Category Archives: Communication

The Encounter

Over the last couple of years, Uta & I have been meeting with Simon McBurney, director of Complicite as he prepared for his one-man show, The Encounter. Simon hoped that we might be able to tell him what neuroscience can reveal about the nature of consciousness.

The Encounter dramatizes the experiences of Loren McIntyre, as described in Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu. When Simon told us about this book it was long out of print, but we managed to find a second hand copy. As a result of Simon’s work it was republished in 2015.

Loren McIntyre was a National Geographic photographer, and this is the story about his experiences when he was lost in the remote Amazon rain forest. His survival depends on the leader of a small group of Mayoruna people who he has followed into the jungle and then become hopelessly lost. But there is no common language through which they can communicate. He feels utterly isolated with ‘a psychological distance of 20,000 years’ between him and the people who are his only hope finding a way back. Eventually he starts to experience ‘communication’ from the leader of the group when he sits near him. He begins to understand some puzzling behaviour, for example, why the group keep destroying their villages and moving on. Remarkably, this communication doesn’t depend on language.

McBurneyIn The Encounter everyone in the audience wears earphones, which helps Simon to recreate and share all the strangeness and terror of McIntyre’s experiences through the wonder of acoustic technology.

When we first talked to Simon about the work he was developing around Amazon Beaming, he asked us whether we thought it was possible for two people to communicate without words. We said, absolutely.

And here is why.

Continue reading The Encounter

Communication is not simply about the transfer of information. You can do that with a cash machine. When we communicate we know that we are communicating, and we know that our partner knows that she is communicating. We have a subjective, conscious experience of communicating. This experience, we hypothesise, predates language.

This is what I would have said in a discussion planned after a performance of The Encounter at the Barbican. Unfortunately I couldn’t be there because I had to have an operation for a detached retina.

What is conscious experience?

When I look out into the audience, I am aware of innumerable faces. I have the subjective experience of seeing many faces. But this is an illusion. I don’t mean that you are all figments of my imagination. I am confident you are all out there, but, even so, some of you at least are figments of my imagination.

The problem is that my contact with you all seems so direct, when it is really very slight. The only clues I have about you come from the sparse signals that my eyes and ears are sending to my brain. From these crude signals, and from years of experience, my brain can make quite a good model of what’s out there.

elephantYou will remember the story of the blind men who come across an elephant. One feels its trunk and thinks it is a snake, another feels its leg and thinks it is a tree.

A single sighted man who comes across an elephant is doing the same thing. The elephant is too big to see with a single fixation of the eye. We have to look all over it. If our eye lands on the trunk, then it’s a good bet that it’s a snake. But, then, as the eye moves along it a head or a tail should appear. When this doesn’t happen, then the model has to be changed. It isn’t a snake. Perhaps it’s an elephant. The more evidence our eyes take in the more plausible it becomes that the thing is an elephant. Our eyes move very fast (4 to 8 fixations per second). Within a few 100 msecs we see the elephant. We are entirely unaware of all the work our brain has done and, of course, what we are seeing is not the elephant, but the model that our brain has constructed. This model is often incomplete with several missing bits that are filled in with guesses. This is why some of you are figments of my imagination. There is a well known youtube video, showing that a gorilla can walk by some basketball players without being noticed, if you are too busy counting the basketball passes.

But what is the point of all this vivid subjective experience?

HuxleyCapTH Huxley believed that our conscious experience has no function: ’Consciousness [is]completely without any power of modifying the working [of the body] as the steam-whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery.’ I believe that Huxley was wrong and we can see this from the metaphor he chose. This is because the steam-whistle does influence the behaviour of other engines.

Our conscious experience is very vivid, but also very private. There is no way I can have your experiences. It even is possible that the colour experience that I call red is actually the one you would call green if you were to experience it. How could we ever know? But there is a paradox here. Our conscious experience may be private, but it is also the only aspect of our mental life that we can share with others. I can’t tell you anything about what my brain is doing. And I certainly can’t tell you about all those mental processes that never reach my consciousness.



What I can tell you about is my model of the world. And, at the same time, you can be telling me about your model of the world. So if we are like steam locomotives, we are certainly hearing each other’s whistles.




