POST 10 – 22-03-2014
Black backed magpie – as distinct from white backed variety that is common in more southerly areas.
MANIPULATING MENTAL IMAGES
- SELECTION PRESSURE
- UNINTENTIONAL CHANGE
- INTENTIONAL CHANGE
Over the millennia we humans have striven to develop our mental abilities to improve our chances of survival and especially we have, in relatively recent times, developed educational systems to give our children access to the accumulated learning of the ages.
It is essential for us to be able to recognise differences and similarities in our environment. A familiar event is non-threatening while an unfamiliar event calls for action and needs to be sorted.
While some of the skills needed for this sorting process are inherent, some of the information, knowledge and skills need to be learned from others.
While the role of the teacher in facilitating learning is important it remains true that learning is our own personal responsibility. Each of us learns by personal effort but benefits from a supportive environment. We need to know how we can improve that environment..
If we knew more about how we do learn it might improve the process. Just as coming to know more about the process of biological evolution has led us to be better able to understand and apply that knowledge to improving and protecting our biological environment so also better knowledge of how we learn and how we create new ideas may facilitate our abilities to live more fulfilling lives and to improve human fruitfulness.
Perhaps knowing more about the mental processes would have shortened the time it took for us to discover how to harness fire, understand the mechanics of the solar system, find out about microbiology, invent sewerage, develop the internet etc.
We already know that it is possible to alter the transmission of nervous impulses across a synapse by the use of drugs to excite or inhibit the transmission rate, to alter mood, and so on. These are quite crude manipulations so far but refinements could well be developed.
As the process of nerve impulse transmission is evolutionary in nature it can be affected at each of its three stages. We may be able to change the rate of replication, the rate of the occurrence of variations and/or the level of competition.
Whatever we might do these three variables will change “naturally”, but also are susceptible to human interference by unintended means or by intentional changes. If we recognise that there is an evolutionary process operating we can design ways to influence its development.
- SELECTION PRESSURE
There is a simple explanation of the evolution by natural selection of our human intelligence and our abilities such as consciousness, numeracy, literacy and creative expression. Without these traits we would not have survived in our present form.
A factor common to each of these (and probably some related abilities like curiosity, planning, inventiveness etc.) is the ability to manipulate an image that forms in the mind’s eye. To me, this is the key human ability.
Linking an evolved pathway to the formation of images in the mind is not too difficult as some primitive elements of it seem to have occurred independently in a number of quite distantly related species including insects, fish and mammals. They all have sense organs like ours (and some additional ones such as electricity sensors in some fish) which connect in the nervous system to a response mechanism.
The ability to take a conscious grip on, or have an experience of, the received mental image is difficult to identify in non-human species because they cannot tell us of such subjective matters. If they do have a conscious appreciation of the presence of these images they do not appear to make use of them in ways that humans certainly can and do.
There must have been a precursor of the elephant with the ability to do the critical things that an elephant can do with its trunk. Whatever was inherited by that elephant, there seems no doubt that its, and its descendants, ability was enhanced by subsequent learning how to use that marvelous prehensile organ. At some stage in time there must have been a pre-human being with some sort of ability to manipulate the images that form in the mind.
Before consciousness intervened there must have been image formation as a result of sensory inputs. Preferred fruits, feared predators etc. must have formed images in the mind, and they must have been able to be recalled for comparative purposes when a new impulse hit the nervous system. It would seem that there would need to be no manipulating of these images in a pre-conscious animal and thus no reflection and no “human” consciousness.
I try to imagine this possible, pre-human, ability that allowed a mental image to be manipulated. It appears to me that there must have been incremental steps from an ability to perceive images of the outside world to an ability to see images of those images. To move from that ability to “see” images in the mind’s eye to one where we became capable of being able to manipulate the images with some, however limited, degree of freedom, would seem to require something in the nature of an “emergent” phenomenon,
The incremental nature of evolution by natural selection is accepted and the emergence of new functions of the elephant’s trunk from some precursor prehensile upper lip and nostril is easy to see as the usefulness of a part trunk can be seen in analogous organs such as the trunk of a tapir or even the upper lip of a horse. It is not so easy to see the incremental steps preceding the first manipulation of a mental image.
The concept of an emerging phenomenon offers itself as an explanation. As a sand hill is not a landslide and does not incrementally become a landslide. A landslide suddenly develops as amounts of sand are added and it reaches a necessary combination of physical characteristics of height, angle of its side and dryness which are all related to the size and shape of the grains in its structure. All the precursor elements of size, shape, dryness etc. develop incrementally but the mini-avalanche emerges suddenly. It is an emergent phenomenon.
At some stage of evolved mental infrastructure there must have been a point at which the ability to form layers of nemes combined into some form of complex layers developed. This concept is developed by William H Calvin in a fascinating article that includes the following observations.
