Friday, March 19, 2010

Simulation, Synthetic Experience, and Modifying the Unconscious: My Thoughts on History, Fiction, and Empathy in Light of Mirror Neurons

Post-Date- 5/25/2010- I never published this post because I wasn't ready to write about historical and fictitious simulation, and I wasn't able to account for the centrality of intuitive reenactment. All of this is still very much work in progress. My post of April 30th, "Informing Simulation Theory of Mind with Historical Ontology," did basically what I wanted this post to do in March. But I read some pretty crucial books between March and April. So. I dunno what to do with this post, really.

So, in this post I just want to jibber jabber for a little bit about my favorite ideas that I was introduced to in the Fall of 2007. I haven't really stopped thinking about it since, and I hope I continue to think about for a long time. Ya know, graduate programs, some of those stranger interdisciplinary programs (UCSC history of consciousness, Berkeley school of rhetoric, etc.) want you to have a very very specific idea of the sort of project you want to undertake. These ideas would almost certainly be involved somehow.

Now, the basic idea, as the title of the blog suggests, is about how we can mentally simulate certain experiences that they would otherwise not be able to have with the goal of giving them the ability to better perform that task in the future, intuitive decision making being chief. So, simulation would ultimately be aimed at providing a sort of synthetic experience. Given that experience can communicate things in ways that language cannot (As claimed by Wittgenstein, Pierce, and others), it would be very valuable to find an educational system that would use language to approximate the effects of experience, thus improving intuition. I think it would be a valuable way to educate people.

First, I want to talk about three authors that I think believe that history could become a form of simulation that would provide a synthetic experience that could modify the way the brain works on an unconscious level(i.e. improve intuition): Carl von Clausewitz, Robin George Collingwood, and Michel Foucault. Then i want to talk about some ideas that I had about how this idea of simulation, synthetic experience, and the unconscious could be applied on a much more general level than these people suggested. Then I want to talk about the reading I have done in neuroscience that confirms the importance of simulation, synthetic experience, and the unconscious. Finally, I am gonna break down simulation and synthetic experience into three categories that I think make it a much broader import.

Now, in the Fall of 2007 I took Jon Sumida's course called 'Strategic Military Theory: Clausewitz.' Now, Clausewitz, a Prussian general of the Napoleonic wars, wrote a book that was published posthumously in 1831 titled 'On War.' This book is the most widely read book on armed conflict in the U.S. military and otherwise. Professor Sumida, whom I know very well and place a lot of faith in, however, claims that the book has been radically misunderstood by almost all readers. Frankly, this is not hard to believe. It is about 700 pages, incredibly dense, and incredibly sophisticated. Sumida took 15 years to finish his book that the U.S. military asked him to write. Anyways, just some background for Clausewitz's relationship with simulation and synthetic experience. If you look online, Wikipedia, for example, you will find totally different statements about Clausewitz than I am about to make. They are wrong. Decoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to On War is absolutely, without a doubt, THE book on Clausewitz. So. Here is a summary of Clausewitz's major ideas, as analyzed by Sumida, and as I have read in On War.

Clausewitz's primary goal is to come up with a universally valid theory of war that can be used to train people to make better decisions in the middle of war and battle. Six major problems with normative theory when applied to war and its pedagogy: 1. Theory is bound to language 2. The reality of war/battle cannot be adequately conveyed through language 3. War is so dangerous, chaotic, and contingent that decisions made at the time do not hinge on language/reason, but on intuition (what Clausewitz calls 'Genius'). 4. Experience communicates things in ways that language cannot. 5. Intuition can only be improved through experience, not language. 6. Experience in war is not something that is easy to come by, what if there is long peace? What if you die?

So the central question: How can we use a theory of war, which is grounded in language, to approximate the effects of experience, and thus improve our ability to make intuitive decisions?

Clausewitz's solution: a universal theory of war, which always draws on history, should not attempt to systematize war, nor create universal laws or rules for conduct. In short, a theory of war should never try to be predictive or prescriptive. Rather, historical study should be combined with theoretical surmise to create a synthetic experience that will improve intuition. This sounds opaque, let me elaborate. Clausewitz believed that the historical record was always incomplete to the point that it could never give us an actual sense of someone's experience in war, and would never be complete enough to allow us to draw major lessons from history. So, then, what are we to do with the minor lessons that we can learn from history? He gives examples like, cavalry shouldn't charge unless the infantry formation has been broken, defense is the stronger form of war, war is the continuation of politics by other mans, etc. These things are certainly historically demonstrable, but are not adequate for a normative, prescriptive theory.

