Living in ignorance about our ignorance

Kaidi Wu and David Dunning write:

In 1806, entrepreneur Frederic Tudor sailed to the island of Martinique with a precious cargo. He had harvested ice from frozen Massachusetts rivers and expected to make a tidy profit selling it to tropical customers. There was only one problem: the islanders had never seen ice. They had never experienced a cold drink, never tasted a pint of ice cream. Refrigeration was not a celebrated innovation, but an unknown concept. In their eyes, there was no value in Tudor’s cargo. His sizable investment melted away unappreciated and unsold in the Caribbean heat.

Tudor’s ice tale contains an important point about human affairs. Often, human fate rests not on what people know but what they fail to know. Often, life’s outcomes are determined by hypocognition.

What is hypocognition? If you don’t know, you’ve just experienced it.

Hypocognition, a term introduced to modern behavioral science by anthropologist Robert Levy, means the lack of a linguistic or cognitive representation for an object, category, or idea. The Martinique islanders were hypocognitive because they lacked a cognitive representation of refrigeration. But so are we hypocognitive of the numerous concepts that elude our awareness. We wander about the unknown terrains of life as novices more often than experts, complacent of what we know and oblivious to what we miss.

In financial dealings, almost two thirds of Americans are hypocognitive of compound interest, unaware of how much saving money can benefit them and how quickly debt can crush them. In health, a full third of people suffering from Type II diabetes remain hypocognitive of the illness. They fail to seek needed treatment—despite recognizing blurry vision, dry mouth, frequent urination—because they lack the underlying concept that would unify the disparate warning signals into a single alarm.

Hypocognition is about the absence of things. It is hard to recognize precisely because it is invisible. To recognize hypocognition requires a departure from the reassuring familiarity of our own culture to gain a grasp of the unknown and the missing. After all, it is difficult to see the culture we inhabit from only within. [Continue reading…]

We are more than our brains

Alan Jasanoff writes:

Brains are undoubtedly somewhat computer-like – computers, after all, were invented to perform brain-like functions – but brains are also much more than bundles of wiry neurons and the electrical impulses they are famous for propagating. The function of each neuroelectrical signal is to release a little flood of chemicals that helps to stimulate or suppress brain cells, in much the way that chemicals activate or suppress functions such as glucose production by liver cells or immune responses by white blood cells. Even the brain’s electrical signals themselves are the products of chemicals called ions that move in and out of cells, causing tiny ripples that can spread independently of neurons.

Also distinct from neurons are the relatively passive brain cells called glia (Greek for glue) that are roughly equal in number to the neurons but do not conduct electrical signals in the same way. Recent experiments in mice have shown that manipulating these uncharismatic cells can produce dramatic effects on behaviour. In one experiment, a research group in Japan showed that direct stimulation of glia in a brain region called the cerebellum could cause a behavioural response analogous to changes more commonly evoked by stimulation of neurons. Another remarkable study showed that transplantation of human glial cells into mouse brains boosted the animals’ performance in learning tests, again demonstrating the importance of glia in shaping brain function. Chemicals and glue are as integral to brain function as wiring and electricity. With these moist elements factored in, the brain seems much more like an organic part of the body than the idealised prosthetic many people imagine.

Stereotypes about brain complexity also contribute to the mystique of the brain and its distinction from the body. It has become a cliché to refer to the brain as ‘the most complex thing in the known Universe’. This saying is inspired by the finding that human brains contain something on the order of 100,000,000,000 neurons, each of which makes about 10,000 connections (synapses) to other neurons. The daunting nature of such numbers provides cover for people who argue that neuroscience will never decipher consciousness, or that free will lurks somehow among the billions and billions.

But the sheer number of cells in the human brain is unlikely to explain its extraordinary capabilities. Human livers have roughly the same number of cells as brains, but certainly don’t generate the same results. Brains themselves vary in size over a considerable range – by around 50 per cent in mass and likely number of brain cells. Radical removal of half of the brain is sometimes performed as a treatment for epilepsy in children. Commenting on a cohort of more than 50 patients who underwent this procedure, a team at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore wrote that they were ‘awed by the apparent retention of memory after removal of half of the brain, either half, and by the retention of the child’s personality and sense of humour’. Clearly not every brain cell is sacred.

