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How do we develop a sense of who we truly are? Do we perceive ourselves as science defines us? While some scientists think our identities are a product of our neurons, others are finding that our social and cultural context plays a dominant role in shaping how we view ourselves and each other. Join the top neuroscientists, philosophers, and psychologists as they discuss how culture and morality figure into the science of self.
This program is part of the Big Ideas Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.
Maria Konnikova is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, The Confidence Game and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. She is a contributing writer for The New Yorker and is currently working on a book about poker and the balance of skill and luck in life, The Biggest Bluff.Read More
Joshua Knobe is a professor at Yale University, appointed in both the Program in Cognitive Science and the Department of Philosophy. Most of his work involves using the kinds of experimental methods associated with cognitive science to address the kinds of questions associated with philosophy.Read More
Jesse Prinz is a distinguished professor of Philosophy and director of Interdisciplinary Science Studies at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. Prinz has been a leader in the experimental philosophy movement, which brings empirical methods to bear on philosophical debates.Read More
Daphna Shohamy, PhD is a neuroscientist and a professor in the department of Psychology and the Zuckerman Mind, Brain, Behavior Institute at Columbia University. Dr. Shohamy’s research aims to understand the neurobiological and cognitive mechanisms underlying learning, memory, and decision making.Read More
WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL- MY SOCIETY MY SELF
MARIA KONNIKOVA, AUTHOR: Hi everyone, thank you so much for being here. I am really excited to be here. You have a great panel up ahead. And as I was preparing for it you know it’s called My Society, My Self and I thought well how did-how did I define myself and I started thinking you know what is what’s the first question I remember asking myself when I was young? And I couldn’t remember but I could remember the earliest questions that others asked me in the earliest probably, is what’s your name? Right. How do you define yourself that way. How old are you? How old are you little girl? I remember those as well. And so it’s very interesting that my first kind of perceptions of self came from questions that others posed to me. What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s one that I definitely remember and I’m still asking myself that. And these sorts of questions are part of identity, part of our self. Part of the really fascinating things that this panel is going to be talking about and we have such a great group. We have perspectives from neuroscience, from philosophy, from psychology. So it’s going to be a really fascinating way to get a lot of different insight into what makes us who we are. You know what is it that defines human beings? And what is it that defines how you think of yourself in your own mind?
So without further ado let’s introduce our panelists. Our first participant is a wonderful neuroscientist and she’s a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia. She researches memory and she studies patients with brain disorders, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, eating disorders and her work has yielded insights into how the brain changes learning how memories are created and retrieved and how memory shapes our decisions, our actions, and ourselves. So please give a big welcome to the show. Come our next participant is a philosopher and he’s from the City University of New York. He’s a leader in the field of experimental philosophy and experimental philosophy, will talk a little bit about what that is, but it brings empirical methods to mind on philosophical questions. He is the author of several books including Furnishing the Mind, Gut Reactions and The Emotional Construction of Morals. So let’s please give a round of applause to Jesse Prinz. Also joining us is a post-doctoral fellow at Yale University. She has appointments at the School of Management and the cognitive science program. She conducts research on moral psychology, personal identity, and emotion and her recent work examines how humans create a sense of continuous identity for themselves and others. Please welcome Nina Strohminger. And our final participant is a professor of psychology philosophy and Linguistics at Yale University and his work involves using the kinds of experimental methods associated with cognitive science to address the kinds of questions associated with philosophy. He is the coeditor of the book Experimental Philosophy. So please welcome our final participant Joshua Knobe. Thank you guys so much for being here today. And I wanted to start since we’re going to be talking a lot about the self with kind of the fundamental question, What is the self? How do you guys think about it? How do you define it? So maybe we can start with Josh and work our way backwards to get to get an insight into what the self is.
JOSHUA KNOBE, EXPERIMENTAL PHILOSOPHER: Your question is a really good one and I think one of the things that we’ve learned over these past few years of really trying to study how people understand the self is that there isn’t a single way that they understand the self. It’s not as though there’s some one the thing that we could study and way well we’re studying this we’re studying how people ordinarily think of themselves. Rather people seem to think about the stuff in a whole variety of different ways, often varying the way they think about the self depending on the context. So for example, something that we’ve been interested in our own work is just the idea that in some cases people think well there are all sorts of different things that make up yourself. All sorts of different emotions, beliefs, desires, and intentions. But at other times people end up thinking about it in a very different way. They think, no there’s something that’s the core of who you really are and your true self. The thing that you really are deep down inside and then of course there may be these various emotions and beliefs that in some sense you have but those things aren’t the real you.
NINA STROHMINGER, PSYCHOLOGIST: Well I, Josh and I work together so naturally we agree on everything. He sort of stole my thunder but I guess I’ll just add to that that the work that actually most people on this panel have been doing integrates this view that to philosophers or people a priori before they’ve collect collected any data at all they might say, well the self is this or that or this other thing. But the sort of work that we’ve been engaged in actually takes work like uses as its definition for the self what other people think of the self as. So we’re not sort of coming down from above and just giving a definition to it, but rather saying like well how do ordinary folk and ordinary folk think about the self and using that to fuel our theories about it.
[00:05:39] JESSE PRINZ, EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGIST: Also-let me just add, I mean why are we here today? And I think the interest in this show is symptomatic of a kind of Western individualism. The very word “self” makes us think about our own individual strivings and goals. How do we organize as unique persons isolated from the rest. I think that’s fundamentally wrong. I think one thing we’re learning about the self is that the self is really at its core a social phenomenon. The reason why we have self, the reason why we keep track of identity over time is that we need to relate to others in forming those bonds, those relationships, those social groups depends on a certain kind of taxonomy of persons.
DAPHNA SHOHAMY, NEUROSCIENTIST: So I don’t work with any of these folks and I totally disagree. No. But I do have what I think in many ways a very different perspective as a neuroscientist and it is a challenging one in the sense that I think we’d all probably agree that to the extent that we have a sense of self or there is a self. It’s not you know there in our knee or our toes. It’s got to be in our brain and emerging and related to biological and neural processes. I think that raises a whole set of questions and answers that are somewhat parallel or orthogonal to the perspectives that you guys mentioned in terms of what does it mean to have a self? Is a self a changing entity or not? And how does it relate to kind of social construction? But I think you know it helps I think situate the question of self, thinking about it as it relates to the brain in the context of similar questions like, What does it mean to produce an action in a given moment? To what extent does each action we produce represent our self and inform our self? What does it mean to retrieve a memory of ourselves? And so these are the kinds of questions that I think neuroscience has very specific answers to. And I think a big challenge is to is to figure out how those different slices of behavior tell us about the self and inform ourselves, our sense of how the self is constructed.
KONNIKOVA: So let me follow up on that and ask so what-when you’re when you’re talking about the self and neuroscience, what are the sorts of questions that you think that neuroscience can actually help us answer? And then what. You know I love to hear the reaction of the rest of the rest of you non-neuroscientist who all worked together and we’ll be speaking with one voice. We will get you to disagree. So I’d love to kind of hear you guys discuss a little bit about what methods might be appropriate to what sorts of questions and do we need all of them to actually figure out what the self is?
SHOHAMY: Right maybe you know just start by making a statement that might sound a little blasphemous coming from the neuroscientists which is I think it’s really worth asking. We want to understand the self in a deeper philosophical societal level. Should we as a society care a whole lot about how it’s implemented in neurons or circuits of neurons? I’m interested in how that happens so for me that’s an easy answer. And I think media and the presence and at these sorts of events here suggest that a lot of people are interested in those questions but I think we should be very careful about how we assess neuro-scientific data and it’s relevant to these kind of societal questions. We also need to remember that neuroscience is really in its infancy, especially this level of thinking about brain processes in healthy human beings and how they are carried out on a very fine timescale like sitting here and thinking about questions of the self. Those are the things we want to get at. But they’re very hard to get at. I mean you asked about kind of how we can even start doing that, what are some of the tools we have. And we have many, many of the most powerful tools for understanding the brain. Historically did not exist in humans.
We can debate and people do whether a sense of self is a uniquely human phenomenon without even engaging in that debate I think we’re interested in that aspect of it. And that limits the tools we have to mostly two kinds. And one is looking at patients with brain damage. And what that does to their sense of self and Nina and I were just discussing some of her work on this topic. And you know that I think that that that can be useful. There are certainly cases of brain damage impacting, changing people’s sense of self. And again I think what that tells us is mostly that it’s not in the knee or the toe. It’s in the brain. And then the other tool that I think has really changed the public and scientific perception of the role of the brain in many complicated, interesting phenomena, is human brain imaging. So we are now in a position and have been for about 10 to 15 years with increasing power to put healthy human beings in a brain scanner and measure where in their brain there is activity. None of us think that the self lives in a particular node in the brain. So it’s a challenge to come up with ways to ask the right questions. Given that somewhat blunt tool.
