Individual differences

Yesterday Doug commented:

I think this is the core of religious feeling– the conviction that it is impossible for something as infinite in potential and capability as the mind to cease to exist because of something as trivial as a microbe or a car accident.

Perhaps the core of atheist feeling is the obverse of this: the sad observation that it is possible for something as infinite as the mind to cease to exist. From that perspective such things as good works, creativity, being an inspiration to those who come after, these are the only “immortality” we have.

One could say that the “atheist premise” is that the feeling of being human comes from a shared legacy of a highly evolved brain. This premise leads to ethical conclusions that are different from the ethical conclusions one might derive from the premise that humans are a product of divine creation.

For example, I am atheist, which puts me in the distinct minority in my culture. Somewhat recently I became vegan, which really puts me in the minority. For me the veganism was a direct logical outgrowth of the atheism, a conclusion I was bound to reach eventually. If we ascribe our feeling of kinship with other individuals to these astonishing brains of ours, then I find it impossible to draw a line between human individuals and individuals within species whose brains are more similar to ours than different. Of course other species do not have our facility with language, but that doesn’t seem to get at the essence of things – newborn infants and people with certain kinds of disabilities do not have language, yet we consider them to be individuals, not things – and we try to avoid eating them.

Complex brain function leads to the capacity to feel, to experience life, to have a subjective emotional experience. For me, this capacity constitutes the line between “those individuals here in this world with us” and the indifferent world outside those individuals. Speaking as a scientist, I find the empirical evidence to be overwhelming that individuals of many species are far more similar to humans than different in their capacity to feel and to have a subjective experience of life.

To sum up: an atheist view of the brain, combined with the observation that we share almost all brain functionality with members of many other species, leads to an expanded view of what constitutes an “individual”. When looked at objectively, without any preconceived bias, the huge similarities of brain form and function between individuals across many species are far greater than the relatively small differences.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that I “love animals”. It just means that I find it inappropriate to eat them.


We are so fragile in these bodies, aren’t we? We stride upon the earth as gods, while we hurl our ideas like thunderbolts out to the ether, across the globe, into the future.

And yet we are fragile, mere petals, so easily broken off from the stem, taken by the wind, blown far away and then gone.

Today I looked into the eyes of a dear friend, someone I love more than words could ever express. She has experienced a physical trauma, an unexpected bodily injury.

And I ask myself whether this perfect being, this delightful creator of ideas, she of the quicksilver mind and spirit, whose very name means wisdom, could actually be subject to something as undignified as an assault upon her body.

It seems somehow wrong, indefensible, that human souls, beings of air and light, who can reach so high, soar to the heavens and beyond upon wings of pure thought, could be held hostage by these ragtag bodies, these fragile bags of bones.

And so today I dedicate this discussion to the mind and spirit of my friend, to her precious existence, and to the fire within those eyes. I celebrate that fire even more for knowing that such an infinitely bright flame is, incongruously, at the mercy of a insensate physical world.

Something good

This last week I have been reading something good, a book that a friend recently gave me called The Last of the Really Great Whangdoogles by a children’s writer named Julie Andrews Edwards. I had never heard of it before, I’m about five chapters in now, and it’s completely wonderful. It’s in the category of “books for children”, but it also contains all sorts of ideas you’d never expect in a children’s book, such as a really excellent treatise on Fractal geometry and its place in the world – even though the book was published a year before Benoit Mandelbrot had even coined that term.

Today a woman whom I had never before met asked me what books I am reading, and I pulled the Whangdoodle book out of my coat pocket and showed it to her. She looked at the author’s name and said “Oh, Julie Andrews, the actress?” Even as I was starting to roll my eyes at her unjustified leap of logic, she was already looking at the author’s photo on the back of the book – something it had never occurred to me to do. Sure enough, the author was indeed Julie Andrews, the actress.

I’m guessing now that the friend who gave me the book had assumed that I knew that the author was Julie Andrews, the actress. One thing that makes this story so uncanny is that just this morning, about an hour before the abovementioned encounter, I had read the New York Times book review of the new autobiography of Julie Andrews (yes, the actress). The review mentioned that she was also a respected children’s writer, and yet even that hadn’t clued me in.

It fascinates me that it had simply never occurred to me to make the connection between writer and actress – I guess my mind just doesn’t work that way – and yet the very first person to whom I showed the book made that connection instantly.

Yet now that I know this, my mind has been starting to make all sorts of other connections. There is, for example, the coincidental fact that just this week I gave a gift of the DVD of The Sound of Music to perhaps the only friend I know who has never seen it (and in fact hadn’t even known the film existed until I had described it). I guess I had felt it was my civic duty to spread universal knowledge of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic creation. So of course I had been looking at that famous picture of Julie Andrews in the Austrian Alps at the same time that I was reading her book, all the while oblivious to the author’s identity.

