Edge 201 — January 22, 2006
(x,000 words)



THE CRAFOORD PRIZE IN BIOSCIENCES 2007

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the annual $500,000 Crafoord Prize in Biosciences for 2007 to Robert L. Trivers, Rutgers University, "for his fundamental analysis of social evolution, conflict and cooperation".

His pioneering ideas on the evolution of the social behaviour of animals form the basis of much of sociobiology and its research on how cooperation and conflict arise in the animal world.

Social evolution in the animal world — conflict and cooperation

[...more]


PENGUINS!
A Falklands Photo Essay
By Nathan Myhrvold

The reason to go to the Falkland Islands is that it the best place in the world to see and photograph the King, Rockhopper, Gentoo and Magellanic penguins.

Each of these species has its own look and personality.  Each is almost impossibly cute. They look, of course, like little men in tuxedos, and it is irresistible to anthropomorphize their antics into human terms. 

[...more]


THE NEUROLOGY OF SELF-AWARENESS
By V.S. Ramachandran

The Edge 10th Anniversary Essay

What is the self? How does the activity of neurons give rise to the sense of being a conscious human being? Even this most ancient of philosophical problems, I believe, will yield to the methods of empirical science. It now seems increasingly likely that the self is not a holistic property of the entire brain; it arises from the activity of specific sets of interlinked brain circuits. But we need to know which circuits are critically involved and what their functions might be. It is the "turning inward" aspect of the self — its recursiveness — that gives it its peculiar paradoxical quality.

[...more]



"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)


Hardcover - UK
£12.99, 352 pp
Free Press, UK


Paperback - US
$13.95, 336 pp
Harper Perennial
(March 1, 2007)

WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable With an Introduction by STEVEN PINKER and an Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian


"...This collection, mostly written by working scientists, does not represent the antithesis of science. These are not simply the unbuttoned musings of professionals on their day off. The contributions, ranging across many disparate fields, express the spirit of a scientific consciousness at its best — informed guesswork "Ian McEwan, from the Introduction, in The Telegraph


Paperback - US
$13.95, 272 pp
Harper Perennial



Paperback - UK
£7.99 288 pp
Pocket Books

WHAT WE BELIEVE BUT CANNOT PROVE Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty With an Introduction by IAN MCEWAN Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle — a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed "Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian "Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4



The New York Times Magazine, The Independent, The News & Observer, BoingBoing, Weekend America, The Guardian, The News & Observer, Reforma, Scientific American




The Way We Live Now

YOU ARE WHAT YOU EXPECT
The futures of optimists and pessimists

By Jim Holt

...You might think scientists would be the optimistic exception here. Science, after all, furnishes the model for progress, based as it is on the gradual and irreversible growth of knowledge. At the end of last year, Edge.org, an influential scientific salon, posed the questions "What are you optimistic about? Why?" to a wide range of thinkers. Some 160 responses have now been posted at the Web site. As you might expect, there is a certain amount of agenda-battling, and more than a whiff of optimism bias. A mathematician is optimistic that we will finally get mathematics education right, a psychiatrist is optimistic that we will find more effective drugs to block pessimism (although he is pessimistic that we will use the, wisely). But when the scientific thinkers look beyond their own specializations to the big picture, they continue to find cause for cheer — foreseeing an end to war, for example, or the simultaneous solution of our global warming and energy problems. The most general grounds for optimism offered by these thinkers, though, is that big-picture pessimism so often proves to be unfounded. The perennial belief that our best days are behind us is, it seems, perennially wrong.

Such reflections may or may not ease our tendency toward global pessimism. But what about our contrary tendency to be optimistic — indeed, excessively so — in our local outlook? Is that something we should, in the interests of cold reason, try to disabuse ourselves of? Optimism bias no doubt causes a good deal of mischief, leading us to underestimate the time and trouble of the projects we undertake. But the mere fact that it is so widespread in our species suggests it might have some adaptive value. perhaps if we calculated our odds in a more cleareyed way, we wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning. ...

[...]



21 January 2007

What are you optimistic about?

