Like humans, ravens mirror the distress they witness in others, study suggests

Katherine J. Wu reports:

Seeing someone else suffer a big disappointment can have a pretty damaging effect on your own morale. That’s definitely the case with people—and it might be true for ravens, too.

New research suggests that, like humans and many other mammals, common ravens (Corvus corax) can read and internalize the emotional states of others. In the study, published today in the journal PNAS, ravens watch their friends grapple with a frustrating task in which they’re denied a tasty treat. Though the onlookers aren’t deprived of anything, they then seem to mirror their partners’ discontent, and start behaving pessimistically themselves.

Unlike people, ravens can’t speak freely about their emotional distress. But these results hint at the tantalizing possibility that humans aren’t alone in their interconnectedness, and could provide early evidence of something akin to empathy in birds.

“This paper is a tremendous step forward in being able to understand the evolutionary roots of empathy,” says Kaeli Swift, an animal behaviorist and corvid expert at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study. “I think it would be too far to say that [this paper shows] ravens are empathetic…but this work could be foundational in eventually arriving at that conclusion.” [Continue reading…]

The value of attention and the cost of giving it away

Franklin Foer writes:

I can say definitively now that I faltered in pursuit of my New Year’s resolution. My self-improvement project for the year was to read a fresh poem every morning, before glimpsing the accumulation of unresponded email and lifting the lid off Twitter. My purpose, when I explained it to my wife and kids a few hours before midnight, was to ritualistically remind myself of emotions other than those triggered by the front page.

What I didn’t say is that I was also positioning myself like a senior citizen hunched over the crossword. I was warding off the possibility of mental deterioration.

I have a fear stoked by a doomsaying prophecy about the future of reading: A century ago or so, poetry was a fixture of everyday life, enjoyed by everyday people. Then it slowly lost its audience. It turned out that the poem required sharper focus than a television audience could sustain and more patience than modernity would permit. This decline, according to some publishers and bookstore owners, is a harbinger. As the age of zombie swiping runs its course, the novel will follow the fate of verse. It will become a niche passion, enjoyed by a shrinking caste of connoisseurs trained to slow their minds and absorb long, twisting chunks of narrative.

I worried that the culture would succumb to this stultification and I wouldn’t be immune. Thus, my self-prescribed daily dose of poetry to sharpen the faculties that stare at the world. I would read to bulwark my attention against the assault waged by my phone.

On the 17th day of the year, the poet Mary Oliver died, and I pulled her books from the shelf. Her oeuvre became my morning ritual—and because she wrote with directness, the windowpane clarity achieved when a writer aims to persuade, I found myself reading many pages at a time. There were poems I knew, the ones recited at weddings or quoted on yearbook pages (“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”). But this was the first time I had read Oliver beyond her hits. Her books had tumbled into my arms at the right moment. Her collected works amount to an instruction manual for how to focus the gaze. The exhortations that filled her poems became my command: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” [Continue reading…]

Descartes was wrong. ‘A person is a person through other persons’

By Abeba Birhane

According to Ubuntu philosophy, which has its origins in ancient Africa, a newborn baby is not a person. People are born without ‘ena’, or selfhood, and instead must acquire it through interactions and experiences over time. So the ‘self’/‘other’ distinction that’s axiomatic in Western philosophy is much blurrier in Ubuntu thought. As the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti put it in African Religions and Philosophy (1975): ‘I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.’

We know from everyday experience that a person is partly forged in the crucible of community. Relationships inform self-understanding. Who I am depends on many ‘others’: my family, my friends, my culture, my work colleagues. The self I take grocery shopping, say, differs in her actions and behaviours from the self that talks to my PhD supervisor. Even my most private and personal reflections are entangled with the perspectives and voices of different people, be it those who agree with me, those who criticise, or those who praise me.

