Supernormal Stimuli
February 9, 2014 6:59 PM   Subscribe

Is Your Brain Truly Ready for Junk Food, Porn, or the Internet?
posted by Cash4Lead (103 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
One could make the argument that the ultimate defense against supernormal stimuli is cultivation. The refinement of all these senses into something capable of discererning difference and subtlety, the appreciation of skill and effort above the most coarse, most obvious, most appealing.

In short, all those awful useless liberal arts classes that they say will leave us all poor and behind the times.
posted by The Whelk at 7:04 PM on February 9 [29 favorites]


Is the fish ever truly ready for the bicycle?
posted by planetesimal at 7:05 PM on February 9 [10 favorites]


You know who cultivated a truly awesome sense of taste?

His initials are H.L. and season 2 of his TV show is coming up.
posted by localroger at 7:11 PM on February 9 [11 favorites]


I didn't even know Howie Long had a TV show.
posted by Strange Interlude at 7:13 PM on February 9 [11 favorites]


"Oh noes, we're not hunter gatherers so everything about our lives is fucked up, don't worry, I have some Science that will show you how to compensate."

I feel like I've heard this a thousand times before, with different topics taking the place of "Supernormal Stimuli."
posted by edheil at 7:14 PM on February 9 [13 favorites]


H. L. Mencken has a TV show? Cool!
posted by univac at 7:14 PM on February 9 [28 favorites]


(whips cream menacingly)
posted by The Whelk at 7:15 PM on February 9 [4 favorites]


All I know about Huey Lewis' sense of taste is that he thinks it's hip to be square.
posted by the_bone at 7:16 PM on February 9 [19 favorites]


Yeah Howie Long plays Mencken. It's a light comedy set to tunes lifted from the smash Broadway hit Springtime for Lecter.
posted by localroger at 7:16 PM on February 9 [7 favorites]


The animal-hacking experiments are fascinating, but the rest of it seems like it's straight from the lab of Dr. Obvious, PhD.
posted by univac at 7:16 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


BECAUSE YOU AREN'T A MERE ANIMAL AMIRITE?
posted by localroger at 7:17 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


I thought men like you where usually called fruits.
posted by The Whelk at 7:19 PM on February 9 [3 favorites]


I'm a mere animal. A reptile, even. But the hand-wringing about this seems like some mutation of the Naturalistic Fallacy. (Edited to be slightly less cranky).
posted by univac at 7:21 PM on February 9


Is Your Brain Truly Ready for Junk Food, Porn, or the Internet?

Sure is! Bring it on!
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:23 PM on February 9 [12 favorites]


His initials are H.L. and season 2 of his TV show is coming up.

Hay Leno?
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 7:27 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurasthenia
posted by chrisgregory at 7:28 PM on February 9


A discussion of the artificiality of pornography with respect to biological evolution seems incomplete without mentioning the artificiality of clothing with respect to biological evolution.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:31 PM on February 9 [28 favorites]


I thought men like you where usually called fruits.

Kind of apropos of nothing, but I was talking to my wife at almost the exact time you posted this, it turns out, and I said "1 + 2 + 1 + 1" in relation to some other conversation we were having. That movie is just the gift that keeps on giving.
posted by MoonOrb at 7:31 PM on February 9 [7 favorites]


Also, Hedy Lamarr has a TV show? A little late for that I would have thought.
posted by MoonOrb at 7:31 PM on February 9 [3 favorites]


HEDLEY
posted by The Whelk at 7:32 PM on February 9 [32 favorites]


They've got the order backwards.
posted by cacofonie at 7:33 PM on February 9


I just want to tell you both good luck. We're all counting on you.
posted by Wolof at 7:35 PM on February 9 [6 favorites]


like some mutation of the Naturalistic Fallacy

No. The Naturalistic Fallacy is that what is natural is to be preferred simply because it is natural.

