mirrors and making sense of another like oneself

The evocatively named “mirror neurons” have recently been attracting much discussion in the blogsphere. Mirror neurons seemed to be associated with hightened affective states and hyper-speculation in humans.

But they are not the only neurons with these properties. As early as 1993, two scientists found that a particular neuron in a cat’s brain responded to a wide range of auditory stimuli, but not when the cat’s eyes were closed or in the dark. After their work had been “interrupted by the inescapable late-night giddiness suffered (enjoyed?) by those who do electrophysiological experiments,” the scientists reached these conclusions:

we finally concluded that cats must be deaf at night. This, of course, began a string of other ridiculous conclusions: blind cats are probably deaf too; and on and on. [Stein and Meredith (1993) p. 108]

These are truly astonishing hypotheses!

Key images that mirror neurons evoke are probably biologically misleading. Mirrors produce representations of objects that have little relation to the physical form of the mirror. Mirrors do not adaptively tune to subjects of interests. Mirrors are typically part of a “one brain” circuit. Making sense of another like oneself is rather different from looking in a mirror.

The human brain evolved and develops in social circumstances – circumstances of living bodies communicating intensively with others like themselves. In game theory, the rules of the game are assumed to be common knowledge among the participants. In communication among conspecifics, the common structures of conspecifics’ bodies are rules of the game. The flesh-and-bone relations of whole living bodies are central to making sense of another like oneself.

Sensory tuning is an important feature of living bodies. One neuroscientist described this process thus:

every percept has two components intertwined, the sensory-induced re-cognition of a category of cognitive information in memory and the categorization of new sensory impressions in the light of that retrieved memory. Perception can thus be viewed as the interpretation of new experiences based on assumptions from prior experience — in other words, the continuous testing by the senses of educated hypotheses about the world around us. [Fuster (2003) pp. 84-5]

“Perceptual prediction” effects, such as representational momentum and the flash lag effect, suggest that the “sensory-induced re-cognition of a category of cognitive information in memory” can be highly decentralized and not dependent on traditionally defined cognitive and memory circuits.

Recently two scholars put forward a provocative proposal for motor involvement in perceiving conspecifics:

The various brain areas involved in translating perceived human movement into corresponding motor programs collectively act as an emulator, internally simulating the ongoing perceived movement. This emulator bypasses the delay of sensory transmission to provide immediate information about the ongoing course of the observed action as well as its probable immediate future. Such internal modeling allows the perceiver to rapidly interpret the perceptual signal, to react quickly, to disambiguate in situations of uncertainty, and to perceptually complete movements that are not perceived in their entirety. … Thus, what originally appeared to be a neurological extravagance – the activation of motor resources when no motor movement is intended – may instead be an elegant solution to a perceptual problem. [Wilson and Knoblich (2005) p. 468]

This proposal, while speculative, at least shifts attention from representations, meaning, and linguistic expression to presence, the real-time experience of making sense of another like oneself. The latter seems to me to connect more insightfully to developing biological knowledge about mirror neurons.

*  *  *  *  *


Fuster, Joaquin M. (2003), Cortex and mind: unifying cognition (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Stein, Barry E. and M. Alex Meredith (1993), The Merging of the Senses (Cambridge: MIT Press).

Wilson, Margaret and Günther Knoblich (2005), “The Case for Motor Involvement in Perceiving Conspecifics,” Psychological Bulletin, v. 131, n. 3 pp. 460-73.

sensory economics: cheaper is better

Experimental studies indicate that persons rate images that they process more fluently as more aesthetically pleasing:

We propose that aesthetic pleasure is a function of the perceiver’s processing dynamics: The more fluently perceivers can process an object, the more positive their aesthetic response. We review variables known to influence aesthetic judgments, such as figural goodness, figure-ground contrast, stimulus repetition, symmetry, and prototypicality, and trace their effects to changes in processing fluency. Other variables that influence processing fluency, like visual or semantic priming, similarly increase judgments of aesthetic pleasure.

Speed of identification and categorization of stimuli indicate processing fluency. They are also plausible indicators of the bodily cost of processing stimuli. Thus an economic interpretation of these results is that, among images with a common (zero) external price, persons prefer images that they process at low bodily cost.