Conscious experience is for interacting

And, because we are sharing the same world and because we also have very similar brains, our models are also likely to be very similar. But they will not be entirely similar. Our models will also depend on all our past experiences including our interactions with others. Our models of the world will be strongly influenced by our cultural background.

But what happens when two people interact? Interacting with another person is different from interacting with a rock. Unlike a rock, the person I am interacting with is creating a model of me at the same time as I am making a model of her. The model I create of you helps me to predict what you are going to do, which also helps me to communicate with you. My model of you will have many different aspects. I will try to discover what sort of person you are. But in my view the most important aspect of you that I am trying to model, is your model of the world. That is the model of the world we are currently sharing.

brainsBecause we are sharing the same world, any differences in our models will reflect our different experiences and cultural backgrounds. So, when I know something about your model, I know something about you. But, if I need to communicate with you, then I should try to make my model similar to yours. And, at the same time, you will be trying to make your model similar to mine. Some believe that, if two devices interact while making inferences about each other, then they will eventually converge on the same model.

Language is extremely useful for discovering something about other peoples’ models of the world, but it is not the only way. Simply by watching how someone moves you can learn about how they see and understand the world about them. The more you spend time with someone else, the better you will get at predicting how they are going to move. You won’t know how you do it. It just happens.

To make this prediction you have learned about their model of the world and, inevitably, this has changed your own model. At some point the two models will be in almost perfect synchrony. At this point you will have the conscious experience of what seems like, and, indeed is, wordless communication.


Our Danish friend, Dan Bang , is just finishing his DPhil on Confidence.

If you type confidence into Google you will get millions of hits, mostly about self-confidence. You are told that, for a small fee, self-confidence can be learned and will enable you to influence people and earn more money.

This is not the kind of confidence that Dan is interested in.


I associate confidence with psychophysics experiments. You make people look at an endless series of pictures in which there may or may not be moving dots. You ask them, ‘Were the dots moving?’ and then ‘How confident are you that they were moving?’ These experiments are so boring that the only people prepared to take part are the authors of the paper.

CDF: So why is confidence so interesting? Continue reading Confidence

DB: On the one hand, confidence is an objective quantity. We can link confidence to behaviour or real-world events. We can ask, when people are more confident, are they also more likely to give the correct answer? We call this resolution (or metacognitive sensitivity). The more people’s low and high confidence discriminates between their incorrect and correct answers, the higher the resolution.

On the other hand, confidence is also a subjective quantity. You and I might have different ideas about what it means to be “not so sure” – does it mean that the probability that we are correct is 25% or 50%? We call this calibration (or metacognitive bias). So even if our confidence has the same resolution, I might express myself more cautiously than you do. Our low and high confidence need not fall within the same range. I might say “not so sure” when thinking that there is a 75% probability that I am correct. But you might have no problem saying “absolutely certain”.

DBsureFor me, confidence is interesting because, with carefully controlled experiments, we can quantify how people communicate their inner states, and we can ask whether the way in which they communicate this information changes with the social context.

CDF: So it may be interesting for you, but aren’t the experiments still boring?

DB: People don’t get bored doing my experiments. They work together in pairs and discuss what they have seen. We often think that confidence is a private experience, but in my experiments people talk to each other about how confident they feel.

CDF: Why would they talk about their confidence?

DB: If they disagree about what they have seen, they have to decide who is right. A good rule of thumb is that the more confident person is also more likely to be right. Two people working together can do better than the best person working alone, and the more they talk about confidence the greater the advantage for the pair. Simply by going with the more confident person after each presentation you can get an advantage.

CDF: How can people predict whether they are going to be right or not? This is very mysterious to me. Where does the information come from?

DB: There are a lot of different theories. Some think that our confidence directly reflects the reliability or strength of the information upon which our decisions are based. In my tasks, this information could be sampled from memory or through the senses. In general, the more reliable this information is, the more likely we are to be correct. Others don’t think we have such direct, privileged access to our inner workings. Instead, we infer our confidence.

One way to do this is to monitor the speed with which we reach our decisions. In most situations, decisions that we make quickly are more likely to be right, and fast responses tend to be associated with greater confidence. Observers are quite good at judging other people’s confidence by watching their movements. However, in one of our studies, we showed that simply going with the faster person is not as good as going with the more confident one. So, confidence seems to carry a lot of useful information.

