Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Theory of Mind: What Makes Us Human


I've been working on this blog post off and on for nearly three weeks now.  It keeps morphing.  My original idea was to be cheeky about shaming people who are behaving badly in COVID time, whether it's people who gathered with extended family over Christmas, people who don't do  the social distancing thing in pubs, the demonstrators outside Dr. Shahab's house over the weekend, or those breaking the curfew in the Netherlands, looting and torching cars.  I was going to do this by illustrating how smart animals are, how they have theory of mind and can be empathetic, and then comparing their intelligence to those who believe their essential freedom lies in not wearing a mask.  But if you are reading this blog, you are almost by definition not one of those people, so what was the point?  Also, all that information was scattered around in different books and it always took me a while to find what I wanted.

Like you, I'm truly sick of being in semi-lockdown.  Mostly, I'm hungering for human connection, even the little microconnections with a barrista or a clerk at the grocery store.  I find being masked is frustrating on a human level.  You can't read people's expression quickly and easily, nor can they see you are smiling at them, telling them, in your muffled voice, to take their time when you are both heading down the cookie aisle and you know choosing exactly the right thing is important.  Yet I am also very privileged in the terms of my lockdown.  I don't have children who are pining to go to school.  I have enough to eat.  So after listening to a podcast with Mary Catherine Bateson yesterday while I was working out, I thought I'd take what I had and put it to another use, to amuse you with bits of wonder.  Hey.  We're avoiding every unnecessary contact with another human being.  Everyone needs to improvise.

As Frans de Waal point out in his groundbreaking book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are, biologists, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, and slightly drunk dinner guests constantly consider what makes us human.  It used to be that it was our opposable thumb that let us make and use tools. Except we now know that primates, macaques, elephants and even male digger wasps use tools.  Corvids of all kinds are quite adept at this, with the New Caledonian crow being the most sophisticated.  They rip away at the edges of leaves in a pattern that existed well before we began to study them, and they pass that pattern down as a kind of cultural practice. 

Is it that we use fire?  Australian kites not only come to the sites of fires to feed on fleeing creatures, but they pick up smoldering sticks and drop them in dry grass, setting secondary fires to flush out more food.  

Is it that we are so inventive in responding to changes in our world?  I think the sparrows are beating us on this one.  They are champions of innovation.  They have learned to scour our radiator grills in parking lots for food.  They fly to the observation deck of the Empire State Building and capture moths drawn by the lights around the perimeter, having discovered this food source 80 stories above NYC, not their natural hunting grounds.  But the best story comes from New Zealand, where sparrows have learned how to set off the sensors that open doors to a bus station and use their knowledge to get in and out and to scour for food. 

One unexpected ability both humans and animals have is theory of mind.  Somewhere between 18 months and 2 or 3 years old, babies develop theory of mind.  Try to think back to it; try to think back before you had it or before your children had it.  On the one hand, you're pretty well locked inside your own experience, your own consciousness, at least until you have the language to ask questions or describe your own feelings and have someone understand them.  But somehow you intuit that other people have consciousness like yours.  You can see they desire something, that they want the same thing you do.  'I have a mind and other people do too,' is the upshot of a recognition that continues to gain subtlety and nuance throughout adolescence and that is the foundation for two important social skills: taking someone else's perspective and feeling empathy.  Those skills are bolstered by experience, by listening, by going to movies or plays and, perhaps most intensely, by reading.  Those black and white squiggles on the page mean nothing unless we assume we have been given access to the mind of another person.

Why have we all grown misty-eyed before the photograph of Dr. Joseph Varon, who was on his 252nd straight day at work, hugging a COVID-19 patient at the end of November?  We see little of the old man aside from his mussed hair and the hand he has wrapped around Varon's back.  Varon himself is covered with so much PPE that we wouldn't recognize him if we saw him on the street. Yet after two hundred and fifty two straight days of work, Varon remains empathetic, knowing the old man simply needed to be held and comforted, and we respond with our own empathy, moved both by the old man's need and the doctor's gift.  Works of art, like that photograph or like a movie or a novel or a piece of music slip us effortlessly into the viewpoint of another, allowing us to laugh out loud or burst into tears. Except we need to remember that our effortless understanding of another required a fairly effortful process in the creator.

Theory of mind should--and I'm being provocative here--give us the perspective-taking skills that allow us to imagine what it would be like to be over eighty, locked away from the people you love, and then hit with what may be for you a deadly illness. Empathy should evoke an even stronger response.  What does it mean that over 2 million people have died of COVID-19 and have left mourners--husbands, wives, sons, daughters, and friends behind them?  How much fear and grief is loose in the world right now?  How can I say that my needs for--whatever--do not need to consider those facts?  I know, I know, I've gone way farther than the yahoos have in the line of thought.  Probably, they begin by dissing experts and end with a single word:  "want."