Processing fluency implicitly refers to some processing objective. A typical biological approach divides making sense into stages of sensation, perception, and cognition. Then perceptual fluency refers to processing through the stage of perception. Conceptual fluency would then be understood as adding additional meaning-related processing beyond the stage of perception. However, these stages are not biologically well-defined. Much evidence points to a more flexible and functionally organized process of making sense.

The experimental evidence on processing fluency might be better interpreted with respect to the subjects’ plausible goals in processing the stimuli that the experiments present. The experiments present to subjects individual images not related to a narrative or a personal encounter. For example, some experiments present subjects with random patterns of dots. The subjects are then asked questions about the image, such as “How attractive is it?” and “To what category does it belong?” The latter question clearly points to an information processing objective. The former question is an affective evaluation of the results of such an information processing objective. These experiments thus suggest that, given an information processing objective, persons prefer images that they process at low bodily cost.

These experiments point to much additional useful research. Recent work on multi-sensory perception and mirror neurons indicates that the body creates common effects from different sensory services. That suggests, as does other evidence, that sensory form affects stimulus processing fluency. Moreover, making sense of information, narratives, and persons probably has significantly different implications for stimulus processing. Experiments that incorporate multiple sensory dimensions and that more explicitly structure communicative objectives could make an important contribution to science and to the practical design of communication services.

None of these comments should be interpreted to devalue aesthetic pleasure in the here and now. Experimentally unifying figural goodness, figure-ground contrast, stimulus repetition, symmetry, prototypicality, and visual and semantic priming in a common economics of processing fluency and preference is a great scientific achievement!

Cited reference:
Reber, Rolf, Norbert Schwarz, and Piotr Winkielman (2004), “Processing Fluency and Aesthetic Pleasure: Is Beauty in the Perceiver’s Processing Experience?” Personality and Social Psychology Review, v.8 no. 4 pp. 364-82.

call to action to form a broad-based coalition of progressive organizations

Singles’ Party

Anyone lacking the career and family support traditionally provided by a “wife” is at a serious disadvantage in academe, evidence shows. — National Academies (2006)

How many women,
paying the full share
of their rent,
how many men,
surveying decaying
carrots in the frig,
have thought of having
a singles’ party,
a party for singles,
the single most oppressed
minority in America.

A single woman
is a witch or a bitch;
a single man,
a misanthrope or
a child molester.
And in our age
when everyone’s actions
come with no-fault
if you’re single

it’s your fault.
So half your food will
rot and you’ll pay double
for your apartment. And
the claim that your spouse
wanted to move
you can’t use
to explain
why you wanted
to change jobs.

Single people, rally
your votes!
Organize and mobilize!
Demand a deduction
for standing alone and vulnerable
on only health insurance.
Demand leave to care for
your inner child.
Demand two for one
social obligations, and
saints and hermits on
postage stamps. Demand
sympathy, understanding,
and respect.

Remember –
politicians tremble at
Cadillac drivers clutching
social security checks. You
must be focused, firm, and earnest.
Only in politics can you
assert your rights and
control your life.

COB-3: gender in college bureaucratic work

This month’s contest for Bureaucrat-of-the-Month was close and difficult to decide. But decisions must be made. Petitions for Reconsideration will be accepted as usual.

Top bureaucratic honor this month goes to a committee of 18 eminent public figures. The Committee was sponsored by the National Academies — the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council. This committee included five university presidents and chancellors, a Dean of Science, an Executive Vice Provost, a Co-Director, two Heads, an Editor-In-Chief, and nine Impressively Titled Professors. A large committee of prominent experts is bound to produce bureaucratic excellence. This committee exceeded expectations.

In addition to holding meetings, the Committee produced a 364-page report on a fundamental challenge to the U.S. “amid increasing economic and educational globalization.” This challenge isn’t to make a better future for men and for women who care about men in a country where about 140 women now receive college degrees for every 100 men who receive degrees. The challenge isn’t to meet better the needs of boys who are often deprived of contact with their fathers, who face a public education system in which most of their teachers are female, and who are disproportionately drugged into docility and conformity. No, keenly intelligent readers, the grave challenge is to increase the share of female professors in science and engineering. After all, as the report explains, “the United States must aggressively pursue the innovative capacity of all its people.” In emphasizing the importance of increasing the share of female professors in science and engineering, this committee of leading educational figures in science and engineering (17 women, 1 man) brilliantly illustrates the value of bureaucracy for aggressively pursuing innovative approaches.

