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

19 thoughts on “The Monkey on the Ape’s Back

  1. it’s so sad… i value my neo-cortex. i like to think it’s more in charge than that. but you’re probably right. humans in general do seem to spend vast amounts of time in a state of fight or flight.

    i think my retriever has free will… at least, she doesn’t listen to me very much. 😀
    she’s certain she does. she thinks (and decides when we should go for walks…) therefore she is. 🙂


    • It’s just a lump of cholesterol 😉
      You are in charge though, just not directly. You still decide to walk left or right, to read a book or watch tv. But for real-time interaction you are in the passenger seat.
      Stands to reason, there’s no evolutionary advantage to considering if you should run away from the tiger….

      My york is totally in control, if she’s not happy with my actions or lack thereof she bites my left big toe. Smarts, gets your attention real quick


    • i bet a big teddybear 🙂
      But it depends what mean you by ‘I’. If you mean by ‘I’ your consciousness which you are using now to communicate, in my view consciousness is an abstract construct created by the brain. As such it can’t be qualified. It is what it is.
      If you mean by ‘I’ the total body/mind entity, you are an animal. A mostly carnivorous predator, like the chimpanzee.


  2. Re: Petrossa says:
    28 September 2012 at 10:22 am

    “BobN, you didn’t ask me i know, but still. No such thing as free will exists. So you can stop wondering.”

    Petrossa – Don’t you think we sometimes look too close at the trees and see only the bark, and miss the trees and the bark when we step back too far? I guess one day we will know a lot more than we do now –if we live so long;-)


    • Trueism. But what is the ‘right’ distance? Because in the bark are still patterns to look at, so you can zoom in even further to learn about insect damage etc and when you zoom out you can see the patterns in the woods made of trees which tell you about soil conditions etc.


      • Some say there are more than a dozen dimensions, I have a feeling that the number of dimensions may be a lot larger and that end the end someone is going to conclude that the functional number depends on where you are, and what you’re looking at, measuring, etc. It really doesn’t have a lot to do with ‘free will’ I guess, but there must be some minor connection in the mix somewhere (says I;-). May sound like a ‘cop out’ but whenever I suspect we’re only scratching the surface of things, I generally let my mind wander and come out with a ‘little’ observation that is only vaguely related. I guess what I see depends on what I can imagine more and more. Thanks for the mental workout, hope I wasn’t a pest and gave you something you might use someday.


  3. Philosophical thinking is not my thing. I stink at it. I am more a pure rationalist. So to me things are very clear. We are a sidetrack in the evolution of primates with a less then even chance of making it.

    What the universe is or does is on a timescale so vastly out of our comprehension that it might as well not exist for all it matters.

    No pest. Happy for input.


  4. I enjoyed this so very much! Forgive my innocence, for I am far from a neuroscientist. As an actress, I must produce limbic emotions, and from a genuine limbic place in my mind, but break them down objectively, to produce them in a consistent, controlled manner. Crying on cue is done by choice and self discipline. There is an old saying, “The last to come is the first to go”, referring to higher thinking. This higher thinking is self discipline. Babies are limbic thinkers, as are drunks, and anyone depleted or who is compromised by biology or environment. If we use our free will to produce optimal living, we create more ability for ruling over limbic reactions, if that is, indeed, our choice to do. But, where lies talent? Talent is the choice you make from the information received. A very non-limbic ability. Limbic reaction are used for a compromised state or situation, but rational free will is able to override this when we develop our ability to choose, by being in as optimal state as possible. Is it not the neo-cortex that gives us valor, the strength of mind to meet danger and not panic or flee? As a spectrum-dweller with extreme hypersensitivity, I risk limbic overdrive, or a catatonic state, if I cannot make rational choices through the constant sensory flooding. I only am able to do this by applying gleaned knowledge of what keeps me in an optimally rational state. It is my most talented choice. I adore having learned control, and work around abilities I am lacking. Thanks for this fun! Fun thinking and learning from you, dear sir:) I will read more.