The OP is about organisms doing incredibly self-destructive things because of stimuli which have been deliberately crafted to hack their natural pattern of reactions. There is nothing naturalistic or fallacious about this; if you feed the big cardboard chick instead of your real offspring, or sit in front of the TV all day instead of getting exercise, you are really and objectively harming yourself.
posted by localroger at 7:36 PM on February 9 [17 favorites]


"Oh noes, we're not hunter gatherers so everything about our lives is fucked up, don't worry, I have some Science that will show you how to compensate."

You might actually try reading the FPP. That's not what it says.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:37 PM on February 9 [3 favorites]


"We are the only creature that can bypass the unreal and choose the real."

While I think most of this amounts to talking about evolution and substantiating it with a shot of a few empty fields in Africa, I have to say that's a really interesting statement.
posted by phaedon at 7:38 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


His initials are H.L. and season 2 of his TV show is coming up.

HOVER LAMP
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:41 PM on February 9 [4 favorites]


Can someone tell me who the "H.L." we're talking about really is?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:42 PM on February 9 [6 favorites]


We are the only creature that can bypass the unreal and choose the real.

This is not completely true; there are other animals which have proven an ability to think their way past illusions, but we're certainly better at it than most.

But it would actually be true that we are the only creature that can bypass the real and deliberately choose the unreal. We are the only animal which deliberately builds our own superstimuli.

On preview: Empress C. it's Hannibal Lecter.
posted by localroger at 7:43 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


Is your brain ready for agriculture, exposed ankles, or literacy?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:43 PM on February 9 [24 favorites]


agriculture, exposed ankles, or literacy?

One of these things is not like the others.
posted by localroger at 7:44 PM on February 9 [3 favorites]


No. The Naturalistic Fallacy is that what is natural is to be preferred simply because it is natural.

True enough. Perhaps my use of "mutation of..." was overly subtle. My point was that this stuff sounds a lot like "reptile brain is bad simply because it's reptile brain."

I like my reptile brain. Wouldn't trade it for anything.
posted by univac at 7:51 PM on February 9


I liked the first 90% of the comic, but as someone with ADD (and a totally fucked executive function) I thought the last few panels were sort of insulting. If you're going to ascribe basically mythical power to "conscious thought" after doing a good job detailing the myriad ways people are drawn away from it...well, I think that's owed some unpacking or at least explaining there.
posted by threeants at 7:52 PM on February 9 [4 favorites]


My point was that this stuff sounds a lot like "reptile brain is bad simply because it's reptile brain."

No, it's just 'reptile brain IS reptile brain'.

There's no value judgement.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:55 PM on February 9 [3 favorites]


After 30 years of exposure to all three, my brain damned well better be ready.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:55 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


My point was that this stuff sounds a lot like "reptile brain is bad simply because it's reptile brain."

And this was not the point at all. It's not that reptile brain is bad (I like mine too), it's that reptile brain has unpatchable security vulnerabilities and is easily hacked by clever non-reptile-brain actors who know its limitations.
posted by localroger at 7:55 PM on February 9 [15 favorites]


I kind of feel like, as with the strategy guide to life, that this has a strange set of priorities, whereby it's just taken as a given that the true goal of life is to become as successful/rich as possible, and everything else is simply a means to that end.

But isn't the pursuit of extreme wealth/success/social status itself a kind of supernormal stimulus in this framework? Take the strawman "lazy fat person" who gives into their instincts to eat: if we're being really hyperbolic, they might be eating maybe ten times as much as they need to survive. Now take a super-rich person, like Bill Gates: his net worth is an absurd $67 billion, whereas the average US person has a net worth of only ~$67,000. This means that Bill Gates has accumulated a literal million times the wealth that the average person survives on.

