“The belief that the future will be much better than the past and present is known as the optimism bias. (…)
The bias also protects and inspires us: it keeps us moving forward rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge. Without optimism, our ancestors might never have ventured far from their tribes and we might all be cave dwellers, still huddled together and dreaming of light and heat.
To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them. (…)
A growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain. (…)
Our brains aren’t just stamped by the past. They are constantly being shaped by the future. (…)
Scientists who study memory proposed an intriguing answer: memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future (…) The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events. (…) It is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process, and occasionally, details are deleted and others inserted.”
"A rapidly growing number of recent studies show that imagining the future depends on much of the same neural machinery that is needed for remembering the past. These findings have led to the concept of the prospective brain; an idea that a crucial function of the brain is to use stored information to imagine, simulate and predict possible future events. We suggest that processes such as memory can be productively re-conceptualized in light of this idea. (…)
Thoughts of past and future events are proposed to draw on similar information stored in episodic memory and rely on similar underlying processes, and episodic memory is proposed to support the construction of future events by extracting and recombining stored information into a simulation of a novel event. The hypothesis receives general support from findings of neural and cognitive overlap between thoughts of past and future events. (…)
Future events were more vivid and more detailed when imagined in recently experienced contexts (university locations) than when imagined in remotely experienced contexts (school settings). These results support the idea that episodic information is used to construct future event simulations. (…)
The core brain system is also used by many diverse types of task that require mental simulation of alternative perspectives. The idea is that the core brain system allows one to shift from perceiving the immediate environment to an alternative, imagined perspective that is based largely on memories of the past. Future thinking, by this view, is just one of several forms of such ability. Thinking about the perspectives of others (theory of mind) also appears to use the core brain system, as do certain forms of navigation. (…)
From an adaptive perspective, preparing for the future is a vital task in any domain of cognition or behaviour that is important for survival. The processes of event simulation probably have a key role in helping individuals plan for the future, although they are also important for other tasks that relate to the present and the past.
Memory can be thought of as a tool used by the prospective brain to generate simulations of possible future events.”
"Our sense of self is not an entity in its own right, but emerges from general purpose processes in the brain.
Seth Gillihan and Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia have proposed a view of the self that has three strands: the physical self (which arises from our sense of embodiment); the psychological self (which comprises our subjective point-of-view, our autobiographical memories and the ability to differentiate between self and others); and a higher level sense of agency, which attributes the actions of the physical self to the psychological self (Psychological Bulletin, vol 131, p 76)
We are now uncovering some of the brain processes underlying these strands. For instance, Olaf Blanke of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and colleagues have shown that the physical sense of self is centred on the temporo-parietal cortex. It integrates information from your senses to create a sense of embodiment, a feeling of being located in a particular body in a particular place. That feeling can be spectacularly disrupted if the temporo-parietal cortex receives contradictory inputs, causing it to generate out-of-body experiences (New Scientist, 10 October 2009, p 34). (…)
Within the brain, it seems, the self is both everywhere and nowhere. “If you make a list [for what’s needed for a sense of self], there is hardly a brain region untouched,” says cognitive philosopher Thomas Metzinger of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Metzinger interprets this as meaning the self is an illusion. We are, he says, fooled by our brains into believing that we are substantial and unchanging. (…)
Studies have shown that each time we recall an episode from our past, we remember the details differently, thus altering ourselves (Physics of Life Reviews, vol 7, p 88).
So the self, despite its seeming constancy and solidity, is constantly changing. We are not the same person we were a year ago and we will be different tomorrow or a year from now. And the only reason we believe otherwise is because the brain does such a stellar job of pulling the wool over our eyes.”
Prof. Dr. Thomas Metzinger: Brain, bodily awareness, and the emergence of a conscious self
“Brain, bodily awareness, and the emergence of a conscious self: these entities and their relations are explored by German philosopher and cognitive scientist Thomas Metzinger. Extensively working with neuroscientists he has come to the conclusion that, in fact, there is no such thing as a “self” — that a “self” is simply the content of a model created by our brain - part of a virtual reality we create for ourselves. But if the self is not “real,” he asks, why and how did it evolve?