The goal, instead, is to use theory to create a fuller narrative of decisions made in war/battle that would amount to a mental reenactment of another person's experience. Meaning, that when we encounter a gap in the historical record we should delve into the realm of theory so as to intelligently surmise about why someone made the decision that they did. This accomplishes two things, 1. it lets us create a fuller narrative of command dilemma, and 2. it would allow us to get much closer to the actual experiences of the individuals that were making decisions in war. By attempting to think as these people in the past thought we are forcing our minds to grapple with the same intellectual and emotional conditions that they faced in the past. Clausewitz knows that it would be extremely difficult, maybe impossible, to actually recover/reenact the thoughts and experiences in the past. But he did believe that we could approximate their thoughts and feelings enough so as to give our minds a useful sense of their experience. Reenactment, therefore is not aimed at absolute truth, but at verisimilitude. Clausewitz believed that if we repeatedly studied history, regularly using theory to facilitate intelligent historical surmise, then we would be able to instill our minds with a sort of unconscious analytical tool kit that would allow us to make better intuitive decisions. Study history, try to think like smart people in the past, and you can absorb, on an unconscious level, the experiences of these people. This is how a combination of history and theory could lead to a synthetic experience that would lead to better intuitive decision making at the actual moment of decision.

One final remark about Clausewitz. Too often, the study of history, and the history of military decision making in particular, is reduced to judgment based on the categories of right and wrong? Was Napoleon correct to invade Russia? Was so and so correct to do so and so? That is a bad way to approach it. The point is, why was that decision difficult? What sorts of things were they grappling with? What were the problems they were concerned with? How is it t hat you make a decision between the horrible and the catastrophic? Grappling with these types of historical dilemmas with a potent imagination that is buttressed by a body of theory can provide us with something that resembles experience.

So, I hope that is an adequate, albeit quick and dirty run down of Clausewitz's intent. As you can see, his idea main idea is that the study of history amounts to a simulation of difficult decisions made in the past, with the goal of replicating/synthesizing experience.

Clausewitz's purposes are highly specific. Not everyone, most people, do not need to make decisions in war. But Jon Sumida has a line I think is awesome. "War is like peace, only much more so." Meaning that in every day life we are always making difficult decisions with incomplete information, complexities, and contingencies. So, then don't many decisions not rely on reason, but rather a deeper, intuitive understanding of our lives, of others, and of the world? Doesn't better decision making in all of life become improved through experience? So then, wouldn't much of our decision making in life be improved through the simulation of more general forms of experience? I would think yes. And I think that most of the arts and humanities can help us do this. The social sciences too perhaps. But I will give this idea (the generality of simulation and synthetic experience) a full run down at the end of this post after I discuss two more authors: Robin George Collingwood and Michel Foucault.

Now I want to talk about Robin George Collingwood. He wrote quite a few things, but I have read The Idea of History and An Autobiography, probably his most famous books. Collingwood was a British philosopher of history and, naturally, a historian. His main task was to vindicate history as a legitimate form of knowledge, and to show that, despite the difficulties of recovering the thoughts of the past, it was indeed possible to have historical knowledge. He tries to prove this by taking a very basic idea and extending to its furthest possible implications. The basic idea is: never accept what someone has told you without thinking that same idea for yourself. The implication? That to understand any idea you have to simulate the thought processes of another person in your own mind. This lead him to conclude that all historical thinking is the reenactment of past thought/experience in the mind of the historian.

Blanket statement, let me elaborate. First let me say, don't let the term reenactment hold the connotation of Civil War reenactments or the like. This is a fully mental process that is about thinking for yourself the way other people think. This rests on a specific definition of thought. He asks the question 'when I think a thought at one point, then let a large amount of time pass, then I think that same thought again at a later time, what is it that I am thinking? Am I thinking the same thought or am i thinking a different thought?' Of course, it is the same thought. The conclusion: thought is not defined by its location in time, but rather by its specific quality, and therefore thoughts that we have evidence for can/must be understood only through a reenactment of them. Meaning that it is possible to reactivate thoughts in the present moment that existed at other times.

In the present moment this is relatively unproblematic. I read what I wrote a while ago, or you tell me what you think, I can imagine my/your thought processes and achieve an understanding of my/your mind in that way.

But, what about thoughts that were expressed in the past when someone was living and thinking in a totally different historical and social context? Well then, the process of thinking another persons thoughts becomes a little more complex, and we need to make a little bit more of an effort to really understand their thoughts. So now Collingwood finds it useful to define logic in terms of question and answer. Any historical figure that is writing is typically writing about a certain problem that exists. The problem for them, however, was contemporary and probably very clear, so they would never bother to state it explicitly. Rather, they are merely posing an answer. So, the process of understanding past thought is about determining the question that the thinker was trying to solve. So this leads Collingwood to claim that every reading of philosophy is a historical act. He asks, would it be appropriate to read Plato's Republic without asking what Plato meant when he referred to the State? Clearly, he does not mean it in the way that we mean it today. Would it be okay to read any philosopher without considering what their terms meant in their contemporary moment? In short, it is not okay to read any thought expressed in the past without taking the historicity of their thoughts and terminology into account.

