AHA! = Average Humans Anonymous!
(A 12-step program for cognitive enhancement)
What is an “average” human?
Modern humans are known taxonomically as Homo sapiens (Latin: “wise man” or “knowing man”).
Behavioral modernity is a term used in anthropology, archeology and sociology to refer to a set of traits that distinguish present day humans and their recent ancestors from both living primates and other extinct hominid lineages. It is the point at which Homo sapiens began to demonstrate a reliance on symbolic thought and to express cultural creativity. These developments are often thought to be associated with the origin of language.
There are two main theories regarding when modern human behavior emerged. One theory holds that behavioral modernity occurred as a sudden event some 50 kya (50,000 years ago), possibly as a result of a major genetic mutation or as a result of a biological reorganization of the brain that led to the emergence of modern human natural languages. Proponents of this theory refer to this event as the Great Leap Forward or the Upper Paleolithic Revolution.
The second theory holds that there was never any single technological or cognitive revolution. Proponents of this view argue that modern human behavior is basically the result of the gradual accumulation of knowledge, skills and culture occurring over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution. Proponents of this view include Stephen Oppenheimer in his book Out of Eden, and John Skoyles and Dorion Sagan in their book Up from Dragons: The evolution of human intelligence. (Wikipedia: Behavioral Modernity)
Whenever behavioral modernity may have settled upon Homo sapiens, the beginnings of it are lost in prehistory, in past ages far before we have any clear and unambiguous physical or historical evidence. The fields of evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics promise to shed new light on the origins of modern human behavior but they are only in the very early stages of their own evolution as scientific genres.
Nevertheless, the important point is that the typical, average, or normal human has a brain that is an evolutionary work-in-progress.
We only invented agriculture about 10,000 years or so ago, which in brain-evolution time is like ten seconds ago. In that 10,000 years (or ten seconds) our brains have not had time to really get it right. Our agricultural methods are still causing too much long-term damage to the very resources we depend on to continue being productive in the future. Instead of improving the resource base over time, as brainless nature does, we are still destroying it faster than ever before. The situation with energy and manufacturing is just as bad. Our technology develops at a far greater pace than our brains, which we use to plan and manage the applications of the technology, hoping to maximize productivity and avoid drastic unintended consequences.
Our track record is not so good.
May you live in interesting times, often referred to as the Chinese curse, was the first of three curses of increasing severity, the other two being:
- May you come to the attention of those in authority
- May you find what you are looking for
It is only in very recent, recorded history that humanity has come so close to achieving true greatness. Only recently have the consequences of human behavior become so great and so visible. That makes the present day the most interesting time in all of human history.
In the past, the planetary environment was vast in proportion to all the cumulative impacts of human populations. Over a fairly recent period of time, however, humanity has turned a corner or crossed a tipping point where the environment is no longer large enough to fully absorb and erase all the effects that human activity creates. Those human effects are overtaking the planet’s homeostatic systems and causing ecological processes and environments to degrade or permanently fail. We can see this in species extinctions, failing hydrological systems, changing ocean currents and weather systems, and now even in planetary temperature regulation and rising sea levels.
The most interesting thing about these times is the extent to which the external world has become our mirror. Almost everything that’s wrong with our culture and our environment now is a result of human behavior and can be traced backwards to an evolutionary origin in the normal, anatomically and behaviorally modern, human brain.
Madness and normality
The problem with the modern human brain isn’t what we call clinical, DSM-level, mental illness–it is sub-clinical. The problem is normality–which includes standard, predictable cognitive faults, irregularities, and distortions that belong to many kinds of so-called “spectrum disorders” but fall below the accepted level of clinical severity or are just too complex to disentange.
It is the pandemic of typical, sub-clinical mental faults that causes poverty, crime, global warming, oil spills, Iraq & Afghan wars, financial crisis, bad government, etc. Any behavior which produces negative utility is irrational.
The main reason our times have become so “interesting” is not disease, not resource scarcity, not over population. The root problem is our normal thinking and our typical behavior. We could cure all physical illness, all clinical mental illness, all poverty, war, etc. and we would still be hurtling just as fast (and probably even faster!) towards our own self-destruction! The problem is not what we have traditionally seen as illness or scarcity or other external threats. The problem is normality!
The root cause of our threatened survival is installed inside of every “healthy”, “normal” human being.
It’s in our DNA!