Despite an apparent lack of constraint on the type of recommendations it might issue, The Committee, like most bureaucracies, did not act as vigorously as it might have. The Committee emphasized the importance of gender accounting and forming new administrative bodies:

And departments should be held accountable for the equity of their search processes and outcomes, even if that means canceling a search or withholding a faculty position. The report also urges higher education organizations to consider forming a collaborative, self-monitoring body that would recommend standards for faculty recruitment, retention, and promotion; collect data; and track compliance across institutions. [National Academies news release]

The Committee also issued recommendations to journals, foundations, professional and educational societies, honorary societies, federal agencies, and Congress. But note: The Committee failed to issue recommendations to bloggers. It did not recommend mandating careful blog reading.

The Committee’s review of scientific evidence revealed an extremely significant but seldom recognized problem:

Anyone lacking the career and family support traditionally provided by a “wife” is at a serious disadvantage in academe, evidence shows. [National Academies news release]

With respect to “specific recommendations on how to make the fullest use of a large share of our nation’s talent,” that is, the talents of single persons, the Committee offered nothing. It did not even issue a call to action to ensure that single persons “see a career path that allows them to reach their full intellectual potential.” This is truly Beyond Bias. With my meager influence as an obscure blogger, I’ve attempted to address the pressing problem that our educational leaders have recognized.

A close second to the Committee for bureaucratic honors is Wikipedia. Nicholas Carr at Rough Type has thoroughly documented this achievement, as well as explored the interesting related issue of expertise. Mr. Carr describes Wikipedia as an “emergent bureaucracy.” He notes that Wikipedia has already surpassed key performance standards: “Wikipedia today has more layers of bureaucracy than the average Fortune 500 company and more factions than the Italian parliament.”

Of considerable importance is the question of whether Wikipedia qualifies for the Carnival of the Bureaucrats under Rule 2.a. No parties have disputed that Wikipedia is an Internet enterprise. Internet enterprise operate on Internet Time. According to commonly recognized standards, one year of normal time equals seven years of Internet Time. Wikipedia was founded on January 15, 2001. It is thus approximately 5.71 years old in normal time. Hence we estimate that Wikipedia is 39.99 years old in Internet Time. Thus Wikipedia satisfies Carnival of the Bureaucrats’ Rule 2.a.A, or, in the alternative, Rule 2.a.B.

Other carnival entries:

Purpleslog presents Physical Security and Social Engineering With A Bonus PurpleSlog Story, saying, “My Failed Attempt To Fight Workplace Theft and My Interaction With Security Bureaucrats.”

Aleksandr Kavokin, MD, PhD at RDoctor Medical Portal presents How do they make a guinea pig out of you? Part 2 saying, “about process of drug development – beurocratic and not,” and How do they use you as guinea pig? Part3, saying, “about clinical trials.”

That concludes this edition of the Carnival of the Bureaucrats. Submit your blog article to the next edition using our carnival submission form.

more empirical evidence on making sense

Brain effects are communicative goods. A recent study found common effects among reading and seeing actions:

Participants observed actions and read phrases relating to foot, hand, or mouth actions. In the premotor cortex of the left hemisphere, a clear congruence was found between effector-specific activations of visually presented actions and of actions described by literal phrases.

For example, reading the phrase “biting the peach” and seeing a video of a person bite a peach activate a common set of premotor neurons called “mirror neurons.” These neurons also trigger muscular actions such as actually biting a peach.

Consider the economics of activating these neurons. Making sense of text is relatively expensive. Actually executing actions involve the caloric cost of moving bodily mass. Observing actions is probably the cheapest means to activate the common neurons associated with these different sensory circumstances. Perhaps this helps to explains why so many persons spend so much time on couches, watching sports on television.

Past physical experience affects the extent of neural activation. A scholar who has studied this relation noted:

“When we watch a sport, our brain performs an internal simulation of the actions, as if it were sending the same movement instructions to our own body. But for those sports commentators who are ex-athletes, the mirror system is likely to be even more active because their brains may re-enact the moves they once made. This might explain why they get so excited while watching the game!” [supporting scholarly paper (pdf)]

Sense of presence involves attunement to another like oneself. Common experience of physical action heightens sense of presence. Current demand for televised sports probably depends strongly on explicit marketing investment. An interesting challenge might be to try to calculate the implicit marketing value of sports participation.

a first-person shooter game

Recently I ate a cantalope and threw the rind into the trash bin, which remained unemptied longer than it should have been. I also had on the counter some peaches ripening past ripened. Attracted by this resource-rich environment, fruit flies invaded my kitchen.