That is to say, a person who gives into their lizard brain drive to eat is pretty quickly limited in the extent to which they can indulge that drive, and their indulgence may destroy the health of one person (themself). But a person who gives into their lizard brain drive for social status via wealth has almost no ceiling as to how far they can go or how many lives they can ruin along the way.
posted by Pyry at 7:55 PM on February 9 [24 favorites]


There's nothing wrong with polyphasic thought, just as there is nothing wrong with monofocus, all have a place, all are useful, it's more a process of becoming aware, of living consciously, of making ones actions deliberate as much as one can given our oh too limited resources and situations. In a world that wants to increasingly automate us, it's the luxury of being able to say no to the superstimulus that's the class marker of our age.
posted by The Whelk at 7:58 PM on February 9 [6 favorites]


So, Plato's Allegory of the Cave then?

The scientific tie in is interesting, but the ideas and values behind this are very, very old.
posted by striatic at 8:00 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


We sit motionless for hours watching flicker shows of imaginary characters' 'lives'

It's not that the general topic isn't interesting, but howlers like that one made me feel like I was grading a first-year paper on Book 10 of the Republic. Help, fiction!
posted by Beardman at 8:00 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


( besides, the ascetic has always been a kind of shining ideal for the Protestant work ethic, all denying, all internal, wretched and venerated, the balance swings out and a new balance must be found. Which brings us back again to the cultivatation and the development of aesthetics, the refinement of our senses. The management of expectation. The gaining of experience. The basics of philosophy, the question of how to live. Uh. Basically. So yeah. More and better liberal arts.)
posted by The Whelk at 8:01 PM on February 9 [4 favorites]


GUYS GUYS the correct answer is "it's almost always cultural, and almost never biological"
posted by pullayup at 8:01 PM on February 9


New bumper sticker:

I <3 My [lizardbrain.jpg]
posted by Pudhoho at 8:04 PM on February 9


My lizard brain really justs want to sit on this rock. It really does not care about the use of the color red in the costume design of this show it just really, really likes this rock.
posted by The Whelk at 8:05 PM on February 9 [5 favorites]


Addiction is biological, not cultural.

Though sometimes the culture provides new ways and opportunities for our brain to become addicted, if we aren't careful. The stimulation provided by the internet is one example.
posted by eye of newt at 8:06 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


So, Plato's Allegory of the Cave then?

Either you really misunderstood the article, or you really misunderstood the Allegory of the Cave.
posted by IAmUnaware at 8:16 PM on February 9 [4 favorites]


One could make the argument that the ultimate defense against supernormal stimuli is cultivation. The refinement of all these senses into something capable of discererning difference and subtlety, the appreciation of skill and effort above the most coarse, most obvious, most appealing.

In short, all those awful useless liberal arts classes that they say will leave us all poor and behind the times.


Liberalman -- the last and greatest, and most necessary superhero of all.

Or Lilberalwoman -- either will do.
posted by philip-random at 8:27 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


Liberalperson, please.


The nice high peaked lapel suits in exciting windowpane fabrics are however, not negotionable.
posted by The Whelk at 8:32 PM on February 9 [4 favorites]



On preview: Empress C. it's Hannibal Lecter.


I was really disappointed it wasn't H. L. Mencken, as univac suggested.
posted by Sleeper at 8:41 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


No, no, please do not oversimplify this much. (10,000 years ago, on the African Savannah?…please.)

The comic crudely sketches the reptilian brain, and throws in the cerebral cortex (or whatever he calls it). What about the mammalian brain?! This is hugely important in all of the pop theorizing he proceeds to throw at us. Especially because of its development of love (kinship, partnering, and all the rest.)

But I've wasted two minutes on worse Internet junk science. Super-stimulation is worth thinking about.
posted by kozad at 8:44 PM on February 9 [3 favorites]


That's a "They Live" reference at the end, right?
posted by lagomorphius at 8:46 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


There's a lot more fucking with the mammalian brain, also socialization.

