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Beyond the BrainReview - Beyond the Brain
How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds
by Louise Barrett
Princeton University Press, 2011
Review by Roy Sugarman PhD
Oct 4th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 40)

We often look at animals, and wonder at how human their attributes are, and particularly if they are apes, we see so much of ourselves in their behavior, marveling at Bonobo’s and Chimps in particular.  This is a dangerous pursuit apparently if you happen to be close to Louise Barrett at the time.  Barrett makes it clear that we have followed very different evolutionary trajectories from other creatures, even if we tend to anthropomorphize them, but we live in different places in different bodies to them, and in many cases, such as the working memory of some apes, they exceed our capacities and challenge us for ascendency in some areas of endeavor.  Simply put, we cannot project the things we do and how we think about our challenges that we solve in terms of how animals do their own things.

Intelligent behavior is thus determined outside the brain as well, dictated by physical circumstances, by what Bill Blessing calls the visceral brain.  Barrett thus continues the tradition of body brain integration that has emerged over the last few years, given the brain is an integral part of the body-brain organism and cannot be separated from it in terms of how we think and feel and solve problems: much of cognition is thus dictated by events outside of the brain itself. This physical presence means the thirst for water and how we set about finding and using water are inseparable and defined by events and circumstance outside of the brain.

Traits from different animals cannot thus be seen as typically or uniquely human either. Scientific endeavor cannot simply reflect our own concerns and solutions as humans, projected onto animals: so for instance how would an animal solve a human problem, is irrelevant.  What helped us solve our issues may not be a gift or even necessary for other animals, not even a large brain may be useful at all for some problems in evolution. Plants then do not need to think, nor feel pain when we pluck them, nor do they need anything analogous to a human nervous system to solve the challenges they face. The whole of evolution was not crafted to produce us as the most supreme creature, the other creatures that survived do quite nicely without any human qualities at all, and in a sense represent the best of problem solving in evolution for their intended evolutionary target. Anthropocentrism is thus a bias which hinders scientific enquiry.

We are thus more apelike and mundane, rather than thinking the Chimpanzee is more humanlike than we think: it cuts both ways. A frog sitting by a pond calling out a mating call does not necessarily desire a mate or know anything specific about what he is doing; what is true is that those who call find mates and survive as a species and those who don’t, don’t. Those female frogs that respond are not necessarily doing anything specific.  To suggest some motive is to suggest they have conquered the challenge of evolving in the same way we have, as the ultimate creature. Predicting behavior is not the same as explaining it. Knowing that a creature will do something and then thinking that this is explained by some intention is a fallacy that Barrett sets out to dispel. However, she also notes that our anthropomorphic tendencies are helpful for identifying relevant evolutionary questions and answers, we need to know how to use it more usefully without mistaken attributions.

So we know a female baboon grooms her eldest daughter preferentially which has the effect of protecting her rank in the tribe, but this does not allow us to understand the nature of her actions in real baboon terms, even if we understand the evolutionary advantage this brings.

Our tendency to do this with animals increases if the animals have some sort of a recognizable face, which is most, and certainly also if they have limbs similar to ours, even inanimate objects such as the Alessi designs for everyday utilitarian objects.  The more like us something or some creature looks, the greater our tendency to treat it as if it were like us. This as noted before is a barrier to the understanding of how this creature responds to its own corporeal limits and its environment as opposed to how we might.

So if the human parvocellular pathway has evolved for fruit colors, fine detail and daylight foraging, it also appears to be particularly developed in larger group sizes.  This leads to the postulation that facial features and the parvocellular pathway are also linked in evolution. Another example of this would be the mirror neurons, which respond to events related to other living creatures, but not to mechanical copies that do exactly what the human would do.  This is the social brain. As Vygotsky noted, the environment shaped the social ‘knots’ that make up the brain, echoed here by Barrett.  Our behaviors are therefore the source and cause of what eventually lands up in our brains, as a font of invisible thoughts and beliefs, which color what we infer about other’s behavior.