How does the brain construct the self? In a series of fascinating virtual reality experiments, Metzinger and his colleagues have attempted to create so-called “out-of-body experiences” in the lab, in order to explore these questions. As a philosopher, he offers a discussion of many of the latest results in robotics, neuroscience, dream and meditation research, and argues that the brain is much more powerful than we have ever imagined. He shows us, for example, that we now have the first machines that have developed an inner image of their own body — and actually use this model to create intelligent behavior.
In addition, studies exploring the connections between phantom limbs and the brain have shown us that even people born without arms or legs sometimes experience a sensation that they do in fact have limbs that are not there. Experiments like the “rubber-hand illusion” demonstrate how we can experience a fake hand as part of our self and even feel a sensation of touch on the phantom hand form the basis and testing ground for the idea that what we have called the “self” in the past is just the content of a transparent self-model in our brains.
Now, as new ways of manipulating the conscious mind-brain appear on the scene, it will soon become possible to alter our subjective reality in an unprecedented manner. The cultural consequences of this, Metzinger claims, may be immense: we will need a new approach to ethics, and we will be forced to think about ourselves in a fundamentally new way.”
— Thomas Metzinger, German philosopher, Department of Philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, and consciousness studies as an academic endeavour, talk at TEDxRheinMain, 2011
A beautiful short animation made by Owen Gatley and Luke Jinks loosely based on the scientific recording of lifes great species and how this has given us clues that piece together, for us to discover the secrets of the evolution and diversity of life on Earth.
"There are many differences among the arts, but there are also universal, cross-cultural aesthetic pleasures and values. How can we explain this universality? (…) The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations. (…)
It’s women who actually push history forward. Darwin himself, by the way, had no doubts that the peacock’s tail was beautiful in the eyes of the peahen. He actually used that word. (…) We can say that the experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing and sustaining interest or fascination, even obsession, in order to encourage us toward making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction. Beauty is nature’s way of acting at a distance, so to speak. I mean, you can’t expect to eat an adaptively beneficial landscape. It would hardly do to your baby or your lover. So evolution’s trick is to make them beautiful, to have them exert a kind of magnetism to give you the pleasure of simply looking at them.
Consider briefly an important source of aesthetic pleasure, the magnetic pull of beautiful landscapes. People in very different cultures all over the world tend to like a particular kind of landscape, a landscape that just happens to be similar to the pleistocene savannas where we evolved. (…)
It’s a kind of Hudson River school landscape featuring open spaces of low grasses interspersed with copses of trees. The trees, by the way, are often preferred if they fork near the ground, that is to say, if they’re trees you could scramble up if you were in a tight fix. The landscape shows the presence of water directly in view, or evidence of water in a bluish distance, indications of animal or bird life as well as diverse greenery and finally — get this — a path or a road, perhaps a riverbank or a shoreline, that extends into the distance, almost inviting you to follow it. This landscape type is regarded as beautiful, even by people in countries that don’t have it. The ideal savanna landscape is one of the clearest examples where human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.
The artistic beauty
But, someone might argue, that’s natural beauty. How about artistic beauty? Isn’t that exhaustively cultural? No, I don’t think it is. And once again, I’d like to look back to prehistory to say something about it. It is widely assumed that the earliest human artworks are the stupendously skillful cave paintings that we all know from Lascaux and Chauvet. Chauvet caves are about 32,000 years old, along with a few small, realistic sculptures of women and animals from the same period. But artistic and decorative skills are actually much older than that.
Beautiful shell necklaces that look like something you’d see at an arts and crafts fair, as well as ochre body paint, have been found from around 100,000 years ago. But the most intriguing prehistoric artifacts are older even than this. I have in mind the so-called Acheulian hand axes. The oldest stone tools are choppers from the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa. They go back about two and a half million years. These crude tools were around for thousands of centuries, until around 1.4 million years ago when Homo erectus started shaping single, thin stone blades, sometimes rounded ovals, but often in, what are to our eyes, an arresting, symmetrical pointed leaf or teardrop form.
These Acheulian hand axes — they’re named after St. Acheul in France, where finds were made in 19th century — have been unearthed in their thousands, scattered across Asia, Europe and Africa, almost everywhere Homo erectus and Homo ergaster roamed. Now, the sheer numbers of these hand axes shows that they can’t have been made for butchering animals. And the plot really thickens when you realize that, unlike other pleistocene tools, the hand axes often exhibit no evidence of wear on their delicate blade edges. And some, in any event, are too big to use for butchery. Their symmetry, their attractive materials and, above all, their meticulous workmanship are simply quite beautiful to our eyes, even today.
