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The Fantastic Ape | Psychology Today


Hello all,

In this blog, I plan to discuss topics that we study in my psychology research lab – the Symbolic Cognition and Interaction lab (SCI lab; https://www.gileadlab.net/).

Broadly speaking, we are interested in the interesting stuff. Namely, the psychological capacities that seem to distinguish humans from non-human animals: conceptual and linguistic processing, mentalizing and internalization, and imagination and foresight. I will discuss all of these topics at length in future posts.

We study these processes at the level of implementation (i.e., brain), algorithm (i.e., cognitive mechanisms), and function (e.g., studying real-world effects); we use brain imaging (i.e., fMRI), behavioral (e.g., boring reaction time studies, surveys) and big-data methods (e.g., using language analysis of social media data).

Our current emphasis is on the mechanisms of prediction and imagination. This is why I called the blog “the fantastic ape”.

My view is that whenever we try to understand human behavior, our point of departure should always be that humans are animals, and specifically apes. This means, that like other animals, our behavior is governed by millions and millions of years of biological evolution that has endowed us with certain undeniable properties (e.g., we are hungry, horny, loving, fearful, and so on and so forth).

However, researchers of human behavior have a much more complex task than that of other primatologists. The problem is that we humans are truly fantastic apes. Fantastic in the sense that we can do cool things, but also, in the sense that we have constructed a new domain of existence—the domain of fantasy.

Whether it is bitcoin or gold, superman or god, canoes or space crafts – we are able to imagine things that have never existed before, and sometimes, bring them into existence. We can imagine what might happen a year from now and what another person is thinking and feeling—and in doing so, prepare and plan courses of action. This ability is believed to have been central to our survival as species, and will likely be key to our future survival.

In light of this, in the current blog, I will discuss research that examines how apes such as us can simulate unreal things and predict the future. Moreover, I will discuss how people use mechanisms of prediction and imagination to our benefit.

For example, how we can make more accurate geopolitical predictions, how we can use imagination to regulate our emotions, and so on. Furthermore, I will discuss research where we use man-made prediction algorithms in order to predict events that are psychologically consequential (e.g., relationship satisfaction, mental health, and so on).

I hope you will find these discussions interesting,

Michael



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