Forum OpenACS Q&A: Bats, mammals, and our models of the world

Posted by Andrew Piskorski on
More off-topic stuff, but of a different nature: This should be of interest regardless of one's politics, but does have some implications for understanding aspects of human politics:

From this page:

And Harry Erwin comments on the Mid East Policy as Fantasy paper:

An interesting paper. One issue is that I'm not sure anyone can claim they see the world as it really is. Mammals seem to live in an internal model that is updated asynchronously based on sensory data, and they choose their behavior based on that model, not on their sensations. This is particularly clear in bats, where we see the Wiederorientierung phenomenon: bats flying in a familiar area often seem to ignore sensory afference and instead depend almost exclusively on their memory of the area. First reported by Möhres and Öttingen-Spielberg in 1949, it describes two states: 1. Erstorientierung-when bats first encounter a novel situation. 2. Wiederorientierung-when bats fly in a familiar space. It was observed in the behavior of a bat that was accustomed to roosting in a cage in a room. The researchers rotated the cage and eventually removed it, and noted that the bat continued to behave as if the cage were in its normal position until forced to reorient. This suggests that bats use and maintain a world model that is only modified if circumstances force it to.

Rawson and Griffin investigated this further (see Griffin, Listening in the dark, the Acoustic Orientation of Bats and Men, Yale, 1958, and Griffin, "Cognitive aspects of echolocation," in Nachtigall and Moore, ed., Animal Sonar: Processes and Performance, Plenum Press , 1988). . Asked whether the bats even made cries at all. . Experiment involved placing and moving obstacles in a flight room. . Answer: the bat still made echolocation cries, but seemed to ignore the resulting returns. Maintenance of congruence between the internal model and the environment is asynchronous, low-rate, effortful, and involves a 'dialog' (Griffin) between the animal and its environment. There is also evidence from human psychology for similar ideas (see Walter J Freeman, 1995, Societies of Brains, LEA). The concept that brains are isolated from the objective world is called epistemological (not metaphysical!) solipsism.

Why do I mention epistemological solipsism? Because it implies _everyone_ lives in an internal model in more or less incomplete agreement with objective reality. The interpretations of 9/11 as a martyrdom and as a war by terrorists are both descriptions of internal models in incomplete congruence with reality. Objectively, it was an event involving the deaths of thousands, made 'meaningful' only by those internal models of how things 'really' work.

I seem to recall that Dr. Erwin told a simpler and more impressive version of that story elsewhere: Apparently, you can remove a bat's usual perch while it is out of the room, and when it returns, despite constant echo-location cries, it will proceed to "land" on the non-existant perch and then (and only then) abrubtly re-evaluate the faulty relationship between its model of the world and the real world, while falling towards the floor... (I don't know if the type of bat or any other factors matter, etc.)

Supposedly, all mammals' brains work in basically that way. Interesting implications, no? When I first read that it shed light on many aspects of human behavior I'd seen or read about.

Based largely on the above, I have an utterly speculative and untested theory which says that: Our internal models of "how the world works" are unlikely to be substantially revised and improved except in the face of either, one, major external stress (think Marine Boot Camp), or two, concerted, sustained, and substantial conscious effort on our part.

I further suggest that the first criteria certainly does not hold in this forum, and that the second is unlikely to as well - for any of us.