InfoMan, InfoMan,
Does whatever an InfoMan can
Interprets data, any size.
Makes sure assessment data really jives.
Look Out!
Here comes the InfoMan.

Is he strong?
Listen bud,
He’s got data running through his blood.
He can build amazing charts,
Take a look at his reports!
Hey, there
He is the InfoMan.

You can bet
That he’ll be there,
In his office,
but not in a chair.

InfoMan, InfoMan
Friendly neighborhood InfoMan.
Wealth and fame,
He’s ignored
Action is his reward!

To him, data is a great big bang up
Wherever there’s a hang up
You’ll find the InfoMan!

– by Kacey Thorne, 2016


T-shirt design: Sarah Corbitt

What color is this dress?


The picture on the top-left briefly (in 2015) took the internet by storm. This annotated version of the picture comes from Adam Rogers’ Wired piece called The Science of why No One agrees about the Color of this Dress.

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 10.32.54 PM

Recently, Adam Rogers wrote a great follow-up piece called A year later, the Dress murdered the Idea of Objective Color. Here’s a money-quote from that article:

As soon as you tell a philosopher that the subatomic particles that comprise all matter don’t have color as such, because photons don’t really interact with them in any meaningful way, or that the photons that bounce off of matter don’t make it past the back of the eyeball and instead transduce to electrical signals, manifested as images in brain-meat somehow … well, that’s how you blow a philosopher’s mind, my friend.



What is an Organism?

This post is about the leftmost part of the diagram below. It’s about the processes of living and sensation. It’s about how nature pays attention to organisms.

Kuhlman-Damasio (2)

Let me begin with a gem from the Wikipedia gnomes:

All known types of organism are capable of some degree of response to stimuli, reproduction, growth and development and self-regulation (homeostasis).

This list of traits is a helpful start. But I prefer to think about the concept of organism in different terms.

Organism is the essence of bio-logic, the object of natural selection.

Organism is the essence of selfhood, the locus of purpose and agency.

I have failed to complete my thoughts on this topic, but here are my very scratchy notes…


Natural selection

organism = locus of self and agency

purposeful phenotypic plasticity (self-reproduction, self-repair)

In a previous post, I introduced the Enchantment Camp as a group of academics who explain the human spirit on the basis of emergence instead of computation. One of the core figures in this camp is Terrence Deacon, whose book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter has haunted me for three years now. It has haunted me because Deacon makes such a strong argument that feeling and knowing (the life of the mind) are incarnations of a much more basic process. Deacon’s theory about living (the most basic biological process) is what has haunted me for three years. It is a theory about the organism, perhaps the most enchanting thing in the universe.

Inside Out


What Inside Out got right

Since I will spend most of this post describing what Pixar’s new movie Inside Out gets wrong, let me begin with what it gets right.

UC-Berkeley’s blog, Greater Good, noted four things that Inside Out got right about our emotional minds:

  1. Happiness is not just about joy. (It’s also about “emo-diversity.”)
  2. Don’t try to force happiness. (Emotions have their own ebb-and-flow.)
  3. Sadness is vital to our well-being. (A time and place for negativity should be allowed.)
  4. Embrace tough emotions! (Suppressing your feelings is dysfunctional.)

Over at the New York Times, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman describe their role as scientific consultants during the scripting of this movie. These are prestigious academics who have thought deeply about the nature of human emotions. Below you can check out two brief examples of their depth.

The writers of Inside Out hired great consultants, and they were smart to create memorable scenes and avoid academic complexities. I admire their work and was brought to LOLs and tears by their film. My purpose here is not to criticize the movie, but to use it as a springboard for introducing some scientific theories of mind. And, to do that, I need to discuss…

What Inside Out got wrong

Some theories of mind are more palpable (understandable, memorable) and others more complicated. The landscape looks something like this:

ToM complexity (2)

Inside Out can act as a bridge between folk and scientific theories of mind. If you can buy into Inside Out’s cartoonish theory of mind, then you might be able to grasp scientific theories of mind. That is, if the movie succeeds in moving your mental theory a couple steps towards complexity, then I think it is possible for you to take a couple more steps in that direction. To do so, you just need to get your head around two theoretical (i.e., not-so palpable) terms: homunculi and constructionism.

1. Homunculi


Homunculi are people-within-people. Over at the blog Conscious Entities, Peter criticizes the fact that Inside Out’s main characters — Joy, Sadness, Bing Bong — are all homunculi.

Before psychology became a bonafide science, Jungian analytical psychologists spoke seriously about homunculi like the Anima and Animus. No one (except the archetypal psychology movement) really takes these concepts seriously anymore.  That is, no one thinks they are scientifically viable concepts.