[00:10:55] KONNIKOVA: Yes. So do the experimental philosophers in the crowd want to actually engage with that and say, well first of all what is experimental philosophy? Let’s ask that and then. Let’s ask the author of the textbook.
KNOBE: So experimental philosophy is an attempt to go after these kinds of questions that we traditionally associate with philosophy. But using these kinds of methods, using systematic experimental studies. So the kind of thing that Daphna was interested in is the question, how is it that people actually engage in certain actions, what behaviors and so forth? We could also ask how do people ordinarily understand the self? How do people normally think about what it is to be a self? How the self extends over time? How the self is related to our moral identity and moral responsibility. What the core of the self is, what’s important? And experimental philosophy involves the experimental philosophy of the self. Involves the scientific study of that-the scientific study of the concepts that people ordinarily use to understand what the self is most fundamentally about.
PRINZ: Just adding to that, one question you often get if you do experimental work but you have an employer who is in the philosophy department, you get a lot of resistance I think for people like us. We’re really interested in questions. And if you’re asking a question you should never restrict yourself to a single methodology. For training reasons, it’s very often useful to specialize. But you should be open to the possibility that multiple fields can contribute to answering the questions. If you’re interested in the self, history can contribute, literature can contribute, neuroscience can contribute, sociology, anthropology, philosophy and psychology. No individual can take on all of those fields so obviously it’s going to be a interdisciplinary effort, a big conversation. But the more training you can get in the more fields, the more resources you have as an individual to bring to bear on the topic question. I want to just give one example going back to Daphna I mean I think with respect to the self.
A very good case of where these fields have come together is in some of the experimental work that I think Nina will talk about. We really have been finding that morality is an important part of personal identity. But what is morality? Well sociology. All of those things contribute economics, but neuroscience has helped us see that moral responses are connected to certain brain structures. One of the interesting things about those brain structures is we know their job profile outside of the moral domain. And it seems like they do at least two other things. One of them is they’re essentially involved in emotion. And another is these very same brain structures some of them like the posterior cingulate, are also involved in perception of the body. So here we get this big social theory of the self coming out of philosophical ideas supported by psychology, linking cells to morality and then we get brain science, taking that to the next stage, linking morality to emotion, linking emotion to the body and suddenly this very cultural thing, like moral values gets grounded in the physical corpus in ways that we couldn’t have really discovered I think without the kinds of tools that Daphna uses.
KONNIKOVA: Well I want to follow up on that on the point about emotions. I think it’s very important but I’d actually love for Nina to talk a little bit about her experience, because you were trained in psychology right, in cognitive psychology and now you are working with the experimental philosophers. So how you know why did you decide to do that? And is it driven by the questions or by the tools you know- how does that work together?
STROHMINGER: The question is what brought me over to the dark side. Well I’ve always been interested in philosophy and you know even as an undergrad, I was doing work in cognitive science which draws a lot from philosophy as well as psychology in the brain sciences. So I never really saw it as a trajectory to the dark side. Maybe I always been embedded. And the decision to go to get my Ph.D. in psychology was actually largely arbitrary. I thought maybe there was a marginal, marginally better chance I would get a job at the end of it but it wasn’t. I didn’t feel like you know I defected at any point. So working with philosophers, especially empirically minded philosophers who care about the experimental work the scientific work, feels very natural and it’s been very productive as well.
[00:15:13] KONNIKOVA: So your sense of self is a very practical one. But Jesse, I’d love to. I’d love to actually follow up on this concept of emotion and the importance of emotion in the self because I think it’s actually a thread that runs through all of your work to some extent because we have you know emotional memories, and we have emotions, and how they’re impacted. You mentioned briefly you know Nina’s work on disease and we’ll talk a little bit about that. Values and moralities. So I’d love to get your perspective on what the role of emotions is when it comes to defining what self is.
PRINZ: Well I mean I think we are phrases like, “I don’t feel myself today” and if you stop and pause for a minute the idea of feeling like a self, what does that even mean? How is the self something that you can feel? And I think the insight that’s captured in those kinds of clichés is that we really can in a sort of deep introspective way, recognize when we’re acting in accord with how we normally act. And when we depart from that. And to not feel yourself can be in part emoting differently, feeling differently. Things that once stirred you now leave you apathetic. Those who have experienced kind of anecdotal symptoms associated with depression who were you know had sources of joy who they try to self-medicate by doing something that they’ve found worthwhile in other areas of their live and find themselves indifferent, are really discovering a kind of rupture of identity. So I think in that way we can find a lot of evidence that emotions are central to what it is to experience yourself as being the same person. How you react emotionally is central to who you are.
KONNIKOVA: So who would you be a different person if you suddenly descended into clinical depression?
PRINZ: I think the answer is with Josh’s original comment that the self has many facets and there is no one thing that is the self. But I do think when we deal with mental illness, one of the challenges for people who suffer it and for family members too is that a lot of these symptoms are really insults to the self in ways that need to be recognized. Depression isn’t just feeling down or feeling incapacitated. It really is a much more radical shift from your mode of being. Another aspect of this is depression is an emotional style and a lot of us I think who have sort of symptoms of this kind of emotional symptoms begin to identify with those symptoms. So why are so many people reluctant to give up on their depression or medicate their depression or get over their depression. Why do those phrases meet with some resistance? Part of it is your emotional mode is core to identity in a way that is threatened by significant changes even in the positive clinical directions.
KONNIKOVA: Do any of you guys want to jump in?
STROHMINGER: I mean I may have found the thing that I disagree with Jesse about. Maybe when we talk about a moral determinate, there is actually no disagreement. But there is a difference between feeling like yourself and this question of what the self feels like from the inside. And what would make someone else seem like a different person. And those two things can come apart. So in some of my work on patients with different brain diseases, including depression, depressive symptoms are quite common with neurodegenerative diseases. We find that the extent to which someone is experiencing or rather is displaying the symptoms of depression is-doesn’t at all predict whether someone says this is the same person or I feel like I don’t recognize them anymore. So. And that was true for other emotional states, happiness sadness. So it doesn’t seem like emotion is playing a very big role in determining the identity of other people, their continuous identity. Although you probably are right that depression from the inside really changes how we how we feel like whether we feel like ourselves.
KONNIKOVA: So actually yeah, please.
KNOBE: So maybe just building on the kind of thing, you know we’re saying. So traditionally philosophers often suggest that ultimately the true nature of the self, the real essence of who we are is our capacity to reason. So the thought was that our emotions are just kind of getting in the way of the self. If we could only get rid of those emotions then we’ll be able to express who we really most fundamentally are. So people will give these examples that are in many ways I feel seem compelling. So consider for example someone who is a heroin addict and when he reasons, he thinks, I have to kick this, I have to get clean. But his emotions are driving him to get another hit. In this case we would say, oh his true self, who he really is, is something about his ability to reason. It’s his- that part of him is strong and toward getting clean and it’s who he really is. This other thing, his emotions are drawing him toward. That’s not who he really is. But I think what we’re seeing in a lot of recent work coming out from Jesse, from Nina, from many others is that this intuition we have has actually has nothing to do with the difference between reason and emotion. Rather it just has to do with the fact that we think that heroin is bad and that getting a-kicking heroin is good. And I think you could see it really easily if you just imagined taking the reason and the emotion and just sort of switching the roles. So I suppose there was a high school student who on reflection thought, I should really just start doing heroin. It will increase my social status of being more popular in school, is going to mean a really good direction.
[00:20:27] KNOBE: But then when she thinks about doing this, she just has this emotion that draws her to not do it. She just kind of feels icky about it. It just sort of feels wrong to her. So this sort of states that she has are just the inverse of the heroin addict that appears in the traditional philosophical example. And here I think we would say exactly the opposite. We would say, that voice within her, that feeling of icky-ness or discomfort with doing heroin. That’s her true self and her capacity to reason which is telling her to ignore that voice. That’s something she has to get rid of to get back in touch with who she really is.