CDF: I guess you mean that confidence is a marker of competence and speed is another marker. We would certainly want to take advice from competent people. But can’t this easily go wrong? Over-confident people think they are giving good advice when they are not. Working with an over-confident person could be disastrous.

DB: Even an over-confident person will be more confident when s/he is right and less confident when s/he is wrong. S/he can be accurate about their confidence (resolution), but have a bias to exaggerate it (calibration). If we want to work successfully with each other we need to calibrate the way we report our confidence to one another. When I say that I am very confident it has to mean the same as when you say you’re very confident.

CDF: You mean that I have to make sure that my subjective experience of confidence corresponds to your subjective experience of confidence. How is this possible? It’s like asking whether my experience of red is the same as your experience of red.

ConfCorrDB: Actually there’s a quick and dirty way of doing it, so to say, which works most of the time. People usually use words, but you can ask them to use numbers from 1 to 6 to indicate their confidence. An under-confident person might mostly use the numbers 1 to 4, while an over-confident person mostly uses the numbers 4 to 6. It ‘s fairly obvious that they are using the scale in a different way. I have found that people align their use of such confidence scales so that they have the same average confidence rating across the experiment. This might not necessarily be the middle of the scale. So, some people might both use the scale in an “under-confident” way, while others might both use it in an “over-confident” way. There are very few mismatches.

Confidence is a subjective experience, but there are still common features that people can agree on. The two ends of the scale might be fixed at guessing and certain. It is obviously more difficult to have agreement about the middle of the scale, but people can still agree on the order of their levels of confidence.

CDF: That’s very interesting. If you used a 3-point scale of confidence, it would be difficult to be sure if we both meant the same thing with a rating of 2, but the more items in the scale the less the problem will be. In an earlier study, your colleagues showed how each pair developed their own verbal descriptions of confidence – sure, almost sure, a little sure, not quite sure, &c. I was very surprised that the mean number of levels for these spontaneously developed scales was about 18. I was surprised because we all learned, as students, that the optimum number for a scale was 7±2. But, of course, the more levels we have, the less the problem of equating subjective experience.

DB: Yes, we actually find that, if you give people a continuous scale (e.g., 1 to 6 in steps of .000001) instead of a discrete one (e.g., 1 to 6 in steps of 1), then they perform better. The problem of agreeing on what exactly each level means disappears.

alignmentCDF: I am very interested in alignment. It seems to be a critical feature of joint action. The Mirror Neuron story is all about alignment. We automatically align our motor movements and our perception of the world. What you are telling me about confidence seems to be an example of automatic, subjective alignment.

DB: That’s much too speculative for me.

CDF: You called this strategy a quick and dirty method. Does this mean it sometimes goes wrong?

DB: Yes, the strategy only works when the people in the group have equal competence. If they have different levels of competence, they should not try to match their confidence. The more competent person should be consistently more confident than the less competent. Otherwise the pair will take the advice of the less competent person too often.

CDF: But presumably we can notice when someone is more or less competent? Could we do this first and then adjust the way we talk about our confidence?

DB: Actually this seems to be more difficult than you might think. We just published a study showing that people take too much advice from an incompetent partner (and take too little advice from a competent partner). This is not a problem of not being able to work out that the partner is less competent (or more competent). It happened even when they had explicit feedback about their relative competence. People seem to forget this information in the situation.

CDF: But you were using Danish students and every one knows how modest and trusting they are.

DB: That can’t be the explanation. We observed just the same behaviour in Iran where people are supposed to be less trusting of each other.

CDF: I wonder why there should be this universal equality bias, when it reduces successful group decisions?

DB: Perhaps people are more interested in smooth social interactions than in accurate decisions?

CDF: That’s too speculative for me.

What’s this for? The teleological instinct

We are in Budapest again for April/May 2015. Everyone in the CEU Cognitive Science Department has moved to a splendid 19th century town house close to the CEU main buildings. The Babylab has extended its space, and, no question, it feels and looks like the best in the world. Here’s a conversation we had with Gergely Csibra, director of the Cognitive Development Centre. His incredibly distinguished list of publications has earned him a wide influence. We were having lunch with him  in a typical small Hungarian restaurant in the city centre. After the difficult business of choosing the most typical Hungarian dishes – Rakott krumpli for me and Pörkölt for Chris – our conversation turned towards books we would like to write, and moreover, are committed to write.