Those are like, two of my favorite things.
posted by The Whelk at 8:47 PM on February 9 [4 favorites]


I can't think of anything in my life (and this goes all the way back to childhood) that would be a "normal stimuli"... by the time I entered this world in the 1950s to a middle-class white family in the USofA, it was all "super-something"...
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:50 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


some of my best friends are mammals, but the reptiles are more predictable.
posted by philip-random at 8:59 PM on February 9


I can't take anyone serious when they don't know the difference between "palate" and "palette".

Also, while the plural of anecdote is not data, I don't think I've ever met someone who's had less desire to have sex from watching porn. In pretty much all cases, watching a lot of porn seems to lead to more desire for the real thing.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:06 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


My lizard brain really justs want to sit on this rock. It really does not care about the use of the color red in the costume design of this show it just really, really likes this rock.

My lizard brains wants to know if sun could be arranged.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:06 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


I got kind of numb to sexual stimuli when I was working for Fleshbot cause COCKS ALL DAY EVERYDAY but it didn't change my reaction when I got to experience the real thing In person in real life.

Like you read about wizards all the time but what if you actually met one!?
posted by The Whelk at 9:08 PM on February 9 [15 favorites]


Interesting, of all the comments here only localroger's and His thoughts were red thoughts' (and maybe kozad's) reflect any familiarity with TFA (or TFC) beyond the first couple of panels.
posted by jayder at 9:12 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


Pyry - I've often thought that the drive to accumulate more wealth than one would need in several lifetimes makes sense in just this way, and should be treated like an illness, just like any other addiction.
posted by univac at 9:51 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]


Niko Tinbergen also wrote that amazing Life Nature Library book 'Animal Behavior' published in 1965. I'd link to it, but...

(Looks like the kids these days don't have those old Life Nature Library books anymore, shame).
posted by ovvl at 10:23 PM on February 9


The Whelk: "I got kind of numb to sexual stimuli when I was working for Fleshbot cause COCKS ALL DAY EVERYDAY but it didn't change my reaction when I got to experience the real thing In person in real life.

Like you read about wizards all the time but what if you actually met one!
"

Or, combine these two examples, and, "I put on my robe and wizard hat".
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:52 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


That's a "They Live" reference at the end, right?

Sure looked like one to me.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:57 PM on February 9


My lizard brains wants to know if sun could be arranged.

No, the sun's pretty well set in its course.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:59 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]


Nice artwork. On the other hand, supernormal stimuli have also driven some of the best works from people. Most of our health and general well-being in the year 2014 derives from pursuing improvements in technology that are entirely unnatural. We've fought off addictions with technological improvements, as we reach ever-improving science-based understanding of human psychology and neurochemistry.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:20 PM on February 9


Junk food? Porn? Internet?

Small beer.

Worry about the invention of reliable light, first gas, then electric and what the extension of the natural day has done to us as a species.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:25 AM on February 10 [4 favorites]


So C S Lewis thinks I should try a little bit of porn, to build up resistance to it? Ok then.
posted by Major Tom at 4:11 AM on February 10


Ah yes, the supernormal stimulus to end all supernormal stimuli.

I can personally and scientifically attest that their slogan, "This is your brain/This is your brain on Hannibal" is in no way false advertising. I am no longer the same person, and everything in my world is now prismatic. Also, meaningless if not at least tenuously connected to Hannibal.
posted by tel3path at 4:21 AM on February 10 [1 favorite]


Okay so I tried reading the article but it didn't seem to have anything to do with Hannibal so I didn't have the attention span to finish it.
posted by tel3path at 4:27 AM on February 10


His initials are H.L. and season 2 of his TV show is coming up.

It's normally written H.P.L. but whatever floats your boat. (Honestly, this was my first reaction, "there's a Lovecraft TV show? How did I miss this?")
posted by Hactar at 4:28 AM on February 10 [2 favorites]


I used to get this way walking into a big library. Now there's the internet. I solved the library problem by mostly focusing on a couple of favorite sections, but wandering more widely from time to time (when I had time to). Funnily enough, that's how I approach the internet now.
posted by rikschell at 4:56 AM on February 10 [1 favorite]


I can't believe I put down my Fleshlight and Fritos to read that junk.
posted by orme at 5:13 AM on February 10 [2 favorites]


Challenge accepted.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:51 AM on February 10


So I know it can't be Heath Ledger... Hal Linden? Herbert Lom? Dang, they're all dead. Could it be Heather Locklear?

