The Monkey on the Ape’s Back


Technically this should be called: The Ape on the Monkey’s back but for sake of the imagery the title is more apt. When thinking of an ape we tend to think of a big beast and in case of a monkey a tiny one, whilst ofcourse the ape is the primate. Still it has a better ring to it.

We tend to think of ourselves as free autonomous conscious entities. We are human, and that makes us stand out. To my mind this is an oversimplistic view of reality.

As mammals evolved into primates the brain evolved too. But the principle of evolution being that existing systems are being extended, that caused additional brains to spring from the original basic brain, the brainstem, to take up the extra load.

All vertebrates have a brainstem like structure. It is the minimum needed to keep the body going. Nutrition, oxygenation, temperature, movement etc. are regulated by the brainstem.

With the evolution of the mammals a second outcrop started to develop. The limbic system.

The connection between the limbic system and the brainstem is a mostly one way system in the sense that both brains can interact with the body but not with each other. The two brains are fused together at the bottom of the brainstem into the spinal cord. This gives the limbic system corporal control,in conjunction with the more automated brainstem.

It is a much more advanced brain which handles various higher order processes, such as survival tactics. Survival depends on properly recognizing danger, food, procreation opportunities.

This takes advanced planning, decision making, fast responses to stimuli. This brain interacts with its environment, it must be aware of itself and its relation to its environment to do the job properly.

In other words it is conscious at a certain level.

As mammals further developed into social beings, a new outcrop started to form. The neocortex.

This third brain again has mostly one-way connections with the other two brains. It also fuses into the spinal cord giving it further control over corporal functions. The neocortex houses the most advanced processes,it refines all functions of the limbic system and adds the high order intellectual capacity, such grammatical language, self awareness.

In view of the very limited vertical connections between the neocortex and the underlying limbic system, and taken the fact that the limbic system has priority in determining danger/food/procreation in its environment one can see that the neocortex always by necessity reacts after the fact.

The limbic system perceives danger, it prepares the body for the fight/flight response and the neocortex takes this up afterwards due to a complicated interpretative analyses of facial expression (the limbic system has control over that), body stance, muscle tension, heart rate, respiration,hormone levels and lastly visual and auditory clues.

In most cases where immediate action is deemed necessary by the limbic system it performs the required action, leaving the neocortex to figure out why the body landed a blow in someones face.

This gives rise to the thesis that ‘our’ consciousness is just along for the ride. Although ‘we’ can plan and act accordingly, when it comes to real-time environmental interaction its our other consciousness which calls the shots.

This has far reaching consequences for the premise of ‘free will’. Who has the free will, which consciousness we hold accountable. Or do we just hold the one accountable which can make itself heard even though in reality that consciousness actually hasn’t a clue why his body did what it did and has to concoct an explanation itself.

It also places emotions. Emotions are not ‘our’ emotions but the expression of the state of the other consciousness which for lack of further interaction the neocortex also has to determine via interpretative analysis.

Which leaves ofcourse the facility to plan and (re)act based on cognitive functions. One still can decide to do X or Y. Still this decision making process is being manipulated.

To my mind this whole system is best explained with this analogue:

Imagine that  our awareness is the flow across the Collector and Emitter of a Transistor. The Base in this analogue is the limbic system, tiny fluctuations can have a big effect on our storyteller.

This works well also to explain the difference between low and highly emotional people.

A transistor has a specific gain, that is how much the Base current influences the Collector/Emitter flow. With the same Base current you can have a big influence or small influence depending on that gain.

As such we are totally at the mercy of our limbic system, but in some it shows more then others.

Food for thought.

Update april 28 2014:

Free will and paranormal beliefs
Ken Mogi*
Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Tokyo, Japan

Free will is one of the fundamental aspects of human cognition. In the context of cognitive neuroscience, various experiments on time perception, sensorimotor coordination, and agency suggest the possibility that it is a robust illusion (a feeling independent of actual causal relationship with actions) constructed by neural mechanisms. Humans are known to suffer from various cognitive biases and failures, and the sense of free will might be one of them. Here I report a positive correlation between the belief in free will and paranormal beliefs (UFO, reincarnation, astrology, and psi). Web questionnaires involving 2076 subjects (978 males, 1087 females, and 11 other genders) were conducted, which revealed significant positive correlations between belief in free will (theory and practice) and paranormal beliefs. There was no significant correlation between belief in free will and knowledge in paranormal phenomena. Paranormal belief scores for females were significantly higher than those for males, with corresponding significant (albeit weaker) difference in belief in free will. These results are consistent with the view that free will is an illusion which shares common cognitive elements with paranormal beliefs.

Full article

Update Nov 5 2013:

The cerebellum and cognitive function: 25 years of insight from anatomy and neuroimaging.

Twenty-five years ago the first human functional neuroimaging studies of cognition discovered a surprising response in the cerebellum that could not be attributed to motor demands. This controversial observation challenged the well-entrenched view that the cerebellum solely contributes to the planning and execution of movement. Recurring neuroimaging findings combined with key insights from anatomy and case studies of neurological patients motivated a reconsideration of the traditional model of cerebellar organization and function. The majority of the human cerebellum maps to cerebral association networks in an orderly manner that includes a mirroring of the prominent cerebral asymmetries for language and attention. These findings inspire exploration of the cerebellum’s contributions to a diverse array of functional domains and neuropsychiatric disorders.