If one looks out into the animal kingdom, vast ranges in brain size fail to correlate with apparent cognitive power at all. Some of the most perspicacious animals are the corvids – crows, ravens, and rooks – which have brains less than 1 per cent the size of a human brain, but still perform feats of cognition comparable to chimpanzees and gorillas. Behavioural studies have shown that these birds can make and use tools, and recognise people on the street, feats that even many primates are not known to achieve. Within individual orders, animals with similar characteristics also display huge differences in brain size. Among rodents, for instance, we can find the 80-gram capybara brain with 1.6 billion neurons and the 0.3-gram pygmy mouse brain with probably fewer than 60 million neurons. Despite a greater than 100-fold difference in brain size, these species live in similar habitats, display similarly social lifestyles, and do not display obvious differences in intelligence. Although neuroscience is only beginning to parse brain function even in small animals, such reference points show that it is mistaken to mystify the brain because of its sheer number of components.

Playing up the machine-like qualities of the brain or its unbelievable complexity distances it from the rest of the biological world in terms of its composition. But a related form of brain-body distinction exaggerates how the brain stands apart in terms of its autonomy from body and environment. This flavour of dualism contributes to the cerebral mystique by enhancing the brain’s reputation as a control centre, receptive to bodily and environmental input but still in charge.

Contrary to this idea, our brains themselves are perpetually influenced by torrents of sensory input. The environment shoots many megabytes of sensory data into the brain every second, enough information to disable many computers. The brain has no firewall against this onslaught. Brain-imaging studies show that even subtle sensory stimuli influence regions of the brain, ranging from low-level sensory regions where input enters the brain to parts of the frontal lobe, the high-level brain area that is expanded in humans compared with many other primates.

Many of these stimuli seem to take direct control of us. For instance, when we view illustrations, visual features often seem to grab our eyes and steer our gaze around in spatial patterns that are largely reproducible from person to person. If we see a face, our focus darts reflexively among eyes, nose and mouth, subconsciously taking in key features. When we walk down the street, our minds are similarly manipulated by stimuli in the surroundings – the honk of a car’s horn, the flashing of a neon light, the smell of pizza – each of which guides our thoughts and actions even if we don’t realise that anything has happened.

Even further below our radar are environmental features that act on a slower timescale to influence our mood and emotions. Seasonal low light levels are famous for their correlation with depression, a phenomenon first described by the South African physician Norman Rosenthal soon after he moved from sunny Johannesburg to the grey northeastern United States in the 1970s. Colours in our surroundings also affect us. Although the idea that colours have psychic power evokes New Age mysticism, careful experiments have repeatedly linked cold colours such as blue and green to positive emotional responses, and hot red hues to negative responses. In one example, researchers showed that participants performed worse on IQ tests labelled with red marks than on tests labelled with green or grey; another study found that subjects performed better on computerised creativity tests delivered on a blue background than on a red background.

Signals from within the body influence behaviour just as powerfully as influences from the environment, again usurping the brain’s command and challenging idealised conceptions of its supremacy. [Continue reading…]

What matters

Owen Flanagan writes:

In “The Strange Order of Things” Antonio Damasio promises to explore “one interest and one idea … why and how we emote, feel, use feelings to construct our selves; how feelings assist or undermine our best intentions; why and how our brains interact with the body to support such functions.”

Damasio thinks that the cognitive revolution of the last 40 years, which has yielded cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence, has been, in fact, too cognitive, too rationalist, and not concerned enough with the role that affect plays in the natural history of mind and culture. Standard stories of the evolution of human culture are framed in terms of rational problem solving, creative intelligence, invention, foresight and linguistically mediated planning — the inventions of fire, shelters from the storms, agriculture, the domestication of animals, transportation systems, systems of political organization, weapons, books, libraries, medicine and computers.

Damasio rightly insists that a system with reason, intelligence and language does nothing unless it cares about something, unless things matter to it or, in the case of the emerging world of A.I., things matter to its makers. Feelings motivate reason and intelligence, then “stay on to check the results, and help negotiate the necessary adjustments.”