The standard brain: our normal cognitive faults, boo-boos, crutches, and placebos:
- excessive bias towards simplicity and popularity of ideas and beliefs with little regard for accuracy
- intolerance of ambiguity and cognitive dissonance
- excessive sensitivity to emotional states and excessive positive bias (leading to addictions)
- unconscious mental associations, cognitive biases, and behavior patterns
- black-box (unconscious or pre-conscious) decision making with post hoc rationale
- reverse-precedence cognitive hierarchy (highest, most recently evolved cognitive functions have lowest precedence)
- fragmentation/compartmentalization (weak integration) of values, goals, personality, identity, and memory components
- weak self-observation and attention management
- automatic thoughts and behaviors (autopilot)
- magical thinking (errors of causal association)
- unconscious logical fallacies/errors
- cultural biases (reinforcements for conformity, educational agenda biases, neuro-linguistic “dialects”, memes, etc.)
- random and inconsistent neural programming (spaghetti code) from random experience/reinforcements
- inappropriate psychological defense mechanisms (denial, self-delusion, wishful thinking, etc.)
- linguistic deficiencies (formal thinking requires linguistic/grammatical/logical proficiency)
The 12 Steps of AHA!
By which we attempt to correct as many of the above cognitive boo-boos as possible:
- Admit we are powerless over our thoughts, emotions, and moods; and over our sub-clinical neurotic or impulsive behavior disorders and cognitive disorders—that our lives have become unmanageable, and if we don’t fix ourselves, our species will probably hit the wall in fifty years or less.
“The subjective experience of powerlessness over one’s emotions can generate multiple kinds of behavior disorders, or it can be a cause of mental suffering with no consistent behavioral manifestation, such as affective disorders.” (Wikipedia: Emotions Anonymous)
“The cognitive mental disorder perspective is the theory that psychological disorders originate from an interruption, whether short or long, in our basic cognitive functions, i.e. memory processing, perception, problem solving and language. In distinction (or in addition) to this perspective are the psychodynamic mental disorder perspective, behavioral mental disorder perspective, sociocultural mental disorder perspective, interpersonal mental disorder perspective and neurological/biological mental disorder perspective. One pioneer of cognitive disorder perspective is Albert Ellis. In 1962, Ellis proposed that humans develop irrational beliefs/goals about the world; and therefore, create disorders in cognitive abilities. Another pioneer of the cognitive disorder perspective is Aaron Beck. In 1967, Beck designed what is known as the “cognitive model” for emotional disorders, mainly depression. His model showed that a blending of negative cognitive functions about the self, the world, and possible selves lead to cognitive mental disorders.” (Wikipedia: Cognitive disorders).
Nearly all forms of clinical mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD), Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), and Dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality disorder), have sub-clinical counterparts in nearly all normal individuals.
- Came to believe that a higher, more stable, and more consistent level of cognitive integration and functionality could be achieved through work on cognitive modification.
- Made a searching and fearless cognitive inventory of ourselves. A cognitive inventory consists of a self-assessment and a coached/group assessment of our cognitive faults (see list of “The standard human cognitive faults, boo-boos, crutches and placebos” above) using various assessment tools, tests, surveys, monitored exercises, etc.
“The prevailing [default] style of [cognition] must undergo transformation. A system cannot fully understand itself. The transformation requires a view from outside….”
“The first step is transformation of the individual. This transformation is discontinuous. It comes from understanding of the system of profound knowledge. The individual, transformed, will perceive new meaning to his life, to events, to numbers, to interactions between people.” (More on this later…)
- Admitted to ourselves and to others in our group the exact nature of our cognitive faults.
- Were entirely ready to give up all these cognitive defects and shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had affected as a consequence of our cognitive defects, and made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would harm them or others.
- Continued to take personal cognitive inventories and when we discovered faults promptly admitted and modified them via the Deming “PDCA” Cycle for Continuous Improvement:
Establish the objectives and cognitive processes necessary to deliver results in accordance with the expected output. By making the expected output the focus, it differs from other techniques in that the completeness and accuracy of the specification is also part of the improvement.
- Implement the new cognitive processes . Often on a small group scale if possible.
- Measure the new cognitive processes and compare the results against the expected results to ascertain any differences.
- Analyze the differences to determine their cause. Each will be part of either one or more of the P-D-C-A steps. Determine where to apply cognitive changes that will include improvement. When a pass through these four steps does not result in the need to improve, refine the scope to which PDCA is applied until there is a plan that involves improvement.
