animal and yet one is alone in one’s personal private experiences.
- Meaning (vs absurdity): Life seems to be endowed with meaning (and worth living), yet the universe seems incomprehensible, apathetic and absurd.
Not navigating the contradictions inherent in these existential givens successfully, leads to conflicts and gives rise to anxiety, depression, guilt and even rage. And yet we know that we can not transcend/overcome these ultimate concerns, but have to learn to live with them.
At root these problems are problems of control, especially the desire for control, while being limited by human capabilities and potentialities. At the one hand we are seriously limited and on the other hand we do have a great potential; and yet our control over these conditions of our life are not infinite, but very much finite and limited.
Let me explain. At core, these problems are respectively problems of control over our bodies, over self, over others and over our understanding of the world. To elaborate,
- Death/Life: We have finite control over our bodies and their lifespan. We can prolong life, but never get rid of the fact that one day we will die. We may try to symbolically live forever by making contributions to the world, but that too is ephemeral on the scale of historical time. We are confronted with the finite nature of our existence. And to resolve this, we have to come to terms with our non-being to fully appreciate and indulge in being! To live fully one must first confront death. Despite the fact of our eventual non-being we choose to be! and this is a non-trivial fact. As a matter of fact, Camus started ‘Myth of Sisyphus‘ with this quote: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
- Determinism/Freedom: We have finite control over our own self and its actions. We can exercise free will to an extent, but never get rid of all the different form of conditioning, learning and genetic and other factors that drive our behavior. We are confronted with the finite nature of our agency. And to resolve this, we have to get in tune with our underlying genetics, upbringing etc, to become more self aware and thus more free/ effective. To exercise one’s will fully, one must first leverage and comprehend the outside influences. Can you choose your environment so that in future it elicits out your desired behavior? Despite the fact that all our actions are not under our conscious control, and are driven largely by unconscious (and possibly deterministic) processes, we persist in making our choices. As the famous interaction between Smith and Neo goes: “Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson? Why, why? Why do you do it? Why, why get up? Why keep fighting? …….Why, why do you persist Mr. Anderson? Neo: because I choose to.”
- Isolation/Community: We have finite control over others and how deeply we can relate with them. We can feel connected to some people, at some times, but not to all people at all the times. We have a desire and a need to merge for the common good, expressed in the form of love, and yet an instinct to remain separate and alienated from others, especially when our love is not reciprocated. We are confronted with the finite nature of our vulnerability and ability to reach out. And to resolve this we have to come to terms with our separateness, by getting unhinged from the actions of others , but still putting our best foot forward, we can create positive relationships. To create truly powerful and positive relationships, one has to not think in terms of merging/ dependence/reciprocity, but move to a space where one is a specific individual in intimate relation to another individual and caring about that individual. By discovering our individuality, we create stronger bonds! Despite the fact of our remaining separate individuals, we choose to love and work towards common /shared identities. Love and community and deep bonds is paradoxically about no bonds. As Richard Bach says: “If you love someone, set them free, if they come back, they’re yours, if they don’t, they never were“
- Meaning/Absurdity: We have finite control over our knowledge of the world and of whether things make sense, and if so how? We can find correlations and causal relations between a few things in the world, but there are things that happen randomly, unpredictably or by pure luck/ chance. We have a burning need to make sense of things (after all this sense making makes us predict and thus survive), and yet our intellect also makes us acutely aware of the meaninglessness, randomness or absurdity of the things in the larger scheme of things. We feel special and unique and yet know that we are a mere speck in the universe. We are confronted with the finite nature of our ability to know and comprehend. And to resolve this, we have to come to terms with the absurdity of life/universe. Once we discover that life/ world around us may not have any inherent meaning, its left upon us to endow life with meaning and significance. Despite the fact that things don’t make sense, the fact that the world may be random/ insane, we still choose to be sane and consistent. As Douglas Adams mentions in ‘Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy‘ we need extreme amounts of sanity when confronted with absurdity of our position :” And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her. And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it. To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”
In the end I would like to end with two quotes: One from Camus: “It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear on the contrary that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning” and the other a popular anonymous quote: “Relax. nothing is under control.”
It is only by coming to terms with our finite control, and the possible meaninglessness of it all, yet being driven by our potentialities, that we can hope to live a good life!
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor E Frankl
As per the spiritual tradition of India, Mind (or Antahkaran) is made up of four functions or parts. These are Manas, Chitta, Ahamkar and Buddhi. These are typically translated as sensory-motor mind, memory bank, ego and intellect respectively. As an interesting aside, Buddha derives from the common root of Buddhi (budh- to know) and stands for the enlightened one.
