Remembering Numbers

Remembering Numbers

A common theme throughout Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens is the argument that Homo sapiens changed so quickly thanks to our brains that our evolution, both physiologically and psychologically, couldn’t keep up. Evolution is a slow process, but human technological and sociological change has been incredibly rapid. Our minds and bodies are still adapted to live in a world that Homo sapiens no longer inhabits.
As an example, Harari writes, “no forager needed to remember, say, the number of fruit on each tree in the forest. So human brains did not adapt to storing and processing numbers.” Math is hard, and part of the reason it is so hard is that our minds didn’t evolve to do lots of math.  Our foraging ancestors had incredible brains (as we still do) capable of keeping track of the social and political alliances within groups of 50 to 250 individuals – a huge number of potential combinations of friends, enemies, or frenemies. But foragers were not collecting taxes, were not trying to hang multiple pictures of different sizes equally on a wall, or trying to quickly remember which basketball player made a jump shot at the same time that another player committed a foul and tabulate a final score.
The human mind was not evolved for remembering numbers, and that is why recording and calculating numbers is so difficult. It is why we can be so easily confused by graphs and charts that are not well organized and put together. It is part of why it is so hard to save money now to retire later, and why credit card debt can be such an easy problem to fall into. We are good at remembering about 7 digits at once in our short term memory, but beyond that we easily become confused and start to lose track of information. The Agricultural Revolution made numbers more important beginning about 70,000 years ago, but our brains have not caught up. To make up for the difficulty of storing numbers in our heads we write numbers down on paper (or stone tablets in the distant past), use calculators to crunch numbers quicker than we can by hand, and rely on tools that can save numbers and data so that we don’t have to hold it all in our heads. Our brains simply are not up to the task of holding all the numbers we need to remember, so we have developed tools to do that for us. Don’t feel bad if you can’t remember tons of numbers, and don’t make fun of others who can’t do the same. 
Dual Realities - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - Joe Abittan

Dual Realities

A little while back I had a post about personal responsibility where I ultimately suggested that we live in a sort of dual reality. On the one hand, I suggested that we believe that we are personally responsible for our own outcomes, and that we work hard to put ourselves in positions to succeed. But on the other hand, I suggested that when we view other people and where they are in life we reduce the role of personal responsibility and see people as victims of circumstance. For viewing other people, I suggested we weigh outside factors more than internal factors, the opposite of how I encourage us to think about our own lives. This dual reality that I suggested felt strange, but I argued that it should work because it is something we do all the time in life.
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that viewing dual realities is central to our humanity. In fact, Harari would argue that being able to perceive dual (sometimes conflicting realities) helped drive our evolution to become modern Homo sapiens. He writes, “ever since the Cognitive Revolutions, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.” We are adept at seeing the objective reality, layering on narratives and myths, and then inhabiting a new reality that is shaped by both the objectivity underlying our narrative and the mystical nature of the narratives we create. The objective reality is incredibly complicated and our powerful brains are not enough to make sense of that objective reality independently. They need narratives and stories that can help simplify and bring order to the chaos of objective reality.
The question, as Harari ends up reaching – and as I hopelessly found out with my initial blog post on personal responsibility – is how to get people to all adopt the same myths in order to cooperate and bring about the best possible outcomes. “Much of history,” writes Harari, “revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies?” My blog post, which ended with a lukewarm suggestion of viewing personal responsibility differently based on whether you were viewing yourself or others, is certainly not going to influence millions of people to adopt a narrative that makes sense from one perspective but simultaneously requires a contradictory perspective. Yet nevertheless, humans throughout history have been able to get people to believe such stories.
In the history of human myths, deities have been all knowing and all powerful, yet humans still have free will and can make unpredictable choices that leave deities baffled and angered. In some myths, humans can influence the weather and climate, change the course of rivers and streams, but gods and spirits are the ones responsible for the productivity of such natural resources. And corporations can exist, dependent upon and comprised of individuals and material objects, yet those individuals are exempt from liability when things go wrong and the individuals don’t actually seem to own any of the material goods of the company. These contradictions exist and can make our brains hurt if we focus on them too much, but we accept them and move on despite the apparent fictions and contradictions. How this happens is beyond the scope of a single blog post, and really a bigger question that what Harari fully answers and explains in Sapiens.
Is Human Evolution an Inevitable Race Toward Bigger Brains?

Is Human Evolution an Inevitable Race Toward Bigger Brains?