SHOHAMY: So I’d love to. I can I completely agree and I was thinking of making a similar point as it emerges from the neuroscience kind of point of view which is that we share as humans this intuition of sort of say, your cognition versus emotion. One of the really interesting conclusions from our work on the brain over the past decade and more is that the brain doesn’t respect those boundaries at all nor really should it for the reasons you mentioned and so the idea of thinking of feelings as being separate from thinking doesn’t make sense. We don’t have emotional and kind of rational parts in our brain that are dueling it out even though that idea is very compelling and has been around for a very long time, back to Aristotle I believe. Looking at the philosophers for approval. And so in many ways, it kind of changes the question we want to ask then is not what is-where in the brain do these two forces live and where do they duke it out? But what are the very specific circuits in common that they take advantage of and what are the principles that drive them? Because the fact is still at the level of what we do our actions, which I think really is kind of how the most conservative or useful way to think the self in many ways. When we do something we take one action. We either go for the heroin or not. We either eat the chocolate cake or resist it. And so one of the things we’ve been really interested in is understanding not how emotional loses or wins but what are the circuits that bias our behavior to reach for something or not reach for it. That bias our decision to do something or not do it. So it’s interesting that there’s such convergence. I wasn’t aware of it.
KONNIKOVA: Well I think it’s also it’s an interesting question that Josh keeps bringing up of your quote unquote true self versus kind of your other self which isn’t your true self. And I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about that and also how much of that is actually imposed externally versus how you really feel about yourself. So if we give the example of the heroin addict, does she think that she has a true self and something that’s not a true self or is that just a judgment that we’re making about her?
KNOBE: Well I was going to introduce this topic so maybe I should hear from some of the other folks.
STROHMINGER: Well you’re the expert on the true self.
KNOBE: To what extent this kind of thing is this introduced externally versus something that appears within our selves? It seems like initially almost all research on this notion of the true self was based on how people think about their own true selves. And this research would ask Nina about Nina’s true self, Jesse about Jesse’s true self, and Daphna about Daphna’s true self. What this kind of research finds is that people always thought that their true self is something really awesome, fantastic, just absolutely wonderful in every way. So the more you feel like you’re in touch with your true self, the more you feel that your life is a meaningful one, the more you feel that your decisions are on target. The more you feel like you’re doing something that you’re supposed to do. And it’s very easy to dismiss that kind of result. You just think, the reason people think so well of their own true selves is because they think so well about everything about themselves. Everyone thinks that they’re the best driver, that they’re the easiest to get along with, almost every single professor at a university thinks they’re above average. So maybe in just same way people think that their true self is the really wonderful kind of true self. But just in the past few years, people have been trying this in a different way where they ask people about the true selves of other people. So this time now we ask Nina about Daphna’s true self, Daphna about Jesse’s true self, and Jesse about Nina’s true self. What you find then, is this really extreme tendency whereby people also think that other people’s true selves are good. In fact people think not only the true selves of people they like are good, but that the true selves of the people they most hate are good. Even the most liberal person will think, there’s something within George W. Bush calling him, his true self speaking to him and saying what you’re doing in Guantanamo is morally wrong. Deep down it’s not what he really is really being drawn to do. So there seems to be something about human beings that makes them think of themselves as being-having a good true self. But it’s not something about it being your own self. It’s something that applies equally to how everyone else will think about your true self.
[00:25:18] KONNIKOVA: So it seems like there’s some moral judgment actually that is that is being imposed from the outside, which is defining true selves for other people. So I might think that you know the true self of someone else is good for a different reason than you. We might actually have it backwards.
STROHMINGER: Absolutely and that actually I mean Josh is too modest to refer to his own work directly when he’s describing this that he has this wonderful study where he shows that if you ask, if you describe this-a case of someone who is-has homosexual feelings but since he is highly religious and his religion prescribes homosexuality he believes that he shouldn’t be gay and then you ask people, which is his true self? The drive to be gay that’s emotional. Or the intellectual belief that he ought not to be gay? And it turns out that it depends entirely on whether you ask liberals or conservatives this question. So if you yourself believe that it’s wrong to be gay, you say his true self is the part of telling him not to be gay. But if you think that it’s it’s actually a non-moral issue whether you’re gay or not. Then you say, yeah, his true self are those emotional drives.
KONNIKOVA: So this actually gets to some of Jesse’s work about the self as being a socially determined thing. Can you talk a little bit about kind of that conception of ourselves coming from our experiences and socialization. And I’m was also wondering you know if you are someone who was raised without a lot of people around, would you develop a sense of self in the same way?
PRINZ: Great. You know I just we have to come back briefly to Joshua’s example of the attribution of goodness to moral self. When I recently reread Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is a very provocative I think, very problematic book. But one of the things that really offended people about that book when she first published it is the suggestion that Adolf Eichmann was banal, that there was some way in which he was just an ordinary bureaucrat who was co-opted into this diabolical project. Deprive people of their desire to blame him by seeing him as an evil self in her early work on totalitarianism. She had this idea of radical evil. Some people are just at their deepest core bad. And I think the flip side, the counterpoint to the general phenomenon you’re describing is in certain contexts, we really do want to hold people accountable at the core. And recent work on Eichmann in particular has come out suggesting that he was very systematic and non-apologetic Nazi ideologue, which helped confirm this idea that it wasn’t just that he was pushed around like in the Stanley Milgram experiment by circumstance but that there was a driving motivation to engage in the acts that he perpetrated. Which of course, that is a social dimension in the self because it’s how we think about other people’s selves, what we want to project when we talk about ourselves on Facebook and social networks, we’re listing these traits and we try to list things about ourselves that will ingratiate us, but also help us form social groups. I just was refereeing a paper showing that if there’s a transformation from being a punk rocker to being a jock. That’s considered a sort of a bad thing. And that’s a sort of a more radical loss of self than if you go from being a- sorry, punk rock to jock a good thing. It’s seen as a moral improvement. If you go from being a jock to a punk rocker, that’s seen as some sort of degeneration. So we have these things we want to project to others about social identity. If you tell somebody you’re a punk rocker, they’re immediately going to form all kinds of associations with you. But one of the things that happens in these group membership identities is we form affiliations, we find like minded people.
So why is it so important on Facebook to say your political values. And the answer is you don’t want to have any contact with people who are your political opposites. So if you find out the person you’re dating and we have some data on this, belongs to a different political party. Even now with like Bernie and Hillary, I’ve lost friendships over you know who-which candidate you support for the Democratic nomination and that that divide makes it impossible to form close affiliation. So when you say, “I’m a Hillary person” or “I’m a Bernie person,” you’re saying something about your identity that bears on who can be your friend and that that I think is a deep revelation that the self is not about me, qua individual, it’s about me qua group. Who are the people who are going to fortify me in life as part of my extended identity. So
KONNIKOVA: wouldn’t that depend though, on how important politics were to you personally? So doesn’t it actually depend on the person and the relative importance of different things to your sense of self? So if politics is totally unimportant to me, I’m not going to lose any friendships over Bernie supporters.
[00:30:16] PRINZ: We thought so. So with a collaborator, Javier Gomez-Lavin, we did a series of studies where we gave people all kinds of traits that might matter to identity. Occupation, are you urban versus rural, what are your pastimes, what are your music tastes, and so on. Among these we also had politics and religion, which are very moral dimensions. And then we ask people how important are these things to you? That was one question. And then if these things change, would you still be the same person? For things like musical taste, people tended to get very high ratings of importance. Music really matters to me. Or being urban, or my job really matters to me, occupation is extremely important to most people. But when those things change would you still be the same person if you change jobs? If you moved to a small town? Sure. Yeah that wouldn’t threaten my identity. Would you be the same person if you change your political party affiliation? Would you be the same person if you went to a different church or adopted maybe went from being an atheist to a theist? People say yes. And strikingly in response to your question, they say that is a threat to identity or a change to identity even if in the first question, they say it isn’t very important to them. So if you find somebody that-Nina has some data that go in a slightly different direction on this that are very interesting. If you find people who say morality doesn’t matter much to me or politics don’t matter much to me. And say, Ok, so if the next election cycle, what if you’ve started voting for the other side or what have you started really caring about politics all of a sudden? Would you be the same? And people tend to say no.