A big brain is another misleading trait which allows us the assumption of superiority.  Barrett points out a number of cases where a small brain is equal to many of the tasks, such as the paper wasps ability to recognize facial features of other wasps, and honey bees can discriminate one human from another, not in terms of recognizing them, but of knowing which face will bring what reward.  There is no connection between the complexity of an observed behavior, and the complexity of the mechanism that produced it, e.g. an act bobbing and weaving along a beach is not navigating beautifully and elegantly, just responding to obstacles. Robots built to respond to the environment, even if built to greater or lesser sophistication, may outperform each other if the interaction with the surroundings is less in tune with the competition.  So in practical terms, robot crickets can be built that find male crickets by following their tunes in mechanistic rather than meaningful way.  Complex behaviors may thus represent simple mechanisms responding to complex environments.

So although the jumping spider, Portia, has the brain the size of a pin, it manages the most complex of stalking behaviors as if capable of what humans might assume is reasoning with an intelligent range of alternatives from which it sensible chooses sentient outcomes: it doesn’t. Research shows that the apparent intelligent machinations of this creature involve simply tracking the continuity of horizontal lines backward from sentinel vertical objects to find a path by trial and error, despite our initially imbuing these creatures with supposed human-like qualities.  They are in fact making it up as they go along, without a huge computer-like overview.

Needing a bigger brain is something other creatures might need to meet bigger challenges. Or rather, do we believe a big brain is necessary for flexibility? Sea Squirts use their 300 odd neurons to find a good place to hang out, then stay there, reabsorb their primitive brain, and act like a content plant after that. This could be instinct, or intelligent in terms of behavioral flexibility and problem solving.  Instinct is inflexible though, intelligence is the opposite, true?  Nope, apparently not. Most instincts turn out to be a form of learning. Imprinting, for instance of the Konrad Lorenz fame, is actually a rapidly learned and modifiable behavior, not an instinct, pre-learned and invariant behavior, and the tendency of infants to orientate to the breast is learned, not instinctual, and can happen in response to amniotic fluid stimuli, the mother’s diet, and other features of the intrauterine experience, rather than the smell of the mother’s armpit or a non-lactating breast.  If this is true, then coating a breast with amniotic fluid would attract more attention than an unwashed breast and in turn more attention than a washed breast: this is all true.

Taking it back to Portia, a small brain does not doom the animal to behave in a fixed an inflexible manner, as instinct would have it.  Learning does take place within a small behavioral platform.  To produce species-specific behavior, a creature must inherit the same or similar environment from its ancestors and with that, a similar developmental process with similar genes at least.  Certain bacteria will dictate how the gut develops, and Woodpecker Finch’s need holes in trees and sticks of the right sort to learn and then demonstrate the tongue-less behavior adaptation to a woodpecker lifestyle. If the chicks are exposed to sticks early, in certain dry areas, they learn to use the sticks to replace the missing long barbed woodpecker tongue: in wetter areas, the same species adults cannot use sticks at all in the same way, as the play with sticks never developed into tool use, as it was not required for survival.  Behavioral flexibility is thus the result of the interplay between the organism and the environment. Flexible behavior is thus not a property of the animal, its brain, or even the evolutionary process that gave rise to it, but if it is regarded as intelligent behavior, this is in the eye of the beholder: the behavior lacks volition.