Here is a brief description of the four functions:
Manas is ordinary, indeterminate thinking — just being aware that something is there and automatically registers the facts which the senses perceive.
The subconscious action, memory, etc., is caused by chitta. The function of chitta is chinta (contemplation), the faculty whereby the Mind in its widest sense raises for itself the subject of its thought and dwells thereon.
Buddhi determines, decides and logically comes to a conclusion that something is such-and-such a thing. That is another aspect of the operation of the psyche — buddhi or intellect. buddhi, on attending to such registration, discriminates, determines, and cognizes the object registered, which is set over and against the subjective self by aha?k?ra.
Ahamkara — ego, affirmation, assertion, ‘I know’. “I know that there is some object in front of me, and I also know that I know. I know that I am existing as this so-and-so.” This kind of affirmation attributed to one’s own individuality is the work of ahamkara, known as egoism.
There is also a hierarchical relation between these with Buddhi at the top and Manas at the bottom. Now, lets look at each of these more closely.
Manas, or sensory-motor mind, is not just registering stimulus but also responsible for executing actions and may be equated with the sensory/ motor cortical functions of the brain. It controls the 10 Indriyas (5 senses and 5 action-oriented faculties). Its important to note that Manas is doing both the functions associated with stimulus as well as the response, though its the first one when it comes to stimulus processing (registering the stimulus) and the last one when it comes to executing responses/actions ( it blindly executes the action that has been decided / chosen upstream). Of course one could just have a reflex action where a stimulus leads to response, but in majority of human action, there is a space between the two. That space is provided by the rest of the mind functions.
Chitta, or memory-prospecting mind, may be typically equated with the association cortex part pf the brain. Many refer to chitta as the memory or impressions bank, but forget to mention the future oriented part of it. Here is a quote:
The part of the Mind thinking and visualizing the objects, events and experiences from the past or the future (emphasis mine) is called the Chitta and this act is called Chintan.
Its thus evident that Chitta drives Manas not only based on past memories, but also based on future expectations or predictions. From brain studies , we know that the same part of the brain is used for memory as well as prospection. Chitta using past memories to drive manas (and thus behavior or motivated cognition) I view as being conditioned by classical conditioning processes. Chitaa using future expectations/ predictions to drive behavior and motivated cognition, I view as being conditioned by operant conditioning processes. In many philosophical and spiritual traditions, one of the aims is to get over (social) conditioning. Chitta hinders spiritual awakening by using habits, which is an integral pat of chitta function. The habits are nothing but the conditioning, but again one in stimulus path and the other in response/action path.
Ahamkara, or experiential-agentic self, may be typically equated with consciousness/ conscious and ego-driven self. It knows and say ‘I am’ Conscious entities typically have two functions- experience and agency. It is something it is to be like that conscious entity (experience) and the entity has volition or ability to do things (agency). The concept of self as a conscious entity that has experience (in the stimulus path) and agency (in the response/ action path) is important for this notion of ahamkara. With self comes concepts like real self and ideal self which drive and are driven by experience and agency respectively. The less the discrepancy between the two the better your spiritual growth. An interesting concept here is that of coloring or external decorations- your coloring or how you see your self do lead to downward impact on chitta and manas by contaminating the stimulus/ action.
Buddhi, or knowing-deciding mind, is the final frontier on your path to spirituality. The typical functions associated with Buddhi are knowing, discriminating, judging and deciding. I think knowing/ discriminating (between stimuli/ actions etc) is a stimulus path function, while judging/ deciding (between actions/ responses/ attending to a stimuli) is a response path function. However I also believe they converge to a great extent here or else we will have a problem of turtles all the way down. Once you start to see things as they are, you are also able to choose wisely. At least that is what the scriptures say and what Boddhisattvas aspire or achieve.
To me this increasingly fine-grained control of what we perceive and how we act , from the gross actions and perceptions of manas to the discriminating decisions of buddhi are very intuitively appealing and also appear to be grounded in psychological and neural processes.
Mindfulness (Buddhism based) has become all the rage nowadays, yet if we look at the spiritual traditions of India, perhaps while Yoga defined as Chitta vritti nirodaha (or “Yoga is the silencing of the modifications of the mind”) does refer to being in the present (here-and-now) and not to be disturbed by the perturbations of chitta (memories of past or expectations of future), one also needs to go beyond just Chitta vritti, to addressing the Ahamkara coloring and finally to try achieving the Buddha nature where there is little disparity in doing and being. (Mindfulness) Meditation needs to move beyond being curious, non-judgemental and in the present to where one doe shave a judgement function, but one that is perfectly attuned.