Monthly Archives: April 2016

Roots of communication

Judith Copithorne image

20 or so years ago I took an interest in non-verbal communication and how it interacted with speech. A number of ideas became very clear in my thoughts: we communicate with our whole bodies whether we want to or even realize what we are doing; the gestures, facial expressions, sounds and postures that we use are evolutionarily very old; and, if we try to consciously plan our non-verbal communication, we are likely to send confusing and ambiguous signals. Communication in language only, stripped of its non-verbal patterns, has to change from the rules of verbal language to the rules of written language or it can be unintelligible. We rely on the non-verbal clues to know in what frame to interpret the words and rely on the cadence of speech to organize the connection of words and thoughts.

A recent post by M. Graziano in Aeon (here) is very interesting and worth a read. Here I am just pointing to the central idea of Graziano’s revelation. There is much more of interest in the original post.

Most vertebrates have a personal space which they monitor and protect. If they suspect an invasion of their space, they automatically react. Graziano gives a description of this reaction in primates, which protects vulnerable areas such as eyes, face, neck, and abdomen: “… he squints. His upper lip pulls up, bunching the cheeks towards the eyes. The head pulls down, the shoulders lift, the torso curves, the arms pull across the abdomen or face. A swipe near the eyes or a bonk on the nose might even produce tears, another component of a classical defensive reaction. His grunts begin to be tinged with distress calls.” This is not really communication on the part of the primate whose space has been invaded but a defense of himself that is innate and automatic. However, an observing primate can interpret the reaction as meaning that the defending primate actually, honestly feels threatened. Slowly, through evolution, this reaction, and parts of it, can become signals and symbols useful in communication.

In Graziano’s theory, smiles are a mild version of the facial defense of the eyes. It simply communicates friendliness and a lack of aggression by mimicking defense as opposed to offense. An exchange of smiles establishes a mutual non-aggression state. Even though we might think that showing teeth is aggressive, it is part of protecting the eyes. That can be seen more clearly in genuine smiles rather than polite or faked smiles, the ones which start with squinting around the eyes rather than the lifting of the lip.

Play is the situation giving rise to laughter in Graziano’s thinking. Play is governed in mammals by signals that keep the action from getting dangerous even if it looks it, like the safe words in S&M. These signals are universal enough that the young from different species can rough and tumble together without mishap. Laughter mimics the defense of personal space with a facial expression similar to a smile along with a stereotypical noise somewhat like an alarm cry. When it is intense there is a protection of the abdomen by bending forward and putting the arms across the stomach. A laugh seems to indicate that the defenses of the personal space have been breached. Someone has reached in and tickled protected parts of the body, or something, a joke perhaps, has surprised you. You are allowing the game to invade your space because you are enjoying it and the laugh communicates that.

Then there is crying. Now the communication is “enough” because I am hurt. If it is intense there is a sobbing cry and lots of tears, the hands protect the eyes and a defensive posture forms a little ball. (Laughter can even end up as crying if it is strong enough.) Tears are asking for relief and comfort – and they usually get it, as all children seem to know.

It is somewhat amazing that so much communication might be made out of one innate reaction through the process of evolution. Being able to effectively communicate is a powerful selective force. “And why should so many of our social signals have emerged from something as seemingly unpromising as defensive movements? This is an easy one. Those movements leak information about your inner state. They are highly visible to others and you can rarely suppress them safely. In short, they tattletale about you. Evolution favours animals that can read and react to those signs, and it favours animals that can manipulate those signs to influence whoever is watching. We have stumbled on the defining ambiguity of human emotional life: we are always caught between authenticity and fakery, always floating in the grey area between involuntary outburst and expedient pretence.

Another look at consciousness

Judith Copithorne image

There is an interesting new paper with a proposed model of consciousness (Michael H. Herzog, Thomas Kammer, Frank Scharnowski. Time Slices: What Is the Duration of a Percept? PLOS Biology, 2016; 14 (4): e1002433 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002433). It reviews various theories and experiments in the literature on the subject. Their model is similar to how I have viewed consciousness for a few years, but with important and interesting differences.

They view consciousness as non-continuous, like the frames of a movie, which has seemed the only way to look at consciousness that fits the knowledge that we have of what appear to happen in the brain. They are not dealing with the neurology though and give space to reasons why people have resisted discrete frame and clung to continuous consciousness.

Another aspect of their theory that I like to hear is that the heavy lifting of perception is done unconsciously. The final product of the unconscious processing is a ‘frame’ of consciousness. This fits with the notion that there is not a conscious mind in the sense that we think of a mind. There is only the unconscious mind or simply the mind. Consciousness is a presentation, a moment of experience to remember, a global awareness of a percept.

