Monthly Archives: August 2014

Putting language into the social brain

cartoon@langBlogChris and I are visitors at the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University during August and September 2014.  This is a great opportunity to meet people who excel at providing stimulating conversation on “What makes us social”.  Admittedly I am more of a talker than a listener, and I assume that talking is completely, utterly, super-important in interactions. So why do social neuroscientists not pay more attention to language? Continue reading Putting language into the social brain

Kristian Tylen is the person I turned to with my burning question: What is the role of language? When we consider social interactions this almost always involves language. Is language actually the primary driver of our social interactions, or is it the other way round?

KT:  Language is multimodal. It probably started with gestures and this presupposed social interaction of a kind. There are different theories about the evolution of language and there is actually no real consensus.

UF: That’s what I felt when I recently read Stephen Levinson’s review  of two new books on the evolution of language, one by Derek Bickerton and one by Michael Tomasello.

KT: These represent interestingly different theories and there are others too. There is the view that language should be seen as completely separate from social communication, and that it grows from its own cognitive mechanisms. I sort of doubt this. I think language is primarily for the use of communication and it evolved as a tool to improve communication.

UF: Without specifically referring to Chomsky, what do you think about an innate predisposition for language in humans?

KT: It depends on what you mean by innate. My preference is to think that language both evolves from and is shaped by our interactions with the surrounding physical and social environment.  And so it is out there rather than inside us. This is demonstrated by the way that language structures are motivated. Take the way we talk about pitch  In English and Danish: We talk about low and high pitch mapping onto low and high spatial notation. Other languages for instance use thick and thin or big and small. These relations all map onto universal experience. Low tones come from big creatures and high tones from small creatures. And it turns out that it is very difficult to learn the opposite relations.

UF: But things out there need to act on the brain, no?  I don’t disagree with you that the world outside the mind is a starting point, but the experience of the outside shaped the inside, over millenia.  As a consequence, I guess there are some pre-shaped circuits in the brain, which might become obsolete, if  the environment changed radically.  So this is why I would put the outside in second place, and the inside first.

KT: So what do you mean by innate?

UF: I use the word for neural circuits that have a long evolutionary history. I don’t use innate to mean present at birth, and I don’t use it to mean that learning is not required. But I believe the circuits are preprogrammed for certain types of learning to be facilitated. That is why I like to talk of start-up kits rather than innate circuits. Start-up kits lead to effortless fast learning. No start-up kits require effortful slow learning.

KT: For me, it’s important to remember that the driver of evolutionary history is the environment, and this rather puts anything innate in second place. I am not very comfortable with putting too much stress on the inside of humans. Communication happens because we share the same experiences and systems on the outside and can create symbols that are mutually understood almost irrespective of our individual insides.

UF: Here is my naïve sketch of a likely scenario for the evolution of language in human beings, as opposed to other species. I want to speculate on what might be an innate start-up kit, still requiring learning, and what might not be innate and can only be gained by learning.

Chris, who meanwhile did the sensible thing of googling ‘evolution of language’, weighed in with a devastating remark:  You might be interested to know that the Linguistic Society of Paris in 1866 banned any debate on the topic as unsuitable for study because of the lack of empirical evidence.

UF: Too bad. I will still tell my story. I have only just made it up!  And what you are saying means that It cannot be worse than any other current proposals. They’re all speculation.

In the beginning was not the word. In the beginning there were two things: a start-up kit for spontaneous vocalisations, and another for spontaneous mentalising. These innate mechanisms are visible in precisely located and well connected neural circuits in the brain. They evolved separately, growing from already existing capacities in our remote ancestors.

KT: What were these pre-existing capacities?

UF: I speculate that even very remote ancestors had vocalisations, and they had the experience of agency. They must have had this to distinguish prey and predator and behave accordingly.

My story requires a third thing, and it demands a sufficiently complex brain. This is combining language and mentalising. This is not trivial. I imagine it needed many generations of our ancestors inventing words and telling each other what they mean, influencing each others minds along the way. Now for the magic bit: Language and mentalising put together enhanced each of their effects. This third thing is perhaps primarily responsible for the rise of human culture.