So what in the final wash comes out is that the only thing a good brain, especially a big and good brain does, is to allow for increasing capacity to mitigate against the capriciousness of the environment, and hence this allows us to thrive more than other creatures.  A Huntsman spider set up home recently in my electricity box, a seemingly warm and dry place and quietly sat there for a long time, before gently expiring, then dehydrating.  His mummified (or hers) remains still cling to the wall where it reminds me of its failure to move on when nothing edible arrived. No intelligence there in human or big brain terms, just a spider doing what spiders do, and not good enough to keep going. My umwelt, wide in scope and challenge is much wider and deeper than a spider, who does not need a brain my size therefore, but when faced with a challenge which in my umwelt would be trivial, was unaware within his limited but adequate view within his umwelt, that he was doomed. For the most part, his umwelt and his capacity to deal with it effectively is painted in broad strokes, but the finer detail, which humans tend to excel at, is beyond the spider’s volitional limits.

Elephants on the other hand, living as long almost as humans, need a bigger brain for a much bigger umwelt. Socially, the ageing matriarch of the herd accumulates knowledge about the elephants she will encounter across her years, which has  a feedback effect on how many younger elephants the herd will cultivate: this social feedback has direct impact on how prolific herd growth will be, and her dexterity at working the environment and responding to social aspects is way beyond other creature’s whose success in their umwelt has far less criteria attached to it, and far less brain needed.

Although Scrub Jays have less social demands, they have sell by dates on their food, so need to recall not only where they sequestered food for later consumption, but how long has passed in storage duration, or they would be confronted with decayed and inedible food: better avoided in favor of going to where they stored more durable food, or move it if they noted a competitor bird watching them store the original. Previous pilfering experiences means the Scrub Jays choose let well lit areas, or move it more often. When placed in laboratories where winter never comes, they will still cache food, despite no shortage, but their other behaviors appear much more flexible and volitional.

What Barrett is finally saying is that the body-brain discrimination historically is incorrect, and that many bodies can be put together in such a way as to make neurology at higher levels virtually unnecessary, and secondly, that the body-brain entity can be seen separately from the environment in which it lives.

Psychological phenomena are thus not something internal to the creature, but emerge as a consequence of the organism-environment interaction.  Behavior is thus a result of the mutuality of the ecology thus created.

Barrett continues throughout the book to make the point about these issues and why the tendency to anthropomorphize the world of cognition in other animals is troublesome. If body and environment form constituent parts of what we call ‘mind’, it becomes very difficult to see how other kinds of animals with different bodies and living in diverse environs with different umwelts, can be seen to be possessed of similar minds or minds which have fractionated elements of our neurological systems: there is no fit.  Hence, any study that follows on this human-analogy path is conflicted and unhelpful.  Like us, animals do not see a world ‘that is’ essentially, but only the umwelt as it reflects the animals’ needs and physical capacities.  We believe, emanating from our conscious limitations, that we see the world as it is, but ultraviolet, infra-red, ultrasound, pheromones, all exist beyond our range, and yet are part of other animals’ experiences.  We, alone out of all creatures can step outside of our sensorium, and measure and even listen/watch these hidden and irrelevant pathways, beyond our daily existence, and hardly needed by most of us in the world, apart from curious scientists, but for other animals, their daily drudgery has no need to step so far, they will continue to exist without it.  Other species, now long gone, died when their environs changed beyond their vision of their umwelt, and no amount of projection of human cognitive ideals on our part saved them.

Barrett’s book is a superb and unique bit of thinking, and so eminently readable and enticing that it will appeal to the mainstream, even if the intricacies of her argument is lost, so clearly does she write. It is so rare to find a richly scientific and philosophical book that the reader will find hard to put down, as if it were a bestselling novel, and I hope this book actually reaches a bestseller list, it is that good, and has that wide an audience, from layman to cognitive scientist.  I recommend it to any university under or post-graduate course, as one of the most intriguing and compelling works I have ever read or reviewed. This is not due alone to the startling facts, or her humor, or any other single facet, but owes much to her integration of so many aspects of argument, philosophy, science, anthropology, ecological psychology and others, that it teaches the student, in passing, to think outside of the umwelt. A great contribution.

 

© 2011 Roy Sugarman

 

Roy Sugarman PhD: Director of Applied Neuroscience, Athletes’ Performance USA


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