We can’t help humanizing anything and everything.

Having just torn through two “brain vacation” novels (Maxx Barry, if you must know), I’m back at it. I just can’t stay away from non-fiction long enough. I need a vacation.

Anyway, I’ve begun reading The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, which so far is very good (despite a horrendously bad cover). One of the initial points is that our puritannical desire to separate form (serious stuff) from aesthetics (frippery) is, of course, bullshit.

This kind of dualistic “cleaving” is also prevalent in the desire to view humans as rational creatures who sometimes falter with their emotions, rather than creatures who are primarily driven by emotions with the occasional rational bent. (Not to mention the devaluing of emotions and the praising of rationality, which just simply does not reflect the neurobiological evidence we have about how humans work.)

On a semi-related note, some work reminded me of this particularly interesting psychological experiment and I thought I’d share it with you:

Our social instincts are so deeply rooted that they can be triggered even in the absence of faces or suggestions of human figures. In a separate line of work from his eye-tracking studies, Klin has been using a short film devised by the psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel during the 1940s that features a few simple geometric shapes—a big triangle, a circle, a smaller triangle—moving about the screen. Heider and Simmel discovered that, when asked to describe this film, people almost invariably impose a social interpretation on it; instead of speaking in terms of inanimate shapes passively changing positions, viewers invent stories in which, for example, a chase might be taking place between a bullying big triangle and a terrified little triangle. But according to Klin, autistic subjects do not personify the shapes in the film, and rely instead on purely physical metaphors in their descriptions.

Yale: Mapping the social mind (here’s the original paper)

And another description:

They cite a study by Heberlein et al., who presented the following film to human subjects: a big triangle chases a little circle around the screen, bumping into it. The little circle repeatedly moves away, and a little triangle repeatedly moves in between the circle and the big triangle. When normal people watch this movie they see these interactions in social and intentional terms. The big triangle tries to harm the little circle, and the little triangle tries to protect the little circle.

However, a patient with damage to the amygdala, an almond-shaped collection of different brain structures, fails to see these shapes in such intentional terms.[4] Consequently, for Greene and Cohen, because this attribution of free will is generated by a brain area, it is also an illusion.

Does Neuroscience refute free will?

The Orphan Film Symposium has an excellent article discussing the original film, including diagrams and analysis, links to the original footage and a Flash reproduction.


  1. Gabe says:

    That second article is an awesome refutation of arrogant scientists.

    Rather than focusing on provable principles, these "scientists" extrapolate a single crude visualization of brain phenomena to imply universal determinism.

    I have news for them though, science is as poor a substitute for philosophy as religion is for science.

  2. Amy says:

    hgs, the original findings were from the 30s and 40s, before cartoons were terribly common. Humans also have a history (since time immemorial) of finding faces and animals in inanimate objects or visual noise, and of course of anthropromorphizing and empathizing with animals. I wouldn’t really believe that it’s because of cartoons and Flatland (which I’m sure very few ‘normal’ people have ever read, much less heard about).

    Gabe, the people writing were economists. The Mises foundation was created to further the Austrian School. (Which is a very sensible economic model, FWIW.)

    There’s plenty of neurological evidence that suggests that free will’s an illusion, but we have to ask ourselves if we really care. (Me, I don’t.)

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