“We take great delight in discovering a hidden pattern, whether in a jigsaw puzzle or a subtle work of art; indeed, we often jump to conclusions, finding patterns where none exist. I’ve often been fooled by the wind blowing around the house, hearing speech and assuming that a radio has been left on in another room. The delight in finding hidden patterns is part of what reinforces doing science (and, for that matter, astrology). This operates at both subconscious levels (those poorly heard radio voices) and conscious ones (“seeing” the art).”
He goes on to say:
“And the Darwinian process is particularly good at taking random variations and making new stable configurations, ones that would be highly improbable without the Darwinian algorithm. It can combine concepts such as ‘horse’ and ‘rhinoceros’ to yield imaginary concepts such as ‘unicorn”. Its intermediate stages ought to look something like your nighttime dreams, with their jumble of people, places, and occasions that don’t really fit together very well. When we are awake, we are likely only aware of the highest-quality result.”
I am reminded of the common experience of our stream of consciousness or mind-wandering as exemplified in the recent Leunig cartoon that can be seen in the collection here. It shows the wandering of his character’s thoughts through a day.
And further Calvin said:
“Here I am going to propose that Darwinian processes invent novelties, bootstrap their quality through a series of generations of improvements on the time scale of thought and action. This can happen at a number of levels of organization, constructing a “house of cards” that, while it may eventually collapse, can attain some heights in the meantime.”
“Each neuron has thousands of synapses, producing currents that summate to produce (via a nonlinear input-output transformation) an impulse train. But only rarely does the activity of a single neuron suffice to produce a perception or trigger an action. Mostly, neurons act as members of committees…”
And what he means by levels:
“Levels are best defined by certain functional properties, not anatomy. As an example of four levels, fleece is organized into yarn, which is woven into cloth, which can be arranged into clothing. Each of these levels of organization is transiently stable, with ratchet-like mechanisms that prevent backsliding: fabrics are woven, to prevent their disorganization into so much yarn; yarn is spun, to keep it from backsliding into fleece.”
Apply this to the complexification of nemes and you can see how it could lead to evolved layers of nemes that allow us to manipulate a mental image. Such ability would certainly have offered a survival advantage to its possessor and the survival of that trait, combined with subsequent applications and learning and developments of the skill provided additional selective advantages enabling survival of the trait within the then current environment.
The proposed layers of nemes leads to the suggestion that we are able to blend multiple ideas that are already in our minds, and these blends contain new ideas that didn’t exist before. It would be wonderful if we knew just how to manipulate that process. We are able to produce figments of our imagination, fantasies and brilliant inventions, artistic insights and other imaginings. It seems difficult however to achieve mind control and discipline over our anxieties and ambitions but cognitive behaviour therapy is making some inroads into the area of conscious control of the inner life.
A neme is the mental equivalent of a letter which is the starting layer in its contribution to a word which is a layer in the way to formation of a sentence, a proposition, a text, a language, which is then a layer on the way to formation of a culture. Similarly a neme goes towards a layer of images, or ideas then to a layer of associated categories, to a proposition and maybe eventually to become a new idea, some creative thought or a preme – the precursor of a meme.
The important element is to learn more about how we can intentionally interfere in the process so as to change things and improve them or to counter any undesirable effects. We would set out to know more about the process so that we could act on the nemes, their complexes called ideas and their “brainchildren” called premes (precursors of memes).
The question remains as to how these changes can be applied
I am interested in what I can do to:
- Change the rate of replication of nemes and their progeny – ideas and premes
- Change the rate of variation of nemes and their progeny – ideas and premes.
- Change the level of competition for survival of nemes and their progeny – ideas and premes.
There may be lessons from the field of biological selection that could assist us in the management of memes in the culture. They are items for another day and this POST is about the “neme” within the personal mind. What happens when a “preme” is released into the culture is closely related as its journey also follows the Darwinian path which is able to be accessed in order to produce intended changes.
It seems that we need to assess the possible changes to these elements of the mental process so we can attribute value to each of the possibilities. Clearly we do not want to make ourselves into zombies by our interference. We also should take care in developing an approach as we need to minimise the inevitable backlash from those who oppose each step of scientific progress as being dangerous because any departure may be frustrating to or grievously harmful to things seen as “natural” and thus preferable to anything resulting from any form of human interference. Such has recently been the case with genetically modified foods, the industrial revolution, quantum mechanics among others.
There is need for caution but even the ill-defined “precautionary principle” can be over-emphasised.
- UNINTENTIONAL CHANGE
It can be difficult to distinguish between “natural” and “unintentional” interference in the mental processes. In genetic evolution, anything done by humans is clearly in the non-natural category but in the case of the mental process it is difficult to distinguish between “natural” and “unintentional” factors because the latter can be the result of the “natural” behaviour of human agents. As well, correction of any unintended interference would require some intentional inputs to correct the undesired effects.