Global warming, the war on terror and rampant consumerism getting you down? Well, lighten up: here, 17 of the world's smartest scientists and academics share their reasons to be cheerful

Brian Eno, Artist; composer; producer (U2, Talking Heads, Paul Simon); recording artist

Big government

Things change for the better either because something went wrong or because something went right. Recently, we've seen an example of the former, and this failure fills me with optimism. ...

Larry Sanger, Co-founder, Wikipedia

Enlightenment

I am optimistic about humanity's coming enlightenment.

In particular, I am optimistic about humanity's prospects for starting exemplary new collaboratively developed knowledge resources. When we hit upon the correct models for collaborative knowledge-collection online, there will be a jaw-dropping, unprecedented, paradigm-shifting explosion in the availability of high-quality free knowledge.

Lord (Martin) Rees, President, The Royal Society; Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics; Master, Trinity College, University of Cambridge; author, 'Our Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity's Survival'

The energy challenge

A few years ago, I wrote a short book entitled 'Our Final Century'. I guessed that, taking all risks into account, there was only a 50 per cent chance that civilisation would get through to 2100 without a disastrous setback. This seemed to me a far from cheerful conclusion. However, I was surprised by the way my colleagues reacted to the book: many thought a catastrophe was even more likely than I did, and regarded me as an optimist. I stand by this optimism....

Judith Rich Harris, Independent investigator and theoretician; author, 'No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality'

Friendship

I am optimistic about human relationships — in particular, about friendship. Perhaps you have heard gloomy predictions about friendship: it's dying out, people no longer have friends they can confide in, loneliness is on the rise....

The full-length versions of these pieces (and many more) can be found at www.edge.org, a website founded by John Brockman.'What Is Your Dangerous Idea?', by John Brockman (Editor), is published by Simon & Schuster, £12.99; 'What We Believe But Cannot Prove', by John Brockman (Editor), is published by Pocket Books, £7.99

Posted by Xeni Jardin

[...]



January 21, 2007
Arts & Entertainment

WHAT'S SO GREAT? LOTS!

J. PEDER ZANE, Staff Writer

'What are you optimistic about?" editor John Brockman asked some of the world's leading scientists on his Web site, www.edge.org.

As I've yet to complete my unified theory of the universe, he did not include me in his survey. If he had, I'd have answered: Just about everything.

As I reported in last week's column, Brockman's respondents were forward-looking, describing cutting-edge research that will help combat global warming and other looming problems. My optimism is anchored in the past.

By almost any measure — - greater wealth, better health, diminishing levels of violence — - the world is good and getting better. My only regret is that I am alive today because tomorrow will be even brighter.

Where to start with the good news? How about with the Big Kahuna: During the 20th century, life spans for the average American rose from 44 years to 77 as we tamed age-old scourges such as smallpox, malaria, polio and plague.

[...]



January 21, 2007

Nathan Myhrvold meets the penguins



There's probably a great Linux joke in here, but I'm not funny enough to come up with it. Technologist and former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold visited the Falklands, and took some amazing photographs of penguins and other creatures there. Dr. Myhrvold is CEO and managing director of Intellectual Ventures, a private entrepreneurial firm he founded with his former Microsoft colleague, Dr. Edward Jung. Snip from an essay about what he observed on the islands: ...

Posted by Xeni Jardin

[...]



January 20, 2007

How Doomed Are We?

Edgie's Chris Anderson of TED and Robert Provine of University of Maryland as the proponents of optimism on program concerning Optimism and the Doomsday Clock



January 20, 2007

Tuned in
By Steven Poole

What Is Your Dangerous Idea?, edited by John Brockman (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

The results of the 2005 Question at edge.org, posed by Steven Pinker, are in. Apart from an exasperating section about "memes" (are they still fashionable?) and a few Eeyorish dullards, it's a titillating compilation. Physicist Freeman Dyson predicts that home biotech kits will become common; others posit that democracy may be a blip and "on its way out", that "heroism" is just as banal as evil, and that it will be proven that free will does not exist. There are also far-out but thought-provoking notions: that, given the decadent temptations of virtual reality, the only civilisations of any species that survive to colonise the galaxy will be puritan fundamentalists; or that the internet may already be aware of itself. I particularly enjoyed cognitive scientist Donald D Hoffman's gnomic pronouncement that "a spoon is like a headache", and mathematician Rudy Rucker's robust defence of panpsychism, the idea that "every object has a mind. Stars, hills, chairs, rocks, scraps of paper, flakes of skin, molecules". Careful what you do with this newspaper after you've read it.