CDF: Mike Tomasello made a similar but different proposal. He believes that the ability to cooperate is a uniquely human driver of language and of culture.

UF: But what underlies the ability to cooperate in the way humans do? I would guess it depends on mentalising. I find it hard to conceptualise cooperation, or joint attention for that matter, as a more primary mechanism than mentalising. Cooperation and joint attention are not so much cognitive mechanisms as behaviours. No doubt cooperation is an important driver of culture, but so is probably competition. We cooperate within groups but compete with other groups.

KT: Why not? It’s a ‘just so story’ as always happens when people talk about evolution.

CDF: I think the Linguistic Society of Paris had the right idea.

Our conversation ended, but here are some details  that I would have given to bolster up my argument – if I had had the chance.

1. Spontaneous vocalisation. These have a useful instrumental purpose, like the warning cries that initiate flight from predators, or the high pitched cries that bind mothers and babies. This is a mechanism present in many mammal brains and presumably present in human ancestors as well. However, as Stephen Levinson reminds us in his review, the vocal apparatus of human beings is immensely complex and is under voluntary control, which may not be the case in many other animals. Speech is a complex motor action and well localized in the brain. Voice actions and hand gestures have similar requirements in terms of motor programmes and syntax. The FOXP2 gene has been associated with such actions and their relevance to speech and motor disorders has been documented.

2. Spontaneous mentalising. I find it very interesting that Martin & Santos have shown that the monkey brain can represent another’s viewpoint, but not another’s belief. Only the latter counts as mentalising, and Agnes Kovacs and her colleagues observed this in 7 months old babies. There are many other advantages, such as friendship, and also some disadvantages, such as deception. Apparently, there are forms of friendship and deception present in monkeys, but typically as rare examples. It is easy to see how language can scale up both advantages and disadvantages.

3. The third thing – two together. I am speculating that one of the two mechanisms on its own would probably bring you up to the level of a three-year old child. Not bad, but not enough to get on with the business of creating lasting and cumulative culture. Culture, as we all know depends on learning from others.  The specifically human form of learning from others which involves teaching is likely to be dependent on mentalising, but it would be a poor vehicle for learning without language.  Humans use language not just to make others do something, but also to express their mental states and to appeal to another’s mental state. Humans have done very well by learning from each other through the use of language. After many thousands of years humans got to a point where language was turned into literacy, and then science and technology started to take off.

Of course there are alternative views

How to be smart

Are humans the smartest species? What does it mean to be smart?

CDF: I am very interested in your suggestion that we should think about specific packages of behaviour for different species that are determined, to some degree, by their environmental niche. This brings me to a question I have often thought about. We often assume that humans differ from other species simply because we are smarter. But what do we mean by smart? Perhaps I can anticipate your answer: What is smart in one niche might be foolish in another. For example, we assume that being able to delay gratification (not eating the marshmallow immediately) is smart, but it would be very foolish in a volatile environment where no one can be trusted.

Continue reading How to be smart

RR: Being smart must include surviving and producing surviving offspring – just think about the opposite.

CDF: In this sense, in the long run, bacteria will turn out to be far smarter than humans.

RR: There is more to being smart: we usually mean something specifically cognitive. Evolution involves adaptation but in a stable environment this can lead to specialization that becomes maladaptive when the environment changes. Being large may be advantageous because it means you may be able to overwhelm your enemies. But the package of being large means you take a long time to grow, produce a few offspring that need looking after and therefore you need to live a long time. This makes your species vulnerable to environmental fluctuations. Bacteria are smart because they reproduce very quickly and can adapt rapidly to environmental change. So, in the battle between antibiotic-wielding humans and bacteria, the bacteria tend to win. The mega-fauna did well in a stable environment, but do not cope well with human-induced environmental change and many will soon be extinct.

UF: I am glad that we are not giants.

RR: Humans are not giants, but they are mega-fauna. They are exceptionally successful as mega-fauna because their best adaptation is adaptability itself. Humans have adapted, behaviourally, to many different terrains and climates and have changed the terrain to suit themselves. They have also changed the climate, but haven’t quite adapted to that yet.

