Random musing on human nature…


Okay, What are the essential features of being human (as opposed, to say, a duck or a fungus)?

What is the most fundamental thing, if there is any, that marks the human from other life forms on the planet?

Now, I’m talking behviourally here.

Because to my mind, it’s an emergent quality arising from the increase in two things that are present in many other creatures, but to a lesser extent (mostly).

The first thing it emerges from is pattern recognition, itself a development of simple memory. Better devlopments of pattern recognition either arise form or entail ability for abstraction, prediction, and all other cool funky stuff. But as far as we can tell, lots of creatures do this stuff.

The next ingredient is novelty seeking; most lifeforms only do this out of necessity, as it brings with it a bundle of risk. But again, it’s not entirely unique, not even to primates, to seek new experiences where reqarding old experiences are available. In evoluitonary terms, it’s a risky strategy, but with potentially huge payoffs.

So, we have pattern recognition, we have novelty seeking, and at first sight they seem to be mutually exclusive. The first requires stability, it rewards fixed behaviours. Novelty seeking rewards avoidance of known patterns.

However, I believe that in primate, and expecially human, behaviour, we have unique and very succesful behavioural strategy which arises from finding pleasure in discovering new patterns.

Now, if this is true, if we get a similar pleasurable feedback from discovering a new pattern, a new confirmed relationship between two previously unrelated or only arbitrarily related things to that given by satisfaction of other drives, then this has a number of implications.

Firstly, it primes us for learning, for the acquisition of knowledge, and the relating of new knowledge ot existing knowledge. We’re frickin’ learning machines.

It also primes us to create patterns: art, stories, music, rhythm…

But, we are also pre-disposed to see pattern where there it may not exist, or, more fatally, to infer that pattern = meaning.

But that’s just my idea. Perhpas more later.

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5 thoughts on “Random musing on human nature…

  1. It’s been a while, been on holiday? Anyway. Pattern matching is an essential survival trait in all organisms, not just humans. It’s what allows us to distinguish food from not-food. Part of the pattern matching skill is also to be able to recognise interlopers in our environment, things that are not part of the usual pattern. Hence the interest in novelty. Most animals seem to have the reflex to avoid novelty, but not us. We go down to the basement with only a wonky torch every time. Perhaps it’s the lack of survival instinct that makes humans intelligent? Dylan Moran calls babies “witless morons who spend most of their time trying to kill themselves”. It could be that there is something particular to humans that drives our interest in the liminal space between what we know and what we don’t. It could be that our brains are just about the right size to allow for enough connections to be interesting but not so big that communication is slowed down too much.

    1. But then we get to chicken and egg time: why are our brains so big? What is the rewarded behaviour that prejudiciously selected oversized brains throughout human development? Yes, absolutely, pattern recognition is vital to almost any life form animate enough to develop behaviour, but to the extent we see in humans, where we can see elephants in clouds? Where people think the Da Vinci Code makes any sort of sense? For me, the simple seeking of novelty isn’t enough to explain human behaviour, I have to refine it to be the instinctive search for new patterns, rather than the instinctive recognition of old patterns. Also, as in your examples, the seeking of novelty, without looking for new patterns, is probably a very, very high risk strategy. Ability to recognise interlopers is good, but desire to interact with interlopers is probably not so good, genetically or personally, for animals in the wild. The new pattern strategy affords flexibility to react to changing situations, but it does make us compulsive pattern finders, even where it can harm us in the long term. I’m contrasting the pattern matching of, say, a bee, which can recognise a wide variety of patterns, from the UV colouring of flowers to identify good pollen sources from poor, to the waggle dance to communicate pollen locations, to pheromone signals from the queen to alter feeding or reproductive behaviour. But the individual bee cannot learn new waggle dances, or new flowers, or new pheromones. such “learning” can only take place on the evloutionary time scale. Humans (and many other animals, yes, but none so well as humans) can learn new patterns in a matter of, sometimes, the time it takes for a few thousand neurons to fire.

      1. But then not everyone is looking for novelty. Most people spend much of their time avoiding it, or feel threatened by it. Especially as people get older they become more set in their ways. So perhaps the yearning for novelty is something to do with empty capacity? Or perhaps you only want to learn something new if it can be proved to replace something less worthwhile. Which would mean that at some point you start to defend what you have rather than seeking out the new? Feral children find it very hard to fit in with society which seems to imply that the capacity to learn and the interest in the new is something that is perhaps learnt in a social environment rather than necessarily innate. I think it’s probably the capacity for abstraction that differentiates humans. Where this comes from it’s hard to say. It could be a happy by product of something else, an emergent trait. But it does appear to increase survival chances. I have a feeling that language acquisition and abstraction go hand in hand but I’ve not got any theory as to why.

      2. Well, to my mind, the whole abstraction thing is a function of pattern recognition: the ability to recognise similarities and label them. Hence why it goes hand in hand with language acquisition, as language is necessarily an abstraction. In my mad scheme of pattern recognition, words are actually names of patterns… The feral children is a good counter-case: thanks! As for most people don’t seek novelty: not outright novelty, as such, because, behaviourally and in evolutionary terms, it’s a long odds gamble. But finding new patterns includes finding the pattern between familiar objects or concepts arranged inn unfamiliar ways. Frex, a Sodoku puzzle is finding the way in which a pattern of 91 elements, 9 sets of the numbers 1-9, are arranged according to relational rules. Each time, you’re finding a new pattern, although all the elements are familiar. Now consider the relationship between a sodoku fan and a soap opera fan, or a football fan. If the patterns were truly always the same, then they would lose their appeal (though I’m sure you could get away with publishing the same Sodoku magazine every month, just changing the cover, and get away with it); at least part of the joy, I contend, is the delight in recognising new patterns every time, be they geomettric, conceptual, causal, whatever.

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