Prof. Thomas Hills – evolution of cognition (#113)


Thomas Hills suffered from a minor head injury as a child that led to a mild case of retrograde amnesia.  He’s pretty sure he never actually woke up from that.  This returned when he took mefloquine while in Ghana, with its fantastical and often violently lucid dreams. While a PhD student in biology studying how worms search, he continued his psychonautic explorations, looking for the trapdoor in his mind. He floated from Texas to Indiana to Switzerland to the UK. He eventually wound up as a Professor of Psychology, studying mental search and still waiting to wake up.


Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?

I am frequently amazed by the path from incompetence to competence, seldom achieved.  Which is to say, I’m amazed by how I learn things.  Having spent the better part of my adult life studying how people search for things, I find it deeply enthralling to be lost, to be like a cat in Thorndike’s puzzle box scrambling for a solution to a problem when I’m not even sure I understand the question.  I am addicted to not knowing the answer and to making mistakes, which Miles Davis insisted we repeat in order to fully understand them.  That’s troubling and fascinating at the same time. When I start to feel like I understand something, it becomes like an old familiar song — deeply rewarding and calming, but do you mind if we play it in 13/8 and try a little swing?


I’m intrigued, how do worms search?

Worms, nematodes to be exact, search by looking nearby where they’ve found things in the past.  In other words, when they find something, they turn more and localize their search near that location. If they stop finding resources, they start to wander away, turn less, and generally start making a beeline for anywhere but where they just were.  This modulation is called area-restricted search, as it restricts the search to areas where resources have been found before, and doesn’t when no resources are found.  It’s a great strategy for looking for things found in clumps, like nuts under nut trees, spilt sugar granules (if you’re a fly), or dead rats (if you’re a worm).  It’s also how you look for a lost item in the fridge, hunt for documents online, and search for memories in your head. *AND* your search shares some similar neuromolecular architecture to that found in the worm.  So there is an evolutionary thread between the way you focus your attention inside your head and the way pretty much every other animal species on the planet looks for food.


One of the first things that struck me as I looked over your profile was that your research interests crossover or combine with several subjects. Is there an overarching question (or theme) that fuels your research?

I’m pretty sure my genre-defying research career is mostly bug, not feature.  Pressed, I fall back on exploration, mental foraging, and trying to understand the structure of mental representation and experience.  But those are trick words that try to box in pretty much everything.  Free will, well that’s a search problem.  Negotiation is group search. Memory is search in a high-dimensional internal landscape. Language learning is a search for floating semantic islands that you can stick together until you eventually get the continent of English, for example. Dreams are narrative search minus the top-down government of mind that usually gives you a sense of continuity. Mating is a search problem. Shamanism is the art of search in alternate forms of experiential worlds (however they are constructed) to better inform your experiences here in this world.


Is it time to update the traditional department structure of most universities to reflect the increasing amount of multidisciplinary research being undertaken?

Good question. And I don’t know. A lot of what people do at universities or even just in work-a-day culture is a kind of historical artefact.  It’s a solution that was once good enough, like making your way to the top of a nearby hill, eating bacon for breakfast, or the wings of an ostrich. In time, you need taller hills, more sustainable diets, and maybe to ditch the wings. Universities and a lot of academia is sadly trapped in a local maximum based on a global case of self-imitation, where I have to publish in these journals, have this kind of department, teach this kind of curriculum, and so on because if I don’t then people won’t be able to recognize me.  It’s a reverse-engineered search problem, where people are trying to appear in a way that allows others to identify them. When people don’t do that, it threatens their funding, makes it hard to publish in traditional places, prevents future students from finding them, and generally makes life hard because you have to explain yourself every time you meet someone new. A lot of people (both speakers and listeners) don’t have the patience for that.  So, we need new visions to transform traditional academics, yes. That still happens. Informatics at places like Indiana University and Behavioural Science at the University of Warwick Business School are some of the latest examples.


Can you tell me more about your research into language and literature? What can we learn from word analysis?

