Category Archives: Learning from others

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.

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

The last ferry from Esbjerg to Harwich: Why do we behave irrationally – or do we?

DSCF0114The Dana Sirena, the huge ferry, which has crossed the North Sea every day for uncountable years, will run no more. There is only one more journey and that will be to return from Harwich to Esbjerg – and that ‘s it. We don’t know who made the decision and we wonder what the arguments might have been. We are a bit sad and wonder whether this is a sign that our annual trips to Aarhus for the last ten years must come to an end sometime.

Waiting in the car to get on the ferry, we looked back at a lecture by Antonio Rangel, a few days before, which we much enjoyed. Rangel is a leading practitioner of neuro-economics, from Caltech, and he talked about some serious methodological issues in this field. It’s not about lack of replication, but about remoteness from real life. We have to face it, what people do in the lab just doesn’t transfer to the real world. Something crucial is being left out and not understood. People aren’t behaving as if they were optimal Bayesians. Continue reading The last ferry from Esbjerg to Harwich: Why do we behave irrationally – or do we?

UF: To be optimal our behaviour should be rational – no?

CDF: What economists and others mean by rational behaviour is that you choose the option that gives the highest benefit.

UF: This sounds okay, but people often seem not to choose what’s best for them.

CDF: Ah, this depends. Think of the famous Marshmallow experiment. You have to resist taking the one Marshmallow so that after a certain time you will receive two. But, is it always better to delay? Of course not. If the situation is unpredictable, then it is better to take the one Marshmallow than risk never getting any.

UF: So being impulsive is not always a bad idea.

CDF: You don’t choose a big reward option, if it is very unlikely to be achieved. To answer your question, people and other animals for that matter, don’t necessarily behave irrationally if they don’t do what is predicted by a formula to get them the highest value. The formula works in the lab where stakes are low and choices to be made occur with equal likelihood. Rangel argued that these situations are quite irrelevant to real life situations. What looks like weird behaviour from the theoretician’s point of view, turns out to be quite sensible when looked at in the right context. Maybe supposedly irrational people are maximising different variables compared to what the theoreticians think they ought to be maximising.

UF: So ‘crazy’ people aren’t irrational either?

CDF: Well, a very common idea is that everyone would behave like them if they had their bizarre experiences. Irrational behaviour means the model doesn’t fit.

UF: I see. The bizarre experiences are the proper context to explain the behaviour, which might be optimal. I like it, because once again we see how important it is to consider context. Do you have an example?

CDF: It always matters how something is framed. If someone says, “my glass is half-empty” this most likely means “please fill it up”. If someone says, “my glass is half-full” this means, “I’ve got enough for the moment”. So glass half-full and half-empty are not one and the same ‘value’. We find it incredibly easy to understand the meaning of utterances when we interact with others. We can calculate the value in a particular context quite fast.

UF: Isn’t it odd that when the questions are framed in a complex real life context, they become easy? It’s like a magic trick that shows us what the mind is really good at. It’s at home with complex computations that take into account what another person might know or not know. Strip the problems down to their logical essentials, and the computations become hard and result in errors.

CDF: The question is how does the mind do it? Models proposed by behavioural scientists and economists are extremely good at modelling very basic decision processes, but in social interactions other models are needed. Only if you have such models – and this will be after lots of behavioural experiments, – should you even begin to think of brain scanning. As Rangel said in his talk, brain scanning very rarely gives you any answers. You need a model first. It will not emerge from the data. If the data fit the model, then that means something.

UF: There is something else that I wish I understood better: What our ‘priors’ tell us, and what we pick up from current information are often at odds with each other. How do we deal with this?

CDF: There is a good example of how these two computations can be experimentally made to conflict, and in this case the priors win: In a trust game you learn over many rounds how people behave and this should give you a good idea of whether or not to trust that person. But you pay less attention to this learning process when the experimenter has planted in you some prior knowledge about the other person. For example, you read that Peter, the partner in your game, has recently been given a medal for rescuing a child from a fire, and has raised large amounts of money for charity. During the game, however, Peter behaves abominably and cheats. Yet, you remain trusting when all your unconscious processes want to tell you that you should distrust. Bad mistake.

UF: I can see how this relates to irrational behaviour: It is the personal and the subpersonal fighting it out with each other. But it is not always clear which type of knowledge you should use for the best: the prior knowledge that you have about the other person and their past deeds, or the information you currently extract from your interaction with them.

CDF: The prior knowledge you get from others will always come from a much larger database than your own direct experience. Perhaps that’s why we pay more attention to knowledge from others?

UF: Sometimes the priors can be too strong, and sometimes the bottom-up learning can exert too much influence. If there is a conflict that can’t be resolved, the decision is likely to be considered irrational.

CDF: Of course the priors are not fixed. They are constantly being altered by what happens in our real time interaction with the world and other people. Data from psychophysics tasks tell us that the decision you just made affects your next decision. How can I know what I like until I see what I have chosen? My behaviour tells me something – now I know what I should do next time.