In an earlier book, “Looking for Spinoza,” Damasio developed the concept of conatus — drive, will, motive, urge — as the taken-for-granted force or catalyst that puts reason, creative intelligence and language to work. If there were no feelings, he adds now, there would be no art, no music, no philosophy, no science, no friendship, no love, no culture and complex life would not aim to sustain itself. “The complete absence of feeling would spell a suspension of being.” [Continue reading…]

Have we forgotten how to die?

In a review of seven books on death and dying, Julie-Marie Strange writes:

James Turner was twenty-five when his four-year-old daughter Annice died from a lung condition. She died at home with her parents and grandmother; her sleeping siblings were told of her death the next morning. James did everything to soothe Annice’s last days but, never having encountered death before, he didn’t immediately recognize it. He didn’t know what to do or expect and found it hard to discuss things with his wife Martha. The family received many condolences but kept the funeral private. Losing a child, often described as the hardest bereavement to bear, changed James Turner forever.

Death in the twenty-first century is typified by the paradox contained in this story. Although we greedily consume death at a distance through fiction, drama and the media, we are hamstrung by it up close and personal. In 1955 the commentator Geoffrey Gorer declared that death had become more pornographic than sex. It was, he said, the new taboo and mourning had become “indecent”. Since then, matters have arguably got worse. The decline in institutional Christianity left a spiritual and existential vacuum, while the rise in individual materialism has fragmented family networks and communities. Shared rites of passage that publicly validated grief have receded, and the space of death has moved increasingly from the home to the hospital.

Focusing on the US and, to a lesser extent, Northern Europe, Haider Warraich’s Modern Death: How medicine changed the end of life identifies how far-reaching these changes are. A physician and clinical researcher, Warraich is well placed to observe the dubious implications of an expanded medicalization of death. Most people want to die at home, but the majority continue to die in hospital, surrounded by medical equipment. In general, life expectancy in the past century has increased, but so has the use of medicine to prolong it artificially. Definitions of death have grown more complicated – does it lie in brain function or in the heart and lungs? – and are openly contested. And despite what Warraich calls medicine’s “obsession” with preventing or delaying death, there is no clear provision for bereaved families. That task waits to be taken up. Kathryn Mannix agrees in With the End in Mind: Dying, death and wisdom in an age of denial, suggesting that it “has become taboo to mention dying”. Through a “gradual tran­sition”, Mannix says, we have lost the vocab­ulary for talking about death and depend instead on euphemism, lies and ambiguity; she wants us to “reclaim” a language of death.

This is a recurring theme among these seven books. For some, our inability to talk straight about death and dying is partly about the mystery of the end. Andrew Stark, in The Consolations of Mortality: Making sense of death, identifies the decline in religion in the West and the idea of the afterlife as pivotal to our lack of confidence in confronting death. Robert McCrum, in Every Third Thought: On life, death and the endgame, speculates that ageing and death present a particular conundrum to self-assured baby boomers, who try to give death the slip (“let’s talk about it another time . . .”). In From Here to Eternity: Travelling the world to find the good death, Caitlin Doughty expands the problem into a generic Western culture of death “avoidance” – we duck awkward conversations with the dying, hand our corpses to corporate professionals and, worst of all, treat grief with embarrassment and shame. Kevin Toolis, in My Father’s Wake: How the Irish teach us to live, love and die, describes a veritable “Western Death Machine”, in which public services, health professionals, the media and corporate bodies all conspire towards the removal of death and dying from the purview of ordinary people. A former war correspondent, Toolis has seen more than his fair share of death and is here to shake us out of our complacency. [Continue reading…]

Aristotle’s lessons on happiness

Edith Hall writes:

In the Western world, only since the mid-18th century has it been possible to discuss ethical questions publicly without referring to Christianity. Modern thinking about morality, which assumes that gods do not exist, or at least do not intervene, is in its infancy. But the ancient Greeks and Romans elaborated robust philosophical schools of ethical thought for more than a millennium, from the first professed agnostics such as Protagoras (fifth century BCE) to the last pagan thinkers. The Platonists’ Academy at Athens was not finally closed down until 529 CE, by the Emperor Justinian.

