Thursday, 21 June 2007

Why oh why? (full text)

I'm wrestling with the neurobiology stuff within the Climate Change book. I've never quite been satisfied with the model that was in the skeletal draft, and pursuing a more detailed and robust understanding has led me to a bit of a philosophical biggie.

So, if you'll indulge me for just a moment, I'll romp about in some neurobiology, a bit of morality, a dash of sociology and some logic and philosophy, and hopefully we'll get to something that makes some sense, or something that clearly makes no sense and can be abandoned.

Our 'memory' is not a single thing. It can be categorised into two primary types: implicit memory and explicit memory.

Explicit memory contains narrated memory, it is episodic and declarative. It is created through the hippocampus and it can be related back in terms of symbols - either words or sketches. Explicit memories are stories. They contain answers to the questions: when? where? what? who? ('who?' is really an extension of 'what?', applied specifically to human beings).

Implicit memories are not translated into symbols. We have two types of implicit memories. 'How?' memories, which are procedural, store skills which we have practiced until they are automatic. I am using my implicit memory about 'how' to type right now. We use the word 'how?' sometimes in place of 'what?' - for example 'how do I get to the cinema?' is really the question 'what do I do to get to the cinema?'. Pure 'how?' can't really be explained in words: teaching a child to use chop-sticks is a tricky business.

The other type of implicit memories, emotional memories, are stored responses to external and internal stimuli.

We know there are two types of memory because people who have had brain injuries to their hippocampus develop a type of amnesia where they can't create new explicit memories. They will have no memory of ever having met their doctor, but if their doctor begins to hold a buzzer in their hand when they greet the patient then within a few meetings the patient will become afraid of shaking hands with the doctor - even though they believe they have never met them before. They can't learn a list of new information, but they can learn to paint or draw or ride a bike, even if they didn't have the skill before their injury.

So - we've covered what?, where?, when? and how?, but the source of all of our problems is 'why?'.

Human beings are the only species concerned with 'why?', and here's my big wobbly thought for today:

There are no 'truths' that can be used to answer a 'why?' question.

You might, as I was earlier today, be testing this against questions like "Why does a stone drop to the floor?", and thinking that I am talking rubbish because the answer is obvious: gravity. I am concluding that this is not really a 'why?' question - the question we are asking is really "What happens when a stone drops to the floor?". The partial-answer is to do with the action of gravity, but 'why?' gravity does this is something we can't answer.


So. The human brain is loosely composed of three discrete-ish parts: the brain stem (lizard brain), the limbic system (mammal brain) and the cortex (problem-solving brain). The brain stem does the stuff that keeps you alive, even in your sleep. Master Melancholy is particularly fond of responding to unhelpful suggestions that he "might want to do something with his afternoon other than just watch television" by reminding us that he is also respiring, his heart is beating, he is digesting his breakfast...

He is correct. His lizard brain is doing stuff. Important stuff. Without his lizard brain he would die.

The limbic system is the source of emotion. Lizards famously eat their babies; mammals generally put some effort into nurturing them into adulthood. The limbic system only pays attention to things that are important to our survival. To the limbic system every stimulus is either dangerous or pleasurable or irrelevant. Very-dangerous things invoke a rapid response in a bit of our limbic system called the amygdala, flooding our body with the chemicals required to fight, flee or freeze. The limbic system even has its own direct connections to our senses. A person who has had a head injury resulting in them being unable to process images will be blind as far as their conscious thought is concerned, but will still have a fear response if a picture of a spider is put in front of them.

The limbic system is quicker than the cortex. You feel before you think, and the feelings you have start neural-networks firing, for this is what a memory seems to be - a set of neurons which will fire together in response to a stimulus.

Our current understanding is that neural networks form pairings. When I make use of Pavlov's research, training Ruby to cooperate with my instruction to go to her bed, I am making use of the paired neural networks in Ruby's brain which I have built up by giving her a biscuit when she goes there. Bed = biscuit = pleasure.