UF: So, Gergö, what are your books going to be about?

GC: One of them could be about our propensity for teleological thinking.

UF: Ah – you have been thinking about this for a long time!

GC (lifting the elaborate serviette holder standing on the table): a human being would immediately ask, what is this for?

UF: So?

GC: The point is that only humans would ask this question. All animals are programmed to pursue certain goals, and they are able to select the best means of achieving the goals. But humans can start with the means and then ask about the goal they can achieve.nuts&bolts

CDF: We wonder a lot about purpose and meaning.

GC: We even ask “what’s the meaning of life?”

UF: We keep asking, even if there is no answer. Continue reading What’s this for? The teleological instinct

CDF: We often love the means even more than the goals: look at this amazing tableau from the National Museum which proudly displays the huge variety of bolts made by a factory. We embellish tools and work on them to make them beautiful beyond the merely functional. Also, there is a whole chain of actions that is provoked: we make tools to make tools. We are very inventive about this.

GC: But actually, humans are not very inventive. Innovation is rare. Instead of finding new means to achieve an end we tend to consider the opposite: what can this old object or action be used for?

CDF: Innovation in ends may be rare. But not in finding uses for an object. You can easily find 101 uses for a brick, as required by a well-known psychological test.

GC: People have invented lots of tools that were rubbish. Just occasionally somebody produces something that turns out to be really useful.

UF: Can you imagine individual differences in teleological thinking?

GC: Not really. It’s not a skill, it’s a motivation. Even an obsession.

UF: Lets consider this then: Can you imagine what a person would be like who lacks this motivation?

GC: Interesting… I don’t know.

UF: Would this be the case with severe depression? To depressed people nothing makes sense and they are not interested in making sense either. Life has no meaning.

CDF: A depressed patient lacks motivation for anything. So this is not a good example. We’d have to think a bit more about what kind of pathology could create an absence of this particular lack of curiosity in what things are for.

UF: I wonder. We are also constantly asking questions about the names of things, what’s this cake called, this flower, this bird? Could this be related to theteleological instinct, if I’m allowed to call it that?Budapest Central Market Cakes

GC: It could be. The name may often give a clue to the function or purpose of something. This is because both names and object functions are culturally determined.

UF: Ah – now we come to a key concept in social cognition, culture. Cultural knowledge is built on the expectation that all things have a meaning, and exist to serve a purpose. The serviette holder is for holding serviettes. The serviettes are for protecting my clothes from food being spilled. And here I am trying to tack a very flimsy piece of paper into my skirt. I better be careful because it wouldn’t serve the purpose very well!

CDF: Some people would claim we have an urge to attribute causality. Would you separate causal thinking and teleological thinking?

GC: They’re supposed to be completely different explanations – think of Aristotle’s efficient and final cause -, but often they can be translated into each other. There’s this interesting thing about Darwin: he turned the teleological questions into causal explanations.

CDF: Something like this: Natural selection by fitness creates (causal) the functions that animals have (teleology)?

GC: He attempted to explain how teleological functions are brought about by blind forces of selection.

CDF: I wonder if clever animals using tools have teleological thinking.

GC: Animals use tools for the immediate ends they are motivated to pursue. They never have any lasting interest in the tool. Humans do. They take the tools with them in case they need them again. They even value objects for their potential use in the future. Even if they have no idea what use they could be put to.

CDF: When the bicycle was invented it was at first not a very useful tool to get from one place to another.

UF: We are always asking for the meaning of things, but we are never satisfied by the answers. Perhaps that’s what religion ‘is for’: it’s something that is always ready to satisfy the need to get answers to the big questions, especially giving reasons for terrible suffering – perhaps it’s meant to teach you a lesson; to punish you; or,  to make you a better person.

GC: I don’t think religious behaviour is any more teleological than other behaviour. It’s a drive that is present in very young children long before they are exposed to religion.

UF: What about science? I presume here you don’t ask what something is for, but what made it happen? Science is about causes, not purposes.