Even the cerebellum influences our behavior beyond conscious control

Update May 8 2013:

The predictive brain and the “free will” illusion

Leaving aside this philosophical issue whether a “free will” exists or not, the authors propose a theoretical framework to explain our “experience of a free will.” This framework is based on the predic- tive brain concept which is not entirely new. Historically, two different models of perception have been developed, one clas- sical view which goes back to the philo- sophical writings of Plato, St. Augustine, Descartes and assumes that the brain pas- sively absorbs sensory input, processes this information, and reacts with a motor and autonomic response to these passively obtained sensory stimuli (Freeman, 2003). In contrast, a second model of percep- tion, which goes back to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, stresses that the brain actively looks for the information it pre- dicts to be present in the environment, based on an intention or goal (Freeman,
2003). The sensed information is used to adjust the initial prediction (=prior belief ) to the reality of the environment, resulting in a new adapted belief about the world (posterior belief ), by a mech- anism known as Bayesian updating. The brain hereby tries to reduce environmen- tal uncertainty, based on the free-energy principle (Friston, 2010). The free-energy principle states that the brain must min- imize its informational (=Shannonian) free-energy, i.e., must reduce by the pro- cess of perception its uncertainty (its prediction errors) about its environment (Friston, 2010). It does so by using thermodynamic (=Gibbs) free-energy, in other words glucose and oxygen, creating transient structure in neural networks, thereby producing an emergent percept or action plan (De Ridder et al., 2012)

Whatevernext? Predictivebrains,situated agents,and the future of cognitive science

Update May 6 2013:

A unified framework for the organization of the primate auditory cortex.

In non-human primates a scheme for the organization of the auditory cortex is frequently used to localize auditory processes. The scheme allows a common basis for comparison of functional organization across non-human primate species. However, although a body of functional and structural data in non-human primates supports an accepted scheme of nearly a dozen neighboring functional areas, can this scheme be directly applied to humans? Attempts to expand the scheme of auditory cortical fields in humans have been severely hampered by a recent controversy about the organization of tonotopic maps in humans, centered on two different models with radically different organization. We point out observations that reconcile the previous models and suggest a distinct model in which the human cortical organization is much more like that of other primates. This unified framework allows a more robust and detailed comparison of auditory cortex organization across primate species including humans.

Human hearing same as other primates

Update April 27 2013:

Potent Social Learning and Conformity Shape a Wild Primate’s Foraging Decisions

Conformity to local behavioral norms reflects the pervading role of culture in human life. Laboratory experiments have begun to suggest a role for conformity in animal social learning, but evidence from the wild remains circumstantial. Here, we show experimentally that wild vervet monkeys will abandon personal foraging preferences in favor of group norms new to them. Groups first learned to avoid the bitter-tasting alternative of two foods. Presentations of these options untreated months later revealed that all new infants naïve to the foods adopted maternal preferences. Males who migrated between groups where the alternative food was eaten switched to the new local norm. Such powerful effects of social learning represent a more potent force than hitherto recognized in shaping group differences among wild animals.

Cultural learning in other primates

Update march 21 2013:

Unconscious neural activity has been repeatedly shown to precede and potentially even influence subsequent free decisions. However, to date, such findings have been mostly restricted to simple motor choices, and despite considerable debate, there is no evidence that the outcome of more complex free decisions can be predicted from prior brain signals. Here, we show that the outcome of a free decision to either add or subtract numbers can already be decoded from neural activity in medial prefrontal and parietal cortex 4 s before the participant reports they are consciously making their choice. These choice-predictive signals co-occurred with the so-called default mode brain activity pattern that was still dominant at the time when the choice-predictive signals occurred. Our results suggest that unconscious preparation of free choices is not restricted to motor preparation. Instead, decisions at multiple scales of abstraction evolve from the dynamics of preceding brain activity.

Predicting free choices for abstract intentions.
Predicting free choices for abstract intentions.(full text,pdf)

Update february 19 2013:

There Is No Free Won’t

. For 13 participants, we measured the mean amplitude of the ERP activity at electrode Cz in three subsequent 50 ms time windows prior to the onset of the signal that either instructed to respond or inhibit, or gave participants a free choice. In two of these 50 ms time windows (-150 to -100, and -100 to -50 ms relative to action onset), the amplitude of prestimulus ERP differed between trials where participants “freely” chose whether to inhibit or to respond rapidly. Larger prestimulus ERP amplitudes were associated with trials in which participants decided to act rapidly as compared to trials in which they decided to delay their responses. Last-moment decisions to inhibit or delay may depend on unconscious preparatory neural activity.

Antecedent Brain Activity Predicts Decisions to Inhibit.

Update january 8 2013:

Discussions of the neural underpinnings of social cognition frequently emphasize the distinctiveness of human social cognition. Here, however, we review the discovery of similar correlations between neural networks and social networks in humans and other primates. We suggest that component parts of these neural networks in dorsal frontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and superior temporal sulcus (STS) are linked to basic social cognitive processes common to several primate species including monitoring the actions of others, assigning importance to others, and orienting behavior toward or away from others. Changes in activity in other brain regions occur in tandem with changes in social status and may be related to the different types of behaviors associated with variation in social status.

Are there specialized circuits for social cognition and are they unique to humans