So what were these ancient — I mean, they’re ancient, they’re foreign, but they’re at the same time somehow familiar. What were these artifacts for? The best available answer is that they were literally the earliest known works of art, practical tools transformed into captivating aesthetic objects, contemplated both for their elegant shape and their virtuoso craftsmanship. Hand axes mark an evolutionary advance in human history — tools fashioned to function as what Darwinians call fitness signals — that is to say, displays that are performances like the peacock’s tail, except that, unlike hair and feathers, the hand axes are consciously cleverly crafted. Competently made hand axes indicated desirable personal qualities — intelligence, fine motor control, planning ability, conscientiousness and sometimes access to rare materials. Over tens of thousands of generations, such skills increased the status of those who displayed them and gained a reproductive advantage over the less capable. You know, it’s an old line, but it has been shown to work — “Why don’t you come up to my cave, so I can show you my hand axes.”
Except, of course, what’s interesting about this is that we can’t be sure how that idea was conveyed, because the Homo erectus that made these objects did not have language. It’s hard to grasp, but it’s an incredible fact. This object was made by a hominid ancestor — Homo erectus or Homo ergaster — between 50 and 100,000 years before language. Stretching over a million years, the hand axe tradition is the longest artistic tradition in human and proto-human history. By the end of the hand axe epic, Homo sapiens — as they were then called, finally — were doubtless finding new ways to amuse and amaze each other by, who knows, telling jokes, storytelling, dancing, or hairstyling.
Yes, hairstyling — I insist on that. For us moderns, virtuoso technique is used to create imaginary worlds in fiction and in movies, to express intense emotions with music, painting and dance. But still, one fundamental trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: the beauty we find in skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall, human beings have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well. So the next time you pass a jewelry shop window displaying a beautifully cut teardrop-shaped stone, don’t be so sure it’s just your culture telling you that that sparkling jewel is beautiful. Your distant ancestors loved that shape and found beauty in the skill needed to make it, even before they could put their love into words.
Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? No, it’s deep in our minds. It’s a gift, handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors. Our powerful reaction to images, to the expression of emotion in art, to the beauty of music, to the night sky, will be with us and our descendants for as long as the human race exists.”
"Simply put, our brain is inherently well suited for some tasks, but ill suited for others. Unfortunately, the brain’s weaknesses include recognizing which tasks are which, so for the most part we remain ignorantly blissful of the extent to which our lives are governed by the brain’s bugs.”
"Like a parent that carefully filters the information her child is exposed to, the brain edits and censors much of the information it feeds to the conscious mind. In the same fashion that your brain likely edited out the extra "the" from the previous sentence, we are generally blissfully unaware of the arbitrary and irrational factors that govern our decisions and behaviors."
"One type of memory error that we make, a memory bug, is really a product of the fact that in human memory, there’s no distinct process or distinction between storage and retrieval.
So when a computer or a DVD writes something down, it has one laser that’s used to store the memory, and it has another laser to retrieve the memory, and those are very distinct processes.
Now, in human memory, the distinction between storage and retrieval is not very clear. (…)
This should be seen as a consequence of the fact that memory is written down as we experience it. It’s being continuously updated. And the synapses that undergo changes in strength - so as you alluded to earlier, one of the ways the brain writes does information is by making new synapses, making new connections or strengthening new ones or weakening old ones.
And that process uses these synapses that get strengthened, but the retrieval also uses those same synapses. So that can strengthen that pathway. (…)
The perception of time
When we think of the perception of time, most people think of the subjective sense of time: How long have they been listening to this program, how long are they stuck in traffic? And the brain seems to have multiple different mechanisms, and that’s one thing that we’ve learned about how the brain tells time is that unlike the clocks on our wrist that can be used to tell a few milliseconds or months and years, the brain has very fundamentally different mechanisms for telling very short periods of time and very long periods of time.
And that’s a consequence of the evolutionary process, that it came up with redundant solutions and different solutions depending upon the adaptive needs of different animals.