So then, based on these ideas, Collingwood says that they study of history can take on a much greater standing of knowledge than is typically given to it. By reenacting/simulating thoughts from the past we can expand the ways in which our mind is able to think. He says that by reading and reenacting those thoughts we learn that it was indeed possible for men to think that way. And by thinking it for ourselves it follows that our mind is capable of becoming many different minds. By reenacting/simulating thoughts that were expressed in the past we are forcing our mind to occupy other minds, and thus expanding our own minds in the present moment, prompting new thoughts and new questions that can aid in contemporary decision making. He talks about an Italian philosopher of history, Croce, who I will read at some point. Croce said, 'all history is contemporary history.' And that is what it means, all history is thought that is being re-experienced in the present moment in the minds of those engaging in historical study.

Clearly, Collingwood's ideas on historical thinking amount to a way to simulate past thought with the goal of providing us with a form of synthesized experience that will expand our minds ability to make better decisions. Collingwood emphasis on the idea of consciousness, and that the expression of thoughts relied on that self-aware expression of ideas. I would say, however, that this idea has huge implications for the unconscious. Because, just like Clausewitz said, when we regularly think of difficult decisions made in the past, we can synthesize past experience and instill this into our unconscious decision making process. So, even though Collingwood doesn't state it explicitly, his form of reenactment would be very potent in terms of giving us synthetic experience, modifying our assumptions, and changing the way our brains worked on an unconscious level.

Jon Sumida, in Decoding Clausewitz, makes an explicit comparison between Clausewitz and Collingwood, so that is how I am familiar with that and easily able to make the comparison. They both believe historical study involves the subjective reenactment of other peoples thoughts/experiences from the past, and that this will lead to a synthetic experience that can modify the unconscious.

There is another thinker, however, whose ideas have a very similar purpose, and that is the French historical philosopher Michel Foucault. Now, Foucault is notoriously difficult and complex. He wrote an enormous amount, and an obscene amount of his lectures and interviews have been published. Now I have read Volumes I and II of The History of Sexuality, I will be finishing The Order of Things in the next few days, and I have read a fair amount of his essays and interviews from The Foucault Reader and the volume Power/Knowledge.

So Foucault is typically aimed at, what he calls, writing a history of the present. Meaning, he want to trace the historical development of our own forms of thought, so as to illuminate the way in which our own thoughts/experiences have been historically constructed. This is why his books are typically addressing things that seem to have no history, that seem to be given facts of modern life: insanity, medicine, scientific classification, prisons, sexuality. All of these things are so firmly rooted in our existence that we forget that things could be thought of in any other way. His writing style is often difficult and very poetic. Johanna Oksala claims that Foucault writes in this way because he wants to invoke an experience in his readers.

So then, how is it that Foucault wants us to utilize these past experiences that we can re-experience in this present moment? Well, in an interview late in his life he said that there were all sort of techniques, ideas, and strategies that existed in the past, and while they cannot be fully reactivated, they can serve as useful starting points for contemporary power struggles. He also says in the preface to The Order of Things that he is explicitly concerned with the unconscious motivating factors that drove people to think the way that they were. He also believes that we are often functioning based on historically contingent forms of knowledge/power, and that we are typically unaware of how these are driving our own thinking. In his 1984 essay "What is Enlightenment?" he says that Enlightenment is a concern with the past in relation to the self in the present. In other words, how is it that my thought is determined? How is it that this particular historical moment is forcing me to think in certain ways? What is the history of my own thought? I believe his phrase is 'What are the historical circumstances that our driving my own conceptualizing?' He believed that historical study of thought could facilitate what he called 'the historical ontology of ourselves.' This would be about reactivating/reenacting certain forms of past thought so as to 1. understand how it is that our own thinking is historically determined, and 2. to use them for our own contemporary struggles with knowledge/power.

A useful example: in The Use of Pleasure, volume II of The History of Sexuality, Foucault studies the ancient Greeks, and how they viewed sexuality as a moral problem. He says in the introduction that he is personally concerned with the question: 'Is it possible for me to be thinking differently than I am in this moment?' A bold question that I admire. How can I think differently than I think now? I mean, this floored me when I first read it. How do you do that? How do you question your own thought so readily? It's a great thing to do.

But anyways, his historical study of the Greeks leads to a very specific form of questioning of the self. How is it that I relate to myself as an ethical subject? How do I constitute myself as an ethical subject of knowledge? In several interviews and in the 1982 essay "Power and the Subject" he says that contemporary ethics are essentially always about a relationship with the state or an institution that is under state control. For example, we constitute our ethics by thinking of legal institutions, laws tell us how to behave ethically. Or we become ethical based on our relationship with medicine, or our relationship with mental health institutions. We aim to become law abiding, physically healthy, and mentally sound individuals. All of these forms of ethics are based on a relationship with the state or another institution that falls under the knowledge/power relations of the state.

