Speculative Faction: An Overview of Science Fiction From Steampunk to the Singularity

Cognition: Journey to the Center of the Mind

This column, I'm going to cover an issue that is fundamental, yet commonly overlooked. We're going to examine the human mind, what makes it tick, how and why consciousness and self-awareness as we know it works (and how it doesn't), and for your stories. We empathize with characters who seem "human" and display the familiar (or not) range of emotions we're used to. There's some good (and not good) reasons for this. To start where every character's decision making process is, let's go into the human brain.

Now, I will say this: The human brain is a miracle; a miracle the damn thing works. It's an overly complex, energy inefficient (as in, uses 20 percent of the calories you consume per day) improvised blob of meat with horrible delays (about a quarter of a second before you can react) and an operating system with more problems than running Windows Vista on a 1950s punch card computer. Any Supreme Being outsourced this to the lowest bidder. But there are a few things that are interesting: Neurons are inefficient in terms of space, but the brain has folds that allow it to compress space and fit more in there. It's surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid to cushion it against blows to the head, and it has a "blood-brain barrier" to filter out any unwanted intruders.

How Much Matters?: All of it (more or less). Believe it or not, the brain does NOT use less than 20 percent (a bullshit statistic I erroneously cited earlier). The factual basis is that your brain only uses a fraction of it to process "conscious" thoughts. However, the neural infrastructure, the hormones and all the neurons processing things in your subconscious mind (controlling breathing, helping remember relevant information, determining what mood to be in, etc.) is active almost all the time a person is alive (otherwise, chances are they'd be brain-dead, or just dead). It is true different parts of your brain tend to "light up" when you're in different moods or trying to do different things (say, like running a race versus planning an event versus studying in a quiet room).

Damaged parts of the brain or body may (or may not) redirect their function elsewhere. People who have lost limbs still report feeling the "phantom limb," even if it is no longer attached. In some cases (like the young), if half the brain is removed around infancy, the eye will form a connection with the half of the brain that is still left. The half-brained person is still able to think and function normally. Now, if they lost the whole brain, they'd be in politics. Likewise, if you take a brain out of a body and keep it alive using certain chemicals (called an isolated brain study, which allows brain to survive for like a few hours at most), there is a noticeable lack of feedback and hormones from other parts of the body, causing the brain to be "disoriented."

Consciousness: We may be the only "conscious" members of the animal kingdom (although similar "feelings" have been detected in other primates and aquatic mammals). The problem with consciousness is that it's an operating system full of glitches and problems. It's a pattern matching machine that looks for patterns where none exist, like seeing faces in clouds, religious figures in varnish cans, or honesty in politicians (more on this later). Consciousness as we know it is not necessary for intelligence and creativity. Even critters with less brain cells than us can use tools (like some birds and octopi). Peter Watts' awesome novel "Blindsight" shows how consciousness might not necessarily give us much of an edge, evolutionarily. In fact, consciousness leads to things like art and culture, serious time wasters and often bringers of no direct evolutionary benefit. However, this might also go with the basis of language, and how alien methods of communication can be completely and utterly different as mouthing sounds from our meat-flap of a mouth.

Now, remember what I said about hormones and neurons being the real unsung heroes and hard workers in your head? The "conscious" mind is like a bad boss. It takes credit for all the decisions that have already been made subconsciously. When you're interested or curious about something, that means your subconscious mind is going "give me more information." It's when people are curious that the brain hasn't yet decided what it's going to think about a particular subject. More on this below.

Cognitive Biases: The human brain's got plenty of glitches. Consciousness has its own glitches and problems. These are known as cognitive biases. You can find a list of them after an online search. These are times when impulsiveness, faulty decision making, and self-deception overrule more efficient or rational actions or ideas. When people who intensely believe or think a certain concept, they'll reject information that disagrees with their worldview.

Even if the information is from a likely reliable source, they'll reject it and often believe in their first idea even more intensely. This is why it's pointless to argue with zealots and dogmatists of any stripe. If a person rejects the chance they may be wrong, they still may be able to be convinced, though. The time when someone is most likely to be convinced is when they're still uncertain or first investigating a topic.

That's why it's better to have the civilized, high-brow conversation with the guy saying, "That's interesting," or "Hmm," than the guy shouting at the top of his lungs. Sometimes, people who shout and argue do so just to have their beliefs reinforced (often out of their own insecurities). The problem is the brain gets a mental high from rejecting anything that disagrees with it. Hormones get released that cause pleasure in your brain. Self-righteousness is as addictive, if not more so, than some types of drugs. At least the drugs are an external excuse, rather than a self-propagating cycle of increasingly bellicose, impulsive, and aggressive behavior.