It must be Hugh Laurie! Right? Is that it? Hugh Laurie? Do I win something?
posted by kinnakeet at 5:58 AM on February 10


I don't think I've ever met someone who's had less desire to have sex from watching porn.

Me. It's just that most porn seems over the top and artificial - I can't find myself in any of those situations. I do love me some oglaf though, which is arguably porn. It's a mixed super-stimulatory blessing.
posted by sneebler at 6:03 AM on February 10


Is Your Brain Truly Ready for Junk Food, Porn, or the Internet?

Christ, is it Friday night again already?
posted by Decani at 7:35 AM on February 10 [5 favorites]


I stopped looking at porn movies almost completely when it dawned on me that while doing so, I was a lonely person staring into the assholes of strangers.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 7:53 AM on February 10 [5 favorites]


So; we aren't ready for this jelly?
posted by emjaybee at 7:56 AM on February 10


RobotVoodooPower: Is your brain ready for agriculture, exposed ankles, or literacy?

In the late 80s/early 90s Archie Comics had a comic about a Riverdale background character that you'd never see again who had a dark secret: they couldn't read. A pop quiz in the comic asked the reader to define literacy. Once of the choices was "spicy litter". Forgot about it until some time in the mid 2000's when, at a stoplight, my conscious mind screamed "literacy, litter racy, spicy litter, fucking LOL".

I'm so glad I don't drive to work anymore.
posted by dr_dank at 9:50 AM on February 10 [1 favorite]


Most people commenting in this thread were already of age or on their way there when they were exposed to the internet. Worry not about us but the current generations growing up entrenched in digital escapism and fantasy, and how they will learn to distinguish between worlds.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:56 AM on February 10


The comic was ok but the "article" was really badly written. If that's an example of one of the "weekly insights on being a little more awesome" I get for signing up for the newsletter, no thanks.
posted by sfkiddo at 10:31 AM on February 10


Is Your Brain Truly Ready for Junk Food, Porn, or the Internet?

It's really much too late for my brain to have any say in the matter.
posted by chillmost at 11:40 AM on February 10


Where does this assertion come from that our brains have not evolved since humans were exclusively hunter gatherers, and is there some evidence for it, or is it just folk wisdom?
posted by walrus at 11:42 AM on February 10 [2 favorites]


It's just that most porn seems over the top and artificial - I can't find myself in any of those situations.

Try the other hand.
posted by Trochanter at 11:58 AM on February 10 [2 favorites]


Any time someone starts talking about evolutionary biology I feel like we're on a short, slippery slope towards rape apologia.

I mean, we evolved to poop outside whenever we felt like it. But we have overcome that "innate behavior" just fine, thanks to the parental training which is part of the civilization process that our young undergo at an early age.

I don't see anyone pooping outside and whining about it being "how we evolved to live."
posted by ErikaB at 1:08 PM on February 10 [1 favorite]


Where does this assertion come from that our brains have not evolved since humans were exclusively hunter gatherers

Humans have only been farming for about 10,000 years, or 500 or so generations. We have lots of examples to suggest that this is about one tenth the time you need to get noticeable evolutionary change. (Humans have made so much dramatic progress with dogs and society finches in about the same time only because their generations are much shorter than our own.) We are still very poorly adapted even to our diet, where evolutionary pressure is direct and fairly well understood.