- The final step of the AHA! twelve-step program: Having had a cognitive awakening and transformation as the result of these steps, we try to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
PDCA was made popular by Dr. W. Edwards Deming, who is considered by many to be the father of modern quality control; however it was always referred to by him as the “Shewhart cycle”. Later in Deming’s career, he modified PDCA to “Plan, Do, Study, Act” (PDSA) so as to better describe his recommendations.
The concept of PDCA is based on the scientific method, as developed from the work of Francis Bacon (Novum Organum, 1620). The scientific method can be written as “hypothesis” – “experiment” – “evaluation”; or plan, do, and check… According to Deming, during his lectures in Japan in the early 1950s, the Japanese participants revised the steps to the now traditional plan, do, check, act.
Deming preferred plan, do, study, act (PDSA) because “study” has connotations in English closer to Shewhart’s intent than “check”.
Wikipedia: William Edwards Deming “(October 14, 1900 – December 20, 1993) was an American statistician, professor, author, lecturer, and consultant. He is perhaps best known for his work in Japan. There, from 1950 onward he taught top management how to improve design (and thus service), product quality, testing and sales (the last through global markets), through various methods, including the application of statistical methods.
Deming made a significant contribution to Japan’s later reputation for innovative high-quality products and its economic power. He is regarded as having had more impact upon Japanese manufacturing and business than any other individual not of Japanese heritage. Despite being considered something of a hero in Japan, he was only just beginning to win widespread recognition in the U.S. at the time of his death.” (Wikipedia)
Though virtually unknown and unappreciated in the US, Deming is almost solely responsible for the transformation of Japanese industry from having, in my childhood, a reputation for manufacturing cheap junk goods to, by the mid-70’s, a reputation as the maker of the world’s highest quality and highest value automobiles, electronics , and many other consumer goods. Though his ideas of continuous improvement were originally widely rejected in the US until recently because they did not fit with autocratic US corporate culture, in the 80’s and 90’s US industry imported many Japanese manufacturing consultants due to the reputation for quality and efficiency that Japan had gained, ironically, as a direct result of adopting Deming’s ideas.
Demings ideas, rejected by US captains of industry for decades, swept through the entire Asian world and are largely responsible for the fact that Asian manufacturers are still kicking US industry’s ass today in markets as diverse as cars, cell phones, personal computers, and solar cells. Where would American workers be without such enlightened and visionary US corporate management? Perhaps still in the middle class instead of in unemployment lines or among the the ranks of the working poor.
Deming’s PDCA continuous improvement cycle constitutes the next four steps (8 through 11) of AHA!
The principles and practices of cognitive modification (cognitive hygiene)
- Linguistic education and training. Although humans could think before they developed language, language has now become the brick, mortar, timber, metal and glass of conscious, rational thought and social interaction. Cognitive hygiene requires education and practice in formal language but not merely for the sake of constructing well-formed internal thoughts. Improving cognitive hygiene depends heavily on group dynamics and interaction, which require a common set of effective communication skills. Language is one of the most recently evolved abilities of the brain, and language training reinforces the dominance of the higher reasoning centers and networks over the earlier and more primitive functions of the brain. In addition to vocabulary, grammar, English usage and style, etc. (linguistic prescription), linguistic education involves the skills of well-crafted logic and argument (debate). The recognition of logical fallacies, a major cognitive pitfall, can be taught best in this context as well.
Wikipedia: The origin of language:The main difficulty of the question [of language origins] stems from the fact that it concerns a development in deep prehistory which left no direct fossil traces and for which no comparable processes can be observed today.The time range under discussion in this context extends from the phylogenetic separation of Homo and Pan some 5 million years ago to the emergence of full behavioral modernity some 50,000 years ago. The evolution of fully modern human language requires the development of the vocal tract used for speech production and the cognitive abilities required to produce linguistic utterances… It is mostly undisputed that pre-human australopithecines did not have communication systems significantly different from those found in great apes in general, but scholarly opinions vary as to the developments since the appearance of Homo some 2.5 million years ago. Some scholars assume the development of primitive language-like systems (proto-language) as early as Homo habilis, while others place the development of primitive symbolic communication only with Homo erectus (1.8 million years ago) or Homo heidelbergensis (0.6 million years ago) and the development of language proper with Homo sapiens sapiens less than 100,000 years ago.Wikipedia: History of concepts of the origin of language
Thomas Hobbes, followed by John Locke and others, said that language is an extension of the “speech” that humans have within themselves as part of reason, one of the most primary characteristics of human nature. Hobbes in Leviathan while postulating as did Aristotle that language is a prerequisite for society, attributed it to innovation and learning after an initial impulse by God:
But the most noble and profitable invention of all others was that of speech … whereby men register their thoughts, recall them when they are past, and also declare them to one another for mutual utility and conversation; without which there had been amongst men neither commonwealth, nor society, nor contract, nor peace, no more than amongst lions, bears and wolves. The first author of speech was God himself, that instructed Adam how to name such creatures as He presented to his sight; for the Scripture goeth no further in this matter.”