    • Isn’t talent/acting/entertaining not using existent circuits and controlling somewhat at will? I visualize it as walking. Walking is a preloaded circuit in the cerebellum which only needs to be trained into perfection.Once trained it’s only a question of ‘throwing the switch’ and walking happens without any conscious effort other then directionality. Emotions exist in a similar way, preloaded circuits which get trained during maturation and once done, will be triggered to do ‘something’. Depending on each brain how it’s grown up during gestation some circuits will be more developed then in others. More responsive, more easily ‘triggered’ by other influences. One has talent.
      Emotions are mostly communicated by a kind of social brain/cognitive brain interface. Obviously this can be trained to provoke emotions. Anybody can provoke an emotion by smelling/looking/hearing something with a previous emotional content.
      A talented person can use those emotions at will and act them out. Trigger the circuit at will. This still means you don’t have actual control, it only means you can use predetermined building blocks to construct a sequence. A bit like building a prefab house. You can construct it yourself, but only using the elements already made. You can’t construct a new element. So you don’t have free full control.

      With us, aspies and autists, the linkage of diverse parts of the brain is subtly different since embryonic state. The whole brain is thereby completely different in a subtle way but still capable to function ‘normal’ enough to survive. There are various indications that there is some correlation between us and a more rational brain less connected/under the influence of the limbic system.

      One could argue this is an evolution towards a real human instead of a primate with consciousness.


  5. Great response! I agree there exists a typical aspie rational brain function that can be seen as more evolved into a higher thinker with less limbic response than is seen in the average population. But there are also highly limbic people on the spectrum, and few have escaped the primal meltdown/shutdown at some point in their lives, no matter how highly evolved. To be different-wired from the start predicts much, and calls for finding different kinds of discipline than average in order to function at our fullest, and most fulfilling, potential. Neural pathways can and do get formed throughout our lives, and, though concious effort, we can train, at least to a point, our brains to function better with the wiring there is. Same hard drive, but add new or improved software. We can rise above our limbic selves, with a bit of talent (talent being cognitive choice). Stroke patients can often relearn certain functions by training a different part of the brain to compensate for what was loss. But they must have the ability to make a choice to do it.
    I understand your valid point of view about acting out an emotion, as that is probably the norm for many performers. However, an experienced or well trained performer must not tap the limbic response night after night. He must be able to deliver the same audience response without leaving himself emotionally exhausted or keeping in a constant limbic state. Maybe that’s why so many burn out and live such limbic lives. But not all do. Yes, the emotion must be honest and true, but only for the audience. The way that is done is to experience it once or twice as part of the rehearsal process, and the break it down, intellectually, observing what happens to the body, breathing, expression, and voice. Then, it is repeated, making choices, without emotion. That way, a performer can deliver professional consistency through fatigue, illness, good nights and bad. It is not the least limbic, nor is it pretending. It is rational technique and some measure of talent. Ethel Merman once commented that she got a standing ovation for a song, and all she was thinking about was doing her laundry.
    I feel my duty as a performer is to love and serve my audience, and that is what I feel, and deeply. Because I love and serve, I take seriously my responsibility to trigger emotions in them, through controlled choice. In a way, I hold up a mirror for them to view their own emotions, leaving me free to keep control. They are there to escape. I am there to work. So, except for the first limbic response needed, all is rational. As is common with many female autists, I am a terrific mimic, for that is a functional way to intellecuallize what is needed in the social script. Being a fourth generation performer adds to this hard-wiring, I’m sure:)
    I may never know if I love or emote in a neurotypical way, but I know I love, and deeply. The rest is choice:)
    Did I wander too far off topic? XO!


  6. Beautifully worded. And yes i see that a daily performer, as opposed to for example a movie actor, needs to be able to mimic emotions intellectually. But that is purely cerebral. Has no connection anymore with the limbic other then usual for people.

    Also i find that we are able to mimic emotions better since we need to do so from the get go. I am not an entertainer nor can i connect to my emotions much but i can mimic all the outward signs to the point that it fools any NT limbic response system.

    Furthermore, due to the very nature of the changes in our auti brains, the subtlety, it has a big range of differing outputs. The core is the same, but how one auti expresses itself next to the other can be/is very different.

    To my mind love can be cerebral as well as emotional. Various studies show that arranged marriages last longer on average then those out of emotion. That real love evolves in a cerebral manner. Comes later, evolves over time into a very deep connection that surpasses hormonal/limbic love.

    I once was a sugar-daddy for a young woman to get her through education. It started out pure neutral, it ended up with her falling in love and even getting jealous after a year or 2. She was a pure NT.

