And the Moral of the Story Is…

Yesterday I published Blackeney’s character page, which honestly gave me a bit more difficulty than any other character so far, though this really didn’t surprise me, because Black’s tale is darker, so he’s harder to summarize.  The Eleventh Age is an epic fantasy, and all of my characters fit fantasy archetypes at the surface–after all what is a fantasy without its trusty tropes?  Black is no different from any of the others in that respect, however when I first started writing several years ago, my original goal was simply to produce an action-packed, young adult fantasy that had a female hero, because I thought the world could use more stories about girls, who weren’t quite as transparent as their glass slippers, but as I began building my world, in which young Elli Foote, like many a hero before her, discovers her extraordinary purpose and embarks on her harrowing journey with her band of trusty tropes at her side, I developed a few ulterior motives.  I wanted to write a story with a moral at the end.  I wanted to write a story that crossed cultural boundaries.  I wanted to write a story in which my characters spoke to real-world issues, suffering the sort of troubles ordinary people suffer, like loss, abandonment, poverty, hunger, abuse–all of these are things Black has experienced firsthand, just to name a few, which is what made writing his summary so difficult.  My trouble was in remaining true to his character without giving too much away, which I think I’ve managed.

I’ve alluded to this desire to keep my characters real before.  Not only do all of them have to have flaws and hidden agendas, weaknesses and passions, but all of them must have perfectly rational reasons for their otherwise odd behaviors.  Black, for instance, is a warrior who does not fight, and his reasons are rational and uniquely his own.  The thing is, Black knows as well a I do that what is rational is not always logical, and our rationalizations can sometimes (read: almost always) be built upon false beliefs.  We humans are actually quite adept at dealing in false beliefs, which brings me to the topic of the day:

Monkeys, Babies, and the Moral of the Story

If you are reading this, chances are 1. you are human and 2. you possess fairly well-developed theory of mind, which is, very basically, the ability to understand that you have a mind, which holds knowledge, beliefs, and intentions unique to you, and that others have minds of their own, in which they hold separate knowledge, beliefs and intentions that are different from yours and everyone else, for that matter.  This probably seems fairly straightforward, especially since you’ve possessed the beginnings of this theory of mind since you were as young as seven months old, however even though it seems obvious, this theory can only ever be a theory because there is no way for me to prove that you have a mind or for you to prove that I have one, because we are each only capable of experiencing the world from our singular perspectives, and anything else is, well, just theory.  What this theory of mind allows you to do is to make assumptions, based on your own understandings, in order to predict or explain other people’s actions, and it comes in quite handy in just about every interaction we have with one another (and anything else we perceive as having a mind, it turns out).

Scientists have been working for decades to determine if humans are the only animals that possess theory of mind, to determine if this is in fact what distinguishes us as humans, which is a rather difficult task, because animals and humans don’t speak the same language, though we can understand certain animal behaviors as similar to our own.  There is plenty of documented evidence supporting the idea that animals have emotions.  We know elephants and gorillas cry over the loss of family and friends, even across species.  We know dogs will visit the graves of deceased companions.  But while we’re perfectly aware that other animals have minds, after all our theory of mind allows us to assume this by their behaviors, whether or not those animals possess a theory of mind and are aware that we have minds as well is open for debate.

If you’ve ever played fetch with a dog, you know that animals are capable of viewing your behavior and predicting what will happen next.  We had a Belgian Malinois years ago that I loved to try and fool when playing fetch.  I could see that she would watch my eyes and the angle of my arm and take off milliseconds before the ball ever left my hand, and very rarely did I ever fool her.  The dogs we have now are not quite so intuitive–one of them just looks at the ball, dimly, like he’s still not certain what it is, while the other will go after the ball and keep running past it forever, but now I’ve gotten sidetracked. It is clear from my own experience that dogs are definitely aware of what people are looking at and capable of making predictions about their actions.  For a while,  some researchers had the idea that this sort of awareness of visual access might be evidence of full-blown theory of mind in other animals.

O’livia, the Belgian, even displayed some cross-species compassion once, a few years before she died.  Though she never had puppies of her own, she attempted to nurse an opossum that had been abandoned and wandered into our yard, weak and blind and squealing for its momma.

Livy and her possum pup
Livy and her possum pup, safe between her legs

Initially I believed that my wonderful, bright dog had chosen to display the tenderness of motherhood, and trust me when I say that Livy was anything but tender under normal circumstances.  It definitely seemed to me that she understood the baby opossum was lost and alone and hungry, and that she knew just what to do and actually wanted to help.  Then I found the first baby opossum to make it into the yard, very much dead, and the second, dead as well, and I began to wonder if perhaps this third opossum, whom she was being kind to, nursing even though she had no milk, was really lost and alone and hungry, and having found a warm, furry body, it had climbed up and attached to Livy by mistake, while dear ol’ Livy was busy murdering its siblings (much more Livy-like behavior).  I began to suspect that when the opossum attached and began to suckle, it triggered her mothering instinct, probably through a release of hormones, and that overrode her hyperactive prey drive.  I will never know if Liv actually possessed a theory of mind capable of commiseration with and showing compassion towards a baby opossum, but I do know from my experience that I am just great at anthropomorphizing all manner of animals and creating false beliefs within my own little theory of mind.  I’m officially human.  Yay!