In Hobbes, man proceeds to learn on his own initiative all the words not taught by God: “figures, numbers, measures, colours ….” which are taught by “need, the mother of all inventions.” Hobbes, one of the first rationalists of the Age of Reason, identifies the ability of self-instruction as reason:
“For reason, in this sense, is nothing but reckoning … of the consequences of general names agreed upon for the marking and signifying of our thoughts; ….”
Others have argued the opposite, that reason developed out of the need for more complex communication. Rousseau, despite writing before the publication of Darwin‘s theory of evolution, said that there had once been humans with no language or reason who developed language first, rather than reason, the development of which he explicitly described as a mixed blessing, with many negative characteristics.
Since the arrival of Darwin, the subject has been approached more often by scientists than philosophers. For example, neurologist Terrence Deacon in his Symbolic Species has argued that reason and language “coevolved“. Merlin Donald sees language as a later development building upon what he refers to as mimetic culture, emphasizing that this coevolution depended upon the interactions of many individuals. He writes:
A shared communicative culture, with sharing of mental representations to some degree, must have come first, before language, creating a social environment in which language would have been useful and adaptive.
The specific causes of the natural selection that led to language are, however, still the subject of much speculation, but a common theme going back to Aristotle is that many theories propose that the gains to be had from language and/or reason were probably mainly in the area of increasingly sophisticated social structures.
In more recent times, a theory of mirror neurons has emerged in relation to language. Ramachandran has gone so far as to argue that “mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments”. Mirror neurons are located in the human inferior frontal cortex and superior parietal lobe, and are unique in that they fire when one completes an action and also when one witnesses an actor performing the same action. Various studies have proposed a theory of mirror neurons related to language development.
- Cognitive neuroscience education. General and specific material to support all the other cognitive modification goals and practices.
- Unconscious cognitive biases, implicit associations, and repetitive automatic thoughts. These items can be identified and quantified by computer tests and questionnaires. Once identified, they become the subjects of self-observation and cognitive de-conditioning/retraining via cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), cognitive restructuring, and similar methods.
- Attention training. This includes self-observation of mental and physical states and behaviors, focused attention, dual attention, mindfulness mediation, memory practices, brainwave bio-feedback, Tai Chi (proprioceptive awareness) etc.
- Behavior modification. Behavioral self-awareness, applied behavior analysis, operant conditioning, etc.
- Radical honesty.
- Cognitive integration and meta-cognition (thinking about thinking). Methods and practices to improve the integration and coordination of existing neural networks and functional centers, and reverse the bottom-up evolutionary order of precedence so that the highest (most recent) cognitive areas and functions such as the rational neo-cortex take greater precedence over more primitive areas like the “limbic” (emotional) system. This area of work is still largely speculative and experimental and at this date would consist primarily of research.
- The Deming System of Profound Knowledge. This is a catch-all category for research into ways that Deming’s theories of quality control and continuous improvement can be applied to cognitive modification.
“The prevailing [default] style of management [cognition] must undergo transformation. A system cannot understand itself. The transformation requires a view from outside….
“The first step is transformation of the individual. This transformation is discontinuous. It comes from understanding of the system of profound knowledge. The individual, transformed, will perceive new meaning to his life, to events, to numbers, to interactions between people.
“Once the individual understands the system of profound knowledge, he will apply its principles in every kind of relationship with other people. He will have a basis for judgment of his own decisions and for transformation of the organizations that he belongs to. The individual, once transformed, will:
- Set an example;
- Be a good listener, but will not compromise;
- Continually teach other people; and
- Help people to pull away from their current practices and beliefs and move into the new philosophy without a feeling of guilt about the past.”
Deming advocated that all managers need to have what he called a System of Profound Knowledge, consisting of four parts:
- Appreciation of a system: understanding the overall processes involving suppliers, producers, and customers (or recipients) of goods and services (explained below);
- Knowledge of variation: the range and causes of variation in quality, and use of statistical sampling in measurements;
- Theory of knowledge: the concepts explaining knowledge and the limits of what can be known (see also: epistemology);
- Knowledge of psychology: concepts of human nature.