KONNIKOVA: Nina, do you want to…
STROHMINGER: Yes. So we have this data that shows that. So first of all, we find that the part of the self that’s the most important to saying that someone is the same person with if you look at different parts of the mind. So your memories, your moral capacities, your personality, your preferences, the things you like and dislike, basic cognitive capacities. The factor that matters the most and all the other factors, they matter a little bit. The one that matters the most are your moral values, your moral beliefs, your moral actions. But if you go to psychopaths, and we have this data, we say we give people a psychopathy test, and actually-so you can have someone who is a clinical psychopath, you can also have-so everyone in this room would score slightly different on the psychopathy test. Presumably there’s no one out here who is like a perfect psychopath. But there are some natural-
PRINZ: Well it’s 1 in 100
STROHMINGER: So there might be like a perfect 40 in the audience right now. But for the most part, there is there’s natural variation. And people you know who are sort of high but are subclinical might you know, go into business or something. But if you go to these people and you give them the same sorts of battery of tests, they no longer show a preference for moral traits. Which goes against the suggestion that, oh it’s really about maneuvering through the social world. Because surely it’s very important to psychopaths to know you know who can they manipulate, who’s gullible and trusting, and so forth. It really seems like what’s going on is they say, well this is what’s important to me. “Are these moral traits important to me? No not really I don’t value them. Therefore they’re not really important to the identity of other people either.”
KONNIKOVA: I’d love to have…
SHOHAMY: I actually would like to make a comment and-am I allowed to ask a question?
KONNIKOVA: Yeah, please.
SHOHAMY: So the comment is that in studies of things like decision making and choices. So again I’m-I keep emphasizing like the actions people take. There’s a lot of data showing that if you ask people to choose about say between two options, either for reward like between a blue square and a red square and they’re going to get money and they do this 200 times and as the experimenter, you’re controlling how likely they are to win on any given choice. People readily engage in this, especially undergraduates who are excited about getting the money. And if you ask them later what they did, they will come up with a story about how they made their choices. But if you look at what they actually did, it doesn’t fit their story. It fits often a story we have about how the brain should be driving the actions. And so I’ve really come over the years, and many of my colleagues, to feel like asking people what they think only tells you what they think and doesn’t necessarily get why they’re doing what they’re doing. And I guess that’s a long lead to the question of, and I ask it kind of naively, do you take for granted that asking people what they think makes a self is actually, that those answers actually tell us what makes a self a self?
[00:35:03] STROHMINGER: Absolutely not. I think that these, these two are they’re distinct. But at the same time, the question of what actually makes a self a self, although it’s a metaphysical question in many ways, it’s not a question that probably could be answered satisfactorily with any sorts of studies.
PRINZ: I mean I just I agree with Nina and I would put forth your question but I would say as a matter of descriptive fact, morality has this weird kind of tenacity. There’s work by Linda Skitka on what is called attitude strength. And it turns out, psychologists measure this in different ways. How intensely do you feel about something? How important is it to you? And if it were to change, would it be a kind of loss, how connected is it to your other core, stabilizing values? She found that morality was the only thing that showed up as correlated across all measures of attitude and strength very consistently. There are also studies of political party affiliation in the US over the lifespan. Within a 40 year span, the variation is about six people remain the same to about the degree of 65 percent. So within basically a whole voting life from your earliest elections to you know older ages, you’re voting pretty similarly, despite dramatic changes that might be taking place in your society. If you look at 10 year periods, it’s about 80 percent. Take the big five personality traits, the most validated traits of personality that have ever been studied. Openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism and agreeableness. Those are less stable. They’re very stable, but you can look at say 5, 10 year intervals and in some studies, the agreement over those times is again in the 60 something percentile for fairly short periods. Over the lifespan, that can drop off precipitously and very susceptible to dramatic life changes. Political values, which is an indirect sort of measure of moral attitudes, do show a kind of tenacity that I think is unusual among our traits.
KONNIKOVA: So one of the things that I’d love for Daphna to talk about since I think the three of you have been emphasizing morality as kind of the most important thing. And Daphna obviously studies memory. And I’m curious about your thoughts on whether memory might be more important than morality to us?
SHOHAMY: Well I would have to put it as a competition between them. I think for me somebody who studies memory, I think the point I’d want to make in the allotted time is that memory is much more fundamental to our behaviors in general than we think. It’s not just our ability to remember something we did yesterday. But is that many of our actions if not every single one is informed by past experience, one way or another. And I think that’s a very interesting an interesting challenge is to understand how that emerges. It makes sense for a brain and a being to take advantage of our past experiences and use them and so the key question I’m interested in is exactly how that happens. So I think memory is fundamental to many aspects of our behaviors, including our sense of self. And one of the biggest questions then is how as for us as neuroscientists where we’re just in many ways starting out. We know a pretty solid amount about the likelihood for any one of us at any given moment that will remember a particular event. OK so we know a lot about how an individual memory is formed and then retrieved.
I think the interesting intersection between memory and sense of self starts when we try to understand how those memories get connected over time. And we can think from the memory angle on the self as a self as being sort of emerging as a interrelated with the memories as they unfold over a lifetime. So we’re you know as a scientist of the brain, we now can say what happens with a single memory, maybe with two or three memories. And we know that a big job that the parts of our brain that form memories, one of the big challenges is that they are constantly weaving our memories into a network. We’d like to think that that network is on one hand gives rise to a sense of self, but we also know and I think it’s important to emphasize the other direction, that we are-our sense of expectations about the world. I don’t know if you count that as self, but there the way we perceive the world will also change the way our memories are formed. So memories are very personal in that sense. They’re absolutely not just a veridical record of what happened in a given moment or our lives. Their influenced heavily by what we expected would happen and those expectations are shaped by the memories we had before them. So I think there is this that there is an interesting role for memory. I don’t you know, I don’t think of it personally as being in competition with morality per se. But I don’t study morality so that might be why.
[00:40:10] KNOBE: Well I would actually suggest that this work is not encompassing of what you’re saying with what you’re saying in a very different sense. So what the three of us have been studying is the question, how do people ordinarily understand the self? And then that’s a very different question from understanding how it is that human beings actually perform actions? So I feel like, suppose that we found that people who ordinarily understand the self as being considered in such way that some certain thing is the most fundamental thing and then you found that in fact, that thing just is the thing that most fundamentally guides people’s actions. In a way I think that would make our discovery less interesting because then it wouldn’t be that surprising that people would think that’s most fundamental, because it just simply is what’s most fundamental. What would make-what would be most surprising on the part of the- for us to discover is if people seem to all be converging on something that’s the absolutely most fundamental part of the self. But then when neuroscientists actually begin to study it, they found that plays little role, if anything. So it seems like far from being there being a competition if we find different things, it seems like it would make the work all the more exciting. If these different kinds of research programs ended up finding different things as beings what’s at the core.
SHOHAMY: I think that’s largely what’s happened in my opinion with consciousness to some extent. It’s interesting. We all think it’s interesting. We all read about it and wonder about it. One of the findings emerging from neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology is that it appears to play much less important a role in many of our actions and behaviors and even reasoning than we thought it did.
KNOBE: Right so suppose that people who study how people ordinarily think about consciousness found that the way people ordinarily think about consciousness is exactly the way that you think that the consciousness actually works. Then the study of how people ordinarily think about consciousness would be a slightly tedious research program. By contrast, suppose that you discover how consciousness actually plays a role in people’s actions and then people studying how people think about consciousness find that it plays a rad-it plays a radically different role in people’s ordinary conception of their actions. Then things become interesting. We have to ask, how do people come to have this conception of their actions that so radically departs from what our sense is telling us?
KONNIKOVA: Well it’s just-sorry, Jesse.
PRINZ: Nina if you want to talk a little bit about the memory moral contract that’s come out in some of your work.
STROHMINGER: Oh well I guess I mentioned it in passing before. But when we-when you ask-so you could give people a scenario where you say imagine that it’s the not too distant future and this man Jim, he gets into a car accident and the doctors give him a little microchip to replace the part of his brain that gets damaged. And then they do all these detailed tests and psychological measures to see if he’s OK and they find one of the following things: they either find that he’s psychologically normal, no change, or they find that he lost all of his memories from before the accident, or they find that he’s lost his moral compass, he no longer knows the difference between right and wrong. And we’ve a few other conditions and we find that if he’s lost all his memories from before the accident, people say that’s much less important to the question of whether Jim is the same person now as before, as if he’s lost his moral compass. So certainly for folk judgments about the nature of personal identity, morality plays a much larger role than memories, even if it ends up not being the case for what actually drives behavior.