[...]



January 14, 2006
Arts & Entertainment

Scientists see dazzling future
J. Peder Zane, Staff Writer

Peering into their crystal telescopes, the world's leading scientists see a magnificent future:

* "The use of proteins and other markers [will] permit the early detection and identification of cancer, hugely increasing the prospects of survival."

* "Young adults alive today will, on average, live to 120."

* "Eternal life may come within our reach once we understand enough about how our knowledge and mental processes work ... to duplicate that information — - and then [transfer it] into more robust machines."

* "Someone who is already alive will be the first person to make their permanent home off-Earth."

* "Within a generation ... we will be able to make self-replicating machines that ... absorb energy through solar cells, eat rock and use the energy and minerals to make copies of itself ... [as well as] toasters, refrigerators, and Lamborghinis."

Those are just five of the gee-whiz prognostications offered in response to the 10th Annual Edge Question, posed by John Brockman, editor of the science web site www.edge.org. This year, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Freeman Dyson and J. Craig Venter were among the 160 luminaries who in short, clear essays, tackled the question "What are you optimistic about?"

Forcing respondents to set aside the doom-and-gloom mindset that passes for sophistication, Brockman elicited answers that remind us that we are living in a Golden Age of discovery. The biologists, physicists and computer scientists he queried believe that the 20th-century breakthroughs that have enabled us to live longer, healthier and more comfortable lives may be dwarfed by the accomplishments on the near horizon. ...

The overriding hope among Edge respondents is that our increased capacity to gather and analyze information will spark the rise of an "evidence-based" world. We see this already in the field of criminal justice, where people convicted on faulty "eyewitness" testimony have been freed thanks to DNA. In the future, respondents argue, the instincts and perceptions that inform so much of our political, legal and cultural decision-making will be replaced by hard facts.

"We will learn more about the human condition in the next two decades than we did in the last two millennia, and we will then begin to apply what we learn, everywhere," writes Clay Shirky of NYU's Graduate School of Interactive Telecommunications Program. "Evidence-based treaties. Evidence-based teaching. Evidence-based industrial design. Evidence-based parenting."

These are exciting times. Next week I'll write about why I'm optimistic, and I'd love to hear from you. Please phone or e-mail and let me know: What are you optimistic about? ...



(Mexico)
January 10, 2007

Andar y Ver / Optimismo de la inteligencia
Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez

El foro virtual Edge propone buscar razones, no simplemente deseos, para el optimismo. Edge es un club que reúne, segén ellos mismos, algunas de las mentes más interesantes del mundo. Su propósito es estimular discusiones en las fronteras del conocimiento. La intención es llegar al borde del conocimiento mundial, acercándose a las mentes más complejas y refinadas, juntarlas en un foro y hacerlos que se pregunten las preguntas que ellos mismos se hacen. La fundación actúa, de este modo, como surtidora de problemas y alojamiento de réplicas. Cada ano se constituye como Centro Mundial de Preguntas. ...



January 8, 2007

BLOG: SCIAM OBSERVATIONS

Most Hated Digg Comment Proves (Part of) Jaron Lanier's Point about the Cracked Wisdom of Crowds

The affair called to mind a certain meme that I had mentally buried (in the Digg user's sense) but am now forced to revisit with a more open mind. In the November Discover, tech ponderer Jaron Lanier expressed his dismay over the increasing prevalence of "wisdom of crowds" approaches to aggregating information online. See especially Wikipedia and Digg as instances of this phenomenon, also called Web 2.0. Lanier must consider that term itself a masterpiece of framing; he sees a growing glorification of online wisdom-aggregation, and has dubbed the trend Digital Maoism. ...

Anyway, this sort of asymmetrical flamewar doesn't seem to be Lanier's main objection to Digital Maoism. A while back at the Edge.org, on which big brains convene to butt heads, Lanier's argument was abbreviated thusly:

The problem is [not Wikipedia itself but] in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy.  ...