Foucault finds this disconcerting. He said in the 1980s that many political movements and especially those that claim to be radical were struggling to found a new form of ethics that did not rely on a relationship with the state, and were thus hostage to the knowledge/power relations of the state. This is where the study of the ancient Greeks becomes useful. The Greeks had no large state, religious, or other institutions that were capable of creating forms knowledge/power sufficient to constitute a substantial form of ethics. So then! the Greek form of ethics was instead based on a relationship with the self, an aesthetics of existence. They encouraged strong self discipline, what they called Enkrateia, an ascesis of sorts that was aimed at the beautification of their own existence. They wanted to lead a beautiful, self disciplined existence so that they would have a strong reputation, and leave beautiful memories, ultimately with the goal of governing other individuals better. The government of the self and the government of other is wrapped up for the ancient Greeks.

Using this idea of ascesis and aesthetics of existence as a starting point, Foucault asks, why should art stop with painting or music? Why can't life itself become an object of beauty? Foucault states explicitly in the book and in interviews that he is not advocating that we return to the life that the ancient Greeks led. They owned slaves, disrespected women, etc. so there are many undesirable aspects of their lifestyle. But Foucault thought that by studying them we could reactivate a form of ethics that we had lost touch with in the modern era, the era of the nation state. He believed that studying their form of ethics, which was based on a relationship with the self rather than a relationship with an institution, would allow individuals in the contemporary moment to start relating to things, to others, and to themselves in new and beneficial ways. In other words, it would enable new relationships with knowledge(things), power(others), and the self (ethics), that could escape the discourses of knowledge/power/ethics that have been dominated by the modern state, since about the sixteenth century. I think this is what Foucault means when he talks about finding new forms of subjectivity. Finding new ways to relate to knowledge/power/ethics that are different from contemporary forms. This is accomplished through historical study, what Foucault called it the reactivation of old techniques that have slipped out of our repertoire during the fray of history.

To me, this sounds very much like Collingwood's idea that we can reenact thoughts from the past so as to 1. benefit from the experiences of others and 2. to prompt questions that would have otherwise gone unasked. It resembles Clausewitz a bit as well, in that they are both aimed at modifying the unconscious. Foucault believed that by getting in touch with these past experiences, and also tracing the historicity of our own thoughts, we can free our minds from the things that it has assumed. In the preface he says that this historico-philosophical exercise can 'free thought from what it silently thinks, allowing it to think differently.' Given that he also says in The Order of Things that he s trying to uncover the unconscious determinants of the people who were thinking in the past, it seems as though one of Foucault's major concerns is the historical determination of our own thoughts, and how it is that historical study can illuminate the processes that have created those determinants, while simultaneously reacquainting us with new ways of thinking.

So, I know I have said these things, but here is a semi-concise summary. To me it seems like for Foucault the purpose of historical study is twofold. 1. It allows us to uncover the ways in which our thinking is historically determined (which operates on an unconscious level), and thus allows us to think differently by illuminating things that have previously been unconscious. And 2. It allows us to reactive (reenact, if you will) past forms of thought, and techniques of knowledge/power/ethics, that will force us to consider the present in a different light, and will allow us to relate to things, others, and ourselves in new ways.

So, now I am done surveying these three historical philosophers. Clausewitz believed that a combination of history and theory could be used to create expanded narratives of command dilemma, that would allow us to reenact/re-experience the intellectual and emotional difficulties of high command, providing us with a synthetic experience that would improve intuitive decision making in battle. Collingwood believed that the study of history came down to the reenactment(simulation) of past thought/experience in our own minds, thus giving us access to the experiences of others, and forcing us to think about the present in new ways. Foucault believed that historical study would enable us to understand the unconscious determinants of our own thought, and give us access to forms of knowledge/power/ethics that were no longer active in the present, but that would be useful in contemporary struggles. So then, all three of these authors believe that in some form historical thinking amounts to a simulation of past thought that could provide us with a synthetic experience and modify the way that our brains work on an unconscious level.

Now, when I learned about these ideas in the Spring of 2007, it was through Jon Sumida's Clausewitz seminar at UMD. Clausewitz was the main focus, but we learned about Collingwood and how he was relevant. It wasn't until the spring/summer of 2009 that I was introduced to Foucault's work. I have been reading him very heavily since then, and started to notice the connections pretty quickly.

So, when I first learned about Clausewitz and Collingwood's idea of reenactment I thought, doesn't that sound a lot like empathy? What is it that is going on when we empathize other people? Could this be considered a reenactment of other people's emotions of sort? Couldn't this be the way that all language works? Isn't language a sort of evidence of another person's thoughts that would allow me to think these thoughts for myself? Doesn't language just facilitate a simulation/reenactment of someone else's thoughts? So basically, almost immediately I wanted to make this idea of reenactment/simulation much much more general