“Some scholars believe,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “there is a direct link between the advent of cooking, the shortening of the human intestinal tract, and the growth of the human brain.” Harari argues that technologies around cooking allowed human intestinal tracts to evolve toward simplicity. Cooking food broke down compounds in foods that were harder to digest and neutralized pathogens that could have made us sick. As we learned to use fire, boil water, and create stone or dirt ovens, we made food more healthy, safer, and easier on our digestive systems which meant that we didn’t need to have such a robust digestive tract.
Harari continues, “Since long intestines and large brains are both massive energy consumers, it’s hard to have both.” When our intestines didn’t need to be so beefy, it was advantageous for humans to evolve with shorter, more streamlined guts. The energy saved in the gut could go toward other organs. Specifically, in the view Harari explains, the extra energy could be used to maintain a larger brain.
This makes me wonder, is all of human evolution a race toward a bigger brain? It is true that taller men are more likely to be elected president in the United States and that the typical image of a sexy man is a taller and more muscular individual (like Thor or Captain America), but for how long in human evolutionary history have tall bodies and large biceps been the most advantageous features for survival? Perhaps our desire for big brawny genes is leftover from our super quick ascendancy to the top of the food chain. Perhaps, as Harari’s quote eludes to, bigger brains have been the most advantageous feature for human survival for most of our history. Perhaps that truly is still the case.
An argument that Harari makes throughout the book is that humans have come to dominate the planet through our improved cognitive, reasoning, and social skills, which are all dependent on our brains. In this sense, evolutionary pressure has been toward larger brains, so all of human evolution is in some ways a race toward bigger brains. Shortening our gut allowed for bigger brains, giving up musculature allowed for more brain energy, standing on two feet allowed us to better survey the land – to provide our big brains with more data. We are not evolving to be better fighters, faster runners, or to physically occupy new niches. We are (and have been) evolving to better support better brains.
Why Giant Brains Are So Rare

Giant Brains Are Rare

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari explains that Homo sapiens means wise man. It is a term we have given ourselves as a species because we have large brains and use those large brains to set ourselves apart from the rest of the animals and creatures on the planet. There are some other species with big brains, but in general large brains are rare, and no other species has been shown to use their brain to the same competitive advantage as humans.
But if large brains have made us so competitive across the globe, why are they so rare? Harari writes, “The fact is that a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body. … in Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2-3 percent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when the body is at rest. By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8 per cent of rest-time energy.”
Our brains are incredibly active and use a lot of sugars for fuel, even when we are not doing anything. This is great news for those of us who are trying to go on a diet to lose some weight today, but it was not great news for our ancestor hunter-gatherer humans and proto-Homo sapiens species of the past. According to Harari, large brains essentially have a high up-front cost. There is a large energy up front energy cost that goes into maintaining the brain before a species can really use the brain to a competitive advantage, and that has been a barrier to other species developing large brains and using them in a way that could give them a competitive advantage.
Harari continues, “Archaic humans paid for their large brains in two ways. Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied. … A chimpanzee can’t win an argument with a Homo  sapiens, but the ape can rip the man apart.” Strong thinking and reasoning skills are helpful today and are the reasons we live in houses, build rocket ships, and are able to develop vaccines to end global pandemics. However, our big brains are not always the best tool to bring to a fist fight. It is not obvious that better reasoning skills will help a species survive better than sharp claws and teeth, thick hides, or spiky spines. Evolution doesn’t have an end goal in mind, and for all species besides the human species that evolved into Homo sapiens, the big brain payoff simply wasn’t the evolutionary rout that provided the best chance of survival and spread. It wasn’t until the big brained human species began to live and interact in clusters and tribes, communicating and working together, that big brains and reasoning skills could begin to pay off and become competitive against larger animals with bigger muscles and more ferocious claws, teeth, and tusks.
Visual Versus Olfactory