Another troublesome bias is self-deception. Humans tend to overestimate their own abilities and importance, be over optimistic with their predictions, and generally are full of subconscious narcissism. Depressed, cynical, or skeptical people tend to have a more realistic and sober view of things (ironically enough). Likewise, people can be "tricked" into fooling themselves over which are the best choices. For instance: Why not trust the charming guy offering the shady business plan? Your sense of logic might say that fellow is probably a con man or up to no good, but you may believe it anyway out of desire. You project your own desires and hopes onto someone who's just exploiting them. Some examples: That politician making campaign promises, stranger wanting you to get in the back of his van, political pundit tossing around blame, a sleazy televangelist trying to convert people using superficial charm, or evil clown in the sewer promising balloons and rides. Self-deception subverts and redirects any inquiries for truth down some 'other' venue than science and philosophy.

Over the course of history, some people have developed tactics to exploit cognitive biases for their own benefit. Just look up marketing, public relations, and advertising techniques, to say nothing of politics. Consider this: Despite the fact a deistic worldview (or even a semi-deistic form of a religion) being entirely compatible with biology and evolution, religious fanatics still go after strawman constructs of "evolution" and "biology" to redirect skepticism from their own inconsistencies into blame for the alternative. Distraction and redirecting curiosity towards anger at some scapegoat is a favored tactic of desperate politicians. People are more prone to listen to people who sound like they know what's going on, even if they are full of crap.

In simpler terms, we're drawn towards the person with the biggest mouth, even if we may know inside they're full of crap. This is why politicians like to maintain the image of helpless individuals across history. Such people are often egomaniacs, unable to admit they are wrong, and prefer to blame others as a distraction or to avert attention from them. They offer black and white simplistic solutions, which, in uncertain times, means more people buy into them (even if they're otherwise somewhat intelligent). But hey, repeat the bullshit enough times, and it becomes true enough for most people. This is why a lot of big-mouthed egomaniacs tend to be drawn towards politics. Besides, even if people know a figure is wrong, they know as the leader, they may think that the actions of the leader morally absolute them of responsibility, especially if they relinquish even more of their own responsibilities to them.

Just because you know about these cognitive biases doesn't mean you're immune to them. It just means you're aware of what is going on. There's something called obsersver bias, meaning that you can become vulnerable to bias even if you are aware of it. The problem is, it's innate in human psychology. It's like a fish trying to survive without water. Our brains are hardly optimal processing systems, as you see. I'm just a misanthropic science geek who likes writing, so hey, I'll make my bias clear enough. A good writer is often able to help someone think critically and reexamine those biases. Thinking about strategy, philosophy, and the dynamics of the real world can often get people doing it.

Impulse: Here's another interesting point. Remember how a lot of the cognitive biases work by subverting interest? So does this one. People are drawn subconsciously towards a lot of "base" responses (such as impulsive ones). Ever been to the store and bought something you didn't intend to? That's an impulse purchase, and a reason they put all the candy and magazines near the checkout register. You're more likely to purchase something then with your money out and other goods ready to go. And if you did purchase something impulsively, you might even feel good for a while, as well as subconsciously justifying that over-expensive thing you bought impulsively. Plus, plenty of people (intentionally or not) go for that short term pleasure rather than long term planning. Is there a reason for this?

As it turns out, yes, there is. The present seems more real to humans, since most of our incoming sensory data is in the "present," rather than dredged up from memory. We don't remember all the sensory data from past memories (unless it's a significant memory for us). The stuff in the present all seems more real, so why remember some incomplete memory in the past or worry about a future that hasn't happened yet? That's why people in some countries (like the US) prefer not to save. Give people a credit card or a loan (why worry about not having money now when you can pay later), and an impulse spending driven economy with little care for living within your means, and you've got a recipe for disaster.

Most people are governed by short-term impulses versus long term planning. This is just some leftovers from the days of being nomadic hunter-gathers and cavemen. When our ancestors were living as nomadic hunter gatherers, we knew death could literally be around the bend any day or time. That's why we don't think too much about the future by nature. Interestingly, the people that do think about the future and can plan realistically tend to do better than people who do not. If I want to be a member of some group or profession, and I go around learning about it, acquiring skills and connections necessary to being one, and I probably have a much better chance of making it without a plan. (Of course, you may have difficulty with the above if you go for hereditary positions or ones requiring popular vote.) As I mentioned before, people overestimate their own abilities, so a bit of caution and foresight can definitely be a good thing…maybe your characters have to find this out the hard way.