CDF: But even scientists, being human, are still highly attracted  teleological thinking.

GC:There are a number of papers by Deborah Kelemen on teleological bias in domains such as biology or religion, and in science.

CDF: There’s an interesting study where she tested physicists in speeded conditions. In this case they were more likely to endorse teleological than causal explanations of natural phenomena. Just like everyone else. To quote from the abstract: ‘Specialization as a scientist does not, in itself, … ameliorate scientifically inaccurate purpose-based theories about the natural world.’

UF: Isn’t this teleological bias helpful for developing technology?

GC: Teleological thinking serves not so much the development of new technology as the learning or understanding of existing technology.

UF: One downside is that there are unforeseen side effects. As you say, tools can often lead to things that were not envisaged before, and not even intended.

GC: Tools allow us to create new options. This is not the case when animals are using tools. Their options are unchanged by the tools.

UF: I look forward to your book. It is such a fruitful idea and we need to relate it to social cognition.

GC: The idea is not new, but I think it has not received as much attention as it deserves. I have thought about this topic for a long time. Whether I will make it a book or just a paper – you will see it in a year’s time.

Image credit: Cakes in Budapest’s Central Market Hall

How to influence people and get approval from your Granny by Uri Hertz



Continue reading How to influence people and get approval from your Granny by Uri Hertz

The cartoon by Uri Hertz was sparked by a paper by Bayarri and DeGroot (1989) entitled “Optimal Reporting of Predictions”. Uri is part of Bahador Barami’s group on Crowd Cognition at UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. The last time I visited the ICN I asked Bahador if he or his colleagues might like to contribute to Socialminds. To my delight, he agreed, and he suggested that Uri draw a cartoon relating to a topic we were just discussing:  The importance of metacognition for social communication. How certain are you about what you want to communicate? What risk is there to your reputation if you get it wrong? There was a paper about this, Bahador said and the point the paper makes is that the advice depends on your current influence on the person you advise.

What does this mean? The cartoon makes it very clear. You and a number of other advisors report your belief in some variable (say the probability of a phone being a good buy, a stock going up). The advisee knows each of the advisors and she does not trust them all equally. This can be rephrased as follows: she has assigned a prior weight that represents the amount of influence each advisor has on her. These weights are updated when information about the variable comes to light (the phone is shown to break down easily; the stock did actually go up). The updating process takes into account not only whether the advisor was correct, but also how vigorously he reported his belief. If you stated high belief in some previously ignored stock going up, and it actually does go up, your influence will show an increase. It will get the highest increase if the other advisors expressed only weak belief about the stock going up (e.g. they overlooked or discarded the possibility). However, if you are wrong, and if you stated your belief very strongly, as opposed to the other advisors, then your influence will suffer a dramatic fall.

Bayarri and DeGroot show in their paper that in order to increase their influence (posterior weight) over time, advisors should adapt their belief reporting strategy, rather than faithfully stating their beliefs. If you happen to be an advisor, your optimal strategy depends on your current influence (or weight). When your influence is low, you should exaggerate your beliefs (vigorously give a definite yes or a definite no).

This is what the left side of the figure illustrates. It shows how you can take advantage of situations in which other advisers report low belief, and the outcome agrees with your belief. Optimal strategiesHowever, if you are a person who has high influence to begin with, the optimal strategy is to be conservative, understating your belief, as shown on the right side of the figure. This strategy keeps your influence rating from collapsing when your advice turns out to be wrong.

The cartoon highlights the real life implications. Optimal strategies really depend on your current influence! Any mistake that Max makes will cost him dear. But Moritz does not have to worry about such cost. His influence can hardly go down any further.

Is this a rare case? Far from it. The process of giving advice, and any transmission of privately held information, is the basis of communication and cooperation. It includes a first step of establishing the private beliefs, either from perception or experience, and a second step of communicating these beliefs. In the first stage you have identified a stimulus and assessed the probability of a reward – but it also involves metacognitive abilities. Bayarri and DeGroot’s study shows that your beliefs are transformed according to the social context even before they are communicated. So giving advice is not just a case of identifying a stimulus, and communicating it to another person. You have to assess not only how confident you are in your judgement but have to factor in the other person’s likely opinion about you. This is how deeply our social nature affects our judgment as well as our presentation. It makes sense: if we are highly trusted already we can easily fall from grace with injudiciously worded advice. Likewise, if we were previously ignored, we can suddenly gain status if we hit the bull’s eye. If we were wrong, no matter, – you can’t sink even further. As the hedge fund managers say “always remember the value of your investments can go down as well as up”.