There is also the fact that some of the superstimuli to which we are vulnerable are fairly well understood; a perfect example is our urge to eat an infinite amount of starchy high-carb food. This makes sense for hunter-gatherers because such foods aren't commonly available and when they are they represent copious storable energy. In a situation where such foods are available in unlimited supply, though, the resulting default behavior is extremely unhealthy.
posted by localroger at 1:11 PM on February 10


Isn't there evidence to suggest that lactose tolerance evolved in the neolithic period, after the introduction of farming? Just to give a counter-example. I'm not convinced we know enough about the pre-neolithic brain to say there have been no evolutionary changes with any certainty, regardless of how compelling an argument can be made from reason.
posted by walrus at 1:45 PM on February 10


A short amount of google searching suggests that some 7% of the human genome has actually been adopted in the post-pleistocene era, which is more than I even thought. Much of this has apparently been in response to diseases and change in diet.
posted by walrus at 2:00 PM on February 10


I don't see anyone pooping outside and whining about it being "how we evolved to live."

I really really wish I could say I haven't met this person, but I have.
posted by The Whelk at 2:16 PM on February 10 [2 favorites]


Disease and diet are very strong evolutionary drivers. Every time a population has switched from a paleo to modern diet the result has been a huge mortality spike due to things like diabetes and heart disease. Evolutionary pressure on other systems, particularly the brain, is more subtle. We know that such changes can occur because, for example, we see clear differences in the personalities of different dog breeds. But again, that's not a thing that kills half the population every generation until it's corrected, so you would expect it to be more subtle. Changes of that nature seem to require thousands of generations, and humans have only had hundreds since the invention of farming (and many humans a lot less than that).
posted by localroger at 3:00 PM on February 10


But isn't the pursuit of extreme wealth/success/social status itself a kind of supernormal stimulus in this framework? Take the strawman "lazy fat person" who gives into their instincts to eat: if we're being really hyperbolic, they might be eating maybe ten times as much as they need to survive. Now take a super-rich person, like Bill Gates: his net worth is an absurd $67 billion, whereas the average US person has a net worth of only ~$67,000. This means that Bill Gates has accumulated a literal million times the wealth that the average person survives on.

That is to say, a person who gives into their lizard brain drive to eat is pretty quickly limited in the extent to which they can indulge that drive, and their indulgence may destroy the health of one person (themself). But a person who gives into their lizard brain drive for social status via wealth has almost no ceiling as to how far they can go or how many lives they can ruin along the way.


I think it's ridiculous that anyone would support your allegation that Bill Gates has ruined lives by pursuing wealth. He did an AMA today. Why don't you read about his philanthropic efforts before judging his global contribution?
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 4:45 PM on February 10 [1 favorite]


I don't really think that evopsych needs to be brought up into this conversation. We can discuss super-stimulation on the basis of culture alone.

The tangent on wealth as super-stimulation is certainly valid, but I think maybe super-stimulation is a subset of an excessive, hyper-growth-oriented form of consumerism (or late capitalism or whatever you want to call it). I'm more interested in the immediate effects, as the title summarizes junk food, porn, and the internet. Nice sidestepping of the Betteridge's law of headlines, by the way. The question is, have we in the developed world really messed up our attention spans? Is that a bad thing, or something to be expected?
posted by Apocryphon at 5:13 PM on February 10


I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass... and I'm all out of reptile brain.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:38 PM on February 10 [1 favorite]


Where does this new paradigm of post-reptile blaming neurology place the Reptillians, hmm?
posted by planetesimal at 5:46 PM on February 10


I don't really think that evopsych needs to be brought up into this conversation.

It has a place, but a very small one. We do have (in some cases well-documented) perceptual defects which probably do serve a purpose in a more primitive environment. We have others, probably a lot more of them, that are just there for random stupidness because the whole thing wasn't actually designed but just sort of assembled itself over the aeons.