PRINZ: When we when we first discovered this, it really was striking from the perspective of someone trained in philosophy. If you study the theme of personal identity and philosophy, the starting point is John Locke. In 1690, he wrote a book that really was the book about the mind for the next 200 years. And in that, he was a very seminal discussion of what makes you the same person over time. And it’s a bit difficult to interpret this whole text. What’s the view. But it does look from his examples, like memory is the key. What makes me the same person over time is that I can recall my past. I can bring up these past episodes in my mind. So when we started to ask ordinary people what they think about this, and Nina has done really at this point a couple of dozen, dozens of experiments we have asking this question. They tend to think memory isn’t that important. It could be a fanciful case or a very real world case. We all have relatives who have suffered from memory loss through aging and we have to ask is it the same person? And in all of this work, we find memory loss does impact our sense of this being the loved one we’ve always had. But not to the same degree as change in values. Of all the things we’ve measured, and we keep trying new things, morality just continues to show up as the trait for which identity is framed. It really looks like the one that’s most crucial. If you imagine an older relative whose values start to change dramatically. That looks like they’re less of the same person than an older relative who’s lost memory. And to me that really is the kind of discovery that even though it’s common sense that we’re proving, all of our training and what identity is has sort of gotten us to look past this core feature that’s now emerging empirically as central to the self.
[00:45:11] STROHMINGER: It’s a great example of the value of experimental philosophy. Right? Because for centuries, philosophers were focused in on this one trait and as Jesse said, they’re just looking past what actually is going on. John Locke had this one intuition that might not be shared by you know the majority of humanity.
PRINZ: Surprise, surprise philosophy.
SHOHAMY: But it might be the relevant one for how people actually make decisions. And I’m not you know I’m not sure I think I think you know as Josh was saying earlier, these are slightly different angles on the same question that are likely to disagree in interesting ways. And I guess you know one of my questions would be why do we think that morality is not related to memory. I think one of the things I’d say is that memory really informs a lot of behaviors, even when we’re not aware that it does. So the idea that even moral that moral judgments are not guided by or informed by memory also seems at least a question I think.
STROHMINGER: Can I-I just want to push on this point that you’re making a little bit. So if you take someone who has radical memory loss like H.M. or other sort of famous amnesic cases, is it not the case that they generally have the same moral character as before?
SHOHAMY: It’s a little bit debatable actually. The original reports on people- so H.M. so H.M. is a very famous patient who suffered memory loss and had an absolutely transformative effect on our understanding of memory and the brain. He had a very severe case of epilepsy that could not be treated pharmacologically with medical treatments, drug treatments, and so they performed surgery on him when he was in his late 20s and removed the focus of where the epileptic seizures were taking place. And that location often in epilepsy, is in an area called the hippocampus which is kind of on the side of the brain inside the center of the medial temporal lobe. The good news was that that surgical treatments helped cure the epilepsy. The unexpected bad news was that H.M. was no longer able to form new memories. So he didn’t really lose memories from the lifetime. But the doctor would come in every day and every day H.M. didn’t recognize the doctor. And if you try to probe H.M. to remember what he did yesterday and tell you about it. He couldn’t. He couldn’t create new memories after losing this part of the brain. And this was scientifically astonishing because most of the theories in neuroscience until that point about localization of memory and the brain go back to the previous century, had indicated from animal research that memories are not in one part of the brain, they’re distributed all over. And what happened to H.M revealed that no, actually it is one part of the brain that seems to be important, crucially important for one kind of memory which is kind of creating a record of what we would typically think of memory. What you had for breakfast yesterday. Sorry, kind of went into teaching mode.
The very interesting thing has happened with H.M. and it’s actually exciting to have the opportunity talk about a H.M. today because one of the most famous scientists who interrogated H.M.’s memory over a lifetime was Sue Corkin from MIT and she passed away about a week ago and H.M. passed away several years ago and so anybody who’s interested, there’s a lot to read about it. And Sue Corkin did amazing work and kept on interrogating him, and doing research on his memory. And that’s turned out to be really interesting, because the first passed result led to the consensus that this part of the brain was specialized for what people call declarative memory. Is the ability to remember what happened yesterday or the day before and that everything else was intact, like imagination and creativity and morality and so forth. Over the years, that turned out to not be true. And that there were a lot of other more subtle changes in H.M.’s behavior and since then, we have many more people that have damage to the hippocampus because of hypoxia or encephalitis, various other situations. And these people suffer, many of them from memory loss. But understanding that what that memory is turns out to be much more complicated. And one example that I think is related potentially to morality, although again you know I don’t know, tell me what you think, is that if you just ask people to imagine a scenario, a hypothetical scenario which it sounds like often happens in sort of assessments of moral judgments, that without a hippocampus, people don’t imagine that scenario in the same way. They imagine it in a very impoverished way. So if I just asked you I imagine this event is unfolding in two years. Tell me about it. It’s your-it’s your birthday in two years. Most of us go into a lot of detail and apparently vividly imagine it. People with damage to the hippocampus, which our textbooks tell us is just memory, don’t imagine that in detail at all. They give a very, very vague kind of sense of what’s going to happen. And so I think that’s relevant here just for thinking about memory as playing into something that you know it had no business playing into based on the way we understood things initially from H.M., which I imagine, here you can tell me that I’m wrong. Must be important for things like moral judgments.
[00:51:02] PRINZ: A couple of brief comments one first, very much in agreement. A former student of mine named Felipe De Brigard who’s now a professor of neuroscience and philosophy at Duke wrote a dissertation where he asked the question, what is memory for? And we all might think that’s obvious. Memory is for remembering. It’s for recalling the past. But what function does it have in evolutionary terms to revisit all these episodes. Is nostalgia that useful evolutionarily? And the answer that he arrived at really systematizing a lot of trends in the memory literature that you’re involved with. Is that memory is about the future, not the past. Memory is really about planning. It’s about using our past to make decisions about how to act in the future. Deprive someone of memory and that will be impaired. I had ended(?) whole thing as a colleague for number of years who was one of the pioneers studying this kind of memory and studying-worked with H.M. and other patients with amnesia. And I asked Tobin(?) you know does H.M. really have a moral life? And his answer at the time, just based on conversations was that there’s a way in which his sense of his life is very superficial. You ask any of us what’s-what is your life about? What are your projects? What are you in this for? Camus begins one of his books saying the most important philosophical question is suicide. Why do we go on? Life has no meaning so why bother? Why face tomorrow? And I think all of us can reflect on that question deeply in ways that are informed by our past. And that’s part of our morality, our decisions, what kind of person I want to be can guide my sense of meaning in life. I think for somebody who doesn’t have access to the past, that’s going to be limited and the kind of answer that I think that H.M. would give to Camus’s questions would look very different than the kinds of answers that we would all give. So I do agree morality just as you pointed out, that reason and emotion are not separated in the brain. I think memory and morality are not fundamentally separated in the brain.
STROHMINGER: I also agree, but I also have something that I’d like to add. This is reminding me of which is this old Oliver Sacks essay and I know there was a tribute to him at this festival earlier this week. And he wrote this wonderful essay, if you haven’t read it, you should go out and just leave the festival right now and read it right now. It’s called The Lost Mariner where he discusses a patient with Korsakoff’s syndrome and people who are familiar with Sacks’ work will know that one question that he was really obsessed with is the question of personal identity. And this whole essay is about this man with Korsakoff’s syndrome. Korsakoff’s syndrome is the result of being an alcoholic after many years. I think it’s a vitamin B deficiency. The temporal lobes just disintegrate. And this patient, Jimmy, he had completely lost not only his ability to form new memories but also almost all of his memories from the past as well. And so he lived in this sort of bizarre sort of world where you couldn’t live in the past, he couldn’t plan for the future, and he was really only barely hanging on by a thread in the present.
And so the question that Sacks interrogates is, so is Jimmy the same person? Or in what sense does he have any kind of identity at all? And the beginning part-just you know spoiler alert, I going to tell you what happens in this essay. He’s really obsessed with this idea that you know memories really are preventing Jimmy from truly existing in any real sense. But then he, in a twist, he observes Jimmy taking the sacrament at church and he sees how he’s transcended, sees how he reacts to the holy music, and how he acts when he’s praying and he says Jimmy is not a spiritual casualty at all. Since he could still be moved morally and religiously and spiritually, he still very much existed. And the fact that you know he doesn’t have his memory traces anymore, but that’s just you know that’s just machinery. That’s not who he really is. And so he absolutely has survived despite this devastating brain damage.
[00:55:07] KONNIKOVA: So it would say that his true self is still there.