So when I took English 391 we had an assigment where we could write basically whatever we wanted. She called it a thought experiment essay, it was that or a grad school personal statement. I chose the creative thought essay and wrote something titled "Personalism as Expanding the Empathetic Palette." Personalism was a term I have abandoned but was fooling with because it seemed to me that this reenactment stuff is about making other people's thoughts and feelings your own, making them personal. The empathetic palette, which I no longer really talk or think much about, but think is legitimate, was an idea I have had for a while. Basically, the idea is that if empathy is basically the internal simulation of other people's emotions, then how can we be sure that we are properly equipped to handle the intensity of other peoples feelings? Well, I had an idea that if you were in touch with yourself, if you had strongly reflected on your own life, your intensely painful experiences, your intensely happy experiences, and everything thing in between, then you wuold essentially be expanding your ability to conjure a variety of emotions. Thus you would be expanding your empathetic palette. You would be improving your ability to recognize complex feelings, and help you empathize with others better. So in this essay I wrote 2 things that I still find relevant. 1. That this would facilitate a much deeper understanding of yourself, and that that personal understanding would improve your ability to empathize with other people. 2. That empathy was essentially a process of reenacting/simulating other peoples feeling for yourself, what I called an instantaneous emotional reenactment. A clumsy phrase, but one that I think is apt.

But empathy happens on a level that does not involve words, so how does it happen, and how
does reflection improve it? Well, then I had the idea that reflection could essentially amount to a reenactment of your own past experience, and that conscious reflection of that sort could instill in your mind on an unconscious level the ability to grapple with all sorts of emotions. Much like Clausewitz, this is about improving emotional intuition by thinking about your own experiences over and over again. Once we have reflected on our pain and happiness, then our empathetic palette will be large enough so that we can engage in complex instantaneous emotional reenactments with ease. When we see someone, we immediately know how they feel based on facial expressions and body language. How do we do that unless we are somehow instantly simulating those feelings for our self? These were vague inklings. The essay I wrote is clumsy, probably much like this one, but I definitely thought that reenactment and simulation had to do with the way that almost all thinking worked.

Now, one of my big interests is neuroscience and how it is contributing to philosophy and how we understand ourselves and the way we think and feel. For a while I was reading stuff that confirmed a lot of my ideas, that language pales in comparison to experience, that history and fiction could amount to a simulation of thoughts that could provide us with synthetic experience, etc. But then recently I found about a book that has basically propelled these, and my ideas to a new level of legitimacy (in my mind, at least).

This book is called Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect With Others, by Marco Iacoboni. He is a UCLA neuroscientist. It is about a very specific type of neurons discovered in the mid 1980's that is starting to be research more heavily. They are called 'mirror neurons,' and they are involved in the perception of actions and emotions.

Quick and dirty run down of mirror neurons. They were discovered accidentally while some Italian neuroscientists were testing monkeys ability to grasp objects. So they have this macaque monkey all hooked up to this brain scanning equipment, preparing to measure brain activity in the motor cortex, which is responsible for grasping motions. But anyways, before the experiment one of these researchers put his hand out to grasp a near by object while within the monkeys view. The equipment detects activation in the monkey's motor cortex. Meaning that even when a monkey sees an object being performed, the only way it can understand that action is by activating the neurons responsible for the performance of that action. Perception of an action and the performance are linked in the brain. Mirror neurons exist in a 20 to 80% ratio. 80% perform just the action, while 20% are responsible solely for mirroring that action. So, to understand an action it is as if they are internally simulating that action in their own brain.

Three more monkey anecdotes before I discuss mirror neurons in humans. First, Monkey's mirror neurons can also encode for intention. Tests show that when a monkey picks up an object to eat it, or a monkey picks up an object and places it in a container, different parts of the motor cortex are moved. Their perception of these actions matches up with these areas too. So if you show a monkey an object and a container, then have a person put that object in the container, the same neurons activate that they used to put the object in the container. The same holds true for the eating of an object. When witnessing a human eating something their brain activates the same areas they would use.

Second, monkey's brains can code for actions that they don't actually see, but that they have evidence for. It seems as though they can mirror hypothetical things, or they can imagine things. For example, they showed a monkey an object on a table, and a person standing next to it. They then placed a partition in front of the table to block their view of the object. Then, when they have the person reach behind the partition as if they were to grasp, the monkey's mirror neurons responsible for grasping light up. Even though they didn't see the object being grasped, they can put 2 and 2 together. Object was there, person reached behind screen, so they must have grasped the object that was behind the object. This seems like an intuitive imagination of sorts. Very interesting that they can mirror an action that they don't see, but have evidence for surmising that the action happened. But they do it without the aid of language or anything.

Third, mirror neurons are able to learn. They showed a monkey a man grasping a peanut with a pair of pliers. Originally the grasping of an object with pliers did not produce a mirroring of the action in the motor cortex. But after several repeats the monkey's motor cortex began to mirror the grasping of the object with the pliers. The implication: monkey's brains are able to learn how to use tools, or to simulate the use of tools in their mind, just from watching others. This would explain how it is that apes, and eventually humans, were able to learn to use tools from one another.

Basic summary of mirror neurons: When we witness an action being performed, our mind activates the neurons that are responsible for the performance of that action. So, mirror neurons essentially simulate/reenact the experience of performing an action in order to understand that action when it is performed by another person.