Visual Versus Olfactory

I like to remind myself that I don’t experience the world around me the same way that my dog experiences the world. One of the biggest differences for us is that as a human I primarily experience the world by picking up on visual cues, whereas my dog primarily experiences the world through olfactory cues. My smelling ability isn’t very good, but my vision is pretty great. My dog’s vision isn’t very good, but her smelling is phenomenal. “Humans are better equipped for sight than for smell,” writes Mary Roach in Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, “We process visual input ten times faster than olfactory.”
While we can smell, hear, and sense pressure changes on our skin, it is primarily our eyesight that helps us perceive and move about our world. We gain more information from looking at something than we do from smelling, tasting, and even feeling that same thing. That is why so much of our art is visual, why we paint our homes and cars, and why movies and videogames are able to keep our attention so well. Our brains pick up on and process visual stimuli much quicker than other stimuli.
In the human brain, a huge amount of space is dedicated to visual processing. Much more of our brains matter is dedicated to visual processing than olfactory processing, as Roach’s quote above indicates. This is why our brains are so much quicker at decoding and deciphering visual stimuli. In other animals, such as my dog, the part of the brain dedicated to visual processing is not as large relative to other brain regions. My dog has more brain space dedicated to olfactory processing than visual processing, relative to my brain, and thus perceives the world acting on different primary stimuli.
In the book The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich shares research which suggests that certain visual activities, like reading, change the structure of the brain. In the case of reading, the brain space dedicated to processing visual symbols grows as one reads more and the brain tends to give up space related to facial recognition. We get better at reading quickly, but worse at remembering faces.  In Gulp, Roach explains that this kind of process is likely taking place very early on in childhood development. She quotes a scientist who she interviewed that explains that parents of infants go out of their way to label and identify objects that can be visually observed, but parents do not go out of their way to label sounds, smells, or other stimuli. We can spend hours identifying and labeling the tiny differences that we can observe in everything from different species of bugs to 1000 piece puzzles, but we don’t often spend a lot of time differentiating between all the aromas in the smell of coffee, all the different flavors in a slice of chocolate cake, or all the different sounds in an orchestra. In these instances, we take all the different components and experience them as one, unless we train to identify all the different components.
Our visual processing is truly impressive, but it is worth recognizing how much we rely on what we can see, and why. The world is a lot bigger than just what our minds can process from the visual information that we take in. Remembering how much of our brain is dedicated to visual processing can hep us better contextualize our experiences of the world and recognize when we are being overly biased toward visual information. Malcolm Gladwell’s final podcast of his most recent season, all about the power and potential of dogs’ olfactory processing, is a great reminder of why we shouldn’t be too biased toward what we can see.
The Illusion of Free Will & Computer Software

The Illusion of Free Will & Computer Software

Judea Pearl uses soccer as an analogy to demonstrate the usefulness of freewill, even if it is only an illusion, in The Book of Why. Pearl argues that believing we have free will, even if it doesn’t exist as we believe it does, has been helpful for humans throughout our evolutionary history. He argues that being able to communicate about our intentions, desires, and actions through a lens of free will has helped us develop agency to improve our existence as a species and survive.
Pearl also views the illusion of free will as a two tiered system that helps our species survive through agency by attributing responsibility to individuals. He communicates this idea through the language of computers by writing, “when we start to adjust our own software, that is when we begin to take moral responsibility for our actions. This responsibility may be an illusion at the level of neural activation but not at the level of the self-awareness software.”
Pearl is arguing that our consciousness (software) is different from our neural activity (the computer hardware equivalent of the brain). In this sense, Pearl is viewing consciousness and free will as a dualist. There is the electrical activity of the brain, and the software (our thinking and self-awareness) running on top of that electrical activity. While we might not be able to directly change the neural activity and while it may be automatic and deterministic, the software packages it runs are not, they are in a way revisable, and we are responsible for those revisions. That is the view that Pearl is advancing in this argument.
I think this idea is wrong. I understand the dualist view of consciousness and use that model most of the time when thinking about my thinking, but I don’t think it reflects reality. Additionally, throughout human history we have used technological analogies to explain the brain. Always equating the brain and thinking to the best technologies of the day, we have viewed the brain as having some sort of duality about it. The brain was once viewed as hydraulic pumps and levers, and today it is compared to computerized hardware and software.
I don’t have a full rebuttal for Pearl. I recognize that our experience feels as though it is not deterministic, that there seems to be some role for free will and individual agency, but I can’t go as far as Pearl and actually assign revision responsibility to our consciousness. I agree with him that the illusion can be and has been useful, but I can’t help but feel that it is a mistake to equate the brain to a computer. I don’t truly feel that even within the illusion of free will we are entirely revision responsible for our consciousness (the software/operating system). I think that comparing us to a computer is misleading and gives people the wrong impression about the mind, and I’m sure that in the future we will replace the hardware/software distinction and thoughts with different and more complex technologies in our analogies.
The Illusion of Free Will & Soccer