Generally speaking, I’m a live-and-let-live kind of guy. As a kid I always argued for not cutting the grass. I believe that most household mold is actually a beneficial antibiotic. I favor spiders over insecticide.

But having swarms of fruit flies in the kitchen is gross.

I decided to take back the kitchen. Unlike Insectopia, this game was for real.

I threw out the peaches and emptied the trash. I then took up my nearly unused bottle of Lysol All Purpose Household Cleaner and gunned down a division of fruit flies that were occupying the area around my kitchen window.
carnage - dead flies on the window sill
But chemical warfare of any sort is neither civilized, sporting, nor manly. I decided take the rest out using my own hands. I tore off a paper towel and started going after them.

This was more interesting than any first-person shooter game I had ever played. I wasn’t just a matter of quick thumbs. You have to move your whole hand quickly. And, instead of just scanning a screen in front of you, you have to scan 360 degrees around the whole kitchen. While games now push a huge number of polygons to create realistic surfaces and textures, there’s nothing as real as kitchen walls, cabinets, a refrigerator, and counters. The surface matters a lot. On a curved surface of a cabinet, it’s much more difficult to trap the fruit fly when it jumps in response to an attack.

The paper towel recorded my score. But not totally, because sometimes the crushed fruit fly would stick to the wall, or fall to the ground.
dead fly score
Fruit flies are bred in biology labs around the world. They are relatively simple organisms. More is probably known about fruit flies than about any other living organism. But I don’t think anyone yet knows how to make such an exquisite little flying machine.

Looking over the paper towel, I realized that, when crushed, fruit flies bleed. I killed them quickly, and did not intentionally try to cause them suffering. I believe that it is morally permissible for me to kill common flies in my kitchen. But is it wrong for me to make a game out of killing flies in my kitchen? I don’t think so, but the queston troubles me a little. Maybe that shows the power of connecting games to the real world.

a Shakespearean portrait of bad public reason

Purported portraits of Shakespeare have attracted considerable public interest. A scholar recently explained:

If Shakespeare study today is a lively mix of wishfulness, mythology and scholarship, this may simply be because we don’t know what he looked like, and what we do know about him is unsatisfactory. … How did this money-worried little capitalist, who conducted his life in a flurry of land deeds and small business ventures, write Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet?

An authentic portrait of Shakespeare could not answer this question. It would provide only an easier way to understand what everyone already knows: irrespective of the facts of his biography and despite his inexhaustible creativity, Shakespeare could be recognized as a human being with a human face.

A separate motivation for interest in Shakespeare is the thrill of publicly recognized discovery. Just a few months ago:

ALEC COBBE was strolling around the Searching for Shakespeare exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery when he was stopped in his tracks by a painting that was the spitting image of one he had on his wall at home. … Scholars have confirmed that Mr Cobbe’s painting is the original of the famous portrait in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington that was on loan at the National Portrait Gallery exhibition….[The Times]

This is a modern enchantment: the possibility of a true, material discovery, made solely by chance.

Discovery usually requires more time and effort. Over the past decade, Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, a professor at the university of Marburg and Mainz, has been a scholarly leader in discovering more about Shakespeare. Professor Hammerschmidy-Hummel has extensively investigated primary sources, including continental pilgrims’ registries that have not previously been studied in relation to Shakespearean biography. Her biography, William Shakespeare: seine Zeit, sein Leben, sein Werk (2003) (forthcoming in an English edition entitled The Life and Times of William Shakespeare) extensively explored Shakespeare’s Catholic connections. This work includes considerable conjecture and interpretive construction. But much recent Shakespearean scholarship recognizes the importance of Catholic faith to Shakespeare and also richly employs conjecture and interpretive construction. Prof. Hammerschmidt-Hummel puts more emphasis on Catholicism in understanding Shakespeare than most current Shakespearean scholarship, but her standards of reasoning put her work well within the form of legitimate contemporary scholarship.