Recently, developmental psychologists and comparative cognition researchers have managed to conduct several false-belief task tests on human babies and various primates.  This sort of testing was necessary because one of the most important steps in development of theory of mind is establishing the ability to distinguish what another person can or can’t know based on their observations.  The comparative cognition researchers were beginning to suspect that all primates had a solid theory of mind based on other tests that definitively showed primates (and other animals) have a visual awareness that extends to others, like with my dog, Liv.  For instance, a monkey is more likely to steal a piece of food it knows has not been seen by its owner, and they even retain this knowledge in the future, but without non-verbal tests for false-belief tasks, they couldn’t draw a firm corollary between visual-behavioral awareness and behavioral-mental awareness.  (You can and should read about some of these false-belief tests and their results here, I just wanted to give a basic idea moving forward.)  In each of the false-belief tests, what is being examined is whether or not the subject (baby or monkey) understands what a second subject can know based on its experience.  For instance, the baby or monkey watches the second subject place an object in a specific spot, and while the second subject isn’t paying attention, the object moves somewhere else.  Will the baby or monkey know that the second subject must believe that the object is in its original spot (i.e. does the baby or monkey have an understanding of what the second subject knows based on its world view)?  It turns out that 15 month old human babies consistently exhibit that they understand and are not surprised by true-belief based actions committed by the second subject (when the subject returns to where the baby last saw the second subject place the object), and they consistently exhibit that they understand and are surprised by false-belief based actions committed by the second subject (when the subject returns to look where the object actually is, where they could not have seen the object go).  Human babies, surprise, surprise, have a developed theory of mind.  Much to the dismay of the comparative cognition researchers, monkeys don’t care, either way.  Once visual access is lost, the monkeys no longer expect the second subject to look in either spot, whether during the true-belief test or the false-belief test, because as far as a monkey’s concerned, the subject can’t know where the object is.  This does not necessarily mean that monkeys don’t have a theory of mind, by the way, it may just mean that their theory of mind relies on continuous observation, because they are continually observant, and their theory of mind is based on being a monkey, which you have to admit makes a little more sense than their theory of mind being the same as us humans.  If their theory of mind were just like ours, they would probably be out there conducting tests on pigmy goats to determine whether or not pigmy goats too think like apes and humans, but they aren’t.

I have no vested interest in whether or not this proves that humans are massively unique, so you might be asking yourself why is this important to me?  Because other animals dance and sing during mating season, and we people find it fascinating and devote whole studies to it, and frankly, it’s that sort of stuff that I find fascinating.  Humans dance and sing all the time, just for fun, and we’ve got people who study that too.  Unless we’re depressed or otherwise inhibited, we seem to always be spit-polishing our feathers, because we are very much concerned with what others think about us–other people and other animals as well, it seems.  We lie for attention and affection.  We cheat on tests in order to give ourselves a false sense of security and to instill in others a false belief of our abilities.  We don’t just watch life, observing the real, we all play mentalists, examining other people for signs they are bored, hungry, angry, tired, lying, and a plethora of other interesting little things we believe they might feel or do at any given moment, based on that theory of mind we’re so keen at using, and we habitually make up stories to answer that profoundest of questions: why?

We read whole books about how other people go through their lives, and we invest ourselves deeply in their worlds, purely for entertainment purposes.  We even write whole books for the entertainment of others, which is stranger still than reading, because it requires that we not only consider that other people have minds, but that we have an understanding of how to manipulate and influence those minds, by creating still more minds, all worrying very humanly over the contents of still other minds, just to elicit specific thoughts and emotions, not in ourselves, but so that the moral of the story is understood by someone else in the end.  The depth of our theory of mind means that we don’t just cry when we lose our own loved-ones and friends, we cry when people we know lose loved-ones and friends, we cry when we hear about people we don’t know losing loved-ones and friends, we cry when elephants cry because they have lost loved-ones and friends, we even cry when we read about fictional creatures from other universes crying over elephants crying over losing loved-ones and friends.  Okay, I made that up.  But we do read about conferences where other people talk about studies still others have conducted to determine if other primates understand false belief, and we ask ourselves questions like, “Even if they did understand false belief, would they be capable of understanding it to the depths that we do?” which gives rise to still more questions and potential things to study, which leads me to believe that perhaps the ability to ponder and theorize and postulate and query even though we have a fully developed theory of mind that is capable of understanding not just that some other person or animal can only know what he has experienced, but that sometimes people will surprise us, and we enjoy being amazed like that, might just be what makes us human.

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