The Sneeze Test of Veracity

After reading (or more correctly attempting to read and understand) Mark Humphries’ essay on how the brain learns causality (“Did I Do That?“), I shook my head in wonder. (Mentally that is. If I shake my head in wonder physically, I tend to forget immediately the previously current object of my attention. Imagine my brain as one of those metal drums filled with lottery balls waiting to be drawn. Shaking my head is equivalent to grabbing the drum handle and taking them for a quick, chaotic spin. They never end up in the same place.)

Now. Where was I? Oh, the wonder comes from how the brain (well, some brains) learn. In the case of causality, it involves a sudden burst of dopamine that signals that something surprising just happened, a calcium tag left behind in a neuron to record the series of events leading to the surprise, and then, very simply put, another burst of dopamine that connects Dot A to Dot B to Dot C to identify what caused the surprise, be it you or someone or something else.

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

The idea of causality itself is just as wondrous. It’s something that exists only in our minds, that is, “it is the regular sequence of events that the mind connects from habit, innate disposition, or experience or that it correlates on the basis of scientifically elaborated theories.” More simply, causality is the relation between cause and effect that we learn through observation and experience. Some species of animals learn causality by mimicry. As Humphries writes, “Blue tits can learn to open milk-bottle tops by observing other blue tits doing it.” Humans do that, too, but have the added advantage of language. We can record how things happen and why and so learning can take place without us “being bound to painstaking observations of local, personal chains of events.”

The concept of causality also helps us figure out what to do when we want to accomplish change. Humphries explains:

The learning of causality is based on the idea that we carry around a predictive model of the world in our brain. But if we do, then we likely also carry around the inverse model—of how to change the world. We need to be able to say, “I want outcome Y,” and then use the inverse model to look up “action X” that gets us that outcome.

This (cause) leads me to think (effect) that we humans basically have two views of causality: 1) “I did that,” and 2) “I didn’t do that.” The “I did that” statement does three things. On one hand, depending on inflection, it recognizes or appeals for recognition of, in most cases, a noteworthy or desirable accomplishment, stakes a claim to an accomplishment, or proclaims astonishment at an accomplishment. On the other, it accepts or admits responsibility for an action or outcome, usually one less noteworthy or desirable. The “I didn’t do that” statement does the opposite. Both claims come in warranted and unwarranted varieties. We sometimes take credit or accept responsibility for things we do or don’t do, even though the calcium-tagged neuron recording of events in our brain tells us otherwise.

This thought (another cause) leads me to think (another effect) that one great obstacle to a better, happier, more peaceful life for everyone is our inability to discern when someone is telling the truth, something that has become painfully evident in the last year or so. While some people trained in the minutiae of human expression can supposedly do this with ease (see Lie to Me), most of use cannot except in the most egregious cases (no names need be dropped here). Wouldn’t it be great (or would it?) if our dopamine cause-and-effect process included a built-in lie revealer. Say, if you said you did something when you didn’t, you would immediately sneeze three times. This might become known as the sternutagraph effect [sternutation (sneeze) + polygraph].

I’m also thinking something else. (I know. This is a lot of cognition all at once for me. I will need a nap soon.) I’m thinking that if we think hard enough about the need for a sternutagraph effect (yet another cause), it will cause our brain neurons to, as Picard might say, make it so (yet another effect). We’ll have to see if that happens. For now, though, I note that I am prone to frequent fits of sneezing. Please don’t take these the wrong way. They are, at least for now anyway and sort of like this post itself, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.