Thrilling discovery depends upon good public reason. Early in 2005, The Culture Show on the BBC broadcast an exclusive report on scientific investigations of the Flower Portrait. Some considered the Flower portrait to be a portrait of Shakespeare. The report declared: “it can be categorically stated that Flower portrait of Shakespeare is a nineteenth century painting.”

With respect to public reason, some aspects of the report on the Flower Portrait are not impressive:

  1. The report didn’t indicate the scientists making the claim. Using a passive voice for a new knowledge claim obscures agency and accountability. That’s particularly inappropriate for a new, categorical claim.
  2. The claim wasn’t made public in circumstances associated with scholarly scrutiny. Making findings public on “The Culture Show” is rather different than publishing them in a peer-reviewed journal.
  3. Details of supporting evidence that would make the claim subject to significant, independent review were not made readily available to the public. Such evidentiary details could be made available globally on the Internet at low cost. But they weren’t.

Modern scientific analysis can provide highly convincing evidence about the date of paintings. But the public support for the claim that the Flower Portrait of Shakespeare was painted in the nineteenth century seems to be not much more than the authority of the National Portrait Gallery. Francis Bacon, the English philosopher and statesman who made a great contribution to the development of science, would not be proud of this. Belief based solely on the authority of a well-established, well-respected institution isn’t thrilling.

More exciting, and bewildering, is Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s beautifully illustrated new book, The True Face of William Shakespeare (2006). This book provides new information about four images that Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel argues are contemporary images of Shakespeare: The Chandos Portrait, the Flower Portrait, the Davenant Bust, and the Darmstadt Death Mask. And what of the National Portrait Gallery’s claim that the Flower Portrait was painted in the nineteenth century? Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel claims that the National Portrait Gallery tested a copy the Flower Portrait, not the original. She includes two photographs showing clear differences between what she describes as the original portrait and the copy. However, the National Portrait Gallery’s test of the Flower Portrait documents that the tested painting covered a sixteenth-century Italian painting of a Madonna and child. That underlying painting is a recognized aspect of the Flower Portrait. This gross conflict leads to at least one firm conclusion: good public reason is here out of joint.

Fay, is there any hope for better reason? The Searching for Shakespeare exhibition ignored Prof. Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s work, except for a short, dismissive footnote buried in the catalog. The final essay in that catalogue concluded:

We will never know what Shakespeare looked like. What is important for us is to recognize the extent and diversity of reproductive portraiture of the Bard and to acknowledge what lies behind the continuing desire for the authentic image, the Shakespeare grail…. As an emblem of national identity and cultural pride, it is without rival.

How dull. If scholars agree that what’s important in scholarship, including science, is high politics, then much of the personal thrill of discovery becomes impossible.

My love, even certainties cannot justify your acting as if you were dead.

I never saw that you did painting need,
And therefore to your fair no painting set.
I found, or thought I found, you did exceed
The barren tender of a poet’s debt.
And therefore have I slept in your report,
That you yourself, being extant, well might show
How far a modern quill doth come too short,
Speaking of worth, what worth in you doth grow.
This silence for my sin you did impute,
Which shall be most my glory, being dumb.
For I impair not beauty, being mute,
When others would give life, and bring a tomb.
There lives more life in one of your fair eyes
Than both your poets can in praise devise.
[Sonnet 83]

I think Shakespeare’s lover would have dismissed this kind of play, and insisted, “Try!”

incentive-compatible, just-in-time dishwashing

Mr friend Dr. S. (B.A., Princeton; M.S., MIT; M.D., Yale) shared with me a long time ago a stunningly innovative solution to a difficult group-living problem. I will now share that solution with you, my highly esteemed blog co-participants.

The group-living problem: No one does the dishes. They pile up, festering in the sink. The longer the dishes stay in the sink, the less anyone wants to wash one and use it. The equilibrium is all the dishes piled in the sink and culturing new weapons for germ warfare, and the housemates using papers plates and plastic utensils.

Can economics offer economic man a better life? Indeed it can.

The solution is refrigeration. Actually, freezing. In group living situations, no one goes shopping, either. Thus the freezer is empty. So you just put the dirty dishes in the freezer. Then when someone wants to use a dish, he simply takes it out of the freezer and gives it a quick rinse. This is incentive-compatible, just-in-time dishwashing.

I realize that the parameters might be different for women. I myself have always believed that “economic man” is a ridiculously narrow, unrealistic model of humanity.