Re: Maybe make a brew for this one (or ignore it)

From: Kate Distin (
Date: Mon 23 Jan 2006 - 09:49:35 GMT

  • Next message: Chris Taylor: "Practical Memetics"

    Chris Taylor wrote:

    > The accumulate/recombine thing, with your twists, suggests maybe the
    > biological mode switch occurs earlier in the very bright child..? There
    > must be physical correlates of this if we were on to something. It does
    > suggest that careful handling would be required for such a precious and
    > fragile analytical mind (lacking as it probably does a really robust
    > self-image).

    This last sentence is the most beautiful summary of everything that our writing group (I've edited/co-written the gifted children book) has been working towards, for - in some members' cases - almost four decades. (A completely off-topic comment, but it rather bowled me over!)

    Anyway - back to your main message. Thinking about what bright children are like, especially as they move through adolescence, makes me wonder whether the questioning typical of adolescents is a different sort of biological mode switch from the memetic one you consider below. Rather than an intellectual, memetic recombination thing, perhaps the sort of questioning that goes on in normal adolescence is more about moving away from the family of origin.

    What very bright children do, almost from day one, is reflect on, question, synthesise, analyse (or, shorthand, metarepresent) everything that they learn. This is pretty much an intellectual process. If I'm right about metarepresentation being innate then it would make sense that there should be variation in the human capacity for metarepresentation - and very bright people do appear to me to be characterised to a large extent by a very high capacity for metarepresentation.

    Whereas what goes on in normal adolescence may not be about recombining one's memes for intellectual reasons. It may be more about moving emotionally away from the family of origin; which would tie in of course with your idea that this is a biological mode switch because it makes perfect sense for newly-fertile young people to have a similarly-timed psychological change which gives them an incentive to move away from the parental home and set up a new home with a partner (even if that's with the partner's family; emotionally you still need to fly the nest, to mix my biological metaphors).

    Part of why I'm wondering this is that it occurs to me that for many people, possibly most people, what goes on in adolescence is actually not much more than a (possibly temporary) rejection of the parental stuff. And as I say this could be more emotional than intellectual/memetic.

    > As for the 'loss' of the process; as they say one is never too old to
    > learn (barring neurodegeneration, but even Alzheimer's patients have
    > demonstrated some learning ability)

    When you observe the degeneration of Alzheimer's patients it does make you realise just how much of what we do on a daily basis is learned. How many of the things that we don't even think about, they're so basic to our daily living, are actually cultural. It reminds you that how and when we wash, dress, eat, use the toilet, interact socially, etc. are all learned as babies/toddlers. Memetic, not genetic. On a separate subject, I think this reinforces my claim that religious memes are far from unique in their stickiness.

    > 1) Empathy: Seeing as models of others will be made of the same
    > meme-stuff as your'self' then effects manifesting in the model can
    > 'bleed' across from the model -- you can _quite literally_ feel others
    > pain once you have internalised them, so being nice is not altruism, it
    > is selfishness, cos their pain _is_ your pain as their joy _is_ your
    > joy. I'd argue that a core part of the meme-machine is a biological link
    > that ties forebrain-based mind stuff to emotional midbrain centres and
    > that that mechanism is at work here (this link must exist -- I've been
    > so 'gutted' by events at times in my life it has made me nauseous for
    > example -- but god knows what the physical mechanism is -- some sort of
    > pattern resonance -- I can't be pulled up on this though as we don't
    > even know why pain hurts!!!): Self-meme-mind patterns can clearly fire
    > the emotional centres (pain, pleasure etc.), so given that the models
    > are so similar to the 'main event' (i.e you) I'd argue that _they_ can
    > actually trigger those same centres through the exact same effect.
    > That's the nub of it. And as I say when people 'assume' others are like
    > them what is happening is that the models really are (as I mentioned
    > above) just recycled bits of you plus whatever you may have observed and
    > captured from others, so in the naive it is obvious why the 'assumption'
    > of 'like me' occurs and why it is so unpleasant when the model turns out
    > to be misleading as a result. We do not like our models to fail (that's
    > axiomatic -- as fundamental as physical pain -- an a priori part of the
    > meme machine along with a handful of other things).

    Hmmm. I'm not quite convinced by this model of empathy. Perhaps that's because I'm not at all convinced by the Dennettian memeplex model of the mind. But it's more than this. You're no doubt familiar with Simon Baron-Cohen's views on autism/empathy: that there is a spectrum from empathising to synthesising, with most female minds being stronger on empathising and most male minds stronger on synthesising (he does not claim that *all* men/women are like this - indeed he speculates that in many ways his own mind is more 'female' in these terms). Hence his theory that autism is an extreme version of the male mind: very strong on synthesising (finding patterns; understanding and building systems) and very weak on empathising. I find his view very persuasive (see for example "The Essential Difference, Penguin, 2004) and it implies that our (lack of) ability to empathise is largely innate. Genetic rather than memetic.

    Perhaps this doesn't necessarily contradict what you've said about empathy, come to think of it. I guess I'm just not sure that what goes on when we feel someone else's pain is that we've built an internal model of their *memes*. Some quite small chilren (not most, but some) can display remarkable degrees of empathy, before they've accumulated many memes of their own, never mind other people's. And we can feel empathy with people who, in the normal run of things, we'd say we have hardly any memes in common with. And conversely we can share many memes with someone yet not feel much empathy with them.

    I'm feeling like I haven't quite got to grips with your analysis of empathy. Perhaps, as I say, it's because I'm not convinced by the mind-as-memes-alone model that it seems to be based on.


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