SmartTestSo it is cognitive and behavioural flexibility that makes humans smart. Cognitive flexibility allows humans to learn a lot which makes them even more behaviourally flexible and therefore even smarter.


UF: How on earth did humans evolve to have this adaptability? Can you briefly sketch out how this might have happened?

RR: We need to talk about selection and the Baldwin Effect.

This describes the way that learned products of cognitive flexibility  – good survival tricks – become genetically determined in a species by selection, rather than by inheritance of acquired characteristics. Here is an example: When proto-humans increased their communication skills as proto-speech, individuals with useful cognitive apps in this new social environment e.g. being good at remembering the order of sounds, being good at hearing inflections, would be favoured. This goes on over many generations and eventually a large collection of language-useful apps would be embedded in the human brain.

Now as to the mechanisms involved – this is complicated. We have to consider what genes do. Genes always compete against their alternative alleles and never do anything for the good of the species. But genes have the products of other genes, in their own body and other bodies, as part of their environment, such that complex competitions and co-operations will develop between genes. Picture how different personality types may win or lose depending on the environment. Sometimes pessimists survive catastrophe, and sometimes optimists advantageously exploit opportunities.  So a mixture of different cognitive styles (think collections of cognitive apps) will exist in a population in an equilibrium, which will fluctuate with environmental events.

Being a lot smarter than other people has survival value but it has one obvious disadvantage; in a social species being different can be difficult.


Acknowledgements: ‘Culture-fair test’ modified Danish cartoon, source unknown; ‘Leaps & Bounds’, Punch Magazine vol 4 p 273 June 10th 1893

Are bees better than humans?

To distract me from dangerous goings-on outside my window, where men are cutting down tall trees, Chris & Uta have asked me about the social lives of marmosets. This is not really altruism on their part. They will use the information for their book.

CDF: We want to know about the origins of human social cognition. Where should we look? Bees and ants? Other primates?

Continue reading Are bees better than humans?

RR: I think you need to look at all and any species and work out the packages of behaviour that different species use.

UF: What do you mean by packages of behaviour?

RR: Behaviour, and social structure, depend on the constraints of environment and evolution and both boil down to reproductive success. Does the species have to get through a cold winter? Does the species live up trees? It is factors like these that will determine whether the species produces a large number of offspring with low parental investment or a low number of offspring with high parental investment. These strategies come as packages and much social structure follows therefrom.

UF: So, is reproductive behaviour, mating and nurturing the young, at the biological root of social behaviour?

RR: This is where we find differences between species, because of the constraints I just mentioned. Old World monkeys tend to have a hierarchical mating system. Here males compete with other males for access to large numbers of females – though it all gets complicated with alliances and pay-offs. New World monkeys tend to live in more or less monogamous families – though it all gets complicated with adultery and incest. New World monkeys tend to live up trees, like birds, which are also usually monogamous so perhaps trees matter.

UF: Are humans more similar in their mating strategy to New World monkeys?

RR: Humans exhibit different strategies in different societies depending on food supply and other external threats. We can infer a lot about Human ancestral social behaviour by the fact that males are slightly bigger than females. This size difference occurs in any species where males compete with other males for resources and for females. The ultimate aim here is to win wars, get rid of other males, and acquire as many available females as possible. Of course, the size difference in humans is not large compared to the difference in some species. This implies a long history of more family based behavioural packages as well.

UF: Mike Tomasello’s lab has a vast number of studies comparing the joint interactions of great apes and those that happen between human children. There are similarities, but one of the main differences seems to be that, while human social interactions are basically cooperative, those of chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utan’s are mostly driven by competition. Tomasello’s conclusion is that great apes are extremely limited in their cooperative capacities, and this is their essential difference to humans.