Deming explained, “One need not be eminent in any part nor in all four parts in order to understand it and to apply it. The 14 points for management in industry, education, and government follow naturally as application of this outside knowledge, for transformation from the present style of Western management to one of optimization.”
“The various segments of the system of profound knowledge proposed here cannot be separated. They interact with each other. Thus, knowledge of psychology is incomplete without knowledge of variation.
“A manager of people needs to understand that all people are different. This is not ranking people. He needs to understand that the performance of anyone is governed largely by the system that he works in, the responsibility of management. A psychologist that possesses even a crude understanding of variation as will be learned in the experiment with the Red Beads (Ch. 7) could no longer participate in refinement of a plan for ranking people.”
The Appreciation of a system involves understanding how interactions (i.e., feedback) between the elements of a system can result in internal restrictions that force the system to behave as a single organism that automatically seeks a steady state. It is this steady state that determines the output of the system rather than the individual elements. Thus it is the structure of the organization rather than the employees, alone, which holds the key to improving the quality of output.
The Knowledge of variation involves understanding that everything measured consists of both “normal” variation due to the flexibility of the system and of “special causes” that create defects. Quality involves recognizing the difference to eliminate “special causes” while controlling normal variation. Deming taught that making changes in response to “normal” variation would only make the system perform worse. Understanding variation includes the mathematical certainty that variation will normally occur within six standard deviations of the mean.
- Cognitive self-help Group: In addition to serving as one venue or vehicle for many of the preceding methods and practices, the group setting promotes non-verbal communication skills, listening, assertiveness, boundaries, and numerous other social and cognitive skills.
- Social support: Having a community of people to give physical and emotional comfort, people who love and care, is a moderating factor in the development of psychological and physical disease.
- Experiential knowledge: Members obtain specialized information and perspectives that other members have obtained through living with severe mental illness. Validation of their approaches to problems increase their confidence.
- Social learning theory: Members with experience become creditable role models.
- Social comparison theory: Individuals with similar mental illness are attracted to each other in order to establish a sense of normalcy for themselves. Comparing one another to each other is considered to provide other peers with an incentive to change for the better either through upward comparison (looking up to someone as a role model) or downward comparison (seeing an example of how debilitating mental illness can be).
- Helper theory: Those helping each other feel greater interpersonal competence from changing other’s lives for the better. The helpers feel they have gained as much as they have given to others. The helpers receive “personalized learning” from working with helpees. The helpers’ self-esteem improves with the social approval received from those they have helped, putting them an a more advantageous position to help others.
- Community. This could range from a community of affiliated cognitive self-help groups to one or more complex, self-reliant, and sustainable communities or “micro-cultures” serving a broad variety of social, educational, and economic functions with cognitive modification at the core of each one. Such a micro-culture could provide a full spectrum of venues, each having appropriate cognitive hygiene processes and objectives at its core in addition to its other activity:
- cognitive self-help groups
- skilled trades and professional work groups
- green agriculture, cottage industries, and commercial enterprises
- medical, professional, and scientific facilities
- formal educational venues
- and many others
Such a complex, cognitively optimized community might offer the most effective possible matrix for rapid human cognitive development.
Wikipedia: Mental health self-help groups: In most cases, the group becomes a miniature society that can function like a buffer between the members and the rest of the world. The most essential processes are those that meet personal and social needs in an environment of safety and simplicity. Elegant theoretical formulations, systematic behavioral techniques, and complicated cognitive-restructuring methods are not necessary.
Despite the differences, researchers have identified many psychosocial processes occurring in self-help groups related to their effectiveness. This list includes, but is not limited too: acceptance, behavioral rehearsal, changing member’s perspectives of themselves, changing member’s perspectives of the world, catharsis, extinction, role modeling, learning new coping strategies, mutual affirmation, personal goal setting, instilling hope, justification, normalization, positive reinforcement, reducing social isolation, reducing stigma, self-disclosure, sharing (or “opening up”), and showing empathy.
Five theoretical frameworks have been used in attempts to explain the effectiveness of self-help groups.
A framework derived from common themes in empirical data describes recovery as a contextual nonlinear process, a trend of general improvement with unavoidable paroxysms while negotiating environmental, socioeconomic and internal forces, motivated by a drive to move forward in one’s life. The framework identified several negotiation strategies, some designed to accommodate illnesses and other’s designed to change thinking and behavior. The former category includes strategies such as acceptance and balancing activities. The latter includes positive thinking, increasing one’s own personal agency/control and activism within the mental health system.