So, the cortex comes into action not against a blank canvas, but midst a whole host of chemical changes and neural activity triggered by the speedy limbic system. If the limbic system believes the stimulus to be important enough then it may not allow the cortex to get involved at all until the danger has passed. This makes great survival sense because wondering whether something in the bushes might be a tiger is not a useful activity. Better to run like hell and wonder about the tiger later.


The paradox of being a human is that we are constantly asking 'why?' questions, for which there are no answers. If we believe that there is an answer to a 'why?' question then we are heading into an area which I'm going to call 'felt-truth'. Felt-truths are always responses to 'why?' questions, and are an attempt to make explicit some of what is stored in our limbic memory. We take un-symbolisable feelings and we mix them in with some explicit knowledge about the world and we come up with a story which is presented as a truth.

We know that our limbic memory doesn't bother with things that aren't important for our survival. This is what makes teaching maths to teenagers so challenging. A 15-year-old's limbic system is doing a very important survival job of ignoring all this survival-irrelevant rubbish about triangles so that it can direct attention to the survival-important task of getting the cute girl in the corner to give him or her their phone number.


When we come across a 'why?' question, we have two possible responses: curiosity and felt-truth.

Yesterday, Ms M and I found ourselves tangled up in this when we were stuck in traffic behind an Aston Martin DB9. As an engineer, I can appreciate the design work and elegance, but, in my head, Mr Aston-Martin was a tosser. He wasn't even aware I was behind him (in the dog-bus) but he pissed me off, because I have a felt-truth about people who drive expensive cars. They are clearly idiots.

The curious response to the question "Why would someone choose to spend £100,000 on a sports car?" is to be open and interested in the numerous possible explanations (or bored by the question and not bother answering it). The felt-truth responses range from my own "Because they are an idiot." to "Because they are a stud." to "Because women like it." to "Because it's beautifully engineered." ... etc.

To a person expressing a felt-truth response to a 'why?' question, their answer feels true. It doesn't just feel true intellectually, it feels true biologically. My limbic system has only stored stuff which is important for my survival. If you start to question the validity of my responses which are based on my limbic memories then I feel like my survival is under threat. My heart starts beating faster, my senses are heightened and I may respond with a level of vigour which would be appropriate if I was about to run away from a tiger, but isn't useful if we're having a discussion about whether expensive sports-cars are a good way to spend money.


There are no objective answers to 'why?' questions. There are only subjective answers which are a messy combination of explicit understanding and implicit memory. Any time we believe we have an answer to a 'why?' question we can infer that:

a) we don't.

b) our limbic system believes this question to be important to our survival.

c) our response will be shaped by the particular survival challenges of our experience of the world so far.

d) resolving any conflict around this felt-truth will require us to shift from felt-truth to curiosity.

e) our biology is set up to prevent us from being curious in dangerous situations, so shifting from felt-truth into curiosity is really bloody difficult.


The challenge in resolving Global Climate Change is to address the 'what?', 'when?' and 'where?', without allowing ourselves to be sent into conflict by differences in our 'answers' to the question 'why?'.


Kahless said...

Hi Stray,
interesting read though I am not sure I kept up with all of it with 1/2 bottle of Rioja inside me

You ask
"The challenge in resolving Global Climate Change is to address the 'what?', 'when?' and 'where?', without allowing ourselves to be sent into conflict by differences in our 'answers' to the question 'why?'. "

Logical, but surely we humans have the genetic need to ask why so I am not sure you can get round adressing that. Hence the problem that is isn't taken seriously enough.

Stray said...

Hey Kahless,

I think what I was trying to say was not that the 'why?' questions shouldn't be asked or addressed, but that being drawn into conflict with others who have different answers to the 'why?' questions is the thing we'll need to work out.

Does that make more sense?

Well done for managing to type with 1/2 a bottle of rioja inside you :)


Dandelion said...

I can see how this line of argument would be useful within the context, but it seems to me it's a rather valuable point that applies much more generally to all areas of human conflict. It's a book in itself, I would say.

If I was writing a chapter like this that was intending to go public, I would also arm myself with some stuff about the philosophy/psychology of explanation ie answers to "why" questions - I would disagree with the blanket claim that all such questions are inherently unanswerable - you know, just to make your argument rock-solid and watertight.