UF: Is this similar to what happens when we follow the crowd and do what other people do? They may know something that we don’t know. We can benefit from their knowledge, as long as they have it. Like the traders on the stock exchange, who buy stocks that others buy. Perhaps they believe that the others have inside knowledge. This might sometimes even be true, but if it isn’t, stock market bubbles can be created. This certainly looks like irrational behaviour.

CDF: I think we have been talking about our favourite topic: Two systems and how they influence each other, System 1 and System 2, in Kahneman’s sense. Sub-personal and personal in Dennett’s sense. The influence of other people on us, and our influence on them occur both at the personal and the subpersonal level.

UF: But how does the influence of other people, say on the stockmarket, come about?

CDF: That’s what our book has to be about.

Meanwhile, after a long wait, we can drive onto the ferry. We spot a TV cameraman and a presenter in a long black coat, watching and commenting on the last journey of the old Dana Sirena from Denmark to England.

Our colleague from the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University, Andreas Højlund Nielsen, told us about a 15 minute documentary film made by his sister-in-law, Mie Lorenzen. It is called ‘18 hours aboard the England ferry’. It will provide you with the tranquillity of a very calm transit.


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

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.

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


Eureka Magic

Insights are sudden moments of exceptional thinking. The perfect metaphor is that of a bulb lighting up in an instant and illuminating everything around it. Who doesn’t love the story of the genius whose light bulb moments can illuminate everything?


So what is the truth about Eureka? I was given a chance to find out a couple of weeks ago.

With Historian of Science Anna Marie Roos I was part of an event during the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition. The event was called “Cultivating Eureka”, and there was something in the introductory notes about trying to encourage Eureka moments. But, should we actually do this if these moments are to some extent fictions of the imagination? Continue reading Eureka Magic

Anna Marie Roos is contributing her own post on the topic. She talked about some famous Eureka moments and their embroidered history. I followed her with an attempt to conjure up these moments in the audience.

Here magic comes to the aid of science: On YouTube you can watch some amazing magic tricks. For instance those by Richard Wiseman on Quirkology.  Can you work out the solution to some of them? You may well ‘get it’ in a flash of sudden insight.

Psychologist Amory Danek has used a fascinating series of magic tricks to study the nature of insight moments. The results are reported in her paper in Cognition 2013. She highlights a particularly important aspect of insight: the need to let go of strongly held assumptions, when normally it would be madness to let go of them.

For instance, if we see a billiard ball, we assume it to be a round and solid object. But, consider this: You see only one side of the ball – could it be that what you see is only a half sphere, and a hollow one, which might hide other half spheres? This reminds me of the Yorkshire farmers who are looking across the dale. One farmer says to the other: “Yon farmer’s shorn his sheep”. After a while, the other replies, cautiously: “Aye, on wun side”.

What have we learned from scientific studies of insight?

  • It is necessary to have a prepared mind. A totally naïve observer who has no strong assumptions can’t solve the problem at all. There is preparatory thought going on – well before one can have a sudden ‘Aha’ insight.
  • We have to let go of some strong assumptions that we unconsciously have made before getting the insight. This is often counterintuitive.
  • We don’t know how insight happens at all.
  • Just having a lovely ‘Aha’ experience does not guarantee that you found the correct solution to the problem. Remember you can be wrong even if you are intuitively convinced you are right.
Can we will ourselves to have insight?

Not very likely.  Most of our thinking is unconscious and automatic and unconscious processes are hard to penetrate. A danger for both conscious and unconscious modes of thought is that we get stuck in a particular view and we go round in circles.

It may be a good idea to pursue solutions to tricky problems using a two-pronged strategy, both by analytic methods in step wise fashion, and by figuring and reconfiguring patterns. In the refiguring phase some relaxation is necessary so that connections to other and even remote types of knowledge are made.

Eureka graph

To see something in a new light, we need to remove blinkers that are created by sheer familiarity.  We have to let go of our previous knowledge – even though it has always proved a reliable guide.  How strange that knowledge can be a hindrance, but ignorance is not the answer. You need the knowledge, and you need to let go of it.

Does the Social Mind come into this?

How do you get out of a rut? How can you see a problem from a new angle?  Mind wandering, day dreaming, taking a nap, going for a walk are all good ideas. An even better idea is chatting to others. It is always worth talking to another person!

This hypothesis could easily be tested, but as far as I know it hasn’t been yet. The idea of the lonely genius may be just one of those thoughts that is blocking us. Yet it seems obvious that if we listen to others we may suddenly see different perspectives. This may shake up thoughts that have gone round and round in circles. Disappointingly, we have learned very little so far about insight from brain imaging studies. The brain doesn’t light up like a light bulb, but the neural activity during an Aha!- insight experience indicates that novel connections are being made.

Both insight and analytical thinking benefit from our social nature. Eureka moments in history are a vivid example of our unique style of human communication. They may only be stories, but they are  brilliant at conveying ground breaking scientific discoveries and they help us to remember them effortlessly.


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.”