STROHMINGER: You might say, you might say…
KNOBE: You might say that but not only might say that, but that’s the sort of key finding coming out of Nina’s work about people who have neurodegenerative diseases. Those who lose their memories, they’re supposed to still…
STROHMINGER: Right. So if you go to people’s families who suffered brain damage and you ask them about what are the symptoms that this that the patient has experienced? And also you know do they seem like a stranger to you? Do you feel like you still know who they are? Do they seem like the same person deep down or not? And then you build a big fancy model. What you find is the extent- and I think that Jesse alluded to this earlier, the extent to which at least people are observing memory loss actually doesn’t predict at all whether you think this person has changed or not. The almost the only thing that matters is the extent to which their moral capacities have changed. The one, the one symptom that we found also made an independent contribution to identity. We weren’t expecting it all. No philosophers or really almost any kind of psychologists predicted this. And so we were also surprised that there is a smaller but still significant effect of loss of language. So if you have a loved one who can no longer speak or speak fluently with the patient, this is having a significant effect and whether you would say it’s the same person. We thought that was really interesting because language just hasn’t-really been absent from the discussion in literature.
KONNIKOVA: Well one of the things that you keep saying though, is others think of them as the same person. What about themselves? You know if you are experiencing dementia, do you still see yourself as the same person or is your fundamental sense of self altered? And I know that if you know there is work and if you ask people this question before they experience any changes, a lot of people will say you know I don’t want that to happen. And a lot of people are still able to make decisions, end of life decisions when they are in the early stages of dementia. There have been some really lovely pieces of writing on people who said, “I’m committing suicide here because I’m losing part of myself every single day. This is when I can still make the decision. So I’m going to end my life.” And they do. So it seems that to them, even though to other people, other people might not agree that they still think that you’re in there somewhere. You don’t agree. You think that you are being lost. I think it’s a very interesting dichotomy if you’re if you’re talking about the self as external versus the self as perceived by you.
STROHMINGER: And it’s really tricky methodologically if you are trying to you know if you’re trying to compare say what’s the effect of memory loss versus morality or any other cognitive capacity on your own sense of personal continuity for a few reasons. We would love to just run this study again on the patients themselves. There’s a few problems. One is, when you lose your memories, you begin to forget who you used to be. Another problem which might be even an even bigger problem is that most people with different forms of dementia don’t know that they’re sick. Especially past the very early stages. So if you ask them, “Are you the same person as before or even do you have a disease?” They say, “no I’m fine. Nothing’s wrong.” So it becomes very difficult to figure out what’s actually going on because people are no longer able to refer in an objective way to the person that they once were.
KONNIKOVA: I mean this is something that I was thinking about obviously with Muhammad Ali’s death that he was the same person that Muhammad Ali we all knew? And I know you study Parkinson’s. So it would be interesting to me that is there a tipping point you know where-where people lose themselves?
SHOHAMY: It’s an interesting question, especially since I think what you know is coming out of this discussion is well are they losing their sense of themselves? Are their family losing them, their sense of self? Are their actions and decisions actually changing or not? Right so these are all different measures and they don’t have to agree. Parkinson’s disease is in many ways particularly scientifically interesting disease in the sense that-that the main thing that happens in Parkinson’s disease is a loss of dopamine neurons in the mid brain that project to a target called the striatum. And so that’s something that’s been known for a while. What’s been interesting is the discovery that when people show up with the very first mildest, earliest symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, they’ve already lost 70 to 80 percent of those neurons. So that tells us something we don’t really know how to interpret well about redundancy at least in this in this particular circuit. And just the question of tipping point suggests that at least in terms of the brain circuit, there is a tipping point for motor control. Those are the symptoms that people show up with. A lot of the work we’ve done has to look-has been looking at how about that loss of dopamine changes people’s ability to sort of gradually learn associations over time. This is interesting to us because it’s a form of learning that’s very different from what we would typically call memory. This has nothing to do with what you did yesterday and this is the kind of learning that patients like H.M. typically are pretty much OK with and depend on memory. And you know that it’s very hard for me to relate that to self in any kind of meaningful way without getting completely lost in speculation. And you know what we have done, we have some data on how people do, people with Parkinson’s, do this sort of implicit learning and how well their families seem to think they’re functioning and how much they think they’ve changed. And those two things do seem to go together so that the family’s perception of how motivated a patient with Parkinson’s is to engage in everyday life seems to be somewhat related at least to how well they do on this very kind of boring lab kind of experiment or measurement.
[00:01:09] PRINZ: Just to comment on Ali in this particular case, I think the tragedy of seeing his degeneration, has different loci. And one of them has to do with seeing this incredible athlete who’s lost that physical control. But I think much more devastating, much more profound for those who were admirers of Ali, is that he had been this tremendous force in civil rights. I mean he was an extraordinarily courageous civil rights leader. And to see that outspoken, articulate, brilliant leader enter a phase in life where he could no longer do that. We all know people who live in athletics or in dance or other physically demanding careers won’t be able to sustain that. But we might expect that kind of leadership to be sustainable. And I think the you know the ravages that he experienced through Parkinson’s probably prevented that to some degree. There’s some apathy associated with Parkinson’s, through some depression. Associated with Parkinson’s some impact on memory. So all of those things are really limiting the social position he can play with respect to leadership. And for me anyway and I think for many others, that was the most sad, the most the most significant shift in who he was as a public persona.
KNOBE: Can I come back to this issue you were talking about earlier. So you know back at the beginning of our discussion, Jesse was suggesting this idea that the self is attached to some thing social, to our connection with other people. But then there was sort of a fight brewing because Nina was suggesting maybe it’s not in the sense that people with psychopathy could recognize the same sort of social impact but wouldn’t have the same kind of intuition about the self. So I feel like I really regret that we didn’t really get to continue the fight. I just want to see, what do you what do you guys things further about this?
STROHMINGER: Well part of the issue is that the jury’s still out and since I mean I don’t have a dog in this fight. So however the data turn out is what will be where I end up you know laying my chips. But that being said, I don’t know when you bet you can lay your chips after the bet. It does seem-so one way of sort of rectifying this or like bringing these two things together is to think maybe there is a proximate level or the level of the mechanism. And that’s the part that’s getting disrupt-that’s instantiated maybe just as you think within yourself, well what do I value? And then I’ll say that that applies to other people’s identity of what’s important for them. But maybe at a more an ultimate functional or even evolutionary level, it-the whole reason why this mechanism was put in place or set into motion is because we care about social relationships so much. And actually in some new studies that we have, when you make you know one of these big fancy models again and we pit- so if you ask an individual about you know how much would their identity change? But then we also ask a bunch of other questions. How much would your social relationship with someone change if this trait changed? How much how much do you value this? How much do you think is related to morality and so forth. What you find is actually all of these things matter a little bit. And social relationships actually also matter at least when you when you’re asking about judgments. So it’s not I don’t think the two are necessarily in competition.
[01:04:28] PRINZ: I mean I like coming back to Josh’s opening comment. I do think we need to recognize that identity is a construction. Maria used that word. I’m a social construction. So in the science world, there’s the science fans and then there is social constructionists. And they’re supposed to sort of not get along. I’m a science grounded social constructionist and partly because I think science is in the business of construction. So take the periodic table of the elements. It’s supposed to be the most fundamental description of the stuff that makes up the universe or a bit more fundamental but so what are these elements? Well you could organize them by atomic weight. You could organize them by atomic number. You could include elements that actually exist in the real world or ones that don’t, merely hypothetical elements, or lab created elements. You could include isotopes. You could include ions. All these decisions need to be made. So it’s considered elemental is actually a set of arbitrary decisions. Not completely arbitrary. These are real things. But the way you describe the fundamental building blocks of reality has a lot of degrees of freedom. The way we describe human identity has a lot of degrees of freedom. And if you talk about so being a mother. Being a mother could be a matter of biological connectedness or it could be a matter of playing a social role. Could a man be a mother? Could an adoptive parent be a mother? Those are questions that we get to settle by decision. We get to settle questions of gender by decision, questions of race by decision. And I think questions of personal identity also by decision. And because it’s based on decision, context matters. There’s work on how genes are defined in science depends on the subfield. If you’re in behavioral genetics it may work differently than in some branches of molecular genetics. So I think we need to recognize that for many of our purposes, morality might be very important for bookkeeping in human identity. For others, memory might be important. For others, various cognitive capacities may be important. All of these things are equally real. All of them matter. But we get to decide given a goal which one matters most.
KONNIKOVA: Well I think that’s a very good point on which to end this part of the discussion. Let’s first give you guys a huge hand.