January 18, 2007

THE CRAFOORD PRIZE IN BIOSCIENCES 2007

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the annual $500,000 Crafoord Prize in Biosciences for 2007 to Robert L. Trivers, Rutgers University, "for his fundamental analysis of social evolution, conflict and cooperation".

His pioneering ideas on the evolution of the social behaviour of animals form the basis of much of sociobiology and its research on how cooperation and conflict arise in the animal world.

Social evolution in the animal world — conflict and cooperation

In the early 1970s, Robert L. Trivers presented pioneering thoughts on the evolution of the social behaviour of animals. These thoughts form the basis today of large parts of sociobiology, which investigates the origin of cooperation and conflict in the animal world.

Right up to the 1960s, thoughts on the evolution of the social behaviour of animals were rather undeveloped. Darwin proposed several hypotheses concerning social evolution in his time, but these ideas were not picked up by his successors. That is why this subject has had a dormant existence for a century.

This year´s Crafoord Prize Laureate in biosciences, Robert Trivers, is one of the small group of pioneering scientists who began to ponder on the social behaviour patterns of animals and how they might have arisen through evolution. Between 1971 and 1976, he launched five ideas that have been of the greatest importance for the development of sociobiology. They have inspired many behavioural ecologists, who have to a large extent confirmed Trivers´s ideas.

The first problem he focused on was how evolutionary theory could explain cooperation between individuals that are not related. Trivers concluded that cooperation of this kind can only develop if the animals cooperate over a long period of time and if they are able to recognise each other. This idea had an immediate and great impact and Trivers´s thoughts have later been developed by game theoreticians, among others.

Trivers´s second bid idea deals with the way in which the traits of male and female animals are influenced by their investment in their offspring. In a species where the female is responsible for most of the care, the male will develop traits that the female likes, for example, colourful plumage, attractive song or an impressive body size. If the females do not like the male, he will have poorer chances of passing his genes on to the next generation.

A third hypothesis presented by Trivers is the explanation of why certain species sometimes give birth to more young of the same sex. He argued that it could be advantageous, for example, for a female to give birth to sons when she was in good condition, since the sons usually grown bigger than the daughters and therefore demand more energy.

Trivers also explained why conflicts often arise between older young and their parents. This is not something that only occurs in teenage families. His interpretation is that when the young are old enough to take care of themselves, the parents gain by saving their care for younger or future young. The older young, on the other hand, want to benefit from their parents´ care as long as possible.

The fifth idea for which Trivers has been awarded the Crafoord Prize concerns social hymenoptera: ants, bees and wasps. He predicted that the workers in an ant community, which are always female, may be expected to invest three times the amount of resources in bringing up their sisters than their brothers. When Trivers later investigated the situation in reality, the results indicated that he had been right, which later research also confirmed.

Thus, together with the previous Crafoord Laureates William D. Hamilton, George C. Williams, Edward O. Wilson and John Maynard Smith, Robert Trivers has laid the theoretical foundations for research on the evolution of social behavioural patterns in animals, a field that is known today as sociobiology and which is a part of the larger field of behavioural ecology.

Robert L. Trivers, born 1943 (63) in Washington DC, US citizen. PhD in Biology 1972 at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA. Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

The Prize-awarding ceremony will take place in Lund on 26 april 2007 in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen.


LINKS

"A Full-force Storm with Gale Winds Blowing" — Robert Trivers: An Edge Special Event

Robert Trivers's Edge Bio Page

The Crafoord Prize


PENGUINS!
A Falklands Photo Essay
By Nathan Myhrvold

The reason to go to the Falkland Islands is that it the best place in the world to see and photograph the King, Rockhopper, Gentoo and Magellanic penguins.

Each of these species has its own look and personality.  Each is almost impossibly cute. They look, of course, like little men in tuxedos, and it is irresistible to anthropomorphize their antics into human terms. 

Penguin colonies are noisy affairs.  Penguins make very loud calls do a ritual calling – in part for territory, in part to inform the chicks and mate that they have returned from the sea, and in part to reinforce bonds between the adult penguin couple.  Or anyway that is the standard story.  I am a bit skeptical about some of the standard story, so I will need to turn to the primary literature when I get back.

Magellanic penguins dig burrows in peat or soil, and thus their colonies are more spread out than the others.  Their call is a braying donkey-like sound that has earned them the alternate name Jack Ass penguins. 

