Tag Archives: causal reasoning

Memory and Reasoning: Insight from Apes

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:

  1. Visuo-spatial/ short term/ sensory memory: related to immediate memory and imaginal representation.
  2. Procedural memory: related to Physical reasoning/ tool use /physical skills etc and objects representations.
  3. Episodic memory: related to social reasoning and agent representations.
  4. 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.

Seeing is believing : why delusions may arise from anomalous experiences


An amateur magician performing.
Image via Wikipedia

I recently came across this article by Rosengren and Hickling about how children explain seemingly impossible or extraordinary transformations in terms of magic or trickery or natural/physical explanations based on their ages and developmental level.

To summarize the study , I’m presenting the abstract:

Children’s magical explanations and beliefs were investigated in 2 studies. In Study 1, we first asked 4- and 5-year-old children to judge the possibility of certain object transformations and to suggest mechanisms that might accomplish them. We then presented several commonplace transformations (e.g., cutting a string) and impossible events (magic tricks). Prior to viewing these transformations, children suggested predominantly physical mechanisms for the events and judged the magical ones to be impossible. After seeing the impossible events, many 4-year-olds explained them as “magic,” whereas 5- year-olds explained them as “tricks.” In Study 2, we replaced the magic tricks with “extraordinary” events brought about by physical or chemical reactions (e.g., heat causing paint on a toy car to change color). Prior to viewing the “extraordinary” transformations, children judged them to be impossible. After viewing these events, 4-yearolds gave more magical and fewer physical explanations than did 5-year-olds. Follow-up interviews revealed that most 4-year-olds viewed magic as possible under the control of an agent (magician) with special powers, whereas most 5-year-olds viewed magic as tricks that anyone can learn. In a third study, we surveyed parents to assess their perceptions and conceptions of children’s beliefs in magic and fantasy flgures. Parents perceived their children as believing in a number of magic and fantasy flgures and reported encouraging such beliefs to some degree. Taken together, these findings suggest that many 4-year-olds view magic as a plausible mechanism, yet reserve magical explanations for certain real world events which violate their causal

In effect, the children were shown some impossible transformations like making color appear on the pages of a blank coloring book; at the same time they were also shown some commonplace transformations like a piece of Play-Doh changing shape. They were asked to provide causal reasons for these transformations both a priori and after the transformations were demonstrated. Important form my point of view was the finding that all children showed this effect that for impossible transformations though before the vent they provided physical/natural explanations, after seeing the event, they changed their stance and labeled them as ‘magic’ or ‘trick’ as per their development level. To quote:

Children of both ages gave more physical/natural explanations prior to seeing the transformations than after seeing the
events, F(l, 46) = 36, p < .001, but gave more trick and magic responses after seeing the transformations than before seeing them, Fs(l, 46) > 50, p < .001.
Very few magic explanations were provided for the commonplace events before or after the viewing of the events; however, both groups of children provided significantly more magic explanations following the magic events than prior to these events. There was no difference between the two age groups in the number of magic explanations given prior to seeing the magic events; however, after viewing the magic events the 4-ye£ir-oIds gave significantly more magic responses (M = 2.96) than the 5-year-oIds did (M = 1.09). Similar to the results for the magic explanations, few trick responses were provided for the commonplace events before or after the viewing of the commonplace events.

To me this is a significant result, that after seeing something impossible we classify it as either magic or trickery, but prior to that we believe we could have provided a natural and causal explanation. To take an example, we all know statistics and would agree that there is a statistical probability that we are thinking of someone and the person phones at the same time. However, when we do think of someone and he calls at the same time and this happens say once or twice in a row, we will not tend to resort to statistical reasoning; we’ll either think in magical terms (magical thinking– my intention to remember/talk to them caused them to phone me; or psychic ability– that there is a deep connection between us) or we will try to think this a as a trickery played on us (perhaps they or someone is secretly watching me and my intentions and as soon as I reach to make a phone call, they call me instead juts to make fun/play a silly trick). Both types of thinking are fertile ground for psychosis and delusions.

It is now known that many people prone to psychosis suffer from an unusual amounts of anomalous experiences and also have magical ideation. To those of us who do not have those unusual experiences, it is very easy to dismiss what the effects having such anomalous experiences would have on our causal thinking abilities. We in our blue-pill Matrix where things are ordered and in their place following known causal relations, believe everything is fine with the world. to someone who has taken the red pill and is having anomalous experiences, it is difficult to believe that there isn’t a world apart from the matrix where magical rules may apply! (OK, the matrix analogy is not good, but it does make a point that it is difficult to comprehend the reality that someone delusional may be living in).

To return to my example of thinking of calling someone and picking the phone and at the same time receibving a callfor that perosn, such coincidences may be marked as causal by psychosis prone minds beacue again they have been hypothesized to have high and sensitive coincidence detectors and a ‘jump to conclusions’ bias. Given these facts they may be more prone to attribute magical causality instead of normal causality and get freaked out. Magical thinking and delusions may follow naturally from these. Anomalous experience may not just be important to explain hallucinations, but may be important for explaining delusions too.

Rosengren, K., & Hickling, A. (1994). Seeing Is Believing: Children’s Explanations of Commonplace, Magical, and Extraordinary Transformations Child Development, 65 (6) DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.1994.tb00838.x

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