STROHMINGER: We will open it up to you guys to ask your questions. And there will be two mikes that will be traveling around. Yes. Up here. Hold on please wait for the mike before asking the question.
AUDIENCE: Thank you for a great presentation. Now how, do you Jesse, define morality? What are the basic constituents of that?
PRINZ: I think we need another hour for that. That’s a big and hard question. I’ve come to think that morality is very connected to emotions, which is something I alluded to at the beginning but didn’t explain. So we have various different kinds of beliefs about the world. Some of them are just you know factual beliefs. Dinosaurs are extinct. Aardvarks are marked nocturnal. Others are evaluative beliefs. And these include aesthetic values. This painting is beautiful. This one is ugly. Preference is for food, for friendship. Moral values are among these values and I think the difference between fact and value, psychologically, is that values, expressions of a preference of desire of beauty, but also of right and wrong fundamentally come down to our feelings about things. So this is an old idea associated with people like David Hume in The History of Philosophy that says morality is really an expression of deeply socialized, strongly felt feelings. So when we train our children to be moral, when we train our communities to be moral, we’re trying to encourage them to be outraged at injustice. To feel disgusted in criminality, to feel pride and delight in generosity. It’s all about the emotions. It’s a very controversial view.
KONNIKOVA: Yeah, back there.
AUDIENCE: Hi. So I think that the question that I have for the gentleman with the awesome hair. All of you. When you were talking about projecting out if your if your values, your political values for example change in the future that that would be a big change of self. And I think there’s a lot of research that shows that we are we believe we will act more ideally further from now. We can take into account all of our every day small decisions. So the question is, have you done research where you look at people who’ve had big maybe political or ideological shifts and then ask them, “have you changed? Has your inner self changed?” And do they just simply rationalize it with language that yeah my large moral ideals have changed, but I’m still the same person?
PRINZ: That’s such a great question. The short answer is no and we’d love to-and it’s sort of on the on the agenda. It’s difficult research to do partially because of finding a big enough sample of people who have undergone those changes in an independent way to measure that they have in fact undergone those changes. I-one of the things that got me interested in this topic, I started thinking about the concept of moral death. So we think about this and dramatic changes so that most of the neo- the architects of neo- conservatism began as really left wing liberal. And then they-so what happens what happens there? Are they the same people? Was Patty Hearst the same person when she was so-called brainwashed? When people undergo religious transformation. So consider the newborn Christian phenomenon. Is that really a kind of death of an old self and a beginning of a new self? We know that from a third person perspective, people judge these things to be changes in identity. We know from first person perspective hypothetically, when people are asked if you change in this way, would you be the same person? We tend to say no. But to actually interview people who have undergone those transformations is a very I think logical and exciting direction for us to move. So you’re really anticipating where we where we want to end up. So
PRINZ: hopefully the next panel will have an answer to that question.
[01:10:42] KONNIKOVA: So back there?
AUDIENCE: Around the era that cognitive science was born, there was a lot of debate in the United States as Eastern traditions found a way in as to whether the self was fundamental or not, whether we could deconstruct the self, whether the self could even disappear, which was sort of an aspiration within at least folk psychology of many Eastern traditions. And I wonder whether-most of what you talked about seems to be about what aspects of the self seem to be malleable. But I wondered whether there is any of your research that reflects upon this question about whether the self can be dismantled either for a short period of time or in some extended way?
STROHMINGER: Yeah. So I have some work with the philosopher Shaun Nichols and Jay Garfield where we go to Tibet and look at Buddhists and now Buddhist-in Buddhism, there is the doctrine of no self. Where what this tenet says is that the-you might think that we have a self that persists over time, but this is just an illusion. There really isn’t a self in any meaningful sense. And this is a doctrine in part that’s meant to have these positive consequences. So as soon as you let go of this sense of self, you won’t be selfish anymore. Right? Because there really is no distinction between you or other people. You would be more generous. And also you should be less afraid of death because you’ll understand that death isn’t anything special. The death of the physical body because the self is you know being destroyed in its own way continuously over a biological life as well. And there’s nothing actually all that special about the death of the physical body. Now so we run into this research thinking that we were going to find this and that the Buddhists were going to be so enlightened about these issues and it turns out we found two things. First, we found actually Buddhists are more afraid of death. Specifically, they’re more afraid of the destruction of the self. So if you give them like a bunch of different why are you afraid of death? They are terrified of the idea of themselves being destroyed at death. And so this paradoxical effect.
And there’s another paradoxical effect. We give them a generosity task essentially. Would you give some lifesaving medicine to other people or how much longer would they need to live in order for you to agree to give over your medicine to them if you are also going to die? And we find that- there are comparison classes with American subjects and also Indian subjects who are Hindu and we find that the Americans and Indians, I mean everyone’s selfish right. No one says oh I’ll just give away my pill. But the but the Tibetan Buddhists they and they’re like, “No way I’m not going to.” Not-in fact two thirds of these- and these are Lamas too. They’re in you know school to be trained to be priests. That two thirds of them say there’s no amount of time that this other person could live that I would give my medicine over to them. So one possible-we were you know we were sort of blown away by this. One possible explanation though is this relentless focusing on you know how the self is always being destroyed is actually quite terrifying. And that just sort of makes people even more like reactive and attached to the self. So it’s possible although the jury’s still out, it’s possible that this might not even be a worthy goal to try to destroy this illusion of the self, even though it might be you know very much an illusion.
KONNIKOVA: So Josh I was wondering could you ever destroy the true self? Or is that something that’s not destroyable? it’s an interesting question. So people seem to have this intuition that the true self is in some bizarre sense immutable. So people seem to have the feeling that whatever is my true self at this moment, it will be my true self until the time that I die.
KNOBE: It was my true self from the moment that I was born. Of course, I could have these changes on the surface where something that I had that sort of appeared to me, what I was like shifts to something else. But those surface changes seem like they’re just sort of illusions that appears from the top of the water. But there’s some deeper thing that sort of remaining constant the whole time. Of course it’s very unlikely that scientific study of the self will show that there is such a thing but people really do think that. Maybe along the lines of the Hindu conception that these Buddhists are attacking.
[01:15:26] AUDIENCE: We spoke previously about the almost separateness between memory and morality. In the experiment that Nina mentioned with the Jim, the car accident sufferer. And I wonder if, I mean morality, the moral the moral compass is essentially the difference between right and wrong, which requires a memory of what is right and what is wrong. A kind of mnemonics schemata that you apply over the course of time and I wonder if it’s possible that there’s a sort of memory based fabric underneath morality. And if so, how can that be tested empirically?
KONNIKOVA: Daphna, do you want to?
SHOHAMY: Well that’s, I agree. In the sense that I think I think there are sort of memory fabric beneath almost many of our behaviors of that sort. I think you know that general statement is very hard to test and I think that you know the fact that Nina brought up patient H.M. is really useful for that. I actually think that the data from people with dementia is less informative for this question in the sense that we know that what dementia does, like what happened to H.M., is the inability to create new memories. But people with dementia remember most of their memories from a lifetime. So one would think that those might be the most informative. There are some studies for example kind of bolstering this perspective, right, that leaders tend to make decisions about real world crises and events that are heavily biased by one event that happened when they were at a critical period of their life. So there’s a lot of memory-a lot of research showing that events that happened in our late teens, early 20s to ourselves and to the world around us have a very large disproportionate effect on how we think of what is the best decision later on. I don’t know if that’s been done in the moral context or not but that would be one way to start getting at this with studies looking at kind of how moral judgments later in life are impacted by events in different phases.
PRINZ: I agree. I mean I think there are potentially ways to get an empirically-like looking at a H.M., people like H.M. who had not been tested on standard scales things like psychopathy, which look at sensitivity to the moral domain. So that would be a very straightforward way to do it. But I think there is so much evidence in life that these things are connected. If people in this room are all old enough to recall the out come of the verdict of the O.J. Simpson trial. For African-Americans, the idea that evidence had been planted was so credible and so vivid that the verdict-an acquittal in that case would seem like a just decision. For a white population who are oblivious to sort of systemic harassment of various kinds from law enforcement, an acquittal would be a case of injustice. And so how do you make those decisions? A life long of experiences with people in law enforcement, with members of a community who had such encounters inform that decision very, very important ways. So I think moral understanding of flip, in this case, opposite moral intuitions about the same case are clearly showing the effect of memory here.
KONNIKOVA: There’s a hand way in the back on that side.