CDF: But unlike chimpanzees, Marmosets seem to be extremely cooperative, showing, for example, cooperative breeding. Is this true?

marmosets RR: Kin selection explains many aspects of superficially altruistic behaviour. Co-operative breeding in marmosets usually means assisting in the rearing of the offspring of relatives because of the family structure of groups of marmosets. But an owner of a captive breeding colony of marmosets will often attempt to cross foster a neonate when the breeding female of one family has had just one baby and the breeding female of another family has just had triplets. This is often successful because the family can’t be sure that the newcomer is not related to them (and marmosets aren’t very good at counting either). In the wild, quite a large troop will contain mainly related animals. So a certain amount of general co-operation could be sustained by kin selection.

Several additional explanations have been put forward to explain co-operative behaviour in co-operative breeding species such as marmosets. These are all plausible, but none are truly altruistic since they increase the reproductive success or survival of the protagonist.

* Helpers that have cared for other infants have greater reproductive success when they become parents than individuals that do not have previous infant care experience. This is undoubtedly the case for marmosets.

* Unrelated helpers can gain the benefits of living in a social group, such as communal foraging or protection against predators. This requires the unrelated individual to be accepted by the group and this usually only occurs when the incomer arrives as a potential breeding partner.

* Males that display involvement with infants are more likely to obtain subsequent mating with the female they assist. This is unlikely since the male is usually assisting in the rearing of his own offspring (so has access to the dominant female) or his own sibs. The dominant female suppresses ovulation in her daughters and thereby prevents incest in the rest of the family.  “No hanky-panky please.”

UF: Social learning is something that happens in almost all animal species. It seems possible to us that this learning has shown a sort of step change in evolution in humans. This is to do with learning by deliberate teaching, a two-way process. Is this plausible? How would evolution explain such a step change?

RR: The difficulty in getting a hand-reared orphan animal to be accepted by, mate with and rear offspring with, members of their own species shows how important social learning is for survival. Evolution will favour parents who behave in such a way that offspring learn social behaviours. In New World monkey species, the fathers and older siblings contribute to the rearing of the next litter and, in captivity, offspring reared alone by just their mother are rarely able to rear offspring themselves. The difference between ‘behaving in such a way that learning in offspring occurs’ and ‘teaching offspring’ is one of intention by the parent and so the step change (if there is one) will lie in the evolution of several cognitive ‘apps’, e.g. ‘appreciation of the existence of the future’, such that intentions can develop. New ‘apps’ have emergent functions made from the amalgamation of smaller ‘apps’.

UF: I love your use of the term ‘app’ for a special cognitive adaptation!

CDF: The importance of learning by teaching is that it offers a mechanism for culture to accumulate over generations. Culture seems to be the one specialised niche for humans.

RR:  Intentionality will always speed up cultural development, but animals have cultures too. Diet and food-finding practices are cultural in that they differ between groups of the same species.

The trees are down now! Good. I can go out again.

CDF & UF: Thank you, Ros. We’ll be back and quiz you more about processes in the evolution of behaviour.

Photo acknowledgement:

Introduction to THE BOOK

For some years, Uta & I have been saying that we will write a book together about social cognition. Now, thanks to the Institute Jean Nicod, this has become a certified commitment. We have written many papers together, but never a book. You might ask, will this be the end of a lovely relationship?

This is what we have agreed on so far: I am trying to create a structure for the book; Uta said she would like to do the colouring in. In the previous post she has provided her overall view of what the book will be about, in what she calls the blurb. Continue reading Introduction to THE BOOK

Now for the structure: I need to choose some constraints that will determine the contents of the book and the order in which these contents will be presented. This structure will highlight the message that we wish to communicate and also indicate how our book on social cognition differs from others. We need severe constraints because so much is now being published on social cognition. Almost nothing was published prior to 1990, but in 2013 over 6000 papers appeared.ScogPubs

We have chosen a biological framework, so that our constraints come from considerations of evolution and brain function.

EvolutionThe most obvious evolutionary constraint is to consider human social cognition against the backdrop of social cognition in other animals from bees to apes. We will highlight a common thread of mechanisms for social cognition in animals, but also identify something special about human cognition, which enabled the emergence of language and cultural institutions.