So how does this apply to humans? And to all those other forms of simulation that I was talking about before? Well, I'll talk about two things in relation to mirror neurons: empathy and language.

Now empathy. As you'll recall, I wrote a paper in 2008 for a course where I described empathy as an 'instantaneous emotional reenactment.' I basically was thinking that empathy is when you feel someone else's feelings for yourself. But this process is always effortless, it just happens when you look at someone, you know what their facial expressions mean, and you feel those feelings for yourself. Why do we cry in movies sometimes? Why does it hurt to watch someone else feel pain? Research on mirror neruons confirms that this is exactly what happens. When we see a facial expression, the parts of our brain responsible for forming those facial expressions are activated, mirroring/simulating that facial expression in our mind. Our motor mirror neurons then communicate with the emotional center of the brain(limbic system) and produce the emotion that corresponds with the facial expression. Cross culturally facial expressions don't vary a lot, so it would be easy to see how particular facial expressions and emotions would naturally coincide. Typically, the limbic system would experience an emotion, and then communicate to our facial muscles to produce the proper facial expression. So, empathy essentially inverts the process of expressing emotions. When we see a facial expression our face internally simulates the making of that facial expression and then produces the appropriate emotional response.

I feel like I am stating this very plainly, or baldly. But to me this seems to have implications that go so far. That the process of empathy is something that our brains do 100% naturally. That anytime we see a facial expression our mind activates the neurons responsible for making that expression for ourselves, and then that causes or emotional system to read our facial expression and invoke that emotion for us. Again, I just could keep rephrasing this in different words because it seems like it is enormously important. But I will have to take another look at Mirroring People a bit later to see if I can somehow make this explication, more substantial. But let me just restate finally how this relates to simulation/synthetic experience: When we see a facial expression our mind internally simulates the performance of that expression(with mirror neurons) and then our brain is able to feel that emotion for ourselves. So, emotion and physical action are inseparable, and we can only understand emotions by internally simulating/reenacting facial movement of sorts in our motor cortex which then connects to the limbic system.

Now how about language? How are mirror neurons related to that. Well, first off, Broca's area, the part of the brain associated with language/speech, is directly next to our motor cortex. Based on this, and other evidence I won't run through now, Iacoboni speculates that our ability to use language is intertwined with our ability to move and manipulate things with our hands. In the chapter "Grasping Language" he has a subsection called 'from hand to mouth.' Both of these sections discuss the ways in which the brain's ability to use language stems from our ability to mirror the physical actions that are performed by other people. I'm not totally clear on this stuff, but think of hand gestures that we make while talking. People do it regularly. He makes the point that we do it even when we are on the phone and no one can see us. So, the implication is basically that the ability to speak and use language is intrinsically tied to our motor cortex, the ability to perform fine grasping motions, and therefore it is tied to the mirror neurons system.

So now for some speculation. If language is wrapped up with the motor cortex, and the motor cortex has a complex mirror neurons system that allows us to effortlessly internally simulate other peoples actions and emotions, then how is it that mirror neurons are wrapped up in the use of language? Well, to me it seems like, again pure speculation, that pretty much all language that we use is only useful so long as it allows us to internally simulate the thoughts of another person. When we hear words spoken, or we see words written on a page, it is not as though the words give us some direct access to meaning. Rather, they serve as clues, they serve as evidence of another person's thoughts. But it is up to us, to use those words to internally simulate the meaning that the person was trying to communicate. In other words, words do not hold the essential meaning of a phrase, but are only evidence for the internal simulation/reenactment of that person's thoughts.

How many times have we read a phrase, or heard someone say something, yet it has made no sense. Then we read it a few more times, or ask them to repeat themselves, and we say ah ha! now I understand what you mean! So why were the words inadequate the first time around? Why is it necessary to rephrase things? Why do we have to struggle to understand what certain words mean? My conclusion for now: Words enable the internal simulation/reenactment of other people's thoughts. This runs with the same idea Collingwood was using: never take someone's word for something without thinking it for yourself. Never accept a sentence without simulating/reenacting the meaning/thoughts that the phrase is meant to communicate.

So, I need to do more research into this, but, given that the mirror neuron system exists primarily in the motor cortex, and that the language area (Broca's area) is directly next to the motor cortex, and that language seems to be followed by hand gestures, there must be some connection between mirror neurons and language. Iacoboni does argue this explicitly, but I can't recall his exact evidence, and I don't care to revisit the book at this moment. So, then, it seems as though all use of language comes down to an internal simulation/reenactment of other peoples thoughts/experiences.

So then, to wrap up on mirror neurons. These neurons allow us to internally simulate the actions of other people, they are what enable us to empathize because they allow us to internally simulate facial expressions that invoke the corresponding emotion, and they allow us to understand language by providing us with evidence of a person's thoughts/experiences.