The Gentoo form colonies on flat ground, without much in the way of individual nests.   They are a bit better looking that Magellanics, and their call is not quite as piercing.   Gentoo have the odd habit that when a parent returns from the sea with food for the chicks, the refuse to feed the chicks until the after the chicks chase the adults around the colony.   It is believed that this is to test whether the chicks (there often are two per couple) are strong enough to deserve to be fed.  So every colony has the farcical scene of some adults being chased by inept and clumsy chicks.

Colonies in the open face a threat from above – gulls and the dreaded predator the skua swoop in to carry off chicks and eggs. When they come around, the adults peck at them, but to little effect.

Rockhoppers are even more comical in appearance – they have a punk haircut with bright yellow highlights. They are utterly unafraid of humans, and will come up to closer than you can focus. My big equipment mistake was not bringing a macro lens to the colony. Rockhoppers live in colonies on rocky cliffs over the ocean, entering and leaving the sea by hopping on almost shear surfaces.   It is amazing how they surf waves into the rocks then deftly jump out at the last moment.   

When calling the normal docile rockhopper temporarily becomes a bird possessed. It starts with the head low, and angry look (as I say, impossible not to anthropomorphize). This builds into a frenzied crescendo arching their backs, and throwing their heads from side to side. 

King penguins are the most visually striking. They are just beautiful – at least when they have prime plumage.  Molting birds look incredibly ratty by contrast.   Kings have a wider range of behavior – in addition to calling (rather stately and reserved compared to the others) they have some interesting social interaction.  There are several modes. One is for two penguins to stand close together and hold their beaks at the same angle – usually starting very high – say 80 degrees, then very slowly relaxing down to 45 degrees, in unison. Another behavior is pulling themselves up to stand as tall as possible and walking close to their peer, often bumping them with their bellies.  This certainly looks like dominance or one-upmanship.   They will also stand together in close clumps like teenagers hanging out.  Sometimes the clump erupts into a round of aggression – they stand tall and whack each other with their flippers.  It looks a bit like a Three Stooges routine.

It’s impossible to be near a penguin colony without noticing something else – wow can they ever shit! The ground is covered with long white stripes. I wondered where this came from until I saw the ballistic nature of penguin defecation in process. It turns out that I am not the only one who wondered about this – a scientific paper (winner of an IgNoble Prize) on the topic, is available here.



Being around a bunch of penguins and other bird chicks rather pointedly brings up the question of why we humans find them so cute and visually appealing.  

Perhaps you disagree with them being cute, but irrespective of personal taste it is hard to escape the fact that these animals look exactly as if a plush toy designer had come up with them.    Why is this?

It turns out that there are some reasonably well developed scientific theories of cuteness.  

Penguins look like little people – their bipedal stance, walking gait and proportions look like a tiny toy person.  Self-love is something humans are good at, so it is natural to find these animals compelling.  Their behaviors also happen to map well to human behavior – or at least one can naively imagine so because they are stereotypically similar to some of our own actions.

That covers penguins, but there are some more universal aspects of cuteness. I once studied to be a cartoonist (alas, I wasn’t funny enough) and in that field they have this very well figured out.  The rule of thumb is that if you want a cartoon character to be cute, you draw it so that the total body height is between 2.5 and 3 times the height of the head.  This gives you a Mickey Mouse, or Tweety Bird sort of character.   You then make the eyes a large fraction of head height – little beady eyes are not cute.   To make a heroic character – say Superman, Spiderman or Captain America you want 7.5 to 8 heads high.  It always has amused me that being a pinhead looks heroic.

This works because young mammals (and the young of some, but not all other animals) have this sort of body proportions.   They have large heads for their bodies, large eyes for their heads and soft rounded plump features.   According to this view, our reaction of “cute” is a longstanding genetic remnant of our history as small mammals.   While it may seem perfectly human, in fact it is a non-human emotion that we share with our animal ancestors over the last 200 million years.

One could argue that this is coincidence – we think that these things are cute because OUR babies have these proportions rather than some hold over from non-human ancestors.  The cincher in the ancestral theory is that creatures with a covering of hair or downy feathers tend to look cute.  This cannot be related to human features – our babies are hairless.   Yet plush toys are plush, and we love furry, fuzzy cuddly creatures.