Empathy: Ah, empathy. That's surely a beneficial human trait, yeah? Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. Empathy is our ability to relate other others, to project ourselves in their shoes. Such a noble endeavor, right? Well, sometimes. There are times when empathy can be exploited, and there are entire professions who require it. Letting empathy trump intellect is a bad idea. I'm sure you might have heard of those Nigerian 419 scams, with emails sent out from a deposed princess, rich person, etc. requiring a small amount of cash to save their life, help them restore their country, or whatever. Without a sense of skepticism regarding these claims, a person would blindly send money to some scammer online. There are a number of people who rely on the empathy of others for running their own scams. In the Middle Ages, beggars used to break the legs of their children so they'd look more pathetic and passersby would give more money to the pitiful crippled children. A few modern pan-handlers are more interested in getting money for drugs or booze than surviving. The money donated to help refugees might end up funding some warlord or terrorist. Wherever there is charity, there is some asshole waiting to exploit it, rather than the genuinely needy. But what if even the asshole becomes truly desperate, turning the tables on them?

Another time when empathy is not optimal is in some disaster or emergency situations. People prefer to save those that they know over some faceless strangers they've never met. While some disasters can spawn powerful ad hoc "communities" willing to help each other out, not all of them do. Sometimes, a mob of people can become a stampede of desperate strangers seeking a way out, trampling each other underfoot in their own mad dash for safety (even if it is illusionary). In such a situation, it's literally do or die. If you have a situation where everyone's reduced to some form of tribalism (say fighting over scarce resources in a survival case), you get groups of desperate sticking with each other (or not) as they try to survive. People generally tend to prefer people they know survive, even if their enemies are not all that different. There's some fun with moral ambiguity!

Now, empathy basically acts as a switch in the brain. If someone identifies you as a "friend," they'll think better of you, and you'll probably have a better social dynamic than a random stranger. Empathy, however, can be disabled by glitches and problems in the body. Sociopathy and psychopathy disable the empathy triggers in some people. Neurodegenerative disorders (like dementia and Alzheimer's) can also cause switches to be flipped. You probably heard about tragic cases where the elderly cannot remember the faces of their own relatives and friends. Even mothers can turn on their offspring if certain hormonal triggers go wrong. As Peter Watts wrote, "'Mother' is just one letter away from 'other.'"

Violence and Discipline: Humans tend to think higher of themselves and their friends than strangers. So, when people start trying to kill each other, they typically like to dehumanize the people they're trying to kill. Killing a demonized caricature is easier than taking the life of a person, at least psychologically. (This is due to empathy.) Conversely, it means we would fight harder and are more motivated to protect people we care for, even at the cost of one's own life. A good reason for this is the (subconscious) desire to see one's own offspring survive to pass on the genes to the next generation. Another might just be stupidity: Perhaps with better planning, the sacrifice might not have been necessary. Another idea is now one parent or guardian is gone, that's one less person who cares about the offspring. With loss of parents and loved ones as a result, why are humans so violent? As it turns out, there's a good reason.

A human brain is very capable of planning and initiating violence. It helped us survive by allowing our ancestors to communicate, set up plans, and work in teams to take down better predators and bigger critters. A single caveman probably couldn't take down a saber-tooth tiger or wooly mammoth one on one, but a team of them with spears can. It also means we search for advantages to help us survive in a hostile and uncertain world. This often translates to making better tools and weapons than rivals, and employing suitable tactics to achieve our ends. Just look at how much the most powerful nations spend on military hardware. Even without war or violence, economic envy is a great motivator. It's also a good motivator in sports and athletics, wanting to be the champion. Envy and fear are primal and effective motivators. Competition is the reason a free market provides so many options. If a market stagnates into a monopoly or oligopoly, effective competition has been crushed.

Humans also like to use force to deal with potential threats (including anyone they perceive as one). Parents will fight to the death to protect kids, after all. When initiating violence, a human should ask if violence is required, what sort of it, how to deliver it, what might go wrong, what the short term aftermath is, and what the long term aftermath is. A murderer who kills impulsively doesn't typically doesn't consider the effects of their action. A premeditated murderer probably tries to cover up their death. However, empathy does not prevent random killings. Fear and self interest may also do it.

Fear of retribution from someone: the police, the family or friends of the deceased, a supreme being, or the like are things that cause people enough fear to keep them in line. However, even a sociopath (someone with little to no empathy) can have reasons that prevent them from killing everyone else or doing random killings: There is little to no gain from it. They may not have a problem framing a coworker for embezzlement they did, but they would be unlikely to kill the person investigating due to the attention it would bring. Long term planning, self control, and ruthlessness make a nice, nasty but effective combination. The sociopath in this case would inhibit their own self-interest with murder, so they stick with another course of action. Even empathy can be dropped if someone feels slighted or offended. Humans would often take revenge for even perceived offenses, even if it does little for their self interest. This is why the economists' assumption of people acting as rational agents isn't entirely accurate. A better one is that "People will pursue what they perceive to be in their short term interests."

