The Human Animal Post

(This post has a point. A very important point if I might say so myself and I’m even skipping the Weekly Head Voices because of it. Please read it, in sessions if you have to, from start to finish. It has a WHV Nerd Index of 0/5 and a Backyard Philosophy Index of 5/5. You can get back at me in the comments.)

It turns out that when any normal human being is faced with observations or evidence that oppose their already formed opinions, they tend to ignore or downplay the value of those observations. Conversely, any scrap of evidence that seems to confirm the opinion in question is considered to be good and trustworthy evidence. This is called confirmation bias: You and I both suffer from it, and it can be a dangerous phenomenon. Ideally, we would be able to judge the evidence and come to a reasonable decision, but this turns out to be exceptionally hard.

A photograph I recently took of a confirmation bias. Note that observations from below confirming preconceived ideas are favoured more than observations from above, resulting in the tell-tale yellow tinge and staircase edge at the bottom of the core.

Another interesting one is the planning fallacy: We are apparently hard-wired to underestimate the time we’ll need to complete some or other task. In other words, you always think you’ll need far less time to complete that project than you’ll end up using. Most of you have experienced this first-hand, or indirectly, when some huge IT or building project falls way behind schedule (and budget).

There is a whole list of such cognitive biases. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re basically walking jugs filled to the brim with misunderstandings, and mostly we’re unaware of it. Now you might think to yourself: But surely I’m better and more logical than the rest! I’m sorry to have to disappoint you, but you’re even biased about your biases. It’s called the bias blind spot, a meta-bias that means you’ll always estimate your own unbiasedness more highly than that of your neighbour.

I hope you didn’t nod off right there, because the next topic I’d like to touch on is that of sleep (please excuse the lame joke, I needed it for the continuity). Ever thought of exactly why you get sleepy at night? Or why your teenager (or teenage sibling, or yourself; substitute whatever’s more relevant) is not able to go to bed or wake up on time? Mostly we just go through the (sleep) motions without asking why or how. When you’re exposed to light in the morning, your eyes talk to your supra-chiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a  cluster of brain-cells about the size of a grain of rice in your already small hypothalamus, which then, minute as it, starts raising your body temperature, releases the cortisol hormone (this gives you a boost) and stops the release of melatonin. When it gets dark, the SCN throws a switch which causes the pineal gland (itself just pea-sized) to start producing melatonin, another hormone, but one that makes you feel generally less alert and altogether sleepy, so you start thinking about that wonderfully fluffy and soft bed of yours, and it gets harder and harder to stay awake.

I find that really fascinating: There it is, the SCN, a rice grain sized clock that orchestrates the daily rhythm of your whole super-complex body! This helps us to explain to our toddlers why they should go to bed earlier: Because your melatonin is activated much earlier honey! (There’s no arguing with that, even when you’re 4 years old.) It also explains teenagers’ sleeping habits: Adolescent hormones and life-style seem to interfere with melatonin production, and so teenagers get their melatonin kick hours later than adults.

The hypothalamus consists of more interesting nuclei than just the SCN. The arcuate nucleus also lives there, and it’s one of the spots in your brain that produces dopamine. Dopamine rules your life. It plays an important role in just about every bit of your humanity that you care about: Motivation, punishment and reward, sleep, mood, attention, sexual gratification, learning, and so on. Dopamine is instrumental in drug addiction, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, also in ensuring that one human becomes completely and irrevocably obsessed with another when falling in love. Serotonin and norepinephrine are also involved, but dopamine is the one that makes you go completely crazy. Once you get past the crazies and you have the good fortune of finding yourself in a longer term relationship, guess what? Once again, there’s not really that much magic or even that much mystery: Oxytocin and vasopressin, two hormones that also act as neurotransmitters, help to ensure that you experience the warm-fuzzies when with your partner and hence facilitate the pair-bonding experience. Oxytocin also plays a crucial role in breastfeeding (our friend the hypothalamus notices sucking at the breast and kicks the oxytocin production into gear that gets the milk going to where it needs to be). Conveniently, it probably also plays a role in mother-infant bonding.

I could harp on for a long time about how exactly all of these (and many other) little tidbits determine your life, but by now, I hope that I’ve said enough and that you’re asking: What’s your point Vanessa?!.

My point is that you’re an animal. A cool kind of animal called the human animal, but an animal nonetheless. You’re a relatively complex machine, but a machine that can be studied and that can be understood. We humans have become incredibly skilled at picking apart the human machine. We have tools that can see which part of your brain is active during what activity, we even have tools to make the cells in your body glow in the dark when they’re being naughty. We still have much to figure out, but we know an astronomical amount more than we knew 50 years go. The points above are a microscopic example of recently acquired knowledge. Every day, the pile of Stuff We Know is growing more quickly, and the pile of Stuff We Don’t Know is shrinking more quickly. It’s a terribly exciting time to live in.

My actual point is: You’ve been given one of these human machines to drive. For life. You’ll be getting only this one, and you’ll be taking it to some strange places, even off-road at times. You’ll make a number of important decisions that deeply affect you and your machine and even the other machines around you.

Don’t you think that you should read the manual?

16 thoughts on “The Human Animal Post”

  1. Good post! But, what is “the manual”? Do you mean the continuous stream of current evolutionary, neurobiological and medical research? Will this actually enable most people to have happier, more productive or healthier lives? Too time-consuming and complex, I think.