The young of many birds and mammals have fine hair or down because they are smaller and less active than the adults and thus need more insulation.  Our ancestors have (likely) not had this hair on their infants for more than a million years, yet still we find it

The Falklands offered the opportunity to see all of this up close.  Albatross chicks, and those of most penguins are essentially plush toys – so much so that they look fake. King cormorants, on the other hand, have young that are nowhere near as cute. When they are young they look very reptilian – not cute at all. As they get older, their down grows out and they look a bit better (showing how important being fuzzy is). 

—Nathan\


DR. NATHAN MYHRVOLD is CEO and managing director of Intellectual Ventures, a private entrepreneurial firm. Before Intellectual Ventures, Dr. Myhrvold spent 14 years at Microsoft Corporation. In addition to working directly for Bill Gates, he founded Microsoft Research and served as Chief Technology Officer.

Nathan Myhrvold's Edge Bio Page

Rockhoppers in Water

Magellanics on Beach

Kings on Beach

Magellanic Calling

Rockhoppers Preening

Gentoo Feeding

Gentoo Colony with Skua

Kings Pointing

Gentoo Calling

These are not Penguins

Rockhopper Calling

Rockhopper Colony

Rockhopper Calling

Kings Slapping

Gentoo Shitting

Fecal Jackson Pollack

Magellanic Chick

Gentoo Chick

King large Chick

Rockhoppers landing


What is the self? How does the activity of neurons give rise to the sense of being a conscious human being? Even this most ancient of philosophical problems, I believe, will yield to the methods of empirical science. It now seems increasingly likely that the self is not a holistic property of the entire brain; it arises from the activity of specific sets of interlinked brain circuits. But we need to know which circuits are critically involved and what their functions might be. It is the "turning inward" aspect of the self — its recursiveness — that gives it its peculiar paradoxical quality.

THE NEUROLOGY OF SELF-AWARENESS
By V.S. Ramachandran

The Edge 10th Anniversary Essay

Introduction

Five and a half years ago, Edge published a notable essay by neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, entitled MIRROR NEURONS and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" [6.29.00]. In the essay, he wrote:

"The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys, and their potential relevance to human brain evolution — which I speculate on in this essay — is the single most important "unreported" (or at least, unpublicized) story of the decade. I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments."

And, one year ago, we published a related essay, Mirror Neurons and the Brain in a Vat [1.10.06], which further developed this set of ideas.

Here, for the Edge 10th Anniversary Essay, we are pleased to present a new work, "The Neurology of Self-Awareness", in which "Rama" explores the concept of the self, tying in the ideas of researchers such as Horace Barlow, Nick Humphrey, David Premack and Marvin Minsky (among others), who have suggested that consciousness may have evolved primarily in a social context. This includes Minsky's ideas on "a second parallel mechanism that has evolved in humans to create representations of earlier representations" and Humphrey's arguments "that our ability to introspect may have evolved specifically to construct meaningful models of other peoples minds in order to predict their behavior. "

"Have we solved the problem of self?", he asks in concluding the essay. "Obviously not — we have barely scratched the surface. But hopefully we have paved the way for future models and empirical studies on the nature of self, a problem that philosophers have made essentially no headway in solving. (And not for want of effort — they have been at it for three thousand years). Hence our grounds for optimism about the future of brain research — especially for solving what is arguably Science's greatest riddle."


V.S. RAMACHANDRAN, a neuroscientist, is Director, Center for Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego; Author, A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, and coauthor, Phantoms in the Brain.

V.S. Ramachandran's Edge Bio Page


THE NEUROLOGY OF SELF-AWARENESS

What is the self? How does the activity of neurons give rise to the sense of being a conscious human being? Even this most ancient of philosophical problems, I believe, will yield to the methods of empirical science. It now seems increasingly likely that the self is not a holistic property of the entire brain; it arises from the activity of specific sets of interlinked brain circuits. But we need to know which circuits are critically involved and what their functions might be. It is the "turning inward" aspect of the self — its recursiveness — that gives it its peculiar paradoxical quality.