The Illusion of Free Will & Soccer

My previous post was about post-action rationalization, the idea that we often do things at an instinctual level and then apply a rationalization to them upon reflection, after the action has been completed. Our rationalization sounds logical and supports the idea that we have free will, that our decision was based on specific factors we identified, and that we consciously chose to do something. An understanding of post-action rationalization helps reveal the illusion of free will.
In The Book of Why Judea Pearl uses the example of a soccer player to demonstrate how post-action rationalization works. The soccer player reacts to situations in the game as they develop. They don’t do complex math to calculate the best angle to kick a ball, they don’t paus to work out the probability of successfully scoring a goal based on passing to one player over another, and they don’t pause to think about all the alternatives available to them in any given moment. Their minds pick up on angles, speeds, past experiences, and other unknown factors unique to each situation and players respond instinctively, without conscious thought guiding how they move and what choices they make. According to Pearl, this instinctive and intuitive processing should challenge the idea that we have free will. It should challenge the idea that we consciously chose our actions and behaviors and cause us to think that we respond to situations without a real knowledge of why we are responding. Nevertheless, we all feel that we have free will, even if we know the feeling described in the sporting event example.
This illusion of free will has some benefits. Pearl writes, “the illusion of free will gives us the ability to speak about our intents and to subject them to rational thinking, possibly using counterfactual logic.” Free will helps us talk about the stimuli around us and how we respond to them, and it helps us by providing reinforcements for outcomes that go well and admonishment for outcomes that should be avoided in the future. It is useful by creating a sense of agency and feedback between us.
Pearl continues, “I would conjecture, then, that a team of robots would play better soccer if they were programmed to communicate as if they had free will. No matter how technically proficient the individual robots are at soccer, their team’s performance will improve when they can speak to each other as if they are not preprogrammed robots but autonomous agents believing they have options.”
As artificial intelligence and robotic capabilities progress Pearl may come to regret this quote. However, it is a helpful lens to apply to human evolution and how we arrived at our current mental states. Matter arranged itself to become self-reproducing and eventually became self-observant. By being able to attribute agency and free will to its own actions, matter became even better at self-replicating and self-preserving. This is the argument that Pearl ultimately makes through his soccer analogy. Robots might in the future be the most proficient at soccer without a sense of self, but at least at times in human history we have been served well by our illusion of free will. It has helped us organize and collaborate in complex social and political societies, and it has helped us work together to create the world we now inhabit. Free will may not truly exist, but the illusion of free will has helped us do everything from play soccer to launch satellites so that we can watch other people play soccer from the other side of the planet.
Post-Action Rationalization

Post-Action Rationalization

I have heard people write about a split brain experiment where a participant whose corpus collosum was severed was instructed in one ear, through a pair of headphones, to leave the room they were in because the experiment was over. As the participant stood to leave the room, a researcher asked them why they had gotten up. The participant said they wanted to get something to drink.
This experiment is pretty famous and demonstrates the human ability to rationalize our behaviors even when we really don’t know what prompted us to behave in one way or another. If you have ever been surprised that you had an angry outburst at another person, if you have ever had a gut feeling in an athletic competition, and if you ever forgot something important in a report and been bewildered by your omission, then you have probably engaged in post-action rationalization. You have probably thought back over the event, the mental state you were in, and tried to figure out exactly why you did what you did and not something else.
However, Judea Pearl in The Book of Why would argue that your answer is nothing more than an illusion. Writing about this phenomenon he says:
“Rationalization of actions may be a reconstructive, post-action process. For example, a soccer player may explain why he decided to pass the ball to Joe instead of Charlie, but it is rarely the case that those reasons consciously triggered the action. In the heat of the game, thousands of input signals compete for the player’s attention. The crucial decision is which signals to prioritize, and the reasons can hardly be recalled and articulated.”
Your angry traffic outburst was brought on by a huge number of factors. Your in game decision was not something you paused, thought about, and worked out the physics to perfect before hand. Similarly, your omission on a report was a barely conscious lapse of information. Each of these situations we can rationalize and explain based on several salient factors that come to mind post-action, but that hardly describes how our brain was actually working in the moment.
The brain has to figure out what signals to prioritize and what signals to consciously respond to in order for each of the examples I mentioned to come about. These notions should challenge our ideas of free-will, our beliefs that we can ever truly know ourselves, and our confidence in learning from experience. Pearl explains that he is a determinist who compromises by accepting an illusion of free will. He argues that the illusion I have described with my examples and his quote helps us to experience and navigate the world. We feel that there is something that it is like to be us, that we make our decisions, and we can justify our behaviors, but this is all merely an illusion.
If Pearl is right, then it is a helpful illusion. We can still understand it better, still understand how this illusion is created, sustained, and can be put to the best uses. We might not have a true and authentic self under the illusion. We might not be in control of what the illusion is. But nevertheless, we can shape and mold it, and have a responsibility to do the best with our illusion, even if much of it is post-action rationalization.
Co-opting Mental Machinery