    My suggestion would include a small selection of popular science books or TED talks explaining things is broad, yet entertaining, terms. Like this blog, for example!

    1. Thank you, and yes, you’re spot on about the manual, on what it is, that it’s really complex and that it should be made available in more palatable terms. With this post, I merely hope to pique curiosity about the manual by showing that it exists and that it’s hugely interesting!

      ( I do think that knowing how you and your head work potentially leads to a happier life.)

  2. Not only should you read the manual, but once you are “up to speed” you should check your status indicators.
    For example, my brain can be likened to a complex machine with gears, and alcohol is the oil that keeps those gears running smoothly.
    Jokes aside, far too many people end up just letting their bodies go. After 50 years of low maintenace they resemble the Manenburg Mercs on the N2 outside Cape Town – spewing noxious fumes everywhere and generally coming apart at the seams.
    Look after your machine!

  3. My biased opinion, is that bias has a role. Its an evolutionary shortcut. I like to think of it as an imperfect but useful filter. Your bias is at least partly and significantly determined by your experience. If I faced every tidbit of info without bias I would be overloaded. Maxxed out.I need bias to sort through the noise. Its not perfect, and the tidbit that is the key to the universe may well be excluded by “my” bias. Experience helps you get your bias dialled in just right. I have moments when I know my bias is is a bit out, that I am using too much and need to step back and re-evaluate. (And there are times when I don’t know and the facts later bear it out.) Knowing you have this flawed tool and how it works is as important to get the most from it..if you can see through the haze of the bias blind spot. Its not perfect.

  4. @AJ I think you’re confusing intuition with bias. Bias specifically refers to the (non-random) mistake you make in your intuition. Intuition is the cognitive short-cut, but bias is your enemy (if you care about being in touch with reality).

    But I admit that bias makes life easier to get along with. E.g. realising that you’re stupid and a Darwinistic loser is less emotionally satisfying than illusions of grandeur.

  5. I love this sort of debate! I often wish I didn’t need to sleep – there is so much I could be doing or thinking about. Can you believe I quit smoking and try my utmost to limit alcohol intake to 21 units per week? (I actually count.) However, from an interesting Radio 4 documentary I heard about super-centenarians (people who live longer than 110) and it was suggested that the single and only common factor between these people was how they dealt with stress. It’s not that they lived a stress free life, but how they managed that stress. So party and be happy – literally! (Is this a confirmation bias for my drinking adiction, Charl?) Take a moment to focus on the muscle tension in your face and stomach etc. Then relax. Exercise helps of course. Sadly you are also locked into the lottery of your genes. Twin studies show examples such as one fellow drinking and smoking to his heart’s discontent, while his twin brother, a healthy sportsman needed the same heart stent just 3 weeks later. I hope for the future of gene therapy that can fix my inherently faulty designed chassis, so that inevitably my conciousness can be uploaded into a binary device. The more I think about it, the more I conclude that the natural progression of nature is to evolve artificial intelligence by way of the homo sapiens go-between, and I stare out at the stars and wonder how many civilizations out there are biological and how many are digital…

    PS: Try this cool activity: In a quiet place, time how long you can NOT think any thoughts. :) Haha, enjoy.

    1. You should pop by here more often!! :)

      That’s certainly interesting, the role of and dealing with stress… Probably a good future blog post topic, especially zooming into the physiology of stress in humans (and hopefully also how to deal with it successfully).

      BTW, concerning your uploading consciousness bit, have you read any of the Iain M. Banks Culture novels?

      1. I read one, years ago but I forget which. My brother has all of them in a library we’ve been collecting for over the last few years, but it’s in SA. When I’m done with a keeper, I post it to him to add to the collection.

        I used to keep tropical fish, and noticed the smaller the fish, the more they were likely to die or get physical disease (presumably through compromised immune systems) after stress events like a party with loud music or a change of (chlorinated/cold) water.

  6. One more thing… I like to go deeper than just my machine. What the heck is this stuff my machine is immersed in called reality. What, why, how and where is reality? Here’s a reminder to view one of the more exciting and local phenomena of our reality: The Perseid meteor shower peaks on the night of 12/13 August with up to 100 per hour. Let’s just hope for clear skies.

  7. Charl, since reading your post yesterday I have to admit there are two questions which I can’t get out of my head:

    1) Why is the first comment a link to the post itself? (I suspect it was intended for facebook, in which case, nevermind!)
    2) I don’t get the caption. Could you perhaps explain what you mean by the “staircase edge” and “core”. All I see is what seems to be a cirrus cloud…

    1. 1) That was a trackback, automatically added there by my twitter plugin thingy when I retweeted my own post. I have now configured it to ignore my own retweets. Thanks!

      2) It really is just a cloud, with a staircase edge and a core (the solid-ish bit in the middle). The rest of my caption is deliberately absurd. Some people find that stuff funny! See for example the caption to the photo in this post:

      1. 1) sure thing!
        2) Ah, your cloud jargon threw me off. Thanks for the explanation!

        On the topic of clouds, one of the rarest and most beautiful things I’ve ever seen was 3 years ago in the Cederberg:

        Thanks to your post, I was scratching around on Wikipedia and was able to classify this phenomenon which has puzzled me for so many years. As always, a life enriching post (ref: shoelace knot post)!

  8. Pingback: Confirmation Bias

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