And it turns out that we don’t seem to have a very precise clock. Time is very much distorted when we are anticipating what’s about to happen, when we’re nervous, when we’re stressed and when we have high-adrenaline moments. Our internal clock is not that accurate. (…)
We are living in a time and place we didn’t evolve to live in
"And humans suffer some of the same consequences of living in a time and place we didn’t evolve to live in. (…) And by peering into the brain, we can learn a lot about whywe are good at some things and why we are not very good at others."
"The brain is an incomprehensibly complex biological computer, responsible for every action we have taken and every decision, thought, and feeling we’ve ever had. This is probably a concept that most people do not find comforting. Indeed, the fact that the mind emerges from the brain is something not all brains have come to accept. But our reticence to acknowledge that our humanity derives solely from the physical brain should not come as a surprise. The brain was not designed to understand itself anymore than a calculator was designed to surf the Web.”— Dean Buonomano, Brain Bugs. How the brain’s flaws shape our lives, W.W. Norton, 2011
Our neuro-operating system, if you will, the set of rules were endowed in our genes that provide instructions on how to build the brain, what it should come preloaded with, the innate biases we should have, and most animals have innate biases to fear predator with big sharp teeth and to fear poisonous spiders and poisonous snakes. Because those innate fears increase survival. And you don’t want to have to learn to fear snakes because you might not have a second chance. So we still carry that genetic baggage within our neuro-operating system.
It’s safe to say that it’s outdated. We currently live in a world in which in the United States, probably few people a year die or suffer severe consequences due to snake bites. But every year 44,000 people die of car accidents. So in the same way that evolution did not prepare say skunks to cope with the dangers of automobiles, evolution did not prepare humans to face the dangers of many of the things that surround us in our modern life, including automobiles, or an excess fluid for example of that we deal with problems due to obesity and too much cholesterol are all things that now have very dramatic effects on our lives, and we weren’t prepared for those things by the evolutionary process. (…)
A lots of our decisions are the product of two different systems interacting within the brain. And very loosely speaking, you can think of one of these as the automatic system, which is very unconscious and associative and emotional; and people can think of this as intuition. And then we have the reflective system, which is effortful, requires knowledge and careful deliberation. And people can get a quick feel for these two systems in operation with the following examples. The old trick question: what do cows drink? The part of your brain that just thought of milk was the automatic system. And then the reflective system comes in and says wait a minute. That’s wrong. The answer is water.
Similarly, if I asked: I’m going to throw four coins up in the air what’s the probability that two of them will be heads and two of them will be tail? Now, part of the brain that’s just thinking of well, it sounds like it should be 50 percent, because I said half the coins tails, half the coins heads. That’s again basically the automatic system. It would take the reflective system, some serious reflection, to work out the math and come up with an answer of six-sixteenths.
Now, in most cases we reach happy balances between both of these systems. And clearly, when we are understanding each other’s speech and making rapid decisions, the automatic system provides great balance as to what the proper answer is. But when we need to engage our reflective system and ask questions, such as the probability question that I just asked, sometimes we are misled because we trust the automatic system too much and the reflective system doesn’t really get through in some situations. And this can lead us, in the case for example, of the temporal discounting situation where I asked if you want $100 today or $120 in the future. So the automatic system, which is biased by immediate gratification, might get the edge in that situation.”
"What we call reality,” [physicist] John Archibald Wheeler wrote coyly, “arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions.” He added: “All things physical are information-theoretic in origin, and this is a participatory universe.” The whole universe is thus seen as a computer—a cosmic information-processing machine.” — James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, Pantheon, 2011
"Reality is an intelligent conversation with the universe." - cited in What Is Reality?, BBC Horizon documentary, 2011
The illusion of reality | BBC
"Professor Jim Al-Khalili explores how studying the atom forced us to rethink the nature of reality itself. He discovers that there might be parallel universes in which different versions of us exist, finds out that empty space isn’t empty at all, and investigates the differences in our perception of the world in the universe and the reality.” — BBC Four, 2010
What Is Reality? | BBC Horizon
"There is a strange and mysterious world that surrounds us, a world largely hidden from our senses. The quest to explain the true nature of reality is one of the great scientific detective stories.
Clues have been pieced together from deep within the atom, from the event horizon of black holes, and from the far reaches of the cosmos. It may be that that we are part of a cosmic hologram, projected from the edge of the universe. Or that we exist in an infinity of parallel worlds. Your reality may never look quite the same again.” — BBC Horizon, 2011 (Full playlist)