Oh, and I'd also want to show that I knew that one of the chief defining differences in the implicit/explicit distinction is in terms of accessibility to consciousness (another thing that we don't really know what it is, except in the terms you've described). I'd make that point more explicit, so to speak (no pun intended).


Stray said...

Thanks Dandelion. Yes, it does feel rather big doesn't it?

I'm seriously encouraged by your feedback because it fits quite well with where I'm headed.

The next few chapters after this one basically test this hypothesis - that our DNA driven survival stuff intermingles with our conscious need to ask "why?" and results in felt-truths, which are then used to organise ourselves in groups. They form the basis of our integration and differentiation.

If this is really the case then it should be observable, and I think the religious organisation of society, and the fact that religion itself emerged (all be it with different forms and answers) all over the globe seems like a good indicator that the "why?" and its inherent pitfalls are a human-being thing rather than a christian / muslim / jew / hindu thing.

In the book I'm calling consciousness 'imagination'. I think, as you say, consciousness is incredibly hard to get a grip on, but we seem to be more comfortable with the term 'imagination'. I'm not sure that they're the same thing at all, but 'imagination' is the bit that gives us curve balls, so that's where I'm mostly focussing.

Yes, need to ask the difficult questions! My brain is almost exploding ...

Jon M said...

You say 'but why?' gravity does this is something we can't answer.'

Is this simply because gravity isn't a conscious entity, it's a concept to explain a sries of forces. Oh this does give me a headache! Couldn't you show me a picture of Ruby or something too?

Aren't there different kinds of 'whys?' like the whys about forces and mechanics and the whys which are personal motives.
I think you're right about the why questions drawing us into conflict but what do you do about the people who don't accept the 'what?' or do they not accept the 'what' because of an underlying 'why?'

You're actually probably spot on about the Aston Martin driver...

Stray said...

Hi Jon, thanks for chipping in even though it's making your head hurt :)

That's exactly my point - physical phenomena aren't 'why?'s, they're 'what?'s and 'when?'s and 'where?'s. Gravity is unmotivated. We don't know 'why?' gravity does what it does - we don't know what created / designed / led to gravity. We only know roughly what the characteristics are of an attraction that occurs between two masses, which we have chosen to call 'gravity'.

And yes - I am working with the hypothesis that we don't accept the 'what?' because of our unspoken, or spoken, underlying 'why?'s.

It's not to say that all 'what?'s are positive, but that a conversation about the 'what?'s can only be really open to all possibilities once everybody has their 'why?'s out of the way.

Or something ...

Dandelion said...

The reason I mention the philosophy of explanation (of which there is a sizeable literature) is because it explores (among other things) what constitutes an answer to a "why" question.

On the question of why things fall, gravity has no explanatory power at all, it is a circular, question-begging answer.

Dandelion said...

Ooh, and also, on the subject of different kinds of why questions/different types of explanations, how about Daniel Dennet and the Intentional Stance et al.?

That's So Pants said...

Hi Stray

Firstly, I think this is a fantastic piece of work you're doing here. I'm in agreement with Dandelion. As flawed and diversionary as it may be, I think the 'why' is intrinsic to the way we problem-solve. We seek the origin of the problem and believe, rightly or wrongly, that it holds the key to the solution. It's not a scientifically robust method as you say, and I think it's a great idea to try to strip the diversionary lines of enquiry away if you can. Again, I think Dandelion is right because dealing with climate change requires problem-solving at broader than scientific levels. Ordinary people need to be convinced to take preventive action and persuade their governments to change at the polls. They have a lot of 'why' questions like 'why do I have to give up my level of comfort without a guarantee that it will make a difference?' So, I think your argument for looking at the problem in the way you suggest has to be convincing to ordinary citizens as well. It won't be easy. Edward de Bono couldn't convince us to give up on Aristotle. i think you're right though, a different approach is required.



Stray said...

Hi Dandelion - thanks for that - I should confess that I'm not familiar with Daniel Dennet and I'm off to research that now.