That longstanding tradition of moral philosophy is an invaluable legacy of ancient Mediterranean civilisation. It has prompted several contemporary secular thinkers, faced with the moral vacuum left by the decline of Christianity since the late 1960s, to revive ancient schools of thought. Stoicism, founded in Athens by the Cypriot Zeno in about 300 BCE, has advocates. Self-styled Stoic organisations on both sides of the Atlantic offer courses, publish books and blogposts, and even run an annual Stoic Week. Some Stoic principles underlay Dale Carnegie’s self-help classic How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948). He recommended Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to its readers. But authentic ancient Stoicism was pessimistic and grim. It denounced pleasure. It required the suppression of emotions and physical appetites. It recommended the resigned acceptance of misfortune, rather than active engagement with the fine-grained business of everyday problem-solving. It left little room for hope, human agency or constructive repudiation of suffering.

Less familiar is the recipe for happiness (eudaimonia) advocated by Aristotle, yet it has much to be said for it. Outside of philosophy departments, where neo-Aristotelian thinkers such as Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse have championed his virtue ethics as an alternative to utilitarianism and Kantian approaches, it is not as well known as it should be. At his Lyceum in Athens, Aristotle developed a model for the maximisation of happiness that could be implemented by individuals and whole societies, and is still relevant today. It became known as ‘peripatetic philosophy’ because Aristotle conducted philosophical debates while strolling in company with his interlocutors.

The fundamental tenet of peripatetic philosophy is this: the goal of life is to maximise happiness by living virtuously, fulfilling your own potential as a human, and engaging with others – family, friends and fellow citizens – in mutually beneficial activities. Humans are animals, and therefore pleasure in responsible fulfilment of physical needs (eating, sex) is a guide to living well. But since humans are advanced animals, naturally inclining to live together in settled communities (poleis), we are ‘political animals’ (zoa politika). Humans must take responsibility for their own happiness since ‘god’ is a remote entity, the ‘unmoved mover’ who might maintain the universe’s motion but has neither any interest in human welfare, nor any providential function in rewarding virtue or punishing immorality. Yet purposively imagining a better, happier life is feasible since humans have inborn abilities that allow them to promote individual and collective flourishing. These include the inclinations to ask questions about the world, to deliberate about action, and to activate conscious recollection. [Continue reading…]

David Buckel — destined to be remembered more for the cause of his death than its stated purpose

The New York Times reports:

Two weeks before he died [through self-immolation on April 14 in Brooklyn], Mr. Buckel seemed particularly agitated when he came to work one day. “I asked if he was stressed,” Mr. Morales said. “He dismissed it.” Then Mr. Buckel started sending him emails — lists of contacts, instructions for how to complete annual reports, forms to be turned over to officials. He began labeling everything on the site, every switch and key, and showed him how to work the solar panels, the lights.

“‘What, you going to retire on me?’” Mr. Morales remembered saying. “‘Naw, you’re stuck with me forever.’”

In those days, the news had broke that Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Trump, wanted to end Obama-era standards on vehicle emissions, a devastating blow to anyone fighting climate change.

If the agency rolled back the rules on emissions, it would wipe out all the efforts made by people like Mr. Buckel — walking to work, processing hundreds of tons of food waste without a drop of gas.

Mr. Buckel’s husband and the women with whom they lived said he had been increasingly distressed over the environment and the state of the national debate, but had not been ill or shown signs of depression. To honor his wishes, they said in brief telephone interviews that they wanted to focus on the message he left behind.

Mr. Buckel’s suicide letter was a few pages long and touched on many subjects, revealing a man who had grown deeply despondent. But it made his cause clear: “Pollution ravages our planet,” he wrote. “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result.”

He concluded: “Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded action.”

The last time that Mr. Morales saw him, Mr. Buckel looked exhausted. The next morning he said nothing to his family before leaving home.

Later, when Mr. Kaelber was asked what had precipitated his husband’s suicide, he said, “I think a lot of it, unfortunately, was all that’s going on with the Trump administration and the rollback by Pruitt.” [Continue reading…]

In spite of David Buckel’s explanation for why he took his own life, perhaps it was ultimately mostly an act of despair.

The mistake by anyone who presumes to attach significance to their own death is that this will be decided by those who survive. Death’s meaning — or lack of it — is outside our control.