We will also take account of theories, pioneered by John Maynard Smith, about the evolutionary mechanisms enabling the emergence of social interaction. This approach involves the application of game theory to the evolution of cooperation and to the emergence of the transfer of information between creatures, via cues, signals & communication.

BrainAll these processes of cooperation and communication are mediated by the brain, which is itself shaped by evolution and experience. I realise that any conclusion as to how the brain works is ‘radically premature’, but believe that our cognitive models should be consistent with what we know about the brain. Brains are essentially prediction machines. HohwyIn other words we use our brains to learn about the world in order to predict and thus modulate what will happen to us in both the short-term and the long-term. This is essentially a Bayesian account of brain function characterised as a continuously operating hierarchy of loops linking the evidence of the senses with beliefs about the nature of the world, while, at the same time, acting upon the world to justify these beliefs. The beauty of this model of brain function is that the same basic principle can account for low-level perception, for example explaining various visual illusions, while also explaining high levels, such as how we might read the intentions of others from their movements.

The structure of the bookGiven these background constraints based on considerations of the brain and of evolution, I am planning to structure our book in terms of learning and information transfer. Here are the sections I have in mind, with some of their contents.

What are we learning about? We need to learn about the nature of the world and how to deal with it. There are four worlds that we can learn about.

  1. The physical world of objects
  2. The biological world of agents (other creatures, other people)
  3. The social world of groups
  4. The mental world of ideas

With the exception of the physical world of objects, there is a social aspect to all these worlds. There is also the special problem that arises when we try to learn about other agents: while I am trying to learn about you, you may well be trying to learn about me. We are not just observing, we are interacting.

How do we learn?

  1. By direct experience (trial and error) – we explore the world by ourselves
  2. By observing what others do – we observe others exploring the world
  3. By communication with others – we explore the world with others

Learning from others and with others requires effective information transmission: This transmission can take the form of cues, signals or communication. In the case of cues, information is transmitted which is useful to an observer. The receiver, but not the sender, has evolved to take advantage of a cue. This is sometimes called public information. In the case of signals, the information is useful to both sender and receiver. Both sender and receiver have evolved to take advantage of a signal. In the case of communication, the signal is sent (and received) intentionally, i.e. it is recognised by sender and receiver as a signal. This is a form of explicit metacognition.

Learning from observing others depends on cues and signals. Learning with others requires communication.

800px-Auklet_flock_Shumagins_1986The emergence of groups and other complex entities:  Information exchange can create complex entities. From very simply rules of individual behaviour, large, cohesive groups emerge, such as swarms, shoals, and flocks. Simple rules at the individual level can also create complex interactions such as pack hunting behaviour in wolves. The emergence of these complex entities can be explained on the basis of simple responses to cues.

In the same manner more abstract groupings and interactions can emerge from responses to signals and communication at the individual level. For example, groups such as institutions, and concepts such as meaning emerge from individual communication. It is this intentional signalling that is the special feature of human social cognition and enables the development of culture.

SeeleyBookAre bees better than humans at making decisions?  Honeybees communicate to one another via their waggle dance. This enables bees to make group decisions about where to go to find the best nesting site. This group decision-making ability is far beyond the capability of an individual bee. The mechanisms by which individual bees interact to make a group decision turn out to be very similar to those involved when individual neurons interact within the mammalian brain to enable decision-making. So just as the swarm is much more capable than the individual bee, so should groups of humans be more capable than the lone individual.

Perhaps this is sometimes the case, but more often I wonder what has gone wrong.

How do we go from here?  From now on, as both Uta and I write these various sections, we will post summaries like this. Through your comments we hope write a better book. We want to explore the world of social cognition with others.

Blurb for THE BOOK

What makes us social?

All animals are social. Their brains have mechanisms that evolution fashioned over millions of years. They are largely hidden in the manner of built-in instincts. Like other instincts they run on auto-pilot and require little effort. But social life even in flies is not all automatic and instinctual. There is learning and there is social learning. Social learning is essentially learning from others and thus avoiding making your own mistakes. The question is whether human beings have some extra mechanisms that make them even more social than other species. One reason for supposing it is that humans have created culture. Culture provides a mostly visible structure that guides learning in distinct and sophisticated ways. Culture makes learning from others even better than just observing others: you can learn from people who are no longer there, indeed you can read books and visit buildings that go back many generations.