I have a terrible habit.  Too often I say "I don't understand how he/she/they can think/do/believe that."  Once I've uttered the words "I don't understand," I am relieved of the human obligation to do so.  Except one of the delights of being seventy is that I realize exactly what I'm doing.  If I utter the words "I don't understand," it's a signal to stop and attempt to do just that.  Even trying to understand is ethical and brings us much closer to saying, with the Roman playwright Terence ""I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me."  Most of the time, after I've pulled myself up short, I can trace something like a strand of motivation.  While I seriously don't get Trump, I do understand the fear and rage that got him elected.  But try as I might, I can't understand someone standing outside Dr. Shahab's house swinging an effigy of him.  What, exactly, is he guilty of?

Oh, let's do change the subject.

It turns out, though, that theory of mind is not the express purview of humans.  I could cheeky and say that some of our pets have theory of mind.  Dear old Twig could spot--or smell is perhaps the right word--someone in distress from two metres away and would move into action with whatever comfort he could give.  When I asked Katherine whether he simply smelled something that worried him, she asked me what the difference was between sight and smell.  Both are senses.  Humans have access to other people's frames of mind through mirroring the expressions on their faces and then asking ourselves what might have caused that particular expression.  We do this without even thinking about it, though people who have had too many botox injections lose that capacity and become less empathetic.  (No, I didn't make this up.)  What is the difference between reading a mood on someone's face and reading a mood in someone's smell?  In either case, the senses mediate between us and the world.  

You've got a story about a dog or a cat or a horse that knew something about your frame of mind.  My two young cats, Tuck and Lyra (yes, please, more cat pictures!) are so close to one another that I'm sure from all the grooming and cuddling and fighting that they understand the other to have a mind just like theirs.  It's a small leap from there to understanding that Mom got up in the night, sad about someone, and that comfort might be in order.  (Veronica's best friend lost her mother on Monday and I was up in the night wondering how Jenny was doing her first night as an orphan.  Lyra climbed into my lap and looked soulfully at me with his grey-gold eyes.)

But back to the animals.  They make me quite hopeful.  Here I must thank Jennifer Ackerman for her two excellent books, The Genius of Birds and The Bird Way, both of which I recommend along with de Waal's. If chickadees who live in extreme climates, like Saskatchewan during a normal winter, can evolve larger brains so they have more strategies for finding and hiding food, then once we've fouled our nest and left the planet to the critters, perhaps in a million years or so we'll find a culture of extraordinary musicians with feathers.  The nesting habits of bowerbirds and the tool creating of New Caledonian crows to a pattern used for years suggest proto-cultures.  Jennifer Ackerman points out that humans have been creating cultures for 100,000 years.  But birds have been creating musical cultures for millions, many of them, like the mockingbird, working against the constraints of their vocal cords. Many of the great apes demonstrate empathy.  De Waal tells us that Capucin monkeys freely share food.  Pregnant females don't like to come down from their perches in trees, so several monkeys will take more food than they need and bring some to her.  If a Capucin is separated from food by a mesh fence, another monkey will take more food than she needs and bring it close to the fence so they can share. Heck, even ravens, who have a 'wild west' culture, express empathy for others who have lost in a fracas with another raven, and will groom and snuggle up next to the loser.

So if birds, hearing a "mobbing cry" of one of their kin--which is essentially a call to arms--can throw themselves at a nest being attacked by a raptor, regardless of potential harm to themselves, why can't humans stay at home in the midst of a pandemic at no risk to themselves?  Yes, we all have social needs, but if New Zealand sparrows can be inventive and figure out how to use the censor on an automatic door to get into a bus station, we can figure out how to meet our social and emotional needs without putting someone else at risk or without increasing the risk for the whole community.  Each person who gets sick gives the virus another laboratory for mutating and finding a more virulent strain. We've seen in England, South Africa, and Brazil how this can play out. The virus's ability to mutate makes not getting sick a civic duty.

This was where I'd fetched up when I listened to a podcast in which Krista Tippett interviewed Mary Catherine Bateson, who was the daughter of early anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.  Bateson is enamored of the fact that most humans continue to grow throughout their lives.  She notes that once a fish has learned how to be a fish or a rabbit understands the skills a rabbit needs to survive, learning stops, more or less.  But not in humans.  We keep playing and we keep growing, facts she thinks are intertwined. Bateson, who died at 81 earlier this month, is particularly attuned to the way people over sixty continue to grow and demonstrated her own growth throughout the interview.  So I listened especially carefully when Tippett asked for her most profound thought.  Bateson said "We have to use the word 'we' to encompass all of life on earth and to see that 'we' in all its tender beauty."


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