So yes, metacognition is critical for social communication.

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

Eureka stories: Five easy pieces of advice from science historian Anna Marie Roos


Archimedes: Wikipedia 

It is well known that “Eureka” is Greek for “I have found it” and is connected with Archimedes making his discovery of the principle of buoyancy when taking a bath.

This story has been repeated until it has become legendary.  And that is the problem.  Eureka stories are told with the benefit of hindsight and to eulogise the investigator.  Did Archimedes discover the principle of hydrostatics?  Most likely.   Did he streak through the streets of Syracuse to announce it?  That is less certain.  Most of what we know about him comes from secondary accounts from Plutarch and Livy, who wrote centuries after Archimedes died in 212 BC.        Continue reading Eureka stories: Five easy pieces of advice from science historian Anna Marie Roos

Let’s take the other most cited Eureka example, Newton and the Apple.  It comes from the Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life written in 1752, not penned by Newton, but by the antiquarian William Stukeley, a friend and fellow Lincolnshire man.  Stukeley wrote:

on 15 April 1726 I paid a visit to Sir Isaac . . . din’d with him…after dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some appletrees, only he, & myself. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind.   


Author at Woolsthorpe

Newton gave the discovery of gravity to the world in his Principia Mathematica (1687).  But did he make these discoveries in 1666, when he was at Woolshorpe, the family farm in Lincolnshire, sitting under the apple tree?

Historian Simon Schaffer has noted, “the historical record reveals that until the mid-1680s, Newton never developed a concept of universal gravitation and stayed firmly wedded to Cartesian models” of planetary motions in which fine-particled ethers in the atmosphere moved the planets in their orbits.  “Only in 1684 did he finally invent the term “centripetal force” to describe the action pulling bodies towards their orbits’ centres.”[1]  We also have to remember that by 1797, Newton’s heirs institutionalised Stukeley’s story to establish his reputation as a precocious genius.  So, Eureka stories are problematic as historical sources.

[1] Simon Schaffer, “Making Up Discovery,” in Dimensions of Creativity, ed. Margaret A. Boden (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), 15.

First proviso:  Be careful of heroic parables

Picture 007 Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton's birthplace

© The Royal Society

Both of these stories, however, tell us a little about creativity.  Archimedes and Newton made analogies between disparate things and combined them together in unique ways—the bath and displacement of the metal; the falling apple and gravity.

Second proviso:  We need to remove blinkers that are created by sheer familiarity

figurefiveThe second thing we notice in the Eureka stories is that both discoveries were made when Archimedes and Newton were relaxing.  Comedian John Cleese compared creativity to a tortoise that will only come out slowly and shyly.  Basically, the creative tortoise (image courtesy The Royal Society) needs to feel safe to express itself, and having time to relax and be quiet each day is important for creative work; excessive external stimuli kills creative thinking.   As Cleese says “We don’t know where we get our ideas from. We do know that we do not get them from our laptops.”

Third proviso.  It is important to quiet the mind for creative thinking. Get off the mobile.  Walk

L0057059 Whalebone walking stick, owned by Charles Darwin, England

Some recent studies at Stanford University suggest walking is effective to stimulate creativity.  Experimental results indicated that 100 percent of those who walked were able to generate at least one high-quality, novel analogy on a “divergent thinking test” compared to 50 percent of those who remained seated.  Interestingly, walking did not affect focussed thinking, the ability to solve one problem at a time.   Uta Frith’s blog post has more to say about the necessity of a dual-pronged approach to solving tricky problems.

It does appear though that several creative achievers routinely walked to generate ideas. Darwin had his thinking path at Down House, knocking flints out of the way with his stick as he ambled. The picture is one of his walking sticks.  When the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson walked, he said that his head was “bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing, I see all.”  How is that for a manifesto of improving empirical observation?    Artist Christopher Cranch portrayed Emerson as a giant eyeball in a suit.