Yet the notion of a fluctuating and ambiguous self can be disconcerting. We can chalk up this discomfort, in large part, to René Descartes. The 17th-century French philosopher believed that a human being was essentially self-contained and self-sufficient; an inherently rational, mind-bound subject, who ought to encounter the world outside her head with skepticism. While Descartes didn’t single-handedly create the modern mind, he went a long way towards defining its contours.

[Read more…]

How the body and mind talk to one another to understand the world

By Sarah Garfinkel

Have you ever been startled by someone suddenly talking to you when you thought you were alone? Even when they apologise for surprising you, your heart goes on pounding in your chest. You are very aware of this sensation. But what kind of experience is it, and what can it tell us about relations between the heart and the brain?

When considering the senses, we tend to think of sight and sound, taste, touch and smell. However, these are classified as exteroceptive senses, that is, they tell us something about the outside world. In contrast, interoception is a sense that informs us about our internal bodily sensations, such as the pounding of our heart, the flutter of butterflies in our stomach or feelings of hunger.

The brain represents, integrates and prioritises interoceptive information from the internal body. These are communicated through a set of distinct neural and humoural (ie, blood-borne) pathways. This sensing of internal states of the body is part of the interplay between body and brain: it maintains homeostasis, the physiological stability necessary for survival; it provides key motivational drivers such as hunger and thirst; it explicitly represents bodily sensations, such as bladder distension. But that is not all, and herein lies the beauty of interoception, as our feelings, thoughts and perceptions are also influenced by the dynamic interaction between body and brain.

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Frans de Waal embraces animal emotions in ‘Mama’s Last Hug’

Sy Montgomery writes:

The two old friends hadn’t seen each other lately. Now one of them was on her deathbed, crippled with arthritis, refusing food and drink, dying of old age. Her friend had come to say goodbye. At first she didn’t seem to notice him. But when she realized he was there, her reaction was unmistakable: Her face broke into an ecstatic grin. She cried out in delight. She reached for her visitor’s head and stroked his hair. As he caressed her face, she draped her arm around his neck and pulled him closer.

The mutual emotion so evident in this deathbed reunion was especially moving and remarkable because the visitor, Dr. Jan Van Hooff, was a Dutch biologist, and his friend, Mama, was a chimpanzee. The event — recorded on a cellphone, shown on TV and widely shared on the internet — provides the opening story and title for the ethologist Frans de Waal’s game-changing new book, “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.”


Other authors have explored animal emotion, including Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy in “When Elephants Weep” (1995) and Marc Bekoff in “The Emotional Lives of Animals” (2007). Still others have concentrated on a specific emotion, such as Jonathan Balcombe in “Pleasurable Kingdom” (2006) and Barbara J. King in “How Animals Grieve” (2013).

“Mama’s Last Hug” takes these seminal works a step further, making this book even bolder and more important than its companion volume, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,” de Waal’s 2016 best seller.

For too long, emotion has been cognitive researchers’ third rail. In research on humans, emotions were deemed irrelevant, impossible to study or beneath scientific notice. Animal emotions were simply ignored. But nothing could be more essential to understanding how people and animals behave. By examining emotions in both, this book puts these most vivid of mental experiences in evolutionary context, revealing how their richness, power and utility stretch across species and back into deep time. [Continue reading…]

The blind spot of science is the neglect of lived experience

Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser, and Evan Thompson write:

The problem of time is one of the greatest puzzles of modern physics. The first bit of the conundrum is cosmological. To understand time, scientists talk about finding a ‘First Cause’ or ‘initial condition’ – a description of the Universe at the very beginning (or at ‘time equals zero’). But to determine a system’s initial condition, we need to know the total system. We need to make measurements of the positions and velocities of its constituent parts, such as particles, atoms, fields and so forth. This problem hits a hard wall when we deal with the origin of the Universe itself, because we have no view from the outside. We can’t step outside the box in order to look within, because the box is all there is. A First Cause is not only unknowable, but also scientifically unintelligible.

