Hubble Deep Field, NASA
Source: Hubble Deep Field, NASA

The following is a modified transcript of a presentation I gave at the Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatry Annual Congress held in Adelaide, May 2017. I have included some references via hyperlinks; however, the content is generally indebted to inspiration from Richard Dawkins' TED talk "Why the Universe Seems So Strange" and two episodes of Sam Harris' Waking Up podcast (featuring Max Tegmark and Paul Bloom), as well as advice kindly provided by Gad Saad.

Should the universe make sense to us? This is an important question, because ultimately the answer will inform how we attempt to make sense of the universe. Specifically for psychology and psychiatry, when should we rely on common sense, introspection and intuition to explain the mechanisms of the mind?

As a species of ape that has barely climbed down from the trees, clinging to a pale blue dot suspended in a sunbeam, we have adapted specific solutions for specific problems. Our skeleton and cardiovascular system endure the pull of Earth’s gravity and push of air pressure but would fail miserably under the atmospheric crush of Venus. Our skin helps regulate our body temperature on the plains of Africa but would do little in the searing heat of hydrothermal vents in our oceans.

What about our cognitive capacities, our common sense, and our intuitions? They seem to work well for human scales and human situations: buffalos running at buffalo-like speeds and rocks thrown in parabolic arcs. But if we extrapolate the shortcomings of our skin, bones and heart to the brain we should expect to find some limits.

Steve Stankevicius
Source: Steve Stankevicius

More specifically, these limits should be found whenever we, through modern technology, study parameters outside the range of what our ancestors experienced. At the very fast—near the speed of light—time slows down. At the stupefyingly heavy we discover black holes whose gravitational pull imprisons light. At the very small, elementary particles can be in several places at once. At the very empty, complete vacuums have mass, with virtual particles popping into and out of existence. At very high energies, violent cosmic collisions cause ripples in the fabric of space-time.

Should this universe make sense to us? Cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman has taken this question to the lab, where his team has run thousands of evolutionary game simulations with lots of different randomly chosen worlds and organisms that compete for resources. Some of the organisms perceive reality accurately, others see just part of reality, and some see none of reality, only fitness. Who wins? In almost every simulation, organisms that see none of reality but are just tuned to fitness drive to extinction equally complex organisms that perceive reality as it is.

It appears that whatever the nature of reality actually is, it’s going to seem really weird to us. And the reason for this is simple: Our brains have evolved to help us survive within particular orders of magnitude of size and speed. Richard Dawkins named this medium-scaled environment "Middle World”—a goldilocks zone between the very small and large, the very slow and very fast. What’s more, similarly sized animals who apparently co-inhabit our Middle World perceive widely different realities—or “umwelts.” Bats navigate in the dark via echolocation, snakes strike vulnerable areas of their prey by sensing infrared, and honeybees seek nectar by ultraviolet.

Not only should we not be surprised that many aspects of reality are counterintuitive, we should expect it to be counterintuitive. Any account that conveniently dovetails with our common sense should be met with skepticism.

Whilst many seem ready to accept this, there seems to be a shift in attitude when we consider the mind itself; we feel we should be able to intuit it. After all, our minds are all we have and all we’ve ever had. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett once noted, many of us think we are experts in consciousness simply because we are conscious. 

Now whatever the relationship is between the subjective and objective, I will blast by this point by assuming that the mind is dependent on the brain—whether the mind is the brain, or a product of the brain, or some variant of this. So the brain in a sense is us. But zoom in for a second and we quickly realise we have a universe of sorts between our ears. A hundred billion, a hundred trillion—these numbers are thrown about in both cosmology and neuroscience. One hundred billion stars per galaxy, one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe, one hundred billion neurons per brain, one hundred trillion synaptic connections. How could we assume that within this vast complexity there isn’t a quantum mechanics, general relativity or echolocation of psychology?

As neuroscientist Sam Harris has noted, you are not aware of the electrochemical events occurring at each of the trillions of synapses in your brain at this very moment—you’re simply aware of sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and moods. Just move your hand right now. How do you do this? Any amount of introspection or LSD won’t reveal this complex cascade of events from supplementary motor strip to neuromuscular junction.

Jan (Arny) Messersmith/Flickr
Source: Jan (Arny) Messersmith/Flickr

We haven’t evolved to have any deep understanding of our own brains. And I think it's important here to remind ourselves quickly of why we have brains in the first place. The brain evolved to control complex movement. Without complex movement there’s no need to gain and process complex information from your surroundings. The clinching evidence is the little sea squirt. While it swims around in the ocean early in life, at some point it implants on a rock from which it never moves again. Interestingly, the first thing it does after settling down is digest its own brain and nervous system for food. Once you don't need to move you don't need the luxury of that brain. So yes, the dreaming, the falling in love, thinking about your own life and reading the minds of others is ultimately only important to drive the right movement.

Just as bats move through dark caves, and bees move through fields punctuated by nectar, we move through a sea of people—a social version of Middle World. And just as bats see echoes and bees ultraviolet, we feel the mental states and behaviour of others. We sense what others feel about us and guess what they are going to do next. This process is so natural and automatic that it’s overextended to cases where it doesn't apply. Studies have shown that we describe simple geometric shapes moving on a screen not as dropping, bumping or colliding, but as chasing, following and seeking. We get angry at our car for breaking down and have complex relationships with our goldfish.

