Explanations as Meta-Perception

Our need to construct explanations appear to be a ubiquitous feature of how we interact with things; so much so that it can be said to be a meta-perception. In this Hidden Brain episode, host Shankar Vendantam discussed the research of psychologist Tania Lombroso on why humans labor to construct explanations, stories and models of our world, experience, and existence. Explanations appear to be a higher-order of sensemaking that seems unique to humans. Might our need, instinct or sense for building explanations be part of the explanation for why we are so unique amongst animals? There is clearly an adaptive function to explanation-building. Explanations are constructions of the sensible world which, I have found, generally adhere to the following qualities:

  • Perspectival – Explanations—like all senses—construct the world according to a certain perspective. Our perspective—or profile from which we sense a thing (let’s say a box)—also assumes a wholeness or Gestalt (i.e., the other side of the box, not visible to us), even when it is not there (e.g., say in a magical illusion). Similarly, explanations construct a wholeness to the situation that we may be able to directly witness or sense. Explanations often provide an account for the other (i.e., attributions), even though it may not always be correct.
  • Re-combinative Structure – Explanations are constructed to order (and re-order) the world into facts and categories.Facts are self-evident truths with some coherence, comprehensibility and order—as opposed to incoherence, incomprehensibility and chaos. Categories are fictive (i.e., created) assemblies of facts. They can re-arrange facts in any number of ways. For example, it can be true that red and blue roses are in the same category (i.e., roses) or different categories (e.g., colors). It is interesting to speculate on whether the malleability of perspective, and our ability to communicate different perspectives to one another via language, may have been important adaptive drivers in the development of linguistic recombinative structures.
  • Temporality – Explanations construct the world into events, which have a temporal sequence from past, present and future. Although there is no physical reason to structure the world in this manner, this particular temporal structure seems to be part of the basic grammar of our experience in the world.  
  • Predictability – Explanations allow individuals to make inferences about future events based on past and present events; conversely, explanations allows individuals to make deductions about past events from future and present events.
  • Generativity – Explanations are a function of social communication and cognition. The most elemental aspect of explanations is the requirement of language. Explanations in turn are tremendously generative for language. The facts, events and predictions derived from explanations beget models, theories, hypotheses, references, symbols, perspectives, stories, fiction (e.g., useful delusions) etc. (and more explanations). Indeed, whole mythologies. This allows for potentially unlimited forms of cooperation and imagination. In the words of Rami Gabriel, psychology professor at Columbia College Chicago: “The capacity to have beliefs is part of the suite of primate abilities to cooperate, collaborate, commit, imagine and develop an aesthetic sense that allows for awe and transcendence. The structures that make up our domesticated social world depend upon the adoption of particular beliefs that enable basic understanding and practical heuristics… The emotional need to possess explanations worthy of the commitment of belief is greater than what we can ever know.”
  • Cooperativity – Language is a technology with the utmost social utility. Social communication and cognition allows for ever-growing structures of cooperation, learning and—ultimately—survivability. The latent structure of language however may be rooted in sensemaking (i.e., perception) and explanation (i.e., meta-perception). Yuval Noah Harari, best-selling author, argues that language (particularly storytelling, which grounds the world in explanations) has allowed us to develop massive networks of cooperation, which have given us new technologies, culture, learning and ultimately a survival advantage over other hominids. It is therefore not a stretch to suggest that explanations are the primary tool from which we have terraformed this planet. It is immensely tempting at this point to posit some grand historical narratives to explain the nature of human being and our very origins. Indeed, historians such as Harari and Jared Diamond, craft deeply interesting narratives from which we can contemplate the ecological conditions that our proto-linguistic ancestors found themselves in which must have selected for the development of language. One can imagine, for example, that these conditions favored individuals that belonged to tightly-knit (i.e., familiar), cooperative groups having a high need for predictability and perspective-taking, as well as a deep and shared fascination and aversion towards uncertainty and importantly, the capacity to emotionally co-regulate and soothe one another. However, we must temper this historical search with humility and a recognition that whatever story or explanation we come up with is likely, at least in part, to be formed by the backdrop of our own fantasies and longings.
  • Relatability/familiarity – Explanations are generated from the rendering of the awesome, unknown and chaotic in terms of the familiar and relatable. Similarly, the comprehension of an explanation requires a common currency of references, symbols, etc. Comprehension leads to further elaboration. Therefore, explanations are in large part shaped by the features of our social networks and interactions. Note, explanations are not necessarily useful or accurate; but accuracy does not seem to be an important adaptive requirement. For example, there is no convincing evidence that people who are not depressed perceive the world more accurately than people who are.
  • Accessibility – Explanations allow individuals who do not have direct sense experience of the explained world to perceive it in terms of facts, events, predictions etc.
  • Reliability – Explanations allow the world to be re-presentable. This feature of re-creation also allows individuals to perceive the world as operating with some reliability.
  • Generalizability – By making a part of the world more relatable, familiar, accessible and reliable, explanations also generate a desire to utilize them in multiple, original contexts. When a part of the world becomes ‘explained’, it becomes tempting to seek explanation for other parts of that world.