The second part of the challenge is philosophical. Scientists have taken physical time to be the only real time – whereas experiential time, the subjective sense of time’s passing, is considered a cognitive fabrication of secondary importance. The young Albert Einstein made this position clear in his debate with philosopher Henri Bergson in the 1920s, when he claimed that the physicist’s time is the only time. With age, Einstein became more circumspect. Up to the time of his death, he remained deeply troubled about how to find a place for the human experience of time in the scientific worldview.

These quandaries rest on the presumption that physical time, with an absolute starting point, is the only real kind of time. But what if the question of the beginning of time is ill-posed? Many of us like to think that science can give us a complete, objective description of cosmic history, distinct from us and our perception of it. But this image of science is deeply flawed. In our urge for knowledge and control, we’ve created a vision of science as a series of discoveries about how reality is in itself, a God’s-eye view of nature.

Such an approach not only distorts the truth, but creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world. That divide arises from what we call the Blind Spot, which science itself cannot see. In the Blind Spot sits experience: the sheer presence and immediacy of lived perception. [Continue reading…]

A resonance theory of consciousness

Tam Hunt writes:

Why are some things conscious and others apparently not? Is a rat conscious? A bat? A cockroach? A bacterium? An electron?

These questions are all aspects of the ancient “mind-body problem,” which has resisted a generally satisfying conclusion for thousands of years.

The mind-body problem enjoyed a major rebranding over the last two decades and is generally known now as the “hard problem” of consciousness (usually capitalized nowadays), after the New York University philosopher David Chalmers coined this term in a now classic 1995 paper and his 1996 book The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory.

Fast forward to the present era and we can ask ourselves now: Did the hippies actually solve this problem? My colleague Jonathan Schooler (University of California, Santa Barbara) and I think they effectively did, with the radical intuition that it’s all about vibrations … man. Over the past decade, we have developed a “resonance theory of consciousness” that suggests that resonance—another word for synchronized vibrations—is at the heart of not only human consciousness but of physical reality more generally.

So how were the hippies right? Well, we agree that vibrations, resonance, are the key mechanism behind human consciousness, as well as animal consciousness more generally. And, as I’ll discuss below, that they are the basic mechanism for all physical interactions to occur.

All things in our universe are constantly in motion, vibrating. Even objects that appear to be stationary are in fact vibrating, oscillating, resonating, at various frequencies. Resonance is a type of motion, characterized by oscillation between two states. And ultimately all matter is just vibrations of various underlying fields.

An interesting phenomenon occurs when different vibrating things/processes come into proximity: they will often start, after a little time, to vibrate together at the same frequency. They “sync up,” sometimes in ways that can seem mysterious. This is described today as the phenomenon of spontaneous self-organization. [Continue reading…]

‘Self-aware’ fish raises questions about mirror test

Elizabeth Preston writes:

A little blue-and-black fish swims up to a mirror. It maneuvers its body vertically to reflect its belly, along with a brown mark that researchers have placed on its throat. The fish then pivots and dives to strike its throat against the sandy bottom of its tank with a glancing blow. Then it returns to the mirror. Depending on which scientists you ask, this moment represents either a revolution or a red herring.

Alex Jordan, an evolutionary biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, thinks this fish — a cleaner wrasse — has just passed a classic test of self-recognition. Scientists have long thought that being able to recognize oneself in a mirror reveals some sort of self-awareness, and perhaps an awareness of others’ perspectives, too. For almost 50 years, they have been using mirrors to test animals for that capacity. After letting an animal get familiar with a mirror, they put a mark someplace on the animal’s body that it can see only in its reflection. If the animal looks in the mirror and then touches or examines the mark on its body, it passes the test.

Humans don’t usually reach this milestone until we’re toddlers. Very few other species ever pass the test; those that do are mostly or entirely big-brained mammals such as chimpanzees. And yet as reported in a study that appeared on earlier this year and that is due for imminent publication in PLOS Biology, Jordan and his co-authors observed this seemingly self-aware behavior in a tiny fish.