To explain nature using homunculi is an example of anthropomorphism, which is a logical fallacy. Most scientists refer to homunculi rather derisively (e.g., Dennett’s Cartesian Theater), and some scientists have no tolerance for homunculi at all (e.g., Eliminative Materialism). However, some scientists use very simplified homunculi (e.g., Selfridge’s Pandemonium Architecture, Minsky’s Society of Mind) in a loose or analogical sense. Perhaps the best scientific discussion of homunculi is Chapter 2 of Deacon’s book Incomplete Nature.

In my opinion, there is almost no way to escape using homunculi when explaining the nature of mind. And there are better/worse ways to use homunculi in your theory. For example, you can use either one or many homunculi when explaining the mind, and it is better to use many.

The mind (or self, or soul) is not unitary. There is not one ghost in the machine, but rather many ghosts. In modern scientific parlance, these ghosts are referred to as mental modules. Steven Pinker calls them “organs of computation.” If you think of the mind-brain as an iPhone, then mental modules are like Apps which have evolved to complete different tasks.

In this sense, I can throw Inside Out a theoretical bone. Like in the animated feature Osmosis Jones,  Inside Out explains the human in terms of many homunculi instead of just one. If you want to transition from a cartoonish theory to a more scientific one, just think of the characters of Osmosis Jones and Inside Out as apps instead of as people.

2. Constructionism

Discrete Emotions (left) vs Constructionist Emotions (right)
Discrete Emotions (left) vs Constructionist Emotions (right)

The above-left picture illustrates Paul Ekman’s discrete emotion theory.  Ekman got his beginning as a superstar of social science by confirming Charles Darwin’s claim that emotional expressions are universal signaling mechanisms. Each expression signals something unique to one’s social group — fear signals something very different from sadness, anger is nothing like happiness, etc — and so it is thought that each emotion is its own faculty. In other words, emotions are like words. They are discrete. They each have a life of their own.

My personal favorite scientist in the discrete emotion camp is Jaak Panksepp, who has mapped out in the brain 7 discrete subcortical circuits which map to 7 discrete “core” emotions. Panksepp’s theory of affective consciousness claims that core emotions can be identified by emotional actions, and he’s given each of these 7 systems a name — SEEK, FEAR, RAGE, LUST, CARE, PANIC, and PLAY. His work is top-notch.

So, if Panksepp is correct, then Inside Out got some of the core emotions wrong. Sadness should be PANIC. Disgust is not a core emotion. Fear is correct (FEAR). Anger is basically correct (RAGE) and so is Joy (PLAY). But what about LUST and CARE and SEEK? It appears that Inside Out missed them altogether.

But there is a far more serious criticism that scientific theories of mind would lay on Inside Out. This is the criticism that constructionist theories make towards all discrete emotion theories like Ekman’s and Panksepp’s.

The claim goes something like this: emotions are less like words, more like sentences. Each “discrete” emotion is actually a combination of different feelings, states, and action-tendencies. These emotional elements can be combined in many different ways, but there is probably some kind of “grammar” that constrains how they can be combined.

I believe the first constructionist emotion theory came from the mind of my hero: William James. But there are many others. For example, the affective circumplex model is pictured to the right of Ekman’s model above. I like the circumplex, but it has only two dimensions (valence and arousal) and I prefer a model that has three (valence, arousal, dominance; see Bradley and Lang’s Self Assessment Manikin).

Lisa Feldman Barrett’s Conceptual Act Model is probably the strongest version of constructionist emotion theory.  In a paper she co-authored with Kristen Lindquist, Feldman Barrett illustrated the distinction between discrete (or “faculty”) and constructionist theories with the figure below:

Screen Shot 2015-10-10 at 4.13.39 PM

Further reading on discrete vs. constructivist emotion theories

  • This paper shows that “facial action units” are not reliably associated with discrete emotions but do, in fact, facilitate emotional communication.
  • This paper shows that – if you want to accurately predict how neural networks will respond during emotion perception – you will need to use both discrete (happy, sad, afraid) and dimensional (valence, arousal) variables.

Constructionists and Homunculi

Clearly, the constructionist camp is less amenable to homunculi than the faculty camp. It’s easy to think of the amygdala and the insula as little characters in a story. Not so easy to imagine networks as cartoons.

Instead of main characters like Joy and Sadness and Bing Bong, constructionists would prefer us to think of emotions more like the Islands of Personality. Emotions are built by a bunch of different pieces. They are unique, but not really discrete. Emotions can dissipate and crumble, but can also be re-constructed and re-presented.



How can scientific theories of mind become palpable? I can’t really think of any better tools than adventurous myths and adorable cartoons. So, how could a scientific / constructionist theory of mind lend itself to story? Do such works exist already? Comments please!

Mass Shooting


How frequent are mass shootings in the US?

How frequent are mass shootings worldwide?

Is the rate of mass shooting in US higher than the rest of the “developed” world?

ToM Related Post: Death by Law Enforcement

Psychology, Biology, Philosophy