Explanatory virtues/vices: As mentioned, there does not appear to be an adaptive requirement for most explanations to which we adhere to be firmly grounded in a single, objective reality or even scientifically trialed. Every culture has social norms which ensure cooperativity and trust; it makes sense that explanations themselves are subjected to these implicit norms, which can be categorized into explanatory virtues and vices. Some important norms, which our global culture has selected, are described here and include:

  • Explanitoriness: Explanations which can be applied to a broader number of facts are preferred to those that cannot.
  • Depth: Explanations are preferred which answer more questions than they create.
  • Power: Explanations are preferred which can be utilized in different contexts.
  • Falsifiability: Explanations should rely upon reproducible and experimental evidence which can be used to defend the explanation or rule it out.
  • Modesty: Conversely, an explanation should be relevant to explaining only the observed facts (and not towards speculation and conjecture).
  • Simplicity: Also known as Occam’s razor, the explanation which have the fewest entities or processes are preferred over others (presumably eliminative of all unnecessary parts).
  • Conservativeness: All other things being equal, explanations which rely upon already established beliefs, evidence and findings are preferred to those that require us to abandon such or establish new believes, evidence and findings.

Triangle model of behavior: Social scientists are also interested in explaining the adaptive function of a given behavior (in this case, explanations per se). As a psychologist by training, I have found one such explanatory model to be valuable in describing our motivations, which are of course shaped by biological, psychological and social determinants. In this case, let us take an example of someone whose house has caught on fire. In the first instance, their sensory systems are processing information and making quick decisions about taking a course of action (i.e., escape). However, this state of emotional arousal (i.e., fear, anger, sadness, surprise) will also elicit protective outputs such as analgesia, dissociation, and also deep feelings of uncertainty. These protective outputs will mobilize a suite of defensive/protective responses which will in turn theoretically reduce the protective outputs—sort of like a negative feedback loop. Therefore, the analgesia and dissociation may produce behaviors such as weepiness and comfort seeking or maybe social withdrawal. In this way, the individual can sufficiently recover to the point of reintegration. Uncertainty will activate a drive for explanation-seeking.

Triangle Model of Behavior

I therefore posit that explanations are not just an abstract cognitive process detached from sensory-emotive ways of perceiving the world. They are meta-perceptions that derive from these basic processes of sense-making and—by virtue of their seemingly universal properties—tend to have significantly adaptive functions for structuring human bonds into elaborate, malleable and interconnected cooperative structures. One may in fact wonder whether seemingly unique human emotions, such as social laughter, might engender greater cooperation precisely because it taps into this meta-perception activity of explanation, which in turn creates systems, models, norms for group behavior. A good joke defies or at least loses its value when it is explained. Perhaps it is in this apparent contradiction that we see the true function of a humor—as a vehicle for delivering explanations that are not socially expedient to communicate by other means. We may see explanation as a naturally defensive/protective reaction to both the tragedies and comedies of our nature.

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