It is a big mistake -- one the ev psych people make a lot -- to think that behavior is micro-managed by evolutionary forces. Evolutionary forces take a long, long time to push on this kind of system. The brain is mostly built by fractal expansion and there is no such thing as a small change to the generative algorithm. There might be smaller changes to the weighting given to hormone and neurotransmitter systems as they develop, but these are not going to manifest directly in the way information structures are processed. This sort of thing can affect whether you crave sweets but asking it to affect whether you are sexually attracted to your inlaws is like asking if you can use a mallet to adjust the speedometer on your car.
posted by localroger at 8:02 PM on February 10


The brain is mostly built by fractal expansion and there is no such thing as a small change to the generative algorithm.

What on earth does this mean?
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 8:56 PM on February 10 [1 favorite]


Disease and diet are very strong evolutionary drivers. Every time a population has switched from a paleo to modern diet the result has been a huge mortality spike due to things like diabetes and heart disease. Evolutionary pressure on other systems, particularly the brain, is more subtle. We know that such changes can occur because, for example, we see clear differences in the personalities of different dog breeds. But again, that's not a thing that kills half the population every generation until it's corrected, so you would expect it to be more subtle. Changes of that nature seem to require thousands of generations, and humans have only had hundreds since the invention of farming (and many humans a lot less than that).

I do broadly agree with that, I just think the assertion rests on an assumption rather than direct evidence.
posted by walrus at 4:19 AM on February 11


What on earth does this mean?

The brain is a fantastically complicated bit of engineering, having on the order of 1010 neurons each of which may have 105 interconnections with other neurons or, at the edges, the rest of the body. This is all built by instructions that fit in the human genome, which is about equivalent to 3 x 109 bytes. This means the brain is like an entire city built from an instruction manual that fits in your shirt pocket.

Now there are ways to do this -- obviously we exist, and there are human built things that leverage similar enhancements of scale; the design of a high density memory chip isn't all that complicated as it consists of millions of identical repeated elements. But the common factor in all such methods is that you cannot make a small change to the design. If I alter the instructions for making a high density memory chip, there isn't really any way for me to start stuffing arbitrary default bit patterns into the design unless I make the instructions much more complex. If I make a small change it affects every single cell or every access path or every instance of whatever else I modify.

Similarly, we have some idea how the brain grows -- the first stem cell multiplies about 100 times, each child becoming the stem cell parent for what we call an area of the brain. Similar subdivisions (n-tuples of 100 seem to be a big thing in the human brain) grow out the rest of the cerebral cortex, and main cables seem to get laid out in the white matter according to chemical routing cues; that's something we really don't understand. What we do -- or at least should, if we understand the underlying math -- understand, is that in all this growing and interconnecting there is no place for the defaulting of really fine patterns. We might run a bigger or smaller cable between two areas, or alter some feedback pathway that makes certain emotions or learning states more or less common, but if you actually make any sort of change to the generative growth pattern you are not tweaking anything, you are throwing nukes. The smallest such change which evolution could possibly make would be comparable to a birth defect like Down's Syndrome. (Obviously humans have benefited from the fact that occasionally such modifications have been beneficial, adding layers or areas to increase our capability.) But much of what some ev psych folks claim simply cannot be coded in the genome because there is no room for it. Information theory, which is more basic in matters like this than either physics or biology, simply does not permit it.
posted by localroger at 5:41 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


I just think the assertion rests on an assumption rather than direct evidence.

We have dozens of relatively modern examples of indigenous people being switched to a modern diet. The catastrophe rate is very nearly 100%. I'd consider that evidence.
posted by localroger at 5:43 AM on February 11


The smallest such change which evolution could possibly make would be comparable to a birth defect like Down's Syndrome.

This might be your intuition, but I don't think that you can support this comment with any evidence. I understand your information theoretic argument, but you have no idea whether there isn't a "better brain" just around the evolutionary corner. We know that there is plenty of room for variation (just comparing our brains to reptile brains for example) and we may not even be aware of what variation already exists between humans.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 6:19 AM on February 11


but you have no idea whether there isn't a "better brain" just around the evolutionary corner.