Language is a tool for building things out of meaning. A standard term for this is generativity, by which I mean that language, which allows us to wield concepts and stick them together like mental LEGO, allows us to build infinitely novel constructions. We use this to build better alternatives for our future selves (if we let ourselves do that), to construct narratives that allow us to share emotional wisdom, and to gain insight into the lives of others. What’s cool about this conceptually infinite structure that we can talk about with language is that it has a sense of nearness and farness. Some ideas, words, or what have you, are nearer to one another than other ideas.  My research tries to measure those distances, so we can track people as they move around in their in own minds, track cultures as they move around in emotional spaces following wars and economic booms, and track language itself as it evolves in response to cultural trends like the rapid proliferation of information. If I tell you a story and later have you repeat it, I can see what parts of the story are preserved and learn something about the way your mind clings to certain ideas while neglecting others.  It’s a bit like walking through a room in someone else’s house.  What do you remember later?  Human history is like that.


We’re right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. What are the important questions that data scientists should be asking to help tackle pandemics?

Most of the questions to these kinds of problems we already know the answer to. A well-behaved child on a playground would do better than most of our politicians. Be kind. Work together to fight a common enemy. Recognize that you share common interests and learn from one another. Teach people how to behave like they are part of a healthy system that depends on their contribution for its health. Call me a data heretic, but I don’t yet see how data science can help solve those problems. Maybe one day it will. Data science might be able to help identify who to vaccinate, or how best to create a vaccine based on the myriad possibilities.  It might be able to solve logistical problems in resource allocations. It might be able to identify better ways to communicate vital information or help us to navigate social environments from our own homes. It might even help identify good policies that save lives and economies at the same time.  Perhaps it could also help people to identify the long-run value of education and research, sustainable social structures, resilient business models, and so on, such that when the next crisis hits, whatever it may be, we’ll have the intellectual capital to deal with it.


I read an article of yours saying that Artificial Intelligence (AI) might suffer from mental health issues, can you tell me more?

AI is wonderful.  I’ve just finished reading Janelle Shane’s book “You Look Like a Thing and I Love You” and it was a brilliant romp through the many wonders of AI weirdness. The challenges (and art) will be in understanding that weirdness.  I’ve written myself that one of the biggest problems with contemporary AI is that it is starting to look more and more like human cognition.  It has a long way to go, of course, but the part I’m mostly talking about is the fact that what’s in your mind isn’t written in your DNA.  You build a model of your world based on your experiences and you use that to make inferences about the many situations you find yourself in.  AI is learning how to build models, but just as you can’t look at the model in my head you also can’t look at the model inside of modern AI. It’s not written in the code.  You have to learn how to ask it what it’s thinking, and that is a seriously hard problem that a lot of people are thinking about right now, sometimes called transparent or interpretable AI. It’s also a component of ethical AI, because you have to know whether or not your AI is a sociopath before you let it start watching the children. But you can’t simply look at the code.  You need a computational psychotherapist who knows how to sit down with virtual minds and get them to open up.


Where do we see shamanism in the 21st century?

Shamanism is a tricky word.  Historically, the word appears to come out of specific ceremonial traditions in upper Eastern China, Mongolia, and Siberia. It’s been borrowed to represent ceremonial practitioners around the world who often come from native, indigenous, or traditional peoples (meaning, typically, the people and cultures who were there before collective agriculture gave rise to the juggernaut of industrial civilizations).  But shamanism is just a word and most people from these various traditions have words of their own that are different from shaman. So, shamanism for people who study it and think about it is more like a technical term for whatever is that these many traditions might share. I use the term in a slightly different way to represent a kind of human capacity that some people (the so-called shamans) have refined into an art.  You can call it story-telling, if you want, or tapping into our capacity for vision, awe, and deeper understanding based on narrative constructions. We all do this, but most of us think we’re talking about reality, when in fact we’re talking about visions. Some people just have deeper visions than others. Authors are shamans of this variety, as are some politicians, CEOs and educators. I suspect there is a renaissance coming in our capacity and appreciation for shamanism in its various forms.  The conservative realism, locked as it is in its own kind of anxious nightmare, is really just a form of exploiting what we already know, guided by the people who’ve so far managed to exploit it the most. Chomsky would agree, and he’s not wrong. Exploiting what we know can be good, but using it to license exploration and enhanced understanding is better.

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