I have in the past thought of a best-fit-scenario end point of perception, the stable point that would end the iterations of a complex analog computation and be the perception on which consciousness is based. The authors talk of Bayesian statistical computations stopping when they reach an ‘attractor’. This seems the same basic idea but more amenable to experimentation and modeling.

During the unconscious processing period, the brain collects information to solve the ill-posed problems of vision, for example, using Bayesian priors. The percept is the best explanation in accordance with the priors given the input. … One important question is how the brain “knows” when unconscious processing is complete and can be rendered conscious. We speculate that percepts occur when processing has converged to an attractor state. One possibility is that hitting an attractor state leads to a signal that renders the content conscious, similarly to, for example, broadcasting in the global workspace theory. … Related questions are the role of cognition, volition, and attention in these processes. We speculate that these can strongly bias unconscious processing towards specific attractor states. For example, when viewing ambiguous figures, a verbal hint or shifting attention can bias observers to perceive either one of the possible interpretations, each corresponding to a different attractor state.

The most interesting idea (to me) is that the conscious precept is not a snap shot in a series of snap shots but a constructed slab or slice of time in a series of slices. The frames are of short duration but represent slices of time rather than moments. The implication is that we do not, in any sense, have a direct experience of the world, but a highly processed and codified one.

All features become conscious simultaneously, and the percept contains all the feature information derived from the various detectors. Hence, (a green line) is not actually consciously perceived as green during its actual (sensual stimulus) but later when rendered conscious. The same holds true for temporal features. The stimulus is not perceived during the 50 ms when it is presented. The stimulus is even not perceived for a duration of 50 ms. Its duration is just encoded as a “number,” signifying that the duration was 50 ms in the same way that the color is of a specific hue and saturation.

I hope this paper stimulates some ingenious experimentation.


The opposite trap

Judith Copithorne image

I vaguely remember as a child that one of the ways to learn new words and get some understanding of their meaning was to learn pairs of words that were opposites. White and black, day and night, left and right, and endless pairs were presented. But in making learning easier for children, this model of how words work makes learning harder for adults.

There are ideas that people insist on seeing as opposites – more of one dictates less of the other. They can be far from opposite but it is difficult for people to abandon this relationship. It seems that a mechanism we have for words is making our understanding of reality more difficult. An example is economy and environment. The notion that what is good for the environment has to be bad for the economy and vice versa is not strictly true because there are actions that are good for both and actions that are bad for both, as well as the actions that favour only one. We do not seem to look for the win-win actions and even distrust people who do try.

Another pair is nurture against nature or environment against genetics. These are very simply not opposites, really, they are not even a little bit so. Almost every feature of our bodies is under the overlapping control of our genetics and our environment. They are interwoven factors. And, it is not just our current environment but our environmental history and also that of our parents and sometimes our grandparents that is mixed in with our genetics.

In thinking about our thoughts and actions, opposites just keep being used. We are given a picture of our heads as venues for various parts of our minds to engage in wars and wrestling matches. We can start with an old one: mind versus brain or non-material mental versus material neural dualism. This opposition is almost dead but its ghost walks still. Some people divide themselves at the neck and ask whether the brain controls the body or does the body control the brain – and they appear to actually want a clear-cut answer. There is the opposition we inherited from Freud: a thought process that is conscious and one that is unconscious presented as two opposed minds (or three in the original theory). This separation is still with us, although it has been made more reasonable in the form of system1 and system2 thinking. System2 uses working memory and is therefore registered in consciousness. It is slow, takes effort, is limited in scope and is sequential. System1 does not use working memory and therefore does not register in consciousness. It is fast, automatic, can handle many inputs and is not sequential. These are not separate minds but interlocking processes. We use them both all the time and not in opposition. But they are often presented as opposites.

Recently, there has been added a notion that the hemispheres of the brain can act separately and in opposition. This is nonsense – the two hemispheres complement each other and cooperate in their actions. But people seem to love the idea of one dominating the other and so it does not disappear.

It would be easier to think about many things without the tyranny of some aspects of language, like opposites, that we learn as very young children and have to live with for the rest of our lives. The important danger is not when we name the two ends of a spectrum, but when we name two states as mutually exclusive, they had better actually be so or we will have problems. It is fine to label a spectrum from left-handed to right-handed but if they were opposites then all the levels of ambidextrous handedness would be a problem. The current problem with the rights of LBGT would be less if the difference between women and men was viewed as a complex of a few spectra rather than a single pair of opposites.

Neuroscience and psychology need to avoid repeatedly falling into opposite-traps. It still has too many confusions, errors, things to be discovered, dots to be connected and old baggage to be discarded.

Thanks Judith for the use of your image