But there’s one other connection that comes to mind, stemming from the time several years ago when I was browsing through the Strand book store on Broadway and 12th Street. The Strand is the perfect place to find that book you’ve been looking for all your life which you never knew existed. And that’s what happened on that day. I found the autobiography of Alan Jay Lerner, the lyricist for My Fair Lady – a musical that I mentioned in this blog only yesterday – which first opened on Broadway in 1956.

When people think of this musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, Julie Andrews generally comes up merely as the young engenue who rose to sudden stardom playing the lead part. But according to Lerner’s autobiography, Ms. Andrews also played a far more significant role in this musical’s evolution.

A quick aside: My Fair Lady was later turned into a Hollywood movie. But for the film version, instead of Julie Andrews the producers decided that the part should be sung by the great Marni Nixon, although you can’t recognize her in the film because she is cleverly disguised as Holly Golightly:



Anyway, back to 1956. Lerner had written his adaptation – which I think is one of the greatest musical adaptations of a play ever written – in a way that was fairly true to the spirit of Shaw’s original. Pygmalion was not merely a romantic comedy; it was a socialist critique of the British class system.

In a nutshell: Henry Higgins, on a bet, trains guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle to speak “proper” english. Comic romance ensues, as the battle of the sexes merges with the battle of the classes.

Those who have only seen the musical version may not realize that at the end of the original play, having acquired the language tools required to rise up from the streets, Eliza does not, in fact, marry Higgins. Shaw specified that a note be placed in each theatre goer’s playbill, explaining that in fact Eliza, being a sensible young woman, will go on to marry the insipid Freddy, a rich young man who dotes on her, so that she can use his money and her newly empowering language skills to open a lucrative London flower shop.

While Higgins thinks that Eliza is his puppet, in fact Shaw was using both characters as puppets, to make his points about class conflict. Our old friend Al Hirschfeld understood this perfectly, as you can see from his illustration for the original My Fair Lady soundtrack album:

Lerner had written his musical adaptation to conform to Shaw’s ending. As in the play, Higgins commands: “Eliza, fetch my slippers!” at which point she walks out on him. All of which is consistent with Shaw’s intended message.

Well, according to Lerner’s autobiography, on opening night Julie Andrews couldn’t bring herself to do such a thing. Instead, she came back on-stage carrying the slippers, and the audience went wild. Everyone left the theatre happy, the opening was a smash success, and the producers decided to go with the new ending.

Lo and behold, Julie Andrews, at the tender age of twenty, managed in one moment of intuitively improvised stagecraft to subvert the social realist message of the great George Bernard Shaw, transforming it into a compelling story of romantic reconciliation. In one fell swoop we are left not so much with Saint Joan but with Petruchio and Katherine. Or as Julia Roberts would later say, in the immortal words of Laura Ziskin: “She saves him right back.”

So there you have it. It seems that right from the beginning Julie Andrews was already making an impact as a writer. She might even have been thinking back on that moment when she later sang, to quote Oscar Hammerstein: “Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good.”

The Great Neil Young Mystery

In the early 1970’s Neil Young’s music – a kind of post-hippie intellectual folk rock tinged with southern country – represented exactly how a lot of U.S. youth was feeling as the Vietnam War was drawing to its sad conclusion. There was an almost unimaginable cultural gap between that sound (a hard-fought return away from psychedelia to a kind of post-Beatles roots music) and the earlier aesthetic of Broadway musicals.

By the time Young was recording, many waves of successive cultural upheaval had left their mark in the mere fifteen years since the songs of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady had swept to the top of the pop charts. After the British invasion of 1963, it would become progressively harder for a Broadway musical to produce even one hit song, let alone a whole slew of them.

By the early 1970s, the entire aesthetic that had created the classic Broadway musical had been rejected by a new youth generation. Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser – all of whom had recently been towering figures in the popular culture – were regarded as irrelevant or worse, cultural stooges of a discredited older generation that now stood for Richard Nixon and a reviled war in east Asia.

And yet two of Neil Young’s most popular songs: Heart of Gold and I Believe in You, have identical titles to two songs from Frank Loesser’s 1961 How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying – a Broadway musical that was the very epitome of the older aesthetic.

Well ok, one song title could easily be a coincidence. But two? To quote Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest (upon finding out that her prospective son-in-law is an orphan): “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.”

