Monday, November 13, 2006


Here’s another segment from the essay “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer” by Leda Cosmides & John Tooby. You can link to the whole document here:

[OPEN QUOTE] Principle 3. Consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg; most of what goes on in your mind is hidden from you. As a result, your conscious experience can mislead you into thinking that our circuitry is simpler than it really is. Most problems that you experience as easy to solve are very difficult to solve—they require very complicated neural circuitry.

You are not, and cannot become, consciously aware of most of your brain's ongoing activities. Think of the brain as the entire federal government, and of your consciousness as the President of the United States. Now think of yourself—the self that you consciously experience as "you"—as the President. If you were President, how would you know what is going on in the world? Members of the Cabinet, like the Secretary of Defense, would come and tell you things—for example, that the Bosnian Serbs are violating their cease-fire agreement. How do members of the Cabinet know things like this? Because thousands of bureaucrats in the State Department, thousands of CIA operatives in Serbia and other parts of the world, thousands of troops stationed overseas, and hundreds of investigative reporters are gathering and evaluating enormous amounts of information from all over the world. But you, as President, do not—and in fact, cannot—know what each of these thousands of individuals were doing when gathering all this information over the last few months—what each of them saw, what each of them read, who each of them talked to, what conversations were clandestinely taped, what offices were bugged. All you, as President, know is the final conclusion that the Secretary of Defense came to based on the information that was passed on to him. And all he knows is what other high level officials passed on to him, and so on. In fact, no single individual knows all of the facts about the situation, because these facts are distributed among thousands of people. Moreover, each of the thousands of individuals involved knows all kinds of details about the situation that they decided were not important enough to pass on to higher levels.

So it is with your conscious experience. The only things you become aware of are a few high level conclusions passed on by thousands and thousands of specialized mechanisms: some that are gathering sensory information from the world, others that are analyzing and evaluating that information, checking for inconsistencies, filling in the blanks, figuring out what it all means.

It is important for any scientist who is studying the human mind to keep this in mind. In figuring out how the mind works, your conscious experience of yourself and the world can suggest some valuable hypotheses. But these same intuitions can seriously mislead you as well. They can fool you into thinking that our neural circuitry is simpler that it really is.

Consider vision. Your conscious experience tells you that seeing is simple: You open your eyes, light hits your retina, and—voila!—you see. It is effortless, automatic, reliable, fast, unconscious and requires no explicit instruction—no one has to go to school to learn how to see. But this apparent simplicity is deceptive. Your retina is a two-dimensional sheet of light sensitive cells covering the inside back of your eyeball. Figuring out what three-dimensional objects exist in the world based only on the light-dependent chemical reactions occurring in this two dimensional array of cells poses enormously complex problems—so complex, in fact, that no computer programmer has yet been able to create a robot that can see the way we do. You see with your brain, not just your eyes, and your brain contains a vast array of dedicated, special purpose circuits—each set specialized for solving a different component of the problem. You need all kinds of circuits just to see your mother walk, for example. You have circuits that are specialized for (1) analyzing the shape of objects; (2) detecting the presence of motion; (3) detecting the direction of motion; (4) judging distance; (5) analyzing color; (6) identifying an object as human; (7) recognizing that the face you see is Mom's face, rather than someone else's. Each individual circuit is shouting its information to higher level circuits, which check the "facts" generated by one circuit against the "facts" generated by the others, resolving contradictions. Then these conclusions are handed over to even higher level circuits, which piece them all together and hand the final report to the President—your consciousness. But all this "president" ever becomes aware of is the sight of Mom walking. Although each circuit is specialized for solving a delimited task, they work together to produce a coordinated functional outcome—in this case, your conscious experience of the visual world. Seeing is effortless, automatic, reliable, and fast precisely because we have all this complicated, dedicated machinery.

In other words, our intuitions can deceive us. Our conscious experience of an activity as "easy" or "natural" can lead us to grossly underestimate the complexity of the circuits that make it possible. Doing what comes "naturally", effortlessly, or automatically is rarely simple from an engineering point of view. To find someone beautiful, to fall in love, to feel jealous—all can seem as simple and automatic and effortless as opening your eyes and seeing. So simple that it seems like there is nothing much to explain. But these activities feel effortless only because there is a vast array of complex neural circuitry supporting and regulating them. [CLOSE QUOTE]


I remember the film, "Shane", as it came out originally in 1953. I'd have been about 15 'cause I graduated high school in 1955 at age 17, and I was, as I came later to find out, very naive and could easily be caught up by Westerns and machoism of any sort. For such a long time, I was naive. Then the French New Wave foreign films and soon after that, Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman complicated my simple consciousness, in addition to the dramas of Jean Genet, Williams, Sartre, Authur Miller and O'Neill, the novels of Camus and Beckett, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Can't forget On The Road and Kerouac. What a wondrous and emotional time my early youth was as I came horrendously alive from my working class background in the 60s and 70s. O, the pain of it, the wonder of it too, the angst and ache of it! There were times I wasn't sure I'd survive those days, even times I didn't think I wanted to survive them. Now I'm alive, 69, and in the tame of my ancient calm, under the moon, stardust and snot, and it turns out, all the damn fuss and nonsense was entirely worth it, wouldn't change one heart pounding ounce of nor taunting ache of it.

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