Co-opting Mental Machinery

The human mind is great at pattern recognition, but it is not the only brain that can recognize a pattern. Pigeons can recognize patterns for food distribution with button presses, mice can remember mazes and navigate through complex patterns to a reward, and other animals can recognize patterns in hunting, mating, and other activities. What humans do differently is use pattern recognition to determine causal structures by imagining and testing alternative hypotheses. This is a crucial step beyond the pattern recognition of other animals.
In The Book of Why Judea Pearl writes, “It is not too much of a stretch to think that 40,000 years ago, humans co-opted the machinery in their brain that already existed for pattern recognition and started to use it for causal reasoning.” This idea is interesting because it explains our pattern recognition linkage with other animals and helps us think about how brain structures and ways of thinking may have evolved.
In isolation, a brain process is interesting, but not as interesting as when considered alongside similar brain processes. When we look at pattern recognition and its similarities to causal reasoning, we see a jumping off point. We can see how brain processes that helped us in one area opened up new possibilities through development. This helps us think more deeply about the mental abilities that we have.
The ways we think and how our brains work is not static. Different cultural factors, environmental factors, and existing brain processes can all shape how our brains work and evolve individually and as a species.  As Pearl notes, it is likely that many of our brain processes co-opted other mental machinery for new purposes. Very few of what see in human psychology can be well understood in isolation. Asking why and how evolution could have played a role is crucial to understanding who we are now and how we got to this point. Causality is not something that just existed naturally in the brain. It was built by taking other processes and co-opting them for new purposes, and those new purposes have allowed us to do magnificent things like build rockets, play football, and develop clean water systems.
The Representation Problem

The Representation Problem

In The Book of Why Judea Pearl lays out what computer scientists call the representation problem by writing, “How do humans represent possible worlds in their minds and compute the closest one, when the number of possibilities is far beyond the capacity of the human brain?”
In the Marvel Movie Infinity War, Dr. Strange looks forward in time to see all the possible outcomes of a coming conflict. He looks at 14,000,605 possible futures. But did Dr. Strange really look at all the possible futures out there? 14 million is a convenient big number to include in a movie, but how many possible outcomes are there for your commute home? How many people could change your commute in just the tiniest way? Is it really a different outcome if you hit a bug while driving, if you were stopped at 3 red lights and not 4, or if you had to stop at a crosswalk for a pedestrian? The details and differences in the possible worlds of our commute home can range from the miniscule to the enormous (the difference between you rolling your window down versus a meteor landing in the road in front of you). Certainly with all things considered there are more than 14 million possible futures for your drive home.
Somehow, we are able to live our lives and make decent predictions of the future despite the enormity of possible worlds that exist ahead of us. Somehow we can represent possible worlds in our minds and determine what future world is the closest one to the reality we will experience. This ability allows us to plan for retirement, have kids, go to the movies, and cook dinner. If we could not do this, we could not drive down the street, could not walk to a neighbors house, and couldn’t navigate a complex social world. But none of us are sitting in a green glow with our head spinning in circles like Dr. Strange as we try to view all the possible worlds in front of us. What is happening in our mind to do this complex math?
Pearl argues that we solve this representation problem not through magical foresight, but through an intuitive understanding of causal structures. We can’t predict exactly what the stock market is going to do, whether a natural disaster is in our future, or precisely how another person will react to something we say, but we can get a pretty good handle on each of these areas thanks to causal reasoning.
We can throw out possible futures that have no causal structures related to the reality we inhabit.  You don’t have to think of a world where Snorlax is blocking your way home, because your brain recognizes there is no causal plausibility of a Pokémon character sleeping in the road. Our brain easily discards the absurd possible futures and simultaneous recognizes the causal pathways that could have major impacts on how we will live. This approach gradually narrows down the possibilities to a level where we can make decisions and work with a level of information that our brain (or computers) can reasonably decipher. We also know, without having to do the math, that rolling our window down or hitting a bug is not likely to start a causal pathway that materially changes the outcome of our commute home. The same goes for being stopped at a few more red lights or even stopping to pick up a burrito. Those possibilities exist, but they don’t materially change our lives and so our brain can discard them from the calculation. This is the kind of work our brains our doing, Pearl would argue, to solve the representation problem.