Everyone, to varying degrees, harbors the hope that our life matters, but in that hope is the kernel of a desire for some form of immortality.

Better than anyone choosing to take their own life is to realize that life never is something we own.

Humanity is a tiny fraction of life on Earth but has destroyed over 80% of wild mammals and half of plants


The Guardian reports:

Humankind is revealed as simultaneously insignificant and utterly dominant in the grand scheme of life on Earth by a groundbreaking new assessment of all life on the planet.

The world’s 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds.

The new work is the first comprehensive estimate of the weight of every class of living creature and overturns some long-held assumptions. Bacteria are indeed a major life form – 13% of everything – but plants overshadow everything, representing 82% of all living matter. All other creatures, from insects to fungi, to fish and animals, make up just 5% of the world’s biomass.

Another surprise is that the teeming life revealed in the oceans by the recent BBC television series Blue Planet II turns out to represent just 1% of all biomass. The vast majority of life is land-based and a large chunk – an eighth – is bacteria buried deep below the surface.

“I was shocked to find there wasn’t already a comprehensive, holistic estimate of all the different components of biomass,” said Prof Ron Milo, at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, who led the work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“I would hope this gives people a perspective on the very dominant role that humanity now plays on Earth,” he said, adding that he now chooses to eat less meat due to the huge environmental impact of livestock. [Continue reading…]

Why do so many people feel their work is completely unnecessary?

David Graeber writes:

One day, the wall shelves in my office collapsed. This left books scattered all over the floor and a jagged, half-dislocated metal frame that once held the shelves in place dangling over my desk. I’m a professor of anthropology at a university. A carpenter appeared an hour later to inspect the damage, and announced gravely that, as there were books all over the floor, safety rules prevented him from entering the room or taking further action. I would have to stack the books and not touch anything else, whereupon he would return at the earliest available opportunity.

The carpenter never reappeared. Each day, someone in the anthropology department would call, often multiple times, to ask about the fate of the carpenter, who always turned out to have something extremely pressing to do. By the time a week was out, it had become apparent that there was one man employed by buildings and grounds whose entire job it was to apologise for the fact that the carpenter hadn’t come. He seemed a nice man. Still, it’s hard to imagine he was particularly happy with his work life.

Everyone is familiar with the sort of jobs that don’t seem, to the outsider, really to do much of anything: HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, corporate lawyers or the sort of people who spend their time staffing committees that discuss the problem of unnecessary committees. What if these jobs really are useless, and those who hold them are actually aware of it? Could there be anything more demoralising than having to wake up in the morning five out of seven days of one’s adult life to perform a task that one believes does not need to be performed, is simply a waste of time or resources, or even makes the world worse? There are plenty of surveys about whether people are happy at work, but what about whether people feel their jobs have any good reason to exist? I decided to investigate this phenomenon by drawing on more than 250 testimonies from people around the world who felt they once had, or now have, what I call a bullshit job. [Continue reading…]

Person of the forest

Worldwide catastrophe as shorebirds face extinction

 

John W. Fitzpatrick and Nathan R. Senner write:

A worldwide catastrophe is underway among an extraordinary group of birds — the marathon migrants we know as shorebirds. Numbers of some species are falling so quickly that many biologists fear an imminent planet-wide wave of extinctions.

These declines represent the No. 1 conservation crisis facing birds in the world today. Climate change, coastal development, the destruction of wetlands and hunting are all culprits. And because these birds depend for their survival, as we do, on the shorelines of oceans, estuaries, rivers, lakes, lagoons and marshes, their declines point to a systemic crisis that demands our attention, for our own good.

No doubt you’ve seen some of these birds while on vacation at the beach, skittering back and forth along the cusp of waves as they peck with their long beaks for tiny sand flies or the eggs of horseshoe crabs. They can seem comic in their frenetic exertions, tiny Charlie Chaplins in bird suits.

But these birds are remarkable in ways that defy not only belief but scientific understanding: They are, by far, the planet’s most extraordinary global travelers. Worldwide, about 70 shorebird species travel from the top of the world to its very bottom and back each year. The smallest weigh barely an ounce. Each species has its own story, but in every case these annual migrations are among nature’s most epic dramas. [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.