You do not in fact understand my argument. There certainly may be a "better brain" around the corner, just as our brains are obviously "better" than those of our predecessors. However we can make some pretty solid statements about how that brain can be better, based on differences and similarities between ourselves and animals, and the changes which it is possible for evolution to make at all in the genetic instructions that build a brain.

We can be pretty sure of two things. One is that some defects are never going to be fixed, such as our tendency to perceive patterns in randomness and to overtrain on certain stimuli. These perceptual defects appear to be shared by all animals complex enough to test for them, and it might not even be possible to express consciousness without including such "flaws." The other thing is that any noticeably "better" brain, in the sense that our brains are better than those of other animals with which we share 99% of our DNA, will not just be a little different or "better." It will be a lot different, for the same reason and to the same kind of magnitude that we are different from chimpanzees. Such a new stable configuration would almost certainly be considered, both by them and by us, to be a new and different species.
posted by localroger at 8:18 AM on February 11


I don't see how we can "be pretty sure" that some other "configuration" would be a different species. It's just as easy to imagine a small imperceptible change, i.e., a slightly better brain. Also, I don't know what you mean by "overtrain" — do you mean overfitting?
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 8:40 AM on February 11


It's just as easy to imagine a small imperceptible change, i.e., a slightly better brain.

Except for all that pesky math, which says not so much. It's possible to imagine a slightly better version of the Mandelbrot Fractal too, but you're not going to build one with a generator as simple and elegant as the one that builds the Mandelbrot Fractal we have now.

I don't know what you mean by "overtrain"

We tend to learn feedback pathways which are stronger than they should be for optimal response to environmental cues. This has been observed in species ranging from flatworms to human college students.
posted by localroger at 8:59 AM on February 11


It's just as easy to imagine a small imperceptible change, i.e., a slightly better brain.

Except for all that pesky math, which says not so much. It's possible to imagine a slightly better version of the Mandelbrot Fractal too, but you're not going to build one with a generator as simple and elegant as the one that builds the Mandelbrot Fractal we have now.


You'll never know that the better brain isn't simpler, or that there's not plenty of room in the genome to make such a better brain. This a complete guess on your part.

I don't know what you mean by "overtrain"

We tend to learn feedback pathways which are stronger than they should be for optimal response to environmental cues. This has been observed in species ranging from flatworms to human college students.


I would love to see a paper on this if you have a citation…
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 9:20 AM on February 11


You'll never know that the better brain isn't simpler, or that there's not plenty of room in the genome to make such a better brain. This a complete guess on your part.

Look, this is all well established by information and chaos theory. The brain is five orders of magnitude more complex than the genome. There are a limited number of ways to make that work, and in point of actual neonatal observation the brain is formed by a fractal expansion, which is one of those ways. That places constraints on the nature of the generative algorithm and the results you can get from it. These are not biological or physical restraints; they are purely mathematical, because of the relationship between the amount of information in the generative algorithm (which is expressed almost entirely by the genome) and the relative complexity of the thing being constructed.

If you want to make the extraordinary claim that it is possible to grow brains with small arbitrary differences from the ones we have now, you need to show a source for a large pool (considerably larger than the genome) of extra construction information which can be arbitrarily modified and then used to guide these fine changes. There is one such source of information which does account for a lot of interpersonal variability -- the environment and our experience. But that's not heritable and therefore doesn't contribute to evolution.

I realize there are a lot of biologists that don't know this math and who imagine that the human body is built by magic bricklayers who exercise fine control over where every cell and capillary goes. That doesn't mean it's just a guess or conjecture. The brain is a physical thing that exists and it doesn't spring fully formed from Hera's bosom by the forces of magic. It can no more violate information theory in the manner of its construction than it can violate the laws of physics.

I would love to see a paper on this

There is a vast literature on suboptimal conditioning errors. I suggest the search phrase "stimulus response overtraining," to distinguish from results about excessive exercise reps. That will lead you to literature which mentions other similar and very universal conditioning and perceptual weirdness.
posted by localroger at 10:16 AM on February 11


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