Steve Stankevicius
Source: Steve Stankevicius

The real causal sequence underlying human behaviour involves a massively complicated set of mechanisms under stupefying numbers of influences. However, we don't see this. I’m reminded of a Catch-22 saying in neuroscience: “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.” So we develop a shorthand. We perceive minds by using the idea of an ideal agent to guide our perception. We believe in the magic of self-caused agents, driven by a small number of understandable forces that we call intentions, beliefs, desires and plans.

But to what extent are people aware of and able to report on the causes and influences of even their own mental states? Not very well. Thousands of papers on cognitive dissonance have shown people unknowingly revise their attitudes to justify their actions. Our capacity to reason consists of a jungle of cognitive biases and heuristics that are invisible to the individual. Our fondness of a business deal can be dialled up by holding a warm beverage as opposed to a cold one. What we are very good at though is coming up with explanations for our mental states and behaviours and being confident in them. 

J. Stephen Conn/Flickr
Source: J. Stephen Conn/Flickr

So our intuitions about our psychology are far from perfect—they're mere approximations that work well enough in familiar circumstances. “Is this person a part of my tribe?" “Are they attracted to me?" “Can I trust them?" Likewise, we are intuitive physicists. We are good at predicting the trajectory of spears and the consequences of jumping from a high tree. But the limits of intuitive physics rush up more quickly than expected for anyone wanting to do science. As Richard Dawkins noted, “Unaided human intuition, schooled in Middle World, finds it hard to believe Galileo when he tells us a heavy object and a light object, air friction aside, would hit the ground at the same instant. And that's because in Middle World, air friction is always there. If we'd evolved in a vacuum, we would expect them to hit the ground simultaneously.” We shouldn't expect our intuitions about the mind to be exempt from such embarrassing shortcomings.

Why engage in these questions? Rather than mere intellectual nihilism, I think we can learn some important lessons.

One reason for discussing this lies in the following problem: Why have humans made so much success in physics and not the equivalent success in psychology? Many have argued that intuitions get in the way of good science, preventing us from studying the mind in a sober manner. We take much of our mental lives for granted, resting on intuitions and not realising that a lot of it needs to be explained at all. Evolutionary psychologist Leda Cosmides has dubbed this phenomenon "instinct blindness” within psychological research; Our machinery of instincts work so well that we are blind to its underlying complexity. To combat this, William James suggested we should try to make the “natural seem strange”—detach ourselves from the most intimate aspects of our inner lives and study the human mind in a “debauched” manner. It was once debauched to question the natural intuition that the solid ground on which we stand is the unmoving centre of the universe. But as history has taught us, that can be overcome with data and time. 

Enrico/Flickr
Source: Enrico/Flickr

Knowing how intuition may influence us can also alert us when to exercise healthy skepticism. For instance, the language that dominates psychodynamic theory shows classic signs of being a product of intuition. Psycholinguist Steven Pinker has shown that we conceive of ideas as objects, sentences as containers, and communication as a kind of sending. This is because human intelligence evolved to understand concrete concepts—objects, space and forces—and this is reflected in our language and how we intuitively express ideas. Now consider the psychodynamic understanding of anorexia nervosa: “…inhabited by a bad maternal introject… which grows,” “…parents projecting… foreign bodies within the child… which are unmetabolized.” “The “no entry” syndrome performs the defensive function of blocking access…” This is human intuition at play. Sure, they might be metaphors, but as far as I can tell it’s metaphors all the way down in psychodynamic theory. Metaphors convert the universe into things familiar to apes. The problem is that there’s much more to the universe than rocks, spears and animals.

When we do away with intuitions we can also open ourselves to several non-intuitive but important realities of the mind. Despite intuitively feeling we possess free will, acknowledging that it’s actually an illusion could do some heavy lifting in combatting stigma and shame of mental illness and help psychiatrists consistently conceptualise mental illness. The sense of self—the natural feeling that we are a discrete subject riding around inside our heads—doesn't stand up to neuroscientific scrutiny, and opening ourselves up to this fact might help inform how we develop psychotherapy in the future. 

Travis/Flickr
Source: Travis/Flickr

Then there’s the under-utilised field of evolutionary psychology, whose perfect storm of intuition violations has provoked particularly strident forms of opposition from postmodernism, social constructivism, radical feminism and the devoutly religious. To borrow some key insights from evolutionary behavioural scientist Gad Saad, evolutionary theory could provide a universal meta-theory in psychiatry, spawn hypotheses and research questions that could not have been otherwise generated, and serve as an epistemological sieve in gauging the veracity of proposed hypotheses.

So our ability to navigate the line between science and pseudoscience lies not in our apish appreciation of what makes sense or seems elegant, but in the methodology one uses in the pursuit of knowledge. To acknowledge this is to admit that—unaided by empirical data—our minds are not reliable laboratories for conducting science. Specifically for psychiatry, sufficient humility gives way to the confession that we know a lot less about the mind than many purport. But this message is ultimately a positive one, because like a snake shedding its old restrictive skin, it will allow our field to grow. In the words of physicist Lawrence Krauss: “The universe doesn’t care about our common sense. We have to force our ideas to conform to the evidence of reality rather than the other way around. And if reality seems strange, that’s okay.”

About the Author

Steve Stankevicius M.D.

Steve Stankevicius, M.D., is a medical doctor undergoing his psychiatric specialty training. He is currently working in neuropsychiatry in Brisbane, Australia. 

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