Basically, this seems to confirm my speculation that much of thought, perhaps the bulk of it, comes down to our brains ability to internally simulate other people's thoughts and experiences.

So, given that this seems to be the case, I would now like to elaborate what I have come to see as three distinct forms of simulation/reenactment - 1. Intuitive 2. Verisimilitudinous 3. Fantastic. The first form is more of an analysis of the way that our brains work on an unconscious level, how our brains intuitively simulate/reenact other peoples thoughts and feelings. The second and third forms – verisimilitudinous and fantastic – involve the use of language and empathy, and are processes that we would engage in for the purpose of synthesizing highly specific, as well are more general forms of experience through the deliberate simulation/reenactment of other people's thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

The second two forms are meant to capitalize on the four separate but interrelated things. 1. that simulation/reenactment seems to be part of how our brains work in general, 2. that much of everyday decision making happens before we have time to reflect, and thus hinges on intuition more than reason, 3. that intuition can be improved only through experience, and 4. that language is powerful enough to help us synthesize experiences that we would never be able to have otherwise, thus allowing us to improve our intuitive decision making without having to go through the school of hard knocks, so to speak.

Intuitive Simulation/Reenactment
So, I am having hard time deciding between the terms simulation and reenactment. Both sorta communicate what I am talking about. That thoughts and feelings we perceive in other people can only be understood if we think or feel them for ourselves. I think this is a much more personal and subjective thing than we are typically aware of. We are so good at simulating/reenacting other people that we don't realize we are doing it. So, for now I guess I will just use the terms simulation/reenactment interchangeably. This might change in the future but whatever I don't have a grasp of the nuance right now.

First, Intuitive simulation. This was something that my discussion on mirror neurons should have made clear. Witnessing an action or a facial expression prompts our brains to simulate those experiences for themselves.

So, my major concern is how can we improve our ability to simulate/reenact other peoples thoughts on feelings on a day to day basis. How can we learn to be more socially sensitive? How can we learn to empathize better? Since all of our interactions that require empathy or sensitivity don't really allow time for reflection, we need to improve our ability to do all of this on an unconscious level.

Now that I have gotten to this point of the blog I feel a little bit lost. Particularly with this section on intuitive simulation. Because it is odd. So I am going to turn to my friend Collingwood for a little help in figuring out how it is that our minds work to understand other people, how this involves the imagination, and how we could modify it.

So Collingwood has an idea that he calls the a priori imagination. This applies to historical study in terms of the historical imagination, and how is it that we recreate the experiences of people in the past using our imagination. He uses a comparison with novelists that I think would be useful right now. He says that he knows of novelists (I forget who) that say they don't necessarily feel like they have really written or created an ending to their story. Rather, they have created characters and placed them in a certain world. And based on how those characters are, the novel can only play out in a certain way. It is as if those characters exist in their own right, and will behave only in a certain way because of all their surroundings and experiences and personalities. So, in essence, sometimes the imagination unfolds in a way that seems a priori. It seems as if though it couldn't have happened in any other way, cause that's just the only way our imagination can see it. Similarly, Collingwood says that when historians are imagining the past the situation and their depiction of it often unfolds for them. What they know about the period, what they know about the individuals under study, all of those things combine to force the imagination into one direction. The imagination can unfold as if though a priori. I have had similar experiences where my sense of a situation, or my elaborate imagining of a hypothetical situations seems to present itself to me. It isn't something that I have to consciously map out, or deliberately construct, it is like a world that suddenly I can feel and explore at will. I can write it down, or I can just drift in the products of my a priori imagination.

Foucault also said something that seems a little bit relevant to intuitive/pre-reflective behavior. Discussing the ancient Greeks and their use of precepts, he quotes Plutarch when he said "You must have learned principles so firmly that when your desires, your appetites or your fears awaken like barking dogs, the logos will speak with the voice of a master who silences the dogs by a single command." This also echos Clausewitz and his idea about deliberate learning becoming fully integrated into our intellectual apparatus, so it becomes part of our intuitive decision making.

So, these ideas basically reaffirm the idea that our behavior can't be ruled by rationality, but rather by an intuition that has been deliberately crafted. We need to train our a priori imagination so that it is sensitive to certain factors (Collingwood). We need to internalize precepts so that they function on an unconscious level (Foucault). And we need to expand our intellectual apparatus so that it intuitively takes account of certain things (Clausewitz). All very similar ideas.

So, then what are the factors that we need to take into account in everyday interactions that require lots of intuitive simulation/reenactment? Well, I would say above all a sensitivity to the pain of others is very important. Pain is the thing that we want to reduce in general in the world, and where better to start than in our own relations with other people? So, how to internalize a sensitivity to other people's pain? I would say by gaining an intimate familiarity with our own pain. What sort of social situations have made us feel really uncomfortable? Simple idea: When we have an intimate awareness of ourselves and our place within social interactions, we are more likely to be aware of the difficulties/pains of others. Foucault again: Caring for yourself involves a "degree of zeal for self–and hence in zeal for others as well." So, an intense sensitivity to the self can lead to an intense sensitivity towards others as well.