It has been suggested by Horace Barlow, Nick Humphrey, David Premack and Marvin Minsky (among others) that consciousness may have evolved primarily in a social context. Minsky speaks of a second parallel mechanism that has evolved in humans to create representations of earlier representations and Humphrey has argued that our ability to introspect may have evolved specifically to construct meaningful models of other peoples minds in order to predict their behavior. "I feel jealous in order to understand what jealousy feels like in someone else" — a short cut to predicting that persons behavior.

Here I develop these arguments further. If I succeed in seeing any further it is by "standing on the shoulders of these giants". Specifically, I suggest that "other awareness" may have evolved first and then counterintutively, as often happens in evolution, the same ability was exploited to model ones own mind — what one calls self awareness. I will also suggest that a specific system of neurons called mirror neurons are involved in this ability. Finally I discuss some clinical examples to illustrate these ideas and make some testable predictions.

There are many aspects of self. It has a sense of unity despite the multitude of sense impressions and beliefs. In addition it has a sense of continuity in time, of being in control of its actions ("free will"), of being anchored in a body, a sense of its worth, dignity and mortality (or immortality). Each of these aspects of self may be mediated by different centers in different parts of the brain and its only for convenience that we lump them together in a single word.

As noted earlier there is one aspect of self that seems stranger than all the others — the fact that it is aware of itself. I would like to suggest that groups of neurons called mirror neurons are critically involved in this ability.

The discovery of mirror neurons was made G. Rizzolati, V Gallase and I Iaccoboni while recording from the brains of monkeys performed certain goal-directed voluntary actions. For instance when the monkey reached for a peanut a certain neuron in its pre motor cortex ( in the frontal lobes) would fire. Another neuron would fire when the monkey pushed a button, a third neuron when he pulled a lever. The existence of such Command neurons that control voluntary movements has been known for decades. Amazingly, a subset of these neurons had an additional peculiar property. The neuron fired not only (say) when the monkey reached for a peanut but also when it watched another monkey reach for a peanut!

These were dubbed "mirror neurons" or "monkey-see-monkey-do" neurons. This was an extraordinary observation because it implies that the neuron (or more accurately, the network which it is part of) was not only generating a highly specific command ("reach for the nut") but was capable of adopting another monkey's point of view. It was doing a sort of internal virtual reality simulation of the other monkeys action in order to figure out what he was "up to". It was, in short, a "mind-reading" neuron.

Neurons in the anterior cingulate will respond to the patient being poked with a needle; they are often referred to as sensory pain neurons. Remarkably, researchers at the University of Toronto have found that some of them will fire equally strongly when the patient watches someone else is poked. I call these "empathy neurons" or "Dalai Lama neurons" for they are, dissolving the barrier between self and others. Notice that in saying this one isn't being metaphorical; the neuron in question simply doesn't know the difference between it and others.

Primates (including humans) are highly social creatures and knowing what someone is "up to" — creating an internal simulation of his/her mind — is crucial for survival, earning us the title "the Machiavellian primate". In an essay for Edge (2001) entitled "Mirror Neurons and the Great Leap Forward" I suggested that in addition to providing a neural substrate for figuring out another persons intentions (as noted by Rizzolati's group) the emergence and subsequent sophistication of mirror neurons in hominids may have played a crucial role in many quintessentially human abilities such as empathy, learning through imitation (rather than trial and error), and the rapid transmission of what we call "culture". (And the "great leap forward" — the rapid Lamarckian transmission of "accidental") one-of-a kind inventions.

I turn now to the main concern of this essay — the nature of self. When you think of your own self, what comes into mind? You have sense of "introspecting" on your own thoughts and feelings and of " watching" yourself going about your business — as if you were looking at yourself from another persons vantage point. How does this happen ?

Evolution often takes advantage of pre-existing structures to evolve completely novel abilities. I suggest that once the ability to engage in cross modal abstraction emerged — e.g. between visual "vertical" on the retina and photoreceptive "vertical" signaled by muscles (for grasping trees) it set the stage for the emergence of mirror neurons in hominids. Mirror neurons are also abundant in the inferior parietal lobule — a structure that underwent an accelerated expansion in the great apes and, later, in humans.. As the brain evolved further the lobule split into two gyri — the supramarginal gyrus that allowed you to "reflect" on your own anticipated actions and the angular gyrus that allowed you to "reflect" on your body (on the right) and perhaps on other more social and linguistic aspects of your self (left hemisphere) I have argued elsewhere that mirror neurons are fundamentally performing a kind of abstraction across activity in visual maps and motor maps. This in turn may have paved the way for more conceptual types of abstraction; such as metaphor ("get a grip on yourself").