This brings me to a related note: Self control. The ability of the self to overcome short term animal instincts to plan for a longer term is a great advantage, but sadly most people don't use it as often as they should. The minority who do plan for longer periods often tend to be more successful than those that do not. Stepping away from instinct means you can examine yourself more closely, realize you're not the badass you imagine yourself to be and gaze into the real you. Or at least get a better heading on your plans even if you are that badass. A bit of planning typically beats making it up as you go along. Sometimes, pain can be a motivator to change. Frank Herbert had it right in "Dune," with the Gom Jabbar test: A person able to overcome their short term pain will survive, while the weak-willed fall prey to their own desires. Being self conscious is a good trait, and can lead to character development.

Fun Implications: Now, recall me ranting about politics and people thinking of only the short term? That's just the tip of the iceberg. There's a thin line (if any) between neurochemistry and personality. There is a way to overcome some of that short term thinking and cognitive bias (to an extent). What can prompt that sort of thinking is a crisis or a major upheaval or change. Now that one's own worldview is shaken, your mind is now in a stage in which it wants to gather more information about its environment. Say you're shipwrecked on a deserted island. You'll want to make sense of your surroundings, any other survivors, any food, supplies, or the like. You may work with other survivors to work out an accord of some sort (if you're not at each other's throats). It's actually recommended that survivors set up a compact or mutual agreement, as to prevent disagreement later.

Survivors might find themselves taking roles quite different than what they are used to. A former accountant is now relying on childhood camping memories to help build a shelter. Other fun cases can be someone literally tossed without warning into a new set of circumstances: A skeptical character in a fantasy story seeing something supernatural for the first time, a sci-fi space explorer meeting a non-humanoid alien, a civilian tossed into the middle of a warzone, natural disaster, or terrorist attack, or moronic teenage babysitter being chased by a mad slasher. The ones who can retain their rational focus instead of acting like panicked animals are likely going to end up the best. Even though there is safety in numbers at times, it doesn't help when you're alone. Even having enough initiative to head to safety is a good thing. Some people can do nothing but stare at the incoming disaster. We have a "fight or flight" response programmed into us, and it's good to consider both if possible. You may want to escape that scary monster, but it just may want to lure you out of safety into an ambush it's prepared…

Now, another fun fact is what actually happens in politics. When times are tough, people prefer to retreat into escapism, religion, and often listen to the one with the biggest mouth. When there's some scapegoat, they now have an "other" to blame and demonize. Intellectually, they may know it's crap and lies, but their short term impulses overrule long term planning. Self righteousness is a potent narcotic.

The insecurities people show can also be reflected in business and economic models, to a point. The seedier businesses want to maximize their profit gain and crush any rivals, setting up a monopoly. They may even conspire with other industries in the same field. They just need to purchase a few politicians, and it's more advantageous for them. So what if the free market or political system just became a rigged game? They don't care. Less competition means they have to expend less resources on research and development, which might bring in pesky new disruptive technologies. A reading of history shows this is not a good strategy, since new technologies come along anyway. If not from them, then from elsewhere. Even with technical stasis, every political generation of leaders needs replacements from the younger generation, who have different experiences.

Even if they are an unsustainable business or political model, corruption benefits them, and they'd seek to preserve it as much as they can. More instability leads to more polarization, leading to even more fear and demonization. This creates a positive feedback loop that accelerates the process. Eventually, something gives, and not often in a good way. This, friends, is the cycle human history, politics, and society has been stuck in for the last few thousand years. Some societies, movements, and industries take longer to fully corrupt than others, but they try to rule the roost as long as possible before they're rendered obsolete by technical or social change. Something rises, something peaks, something feeds on itself in a fit of madness, and something falls after the damage has been done. As long as we are stuck in this cycle, we are fucked. The power of fear is something politicians (and others) have forgotten and rediscovered countless times in history.

So, is there any way out? Possibly. Perhaps some culture can establish mores that reward focus on long term planning more than catering to immediate impulse satisfaction. Maybe a form of transhumanist technology or technical change allows us to fix it. Or maybe we all just kill ourselves by being morons. Or maybe the universe will do the deed for us. Our talents for self-deception and never admitting we are wrong are worrisome, especially when confronted with reality (or just hearing a lie repeated enough is often all it takes for us to believe it). This can lead to some fun moral debates for your characters. Like if we're all just malfunctioning meat machines, why do we cling to emotions, abstract concepts, and things we know intellectually are not true? Because we're humans, and we like distractions and fiction. It's not evolutionary optimal, but hey, who gives a fuck? If you're reading this, you shouldn't.

Good References:

-"Blindsight" by Peter Watts

-"Crysis: Legion" by Peter Watts