So, this section is somewhat basic. Mirror neurons show that all interactions with others involve the mirroring/simulation/reenactment of other peoples thoughts and feelings. So the task becomes to increase your ability to simulate/reenact a wide variety of thoughts and feelings so as to posses a greater social sensitivity, a greater 'empathetic palette' so to speak. This is best improved by internalizing precepts, rules, ideas so firmly into the mind that they become part of the intuitive apparatus. This is best done by gaining a deep knowledge of ourselves that would facilitate deeper connections with others. This is best done through protracted introspection with a special focus on personal pain, since that is what we want to reduce in social situations and life generally. In general, it seems that intuitive simulation/reenactment (i.e. empathy, social sensitivity, the ability to act quickly and appropriately under difficult circumstances) is really important.

One interesting question: is introspection a form of simulation/reenactment of our own past experiences that synthesizes our own experience into something stronger? I saw a neuroscience conference where Steven Rose said that every time we think of a memory we recreate it, we bring it back to life and we change it. So thinking about our past through memory or old writing would then be doing the same thing, reactivating/reenacting/simulating our past thoughts and experiences and changing them by bringing them to life in present circumstances. So, yes, I would think that introspection can be a sort of memory based simulation/reenactment that allows our imagination to produce a synthesized version of our own experiences? But this would fit with all the other ideas about the imagination and the creation of synthetic experience as something that would improve intuitive decision making in a general sort of way.

There is even an ancient Greek Stoic exercise that involved the reenactment of the day. At the end of each night you would come how and replay the entire day in your head. You would be paying special attention to your interactions with others, and you would be sure that you had treated everyone according to your standards. Perhaps you think you could have done something differently, been more patient, been kinder. Well, the idea is to explore that hypothetical possibility to so as to acquaint yourself with that type of behavior. Imagine how you would have behaved ideally, and you create a synthetic experience of your ideal behavior. This seems like it 1. strengthens your understanding of how you want to conduct yourself and 2. it gives you an opportunity to internalize those strengthened understandings through a hypothetical reenactment. In short, memory based reenactment can simultaneously strengthen your moral code and your ability to execute it intuitively.

Apart from introspection, I think that history and fiction can also provide us with synthetic experience that would be very valuable in every day life. Theses processes, however, is of a much more specific nature. So, these forms of simulation/reenactment exist in distinct categories, I would say.

At this point I would like to make a distinction within the domain of intuitive simulation. Intuitive simulation is really two things: On the one hand, it is a just way that our minds work, it is mirror neurons and empathy, it's the a priori imagination, it is something natural, it is the only way we can understand others peoples thoughts and feelings. But it is also a property of the mind that we are deliberately attempting to enhance. It is a mental space that we are trying to craft to certain standards. Namely, we want to become more empathetic, we want to become more compassionate by strengthening the imagination, we want to attain a state of mind in which we are not constantly bombarded by words, and we want to be able to quickly form intuitive decisions in a variety of difficult and unforeseeable situations. I think this can be done if we have a deep understanding of ourselves and our own experience, and if we gain synthetic experience in a wide range of situations, and approach both of these activities with a reflective mind.

At this point I think that all other forms of simulation come back to the effort to enhance intuition, and intuitive simulation.

So there are the goals: increased empathetic capacity, stronger imaginative compassion, a quiet mind, increased intuition. Empathy and compassion involve the ability to intuitively/rapidly simulate other people's thoughts and feelings for yourself. While a quiet mind and intuition would be 1. the source of an empathetic and compassionate mind and 2. the product of a mind that is trying to be empathetic and compassionate.

Then there are the methods of achieving these goals: Introspection and synthetic experience from memory based reenactment, synthetic experience via history and fiction, reflection on all synthetic experience. Introspection would allow us to have a knowledge of ourselves that would help in being sensitive towards others. While history and fiction would facilitate a wide range of synthetic experiences, which reflection could translate into a deeper understanding of the self, of things, and of others, giving rise to greater intuitive abilities, and greater control over the imagination and compassion.

Now I'll talk about the use of history and fiction in terms of their utility in gaining synthetic experience. I will use the term Verisimilitudinous simulation to designate the type of synthetic experience ideally gained from history. I will use the term Fantastic simulation to capture the type of synthetic experience conveyed by fiction.


Verisimilitudinous Simulation/Reenactment
Simulation/reenactment of past thought/experience would be much more controlled, and would involve the simulation/reenactment of very specific types of experiences. It would involve much more effort so as to ensure that the simulation/reenactment resembled the actual thoughts/experiences under study. In other words, historical simulation/reenactment needs to be verisimilitudinous.

Based on who's model we are going with (Clausewitz, Collingwood, or Foucault) the simulation of past thoughts and experiences can have three purposes which blend in the actual process. First, historical study

Fantastic Simulation/Reenactment

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