So is it really possible that there was some utterly wild coincidence at work here? Or was Mr. Young just possibly having a little post-modern fun?

Eros and Thanatos

Eros and Thanatos met at a bar
Eros said “What a strange creature you are!”
Thanatos shrugged “I’m more strange than you think”
“Sit yourself down and I’ll buy you a drink.”

Sigmund was shaking his head at the sight
Of such an odd pair on a Saturday night
“Tell me my friends,” he inquired, “Dear amigos
“Where do you come from, our Ids or our Egos?”

Eros and Thanatos laughed “You inquire
To know if our union is thought or desire?”
They bought him a round and left quite a good tip
For they already knew they would give him the slip.

“We are two of a kind, we are life, we are fear
“We’re the bee in your bonnet, the head on your beer
“The secrets you keep from the friends you betray
“The days of your life and the life in your day”

“We’re the thieves of your heart who will prey on your mind
“The hope that you treasure, the solace you find
“The romance of death and the death of Romance”
And then they got up and proceeded to dance

Sigmund was mortified “This isn’t right!
“You are old enemies, why don’t you fight?”
Eros and Thanatos answered him plain
“Poor dear old Sigmund, are you insane?”

“For who rules the sky – the Sun or the Moon?
“When starts the season, November or June?
“Where lies betrayal, the lips or the heart?
“Haven’t you learned anything, you old fart?”

Then Sigmund smiled, amazed and delighted
“This is right up there with love unrequited!
“Please tell me all, let me buy you one more!”
But Eros and Thanatos slipped out the door.

“Wait!” cried old Sigmund, “Please do not go
“Why would life embrace death? I am dying to know!”
But he was alone, there was no one to hear.
“Oh well then,” he shrugged, and he had one more beer.

Scenes from the novel IV

At first nobody noticed when the fog started to roll in. A few tendrils of mist gathered around the outskirts of town, swirling lazily in the midday air. Gradually the mist thickened, and isolated eddies flowed together, seeping into the back alleyways. The dogs noticed it first. They could sense that something was different, not quite right.

Eventually the mist flowed out of the alleys and poured onto the town square. The children were entranced – it was like a snowfall made of air. They watched, enchanted, as it flowed around their ankles, while they laughed and ran in circles. Their parents looked on uneasily from shops and doorways. There had never been a mist quite like this before, not in these parts.

As the afternoon wore on, the mist rose gradually higher, settling like a blanket over the whole town, thick as cornmeal soup. One by one the shops closed down and people headed on homeward. Parents rounded up their children, pulling the reluctant youngsters indoors. The good citizens of the town shuttered their doors and windows. Some made a sign of the cross or muttered a few silent words of protection under their breath.

Eventually the town grew still, settling into an air of watchful waiting. And that was when some of the more astute amongst the town folk began to notice the Darkening. But only Grandpa Evans, shut up in his old house on the edge of town, thought to look into the almanac. He scratched his head and double checked his columns. Weren’t no eclipse scheduled for today. He sat for a while and patiently thought it all through, and then thought it all through again. When he was done thinking he opened the kitchen drawer and rummaged around until he found his old leather cartridge case. Then he went out to the front hall and took down his shotgun.

The unkindest cut

What makes people suddenly cut other people off, precipitously end a friendship or a romantic attachment by ceasing all communication? I have known several people in my life who one day simply vanished, stopped making contact, after having been (apparently) quite friendly and open. Sometimes you can guess at a reason, but of course you can never be sure. I think of it as a sort of “sudden death” syndrome for friendships.

I can’t recall ever doing anything like that myself. I’m not sure that I would be able to. If I were truly that angry at somebody, I would probably need to express my anger to them, hoping against hope that we could find some way to resolve the conflict. To me, silence between people, utter silence, is an abyss. It is a featureless void upon which may be projected our darkest fears.

Perhaps there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who deal with a conflicted relationship by expressing their anger, and those who simply take out the knife and calmly hold the relationship out before them. And then, with a single cut, quietly slit its throat.

I am glad that I am in the first category.

The Great McGuffin

Yesterday I saw the current Broadway production of The 39 Steps. The play faithfully follows the plot of Hitchcock’s film, scene for scene, but turns it into a wild (and very funny) farce. What was particularly interesting to me was that all of the humor on-stage was based on playing with Theory of Mind. I’ll explain.

The basic strategy of the play is to point out, right from the start, that we are watching an artifice, a thing of pure unreality. Which of course is a given, since we’re actually watching a play – mere actors on a stage. But here the artifice is ratcheted up further by the fact that the several dozen characters from the film are played by only four actors, who continually swap in and out of costumes and personalities. At times actors switch costumes so rapidly that they are able to have entire extended dialogs with themselves.

