Physicality is everything — it's why we have brains

If I were to try and understand the nature of human communication by the current fascinations of the communications industry, I might conclude that we are 'digital animals'. The nature of what happens when humans meet computers is the subject for another day, but the idea that we might have any innate affinity for virtual media seems fanciful. Certainly, there is not much interest in physical stuff at the moment, yet it would seem that physicality is actually the essence of human intelligence.

As neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert explains in this film, we have brains to control movement in a physical environment. All animals have brains, plants and fungi don't. Simple.

Moving around, walking, picking things up and just existing in a physical environment demands that we are able to control our limbs and bodies. These basic activities we share with all other animals. As Wolpert explains at the end of the film, all other 'higher ambitions' — having children, intellectual exploration, language, figuring out the meaning of life etc. — are all enacted with movement. 


The basic mechanic that operates in the brain is prediction. Movement has to have consequences — what happens when we place our hand on a table or throw a ball — and we use prediction to coordinate our movements to meet our objectives. These motor-related predictions are very short-term, fractions of a second, and our informed by our memories, a lifelong consignment of every experience we have: of textures, shapes and environments. Our brain makes forward predictions about what's going to happen and then monitors what actually happens. It matches the difference between the two to gain an understanding of the physical world (which is then also consigned to our memories) — as Wolpert shows, you can't tickle yourself because there is no difference between the predicted signals and the reported ones. 

Prediction is a very efficient way of running a brain — it need only make a series of educated guesses based on memory and beliefs, but remains open to last minute adaptation if something unexpected happens, like if you attempt to walk on something that gives way underneath you, you'll very quickly adjust your weight distribution and, more often than not, keep your balance. This ability is possessed by all animals, many to a higher degree than humans (e,g. cats can balance on the top of a fence).  Prediction enables us to live in an unpredictable, chaotic world ('bizarre domains') and is very different to the way computers work by holding huge specific databases and conducting vast numbers of computations to find matches to inputs, but that if confronted with errors in either the database or the inputs, are dumfounded. Treo inventor, Jeff Hawkins explains this in this TED talk film:

Higher level prediction

I'd written in an earlier post, my theories about human intuition (for clarification, let's assume the more generalist idea of intuition as a kind of pseudo-conscious gut-feeling, rather than the more general everything-you-don't-think-about). As I explained, within my model of intuition, there are several levels, the highest of which is long-term future prediction — visions, avoiding plane crashes, winning the lottery etc. Perhaps our most acute intuitive sensibility is figuring out the intentions of others. Many of the dangers faced by social animals come from others in their species (hence Chris Packham's shrewd and simple observation: "all social animals lie"), so it's necessary for us to figure out the intentions of others, by looking at their behaviour rather than what they say (our in-built bullshit detector). All of these higher-level mechanisms are very much more sophisticated than the split-second predictions needed to put one foot in front of the other, but they share the same predictive characteristics. Figuring out other people's intentions — what-do-they-want-(from-me)?— is an abstracted (outside of direct physical inputs) prediction. So good are we at figuring out what others intend that we can deduce it even when those intentions are acted out remotely via artefacts and objects (emissaries of intention) or if enacted via machines, like a racing car.

Ayrton Senna's mesmerising drive in the 1993 European Grand Prix at a rain-deluged Donington Park clearly showed his intention to win the race was greater than that of his rivals or his own respect for the weather

In both its visionary and intentional modes, intuition is prediction separated from direct physical inputs — it's something we just feel in our guts or our bodies, but not from a direct sensory input.

If prediction is born of physicality and if it's the basic way the brain works then intuition is merely an extension or higher-level version of the same thing. While we are able to intellectualise our intuitions — a canny ability that takes skill and practise, since intellectualisation is the opposite of intuition and so tends to 'kill' the feeling — other animals probably posses similar predictive survival mechanisms that help them avoid earthquakes etc. by simply acting on these feelings by fleeing the area. 

The value of physicality

Whether we assume a high-level model of intuition (or the low-level everything-you-don't-think-about model that tends to fascinate behavioural economists), it would appear that its predictive component is inextricably linked with physicality and our relationship with the real world. I've long known from my experience in print, that physical characteristics of printed communications can have a powerful impact in how those communications are received and subsequently responded to. But, I've also known that they interact on such a subliminal level that their language is completely invisible, certainly to communication professionals, who are in the evolutionarily-recent realm of written and visual communication. 

Neuroscience seems to offer an explanation for both the observed power and the invisibility — that physicality is so basic and primitive to human communication that it talks exclusively to our subconscious and thus is invisible to our consciousness intellect. Far from being a peripheral component to humanity, physicality is fundamentally bound up with the very thing that makes us human — our brains.