Despite these difficulties I will identify some clearly “unintentional” interferences and later I will refer to “intentional” interference.
We humans have, for ages, been operating our value systems and making decisions that produced changes in our environment. Such changes must have influenced the operation of the natural selection process of the evolution of our mental abilities. When we invented cooking, started farming and settled down instead of following our former nomadic existence we must have changed the selection pressure on the evolutionary process. In more recent times we have controlled the environment so much that we have slowed the evolutionary process very considerable, without, however, changing our ability to evolve.
- INTENTIONAL CHANGE
The elements that we may be able to change are:
- Replication – we may be able to change the rate of replication.
- Variation – we may be able to change the frequency of occurrence of errors.
- Competition – we may be able to change the selection pressure.
Changing the rate of replication of genes in the biological evolutionary process can be achieved by methods including shortening the generational gap, by breeding more frequently or by use of artificial insemination.
Changing the rate of replication of nemes and ideas is possible with the application of various chemicals at the synapse. This is currently quite crude and seemingly dangerous with unclear side effects. In the nervous system we are dealing with an extremely high rate of replication and there may be more benefit in slowing things down than in speeding it up. Meditation while concentrating on a Mantra or on breathing may assist in reducing the rush of the stream of consciousness to allow us to get a grip on things. Are there other ways?
Changing the frequency of occurrence of errors (mutations) of genes in the biological evolutionary process can be achieved by exposing them to radiation or mutagenic chemicals.
Changing the frequency of occurrence of errors of nemes and ideas and premes is possible by the introduction of new nemes and ideas, whether by exposure to new sensory inputs, new ideas or improved recall from the memory. Are there other ways?
Changing the competition for survival is possible by changing the environment affecting survival.
We may be able to change the selection pressure in order to favour survival of new ideas in a variety of ways which should be the focus of further study. What can we do to improve our understanding and our creativity?
We need to know more about the inner environment of our mind in which competition occurs so we can manipulate it.
We have identified various environments that seem to favour learning, science, art, athletic ability etc. Many people have favourite ideas about how to get their own mind focusing on things. Darwin and many others have benefited from a brisk walk to allow thoughts to gel. Writing thoughts down is also popular. Using rigid and structured argument helps some. Mindfulness is a distillation of numerous ideas to help improve concentration. It is defined as being “attentive and aware, non-judgmentally”, whereas meditation is engaging in a mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for spiritual or relaxation purposes.
On a larger scale there is a need for provision of adequate leisure for a society to have enough time to allow at least some citizens to be free to study and develop the ideas of their predecessors. This needs access to the thoughts of others through libraries, the internet etc. Hermits, other recluses, Buddhist or Christian monks, Jewish and Muslim scholars and our modern schools and Universities all have such aims.
Publication of, and acceptance of, codes of behavioural and ethical practice, concepts of social progress and legislation have been developments with mixed success at the national and international level.
Returning to the individual level there is a widely-held concept that education is the key to many of the things that we humans hold dear – from improving employment opportunities, through personal satisfaction, gaining understanding and gaining knowledge, to the ability to understand human aspirations and to encourage human fruitfulness. The learning methods practiced during the last couple of centuries have led to great progress in human affairs. Fewer or at least, smaller, wars, better nutrition, widespread education and more leisure have all happened in that time. While we learnt lots of harmful things including how to blow up our whole civilisation and how to unbalance the climate and deplete many of our resources, we now live longer, more fulfilled lives, at least in a growing proportion of our world.
This evolutionary of the mental process may enable us to learn more so that we can have more control of the mental processes and our ideas with subsequent improved control of our life and that of our culture.
The next POST will look at memes operating in the culture and see how we might apply the understanding of the three elements (replication, variation and competition) to make changes aimed at benefiting the civilising process.
PHILOSOPHY AT SCHOOL.
Why children should study philosophy – To encourage critical thinking which is defined as thinking that:
(1) facilitates judgement because it
(2) relies on criteria,
(3) is self-correcting, and
(4) is sensitive to context.
I would add the need to have an evidence base for the propositions being considered to avoid depending on demonstrating mere plausibility and forming mere opinions not something firmer, perhaps truths.
I was fascinated to read of the cosmological evidence for gravitation waves and for the Big Bang as well as confirmation of Cosmic Inflation. See:
And for some layman’s explanation see:
WHAT DO WE PERCEIVE?
Perceptions and “qualia”. See:
EVOLUTION AND FUNCTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS – INTRODUCTION
For a summary article re evolution of consciousness. See:
Blending. Advanced blending. Analogy, simile, metaphor. Pattern recognition. Matching (and mating) of closely related entities and incremental change and standing on shoulders of giants before me…