Jordan’s findings have consequently inspired strong feelings in the field. “There are researchers who, it seems, do not want fish to be included in this secret club,” he said. “Because then that means that the [primates] are not so special anymore.” [Continue reading…]

The unexamined inner lives of insects

Lars Chittka and Catherine Wilson write:

René Descartes’s dog, Monsieur Grat (‘Mister Scratch’), used to accompany the 17th-century French philosopher on his ruminative walks, and was the object of his fond attention. Yet, for the most part, Descartes did not think very highly of the inner life of nonhuman animals. ‘[T]he reason why animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs but that they have no thoughts,’ Descartes wrote in a letter in 1646.

Followers of Descartes have argued that consciousness is a uniquely human attribute, perhaps facilitated by language, that allows us to communicate and coordinate our memories, sensations and plans over time. On this view, versions of which persist in some quarters today, nonhuman animals are little more than clever automata with a toolkit of preprogrammed behaviours that respond to specific triggers.

Insects such as bees and ants are often held up as the epitome of the robotically mechanistic approach to animal nature. Scientists have long known that these creatures must possess a large behavioural repertoire in order to construct their elaborate homes, defend against intruders, and provision their young with food. Yet many still find it plausible to look at bees and ants as little more than ‘reflex machines’, lacking an internal representation of the world, or an ability to foresee even the immediate future. In the absence of external stimuli or internal triggers such as hunger, it’s believed that the insect’s mind is dark and its brain is switched off. Insects are close to ‘philosophical zombies’: hypothetical beings that rely entirely on routines and reflexes, without any awareness.

But perhaps the problem is not that insects lack an inner life, but that they don’t have a way to communicate it in terms we can understand. It is hard for us to prise open a window into their minds. So maybe we misdiagnose animal brains as having machine-like properties simply because we understand how machines work – whereas, to date, we have only a fragmentary and imperfect insight into how even the simplest brains process, store and retrieve information.

However, there are now many signs that consciousness-like phenomena might exist not just among humans or even great apes – but that insects might have them, too. Not all of these lines of evidence are from experiments specifically designed to explore consciousness; in fact, some have lain buried in the literature for decades, even centuries, without anyone recognising their hidden significance. [Continue reading…]

Could consciousness all come down to the way things vibrate?

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What do synchronized vibrations add to the mind/body question?

By Tam Hunt, University of California, Santa Barbara

Why is my awareness here, while yours is over there? Why is the universe split in two for each of us, into a subject and an infinity of objects? How is each of us our own center of experience, receiving information about the rest of the world out there? Why are some things conscious and others apparently not? Is a rat conscious? A gnat? A bacterium?

These questions are all aspects of the ancient “mind-body problem,” which asks, essentially: What is the relationship between mind and matter? It’s resisted a generally satisfying conclusion for thousands of years.

The mind-body problem enjoyed a major rebranding over the last two decades. Now it’s generally known as the “hard problem” of consciousness, after philosopher David Chalmers coined this term in a now classic paper and further explored it in his 1996 book, “The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory.”

Chalmers thought the mind-body problem should be called “hard” in comparison to what, with tongue in cheek, he called the “easy” problems of neuroscience: How do neurons and the brain work at the physical level? Of course they’re not actually easy at all. But his point was that they’re relatively easy compared to the truly difficult problem of explaining how consciousness relates to matter.

Over the last decade, my colleague, University of California, Santa Barbara psychology professor Jonathan Schooler and I have developed what we call a “resonance theory of consciousness.” We suggest that resonance – another word for synchronized vibrations – is at the heart of not only human consciousness but also animal consciousness and of physical reality more generally. It sounds like something the hippies might have dreamed up – it’s all vibrations, man! – but stick with me.

[Read more…]