So, you laughed at the caricature of Emerson?

Fourth proviso. Laugh and play, in and out of the laboratory 

We have all heard of the “accidental discovery” by Alexander Fleming of Penicillin.  What we don’t hear is Fleming actually cultivated a form of chaos and play.   He loved games, modifying the rules, for example putting golf holding the club as a snooker cue.  A member of the Chelsea Arts Club, he also fashioned art from bacteria “painting on the petri dish” figures like houses, or even a ballerina.

To do his live paintings, he constantly would cultivate different species just to see if something interesting developed.  Using his deep knowledge of microbiology, Fleming was courting discovery by courting the unexpected.

Let’s go back to Newton and the Apple.  Stukeley related in his conversation with Newton:  “he began to apply this property of gravitation to the motion of the earth, & of the heavenly bodys . . .  & thus he unfolded the Universe”.  Newton was, if anything, intellectually courageous, a quality characteristic of creative scientists.

A number of Newton’s colleagues were also intellectually courageous as well, thinking, for example, about busting the boundaries of flight and space.  John Wilkins wrote The Discovery of a New World in the Moone (1638) and he and Robert Hooke purportedly spent time in the courtyard of Wadham College, Oxford designing flying machines powered by giant springs to “boing” us up to the lunar surface.   Their work together reminds us that counter to most Eureka stories, creative science is often collaborative, not done by a lonely genius.  Our colleagues are important in the development and refinement of creative ideas.figureeight

Wikipedia Commons

Science fiction involving lunar travel also made its appearance at this time with Kepler’s Somium (1608), as well as Francis Godwin’s  Man in the Moone (1638), in which his space travellers went to the moon in a ship powered by giant swans [2].  Such theories about bird migration were thoroughly developed in the seventeenth century, reflecting the new interest in the heavens. Charles Morton (1627–1698), best known for his work the Compendium Physicae, compiled a treatise in 1686 in which he hypothesized that birds migrated to the moon and used Godwin’s work as a guide.

[2] Anna Marie Roos, Luminaries in the Natural World: the Sun and the Moon in England, 1400-1720 (Basel and Oxford, 2001), chapter four.

Need you laugh, this book contains one of the first descriptions of an earth-rise:  Then should I perceive a great shining brightness. . . So that it seemed unto me no other than a huge Mathematicall Globe, leasurely turned before me, wherein successively, all the Countries within the compass of 24 howers were represented to my sight. figurenine

Bill Anders, NASA, Wikipedia Commons

And Newton’s work of course helped us actually see the earth rise, but it began with a dream.

Fifth proviso:  DREAMfiguretenS

Photo by Author: Anderby Creek, Lincolnshire


On Andrassy Ut

This is the Champs-Elysée of Budapest: a grand tree lined avenue, framed by glamorous buildings, and with some famous coffee houses. We are sitting outside the classic Café Müvesz, with a splendid view of the Opera: Ildiko Kiraly, Kata Egyed, Chris and me after a nice open air lunch at Liszt Ferenc Tér, not more than two hundred yards away.
-You used your famous “Head-touch” experiment with autistic children. You found in a new experiment that young autistic children, unlike carefully matched children with Down Syndrome, disregarded the experimenter’s intention as indicated by ostensive gestures. This is a strong indication that we cannot rely on what  Gergely and  Csibra called natural pedagogy when teaching autistic children.

Continue reading On Andrassy Ut

The waitress brought cups of coffee and glasses of water. I took up a previous threat of our conversation:

-Your colleagues made the stunning discovery that the A not B error in young  infants was much reduced if the experimenter did not use ostensive gestures. Let me see if I got this right: It is precisely the communicative setting that makes infants perseverate in their error. It is as if they assume the experimenter has taught them to go to a particular hiding place – and this is what they reach for. If the experimenter does not use ostensive gestures, they don’t learn this and consequently don’t make the error. Instead they go for the new hiding place where the object really is.

-Yes, that’s correct, said Ildiko, -and this was the same in dogs, but not in wolves, as shown in the paper with Topal. So natural pedagogy is something that works for dogs too, probably because they have been social companions of humans for millenia.