AUDIENCE: Hi, so I wrote this down so I wouldn’t forget. For something like narrative structures which seem to be obviously like a human construction, I don’t know maybe I’m wrong, but has that in any way been imprinted neurologically over time?
SHOHAMY: It’s a great question. There’s a lot to say about it. But just let me give you one simple example that speaks to narrative in memory. There has been work by Jeff Sachs and Lila Davachi, who’s actually here at NYU, showing that the way our brain organizes memories is influenced by narrative in the sense of taking advantage of boundary shifts. So you can tell a story and connect one part of the story to the other part of the story with the word “and’ or you can tell a story where instead of the “and” there is an “and then” or something like that that implies a pause. And that the brain then kind of is more likely to group together the events that happened in one part of the narrative separate from the other part of the narrative based on these kind of hints on the narrative structure.
[01:20:06] PRINZ: Just a quick addition to that, in philosophy there is a personal identity mostly involving memory. But the next most popular theory of that, after that is a narrative theory which says, what makes me the same person over time is my capacity to weave a kind of life story together. So with Shaun Nichols, we did a study to probe ordinary intuitions about this. So we ask people to imagine somebody who could still draw memories from the past but couldn’t organize them into a coherent narrative. Maybe by using their capacities that Daphna just described. Would he be the same person? If you can’t organize your life into a story, are you the same person? And overwhelmingly, we found that people answered yes, that losing your narrative capacity is not a threat to the self. It’s not much of a threat at all and certainly not nearly as much of a threat as losing your moral values. One by one, we’ve gone through theories of personal identity from philosophy and shown that none of them explains ordinary judgment as much as continuity in morals.
KONNIKOVA: Yes the lady in the middle with the T-shirt.
AUDIENCE: Thanks so much for just engaging each other and us in a really interesting discussion. I was particularly interested by something that you said Jesse, that in kind of looking at sort of the neural correlates of morality based decisions, they involve like really emotional areas of the brain. What like how-kind of in sort of like historical evolutionary brain development, how old or new are those areas? How human specific are they?
PRINZ: Good question. I think they’re very well concerned. In fact I think the-much of the much of the neocortex is well conserved across mammalian phyla. So most-I mean you can use rats as models for studies of just about every human psychiatric disorder just because there’s so much conservation. There are important differences, many of them are not well understood even if you take great apes, you can see things like the laminar structure the layers of cells in visual areas which are very important for for primate cognition are different than human beings. So there are differences. But I think that differences on are greatly outweighed by the similarities. So the brain areas that get involved, orbital frontal areas like Broadmann areas 9 and 10 which are sort of right here if you drive your fingers through your head. Temporal pole, which if you drive your fingers through your temples, the entirety of cingulate cortex, which is one of the oldest areas of the cortex which in the middle of the brain. Is just this, if you know what the corpus collosum is, the bit that holds the hemispheres together and allows for communication. The bit of cortex that surrounds that comes up in a lot of these studies.
One area that might be a difference maker, the superior tempora sulcus, which is very involved in aspects of social cognition like attributing mental states to others is another big player in world cognition. These structures do have homologs in primates at least. But we do know that our capacity to use these structures to engage in high levels of social cognition is appreciably greater. So there is some possibility that there are some distinctive human capacities involved in morality. I would say that non-human animals probably don’t have more rules in the way that we do. Partially because they lack this aspect of social cognition. The really rich sense of how is this going to make someone else feel? Those kinds of questions that are so important. What were the intentions behind this action? Was it an accident that you harmed that person or did you fore-think that? Those things are so core to a lot of human morality in ways that make me think the differences might matter. But with respect to the brain, I don’t think we’re seeing those differences come out as of yet. I don’t know if Daphna wants to…
SHOHAMY: I think I’d just add that it’s not-one question is whether the areas exist which is important.
SHOHAMY: Some newer studies are suggesting not for morality per se but in general, but one thing that changes is how those areas talks each other. Where the connections are even in areas that all exist across species. And so that that turns out to be an important dimension for understanding cognition thinking and reasoning in general.
AUDIENCE: So there’s data showing and that when evaluating others identities, we pay more attention to morality than memory or personality or taste or intelligence. And I’m wondering if it’s even possible or if it’s possible to test which one of those is actually most predictive of behavior in some general sense? If that’s even an acute, coherent question. And if it is, how might you approach it?
KONNIKOVA: Josh, do you want to…?
[01:25:09] KNOBE: I think that a lot of the discussion we’ve been having with the relationship between this idea we have of how to understand how we ordinarily understand the self and the science of the self. So how people’s actual behavior works, how people actually perform behaviors. But I think if you want to understand how people think about the self, I don’t think that the real reason we think about the self in the way that we do is because we have some specialized systems for human beings in the way that for example we may have a specialized Department, the Department of Psychology, that is in charge of understanding how human beings behave. Rather we have a general way of thinking about things. We just apply that thing to the self. So in particular, we have a joke, the first thing you are the essences of things so we can think about what is the essence of you know Nina’s.
But we also think what is the essence of this band? What is the essence of the university? What’s the essence of science? What is the essence of the United States? And in each of those cases, we show this exact same effect. So if you ask people, not what is the essence of Jim, but what’s the essence of the United States? What’s the United States really all about? Then people have really different views about what’s good. If say that what the United States is really about is that thing, the thing, the thing they think is the good thing. And then of course the United States does all this other stuff. For different people, it’s the opposite things which they think is the other stuff. But whichever is the thing they think is the bad thing of the United States they think that’s just kind of some superficial phenomenon. If we could get back to the essence of what the United States is really all about, it would be this good thing. To thinking, maybe in response to Matt’s question is that you shouldn’t think of this capacity we have to think about the self as somehow as if it were an attempt either successful or failed to do the psychology of itself. You should think of it as an application of this much more general capacity we have to think about essences of about what things are really about to the particular case of human beings.
PRINZ: There’s one very brief addition to Matt’s question. I mean I think and this came out in Daphna’s questions about the importance of behavior. We can ask ourselves in each case, will a change in moral values affect behavior more than change in memory? And there’s not going to be a fixed answer. There’ll be certain domains where that difference really does matter. So we’ve been looking at a little bit in the context of parole cases. So to go back to a related case of past criminality, our old friend Adolf Eichmann. So suppose Eichmann had been captured in Buenos Aires some decades later. So he wasn’t captured in the 60s, he was captured say in the 80s and he was already experiencing dementia. So now you ask Eichmann, do you remember your transgressions when you were working for the Reich? And he might have no memory of that. Imagine he has no memory of that. But imagine that he still is deeply committed to his anti-Semitic agenda. And now ask yourself if he were given the opportunity to re-offend, when he re-offend? And there it seems like the answer might be yes. And merely forgetting your past crimes doesn’t necessarily reduce probability of re-offense in the same way that world reform would. So in the context of parole right now just doing it with hypothetical cases but we’re starting to do archive work too. The hope is that we can see the impact. We know that with parole decisions, change in values really matters. And I think the reason for that is with respect to this particular issue of criminal behavior, we know that that’s the difference that makes a difference. Whereas a loss of memory or maybe even in some cognitive capacities wouldn’t necessarily give the same reassurance.
KNOBE: But if I may respectfully disagree. So what Jesse is saying, which I think is a very reasonable hypothesis is that the reason people do this, the reason that for example in parole decisions people care about this question, is because they care about behavior. They care about whether someone is going to re-offend. And that would really make a lot of sense. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on in this case at all. It has nothing to do with what makes sense. It has to do with just our general ability to think about things and whether something is the same thing as something else. So say Jesse commits some crime then we find someone and we’re trying to figure out whether that person has be convicted. We want to ask the question, is that person Jesse? If it’s not Jesse, if it’s someone else, then we can’t convict him of the crime that Jesse can do-that was the one who performed it. So this study that Jesse mentioned a number of minutes ago about someone who’s either a punk and turns into a jock or a jock who turns into a punk, is actually a story about this very phenomenon. So people think of punks and jocks as equally willing to- equally likely to commit certain kinds of crimes. It’s not as though punks commit crimes but jocks don’t, or jocks commit crimes but punks don’t. But if you switch between them, so say you’re a punk and you commit a crime, you’re shoplifting and then later you turn into a jock. People think less that you should be punished. Not because they think that now you turn into a jock, you’re less likely to shoplift again. But because they think they can’t convict that person of the crime who is not the same person anymore. It’s not the punk who originally committed the crime.
KONNIKOVA: Well I-we are unfortunately out of time even though I could listen to you guys speak forever so let’s get one more huge round of applause.