    We are as mankind on a journey from primate to something else. At this moment in time unfortunately our intellect is still subjugated to the primate. Let’s hope we as species have the time to evolve away in time from the abyss the empowered primate drags us into.

    And no you didn’t wander off, there is no boundary 🙂 XoX


  7. So thrilled you understood what I was trying to say, and thanks for the flexibility in your boundries:)
    You are absolutely right that love takes many form, and all valid, if the form chosen is the best one for the individuals who choose it, or “fall into it”. Being in love is also a spectum of different types of loving, rather than static. The infatuated newlyweds may become pragmatic parents and then deeply bonded elderly couple, and in love the entire time. Passions can run quite limbic or be as rational as the shopping list.
    I do not think it is a bad or good thing that we have these different parts of our brains, or that one is good and one is bad. There can be tremendous good and evil in both animal reactions or rational thinking. Certainly, to react emotionally without thinking things out can be destructive, but so can highly cognizant choices, and sometime even more so. Our best, most thought out intentions can bring intense harm. I have no answers, and am as non-political as they come, but I do know this: I am a member of the moment’s humankind and I can choose to add to the heap of goodness or bad. It is that ability to make that choice that makes it possible. People in desperate situations, either situationally or biologically, are prone to react primally. Since I was not born with a social-thinking mind, what I do is simply try to add to the goodness, not so people will approve of me, but to add to the good heap. If I can bring a bit of happiness, and make people smile, choosing rationally to see them as charming and wonderful, they will want to prove me right, and thus be charming and wonderful. This is not everyone’s calling, but it is mine. The more we are able to logically play the hand that is dealt us, chances are better for beneficial results, but only if we choose good and, at least for me, choose to see and nurture the good in others. As for evil, well, that calls for valor:)
    Thanks for your great musings here. Fun stuff to think about:)


  8. Thank you for insights wonderful lady. I see what you say, but to my mind you see it ethnocentric. What you say only applies to those fortunate ones having the luxury to live in a place where nutrition,environment etc all contributed to minds that are able to enough self-reflection to properly recognize their capacity to cognitive supervision of actions

    If you read the second post from the the top: “Africa’s forever wars” you see what happens if this is not the case and how that results in pure primal (re)action. In fact the vast majority of mankind lives on such a level of cognitive functioning. India, China, hinterlands of Russia etc etc filled with humans living on subsistence level leaving no room for higher cognitive responses.

    Next to that there are the oppressive religions, blocking education, spiritual growth and cognitive maturation. All put together i come to at least 80% of mankind which lives more or less on a primal level. Where there is no leeway for the luxury of contemplation.

    As it stands now i see no solution, since unbridled procreation exactly in those subsistence environments causes a vicious loop keeping status quo intact.

    As such i do see a ‘bad’ in the limbic control of the body’s actions. As it stands just about 99.99% of evil deeds has a primal base. The few evil deeds by pure ASPD’rs (so pure rational evil) don’t begin to compare.

    In conclusion, one can reasonably state that the overwhelming majority of mankind lives a primates existence, with some sugar on top.


  9. Thanks again:) I will read the other post when time allows.
    I agree that being able to think about such things is a luxury, and I never take for granted. I do not, however, think of the rational mind as being exclusive to one group, and I far from fear or feel supirior to another person or group. I barely understand why there are different countries, or we route for different teams. We are all human. It sounds pretty, I know, and a jaded mind may find it hard to believe I think like this, but it is, for better or worse, simply me. I am human. There is rational thought around the world, even in the most primitive village. There is wisdom and love and happiness, and people having babies. There are, sadly, awful things, but I am far from inclined to political/social thinking, so I must deline such discussions. I am of universal connect. I am the antithesis of ethnocentricity, as I do not have the capacity to sort people in such a way. I am too busy now to comment more, but thank you for your intellegent breakdown of the human brain. As I am fortunate enough to have the luxury to choose rationally at present, I will simply wish you good cheer, send big hugs to my new bright friend, and tend to the decisions and responsibilities of the day. It is my best choice:)


  10. Pingback: E. O. Wilson on free will | Petrossa's Blog

  11. Pingback: Postdictive Illusion of Choice (free will doesn’t exist) | Petrossa's Blog

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