Chris and I had been extremely interested in studies testing the theory of ‘Natural pedagogy’, introduced by Gergely and Csibra (aka the rockstar Hungarian developmental psychologists). It is a fascinating theory that suggests that humans have a means to acquire culturally relevant information from each other, that makes learning incredibly fast and powerful. The trick that evolution has provided is ‘ostensive communication’.

Chris: – There are two ways of learning from others.  They can address you ostensively, perhaps call you by your name, look at you directly, flash their eye brows at you. But you can also learn by just observing them.

When  our coffee was almost finished, the conversation strayed towards a Bayesian theme. Chris asked: -Why do we pay so much attention to the information that comes from our own senses? When does this start in development?

Ildiko and Katalin both considered this question. -It seems very possible that at first young infants do not pay so much attention to their own sensory information. Take the A not B error. They follow the object with their eyes, and they therefore know where it has been put. But this information counts for less than the information conveyed by the adult’s communication. So it is another person’s perception that seems to win over their own.

-Interesting! So it is not so obvious that we first and foremost regard our own sensory perceptions when making any inferences about the world. Perhaps we are taught that the evidence of our own eyes is the best.

Chris added: – I have just seen a paper by Jaswal who studied children’s trust in information provided by adults. Toddlers believe what an adult says even though they have just seen something different.

My thoughts strayed to “nullius in verba” -take nobody’s word for it- the motto of the Royal Society.

– So is it only since the enlightenment that we feel we must see for ourselves to believe? It was clearly a huge cultural change that brought about the attitude that we should not put our trust in the evidence transmitted to us by others.

-But then aren’t there lots of pitfalls when we put all our trust into our own senses? And by implication, our own experiments?

– Hmmm, we have a conundrum and this relates to our earlier and rather controversial post “Not to be found in any methods section.”



Brain to brain ‘direct’

April 2014: Some random musings that might get me into trouble.

2-brainCommunication in essence is trying to make another person’s brain a bit more like your brain. So would direct brain to brain communication achieve this much better than we can achieve this now? Communication has thrived through technological inventions. Writing enabled human beings to communicate with other people long dead and people far away. Continue reading Brain to brain ‘direct’

Printing and mass literacy extended the reach of written language to anybody. Telegraph and telephone enabled human beings to communicate instantaneously even when both are in distant places. Smartphones have enabled human beings to ‘text’ and ‘chat’ with very little time lag.

Now consider this: Two people can be in different locations, and they are asked to connect with each other by the power of their thoughts and feelings. Imagine electrical activity, perhaps in the form of waves displayed visually, as the only way that messages can flow between the two people. With a little more technological development it might be possible to induce the waves to follow that same rhythm in both brains.

Since communication is in essence changing each other’s brains to be more alike, would such a direct connection make communication better than ever?

There is something strange about this. But what?

Everything we normally use for communication, words, voice, expression, gesture, and so on, is produced by our brain, but is bypassed in direct brain to brain communication. Communication typically suffers if one of these channels is not available – so what would happen if none were? All these channels are the result of millions of years of evolution, precisely to enable brain to brain communication.

Surely there is more to communication than sharing our thoughts and feelings and making each other’s brains more alike. But what? What about conscious reflection? What about conscious decisions about what to say and what to conceal, what to make a joke about, thrown scorn on,  or hammer home relentlessly. What about knowing when to stop a communication?

My preliminary conclusion is that communication brain to brain can at best be only contagion and contagion is only the most basic form of communication. In this sense brain to brain communication is no better than body to body communication:  we can pick up ‘vibes’, smells, moods, laughter, fear and anger from each other. But this is only the basic alignment stage of social interaction. What is the alignment for, that is the question.

Once aligned, we can start to change each other’s brain in the way we like to do it – by talking, usually.  Communication as we know and like it involves persons and not just brains. Involving persons means taking into account the history of previous communications, the attribution of dispositions, traits and attitudes. On top of this it also requires the tracking of mental states from moment to moment.  Strangely enough, although all these processes can function unconsciously and automatically, at the sub-personal level, it seems that to properly communicate we need the personal level. In other words, consciousness.

The different channels of communication are not enough to do the job that we have come to expect from talking to or texting each other. There is something over and above that owns and deploys these channels, and this is not just the person, but the conscious person.

We need to do more than linking up brains to improve communication.