In this book we will consider both the automatic forms of being social in different species and we will try to probe into those forms of being social that are a hallmark of human beings. Continue reading Blurb for THE BOOK

Human beings often do not appreciate the automatic forms of being social, precisely because they are automatic and unconscious. Remarkably, humans can reflect on some of these processes in a conscious fashion. And this reflection may lead them to suppress social instincts, for better or worse. It is not at all clear whether it is possible to become conscious of our instinctive social tendencies. For example, we generally do as others do; we like things that others like – even when we think we act completely independently and have a unique taste in the things we like. Actually, we are very particular about distinguishing ourselves from others, but who the others are is another question. There are those in our inner circle, the in-group, and there are the others, the out-group.

Of all the tricks that the brain has equipped human beings with, the ability to understand and influence each other, is perhaps the most remarkable. The trick works unconsciously, but it also works at a conscious level. It allows humans to think that they can explain and predict behaviour. We will show that this is largely an illusion. However, it has given rise to a complex folk psychology. This makes us comfortable in believing that we know why we are doing something and why others do or do not behave in similar ways. Our explanations of the causes of behaviour are not couched in popular laws of physics, but in popular laws of psychology: We do things because we want to do them, because we believe it is the right thing to do, because we suspect that another person is trying to deceive us. We use persuasion to change others’ psychological states.

We are rarely at a loss to explain, after the fact, why somebody did to us what they did. Even if we know we are simply making up stories that make sense of behaviour, we cannot resist them. And we have an insatiable appetite for hearing about such stories in newspapers, in books and films. These examples let us replay and imagine what makes people ‘tick’. They also give us hints about how to gain friends and influence people. In this book we show how scientific psychology and neuroscience has helped us to understand this social appetite, what it does for us and how we try to control it.

We show that many of the automatic mechanisms of the social brain in humans are the same as those in other animals. However, the control of the mechanisms is undoubtedly more accomplished in humans than in most other species. Still, this control sometimes seems to work against us, as witnessed in conflict, in greed and selfishness, as well as in the breakdown of trust. It is also apparent  in our story telling to justify failed interactions with others. We hope that scientific knowledge of how these processes work  will improve control when our dark selfish and noble altruistic nature collide.

A poem by Anne Stephenson touches a nerve


‘It looks so simple from a distance’  is the title of the poem by Anne Stephenson that was chosen for Poems on the Underground in 2010, the year that celebrated 350 years of the Royal Society. I was asked for a short comment at that time that I don’t think ever appeared anywhere.

I was captured by the title which expresses a familiar experience. This is what I have felt when looking at wonderfully lit-up brain images that dimly reflect what a person in a scanner thinks or feels. Brain images are full of promise and mystery; they can indeed seem like lit-up cities at night, when seen at a great distance from a plane. Here too the lights dimly reflect what people think and feel. Continue reading A poem by Anne Stephenson touches a nerve

Neuroscientists have gained amazingly detailed knowledge  about the working of the synapse, the point of contact between one nerve cell and another. Here is the pulsing and stretching and here is the electrical activity, which sends information from one part or our brain to another. But how does this exquisite ‘local’ activity in the membrane of nerve cells – as seen in a powerful microscope –  map onto what goes on in our mind? How does it result in our lives touching each other? This is a huge gap in our knowledge. The cities of the mind are only glimpsed in velvet darkness.  Anne Stephenson reminds us of the dark side of our mind. But she also lets us think of gold. The gold is already visible in the sparkling lights that make up highways and bridges, thus showing us the chains of communication. To me the chains are also reassuring because they bind ‘black hostilities’.

I am glad that poets take neuroscience as inspiration for their work. The future discovery of how the brain produces the mind is a challenge that needs to be met not just by scientists, and philosophers, but also by creative artists.