Please understand, this is all done very well, a feat which requires split-second timing, instant shifts of acting technique and razor sharp choreography of movement. The cast is more than up to the job.

Of course the real subject of the play is not Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. That is merely a McGuffin. The play is really a comic essay about the phenomenon of theatre itself. Specifically, the contradictions of an art form predicated on spending one’s evening watching real people pretend to be imaginary people.

As I watched the actors shift in and out of the “reality” of the story, I realized that at its core I was witnessing the power of Theory of Mind. The audience’s ToM is being given a continual workout, by being asked to join the cast in the wild exercise of constructing ephemeral views of mental states and emotional relationships, while the quotation marks that serve to nest those views within one another are continually put on and taken off.

The humor comes from seeing the world of theatrical emotion continually deconstructed. And the audience never tires of the joke, even though in some places it is repeated multiple times in literally the same way. At the performance I attended, the audience laughed, on cue, every time, no matter how many times they had already seen the same trick.

My favorite moment came near the end of the play when a character – the arch villian – becomes enraged to see his fiendish plot foiled by an event so meta-, so outside the reality of his character, or even of the play itself, that the moment is as absurd as watching a sock puppet jump off a performer’s hand to rail against the sock manufacturing industry.

Now you must understand that the actor who is playing this particular moment has just slipped into the arch-villian character mere seconds ago. In the last several minutes alone we have probably seen him play about ten wildly different characters, including several women. And yet the audience recognizes and responds enthusiastically to the frustration of the arch-villian, this sock puppet, this utterly transitory being.

The playwrite understands perfectly that we, the audience, will embrace any dramatic being that makes a heartfelt claim on our emotions, no matter how absurd that being may seem. And to me that shows, right there, the enormous power of Theory of Mind in fiction.

ToM foolery

When I first read Douglas’s comment, I thought he was implying that Republican strategists want us to think Obama is worried that voters might end up concluding that black people actually buy into Reverend White’s incendiary belief that all whites are racist.

Well, that was nine levels of nested attributed mental states, so I guess yesterday’s commenters were right to point out that our ability to nest attributed mental states depends mightily on how things are presented. I’m sure somebody else could do better than my example, but it’s already pretty clear that with a little care we can go much deeper than five levels.

It would be interesting to make a computer game in which winning depends on successful use of Theory of Mind. For example, maybe to win the game you need to figure out such things as whether knowing that Ellen was lying when she said that her sister wanted to sleep with John actually tells you that Ellen’s sister was only pretending to be jealous after Ellen announced that John had said he wanted to marry her. Well, you get the idea.

If nothing else, we might get a whole new demographic of game players and game designers!

I think you suspect I believe you agree with my opinion.

I’ve been reading Lisa Zunshine’s wonderful book Why We Read Fiction – Theory of Mind and the Novel (Ohio State University Press, 2006), which ties together literary theory and cognitive psychology – specifically “Theory of Mind” (ToM is the mental model we construct of what people are thinking/feeling). The book shows how the pleasure we get from reading about fictional characters derives from the pleasurable sensation of continually testing the evolutionary adaptation that allows us to form such mental models.

The underlying science, in brief: Well developed ToM improves group/clan cooperation and bonding, and therefore is good for species survival, so individuals in our species have evolved to find pleasure in maximizing those abilities. Our brains get so much pleasure from working out peoples’ motivations and underlying emotions that we seek out such mental activities even in fictional contexts.

All of this ties in with the “Hack the Character” theories that I talked about on January 9 and in related posts, and that I sometimes talk about in public. I think that’s why she gave me a copy of her book. 🙂

I’m at the point in the book now where I’m reading about the experiments conducted in the lab of Professor Robin Dunbar at Oxford, to find out what limits there might be on the complexity of the ToM mental models we can form. Specifically, how many levels can we nest thoughts like “he thinks that she believes that they agree with…” before we get lost. Dunbar et al designed some really clever experiments which showed that most people have no trouble nesting four levels deep, but start to lose it at five. For example, I suspect that the five-nested sentence in the title of this post might be pretty tough for most people to decypher.

And that suggests what might be an interesting game. Can we carefully construct sentences that require highly nested theory of mind, and yet won’t confuse people? For example, I’ve managed to make a sentence that nests five-deep, which I’m guessing will be completely clear to most people reading this:

I think Obama worries that voters won’t like his Pastor’s belief that white people are racist.

Can we go deeper than this, and still make sense? Or are our poor little minds not up to the task, no matter how clever we are in trying to circumvent our limited brain power? I’m open to suggestions.