How does all this lead to self awareness? I suggest that self awareness is simply using mirror neurons for "looking at myself as if someone else is look at me" (the word "me" encompassing some of my brain processes, as well). The mirror neuron mechanism — the same algorithm — that originally evolved to help you adopt another's point of view was turned inward to look at your own self. This, in essence, is the basis of things like "introspection". It may not be coincidental that we use phrases like "self conscious" when you really mean that you are conscious of others being conscious of you. Or say "I am reflecting" when you mean you are aware of yourself thinking. In other words the ability to turn inward to introspect or reflect may be a sort of metaphorical extension of the mirror neurons ability to read others minds. It is often tacitly assumed that the uniquely human ability to construct a "theory of other minds" or "TOM" (seeing the world from the others point of view; "mind reading", figuring out what someone is up to, etc.) must come after an already pre- existing sense of self. I am arguing that the exact opposite is true; the TOM evolved first in response to social needs and then later, as an unexpected bonus, came the ability to introspect on your own thoughts and intentions. I claim no great originality for these ideas; they are part of the current zeitgeist. Any novelty derives from the manner in which I shall marshall the evidence from physiology and from our own work in neurology. Note that I am not arguing that mirror neurons are sufficient for the emergence of self; only that they must have played a pivotal role. (Otherwise monkeys would have self awareness and they don't). They may have to reach a certain critical level of sophistication that allowed them to build on earlier functions (TOM) and become linked to certain other brain circuits, especially the Wernickes ("language comprehension") area and parts of the frontal lobes. 

Does the mirror neuron theory of self make other predictions? Given our discovery that autistic children have deficient mirror neurons and correspondingly deficient TOM, we would predict that they would have a deficient sense of self (TMM) and difficulty with introspection. The same might be true for other neurological disorders; damage to the inferior parietal lobule/TPO junction (which are known to contain mirror neurons) and parts of the frontal lobes should also lead to a deficiency of certain aspects self awareness. (Incidentally, Gallup's mirror test — removing a paint splotch from your face while looking at a mirror — is not an adequate test of self awareness, even though it is touted as such. We have seen patients who vehemently claim that their reflection in the mirror is "someone else" yet they pass the Gallup test!)

It has recently been shown that if a conscious awake human patient has his parietal lobe stimulated during neurosurgery, he will sometimes have an "out of body" experience — as if he was a detached entity watching his own body from up near the ceiling. I suggest that this arises because of a dysfunction in the mirror neuron system in the parieto-occipital junction caused by the stimulating electrode. These neurons are ordinarily activated when we temporarily "adopt" another's view of our body and mind (as outlined earlier in this essay). But we are always aware we are doing this partly because of other signals (both sensory and reafference/command signals) telling you you are not literally moving out of yourself. (There may also be frontal inhibitory mechanisms that stop you from involuntarily mimicking another person looking at you).

If these mirror neuron-related mechanisms are deranged by the stimulating electrode the net result would be an out-of-body experience. Some years ago we examined a patient with a syndrome called anosognosia who had a lesion in his right parietal lobe and vehemently denied the paralysis. Remarkably the patient also denied the paralysis of another patient sitting in an adjacent wheelchair! (who failed to move the arm on command from the physician.) Here again was, evidence that two seemingly contradictory aspects of self — its the individuation and intense privacy vs. its social reciprocity — may complement each other and arise from the same neural mechanism, mirror neurons. Like the two sides of a Mobius strip, they are really the same, even they appear — on local inspection — to be fundamentally different.

Have we solved the problem of self? Obviously not — we have barely scratched the surface. But hopefully we have paved the way for future models and empirical studies on the nature of self, a problem that philosophers have made essentially no headway in solving. (And not for want of effort — they have been at it for three thousand years). Hence our grounds for optimism about the future of brain research — especially for solving what is arguably Science's greatest riddle.


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(March 1, 2007)

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