Lovely Pants - ta for the positive vibes. Everything you said is hugely relevant. I'm slightly hopeful that perhaps climate change is a big enough, threatening enough, problem that we might have an incentive to make a significant shift. Meaning-making is what separates us from animals, gives us humour and the arts and so much more. I wouldn't ever want to stop engaging with 'why?' myself, but realising how alpha chimps exploit my urge to ask 'why?' has been a real eye opener.

I think it would be too big and difficult to engage with the question 'why do we ask why?' - which as Dandelion says is a circular argument, but the book does explore questions like:

"What role do our 'why?'s play in addressing, or failing to address Global Climate Change?"

"Which mechanisms have historically been used to create, change and integrate answers to 'why?' questions?"

"What approaches might be most useful in overcoming the barriers to international cooperation which our diverse 'why?'s can represent?"

Big stuff. I have moments of feeling like a complete idiot for even attempting to take it on. Fortunately it's not just me wrestling with it - the work is based on a lifetime's research and industry experience of an Aussie anthropologist who also happens to be an energy industry expert and governance consultant. His three careers (Governance, Energy, Anthropology) and the way he's personally been confronted with his 'why?'s by shifting between different international cultures were the basis for the book.

We initially started out with me making a documentary about a book he was writing but he decided that it was better for me to write it, taking some of his arguments and then pushing them around afresh.

Thank god the rest of the time I just do algebra!

That's So Pants said...

Dearest Stray

You're the perfect person to take this on and you mustn't ever doubt that. I followed your discourse with Pumpie and I feel bound to tell you this conversation is happening at the sort of level at which intelligent people might want to participate. I watched An Inconvenient Truth yesterday for the first time and, informative as it is, I did think, well, okay, how do I participate in this conversation? I'd take issue with the assumption that climate change is big and threatening enough to provide universal incentive for action - clearly the vast body of evidence hasn't had much of an impact on ordinary people who want to stay warm, drive their cars and watch DVDs. This is why I think your approach is original and unique. Seeing the way you've broken down the challenging questions is enormously helpful. I think it's great that you have the confidence to open up these concepts for public debate while you're going through the process of thinking them through yourself. I applaud you for that.



Stray said...

Oh Pants - that gave me a lump in my throat that isn't just my dodgy ear playing up.

I don't always feel very confident when I open these things up, but it's so helpful to bat it around whilst it's still fluid.

Ms M has snuck me on to a neuroscience for therapists workshop at the weekend. I have been feeling wobbly about it, sometimes I feel like an imposter exploring this stuff, but your comment has given me a major boost.

If you ever need an anthropologist local to you I can make a recommendation!

Boris said...

Hi Boris here, but not signed in.

This is very intersting indeed. I like where you are going with this and as has been said, this chapter deserves a book in it's own right.

However it is for now a chapter so has to be kept tight. I think you are right that when we have a felt-truth, we can be getting ready for a fight because some part of us is aware that it it a felt-truth and not an absolute truth - ie a truth shared by everyone. It is not backed up by what we may choose to call research. We are surrounded by felt-truths of our own and of other peoples. This is why some arguments can never be settled, because both parties are dealing in felt-truths. As an example of this just pick any long standing international dispute.

Perhaps a way to change this is to alter our ego state (Ms M, do you agree?) and also alter the "why" to "maybe".

Pants used the example 'why do I have to give up my level of comfort without a guarantee that it will make a difference?' But this is not a question it is a challenge, leaves nowhere to go and from most people would be rhetorical (hands on hips, set jaw). What if it were changed to 'maybe I have to give up my level of comfort without a guarantee that it will make a difference?'

This opens the possibility of dialogue and therefore change and growth. This is a real question which requires an answer.

Everyone needs to be able join in this climate change debate in a reasoned way (except Bush of course - because I have felt-truths about him).

The same applies to you Stray with the Aston driver - ie "Maybe he's a tosser"

Incidentally to some one who drives a 30year old Allego, YOU could be called a tosser as your car is just as out of reach to them as the Aston maybe to you.

At what financial level does one become a tosser anyway?

Anyway keep going with it. You are probably one of very few people would can do this important work


Dandelion said...

Big stuff

Maybe, maybe not. But size doesn't matter.

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