Brains, minds and twisting vines

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This animated GIF of a growing vine in time-lapse photography, long a favorite of mine, has brought to mind two interesting things about how humans think and make decisions.

Twisting vines

Source: YouTube

One of the recurring themes in this blog has been poking at this phenomenon we call volition (or, with more religious/political implications, “choice” or “free will”). When we speed up the natural growth of this vine, we cannot help but get a “funny feeling” that there is some kind of intention going on here, as the plant “searches” for an anchor point to enable its continued “climbing.”

My first observation is that humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize non-human objects when they are in motion (or even not in motion [see Note 1]), ascribing “human” characteristics to those objects. Related to the “theory of mind,” this is often an over-reaction to a very necessary human ability, which is to ascribe intention, emotion, and other characteristics to other human beings as we feel those same characteristics inside ourselves. In this vine’s case, perhaps this feeling is my natural desire to ascribe an intended objective, and perhaps even some emotion, to this plant as it seeks to grow and survive. What “human” characteristics to you “see” in this animation?

My interpretation of the research work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio [2], who you can hear in a great interview on Sean Carroll’s podcast Mindscapes, suggests that we are looking at this backwards. In short, how much of this plant’s struggle for survival is found in me as well, except that my reactions don’t require time-lapse speed-up, and that I have better-evolved “photo-sensors” (eyes) than the plant does, and an evolved nervous system? Perhaps this vine is me, or even my body without my brain, blindly reaching out for sustenance, and clamoring to survive.

Damasio is a champion of the concept of embodied cognition, which suggests that much of the “non-brain” parts of our bodies, and even the “gut biome” residing in each of us, have rudimentary functions that we might think of as “mind,” and are always acting semi-independently from our brains. How much “brain power” is used when you habitually scratch your nose when it itches? Perhaps not as much as you think. In other words, perhaps the brain is more “reporting” on our bodily functions here than directing them, and then saying, after the fact, “I meant to do that!”

The brain-body communication pathways established by our vertebrate nervous system have enabled us humans to speed up our “life pace,” faster than this plant, but slower than the fly whizzing past us, who zips through an entire life cycle in a matter of a few weeks. As I have noted before, a primary function of the human brain appears to be the evaluation of probabilities to better ensure our individual and species’ reproduction and survival. And yet, sometimes it does seem like we’re just “flailing about,” as this vine appears to do, more often than not.


Notes:

  1. When you see a “face” on the surface of the moon or an image of Jesus on a piece of burnt toast, you are experiencing a well-documented brain mis-fire called pareidolia, which is the brain’s projection of a meaningful pattern, such as a face, where no such pattern exists. In evolutionary terms, it is probabilistically better for your survival to mistakenly see the “face” of a lion hiding in the grass and taking evasive action, as opposed to the alternative of ignoring the perceived facial pattern and being wrong about that.

Jesus on toast

  1. See, for instance, Damasio, Antonio, Self Comes to Mind : Constructing the Conscious Brain (Vintage Books, 2012).

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