Brain Efficiency (part 2)

Posted: February 2, 2012 in psychology
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(Link to Part 1)  Current brain research supports the idea that the brain makes a map or model of information it receives via its various sense experience to successfully navigate a world which is external to the brain and not directly accessible by it. We use this modeling technique to develop skills like riding a bike or driving a car or any one of the many other of daily tasks we undertake. The model of how the external world works is more efficient than having to relearn a task every time we experience it. To us, the model represents our view of reality. The way our brain works, striving for efficient use of energy, looking for the easiest way to function, models become the preferred way to interpret new experiences delivered by our senses. We learn how to take a minimal amount of external stimulation to feed this model, for example, so that we do not have to consciously think about our foot on the gas pedal or the brake, to sense the speed of cars we are following without having to re-analyze just how the external stimulation is to be interpreted. We know, without thinking consciously about it how fast we are going with respect to the cars in front of us. We learn that a red light means we must stop without having to make the association over and over again. We say it is automatic. It is learned. It is known.

We do this without thinking because we have built up over time a model of the external world with respect to driving a car that works so well we do not have to “think” about it. In actuality, we are thinking about it but unconsciously. The model is operating on auto-pilot so to speak. It is when the model does not work we are shocked into a state of super-alertness due to sliding on a slick road or a car that suddenly stops in front of us that our auto-pilot model did not predict. This takes extra work and a brain scan would demonstrate that the novelty of a new event evoked activity in places not needed for auto-pilot mode. This extra work takes energy, effort and the brain prefers not to operate in this hyper-activity mode all the time, so we will go through a period of greater caution an alertness. The theory I am proposing is that we prefer to operate off the model if at all possible rather than go through the work of learning a new way to behave, or to construct a new version of the model. We prefer to use our model of reality, whether it is accurate or not, to interpret the world. It is the source of prejudice, a reliance on a flawed model instead of doing the work and expending the energy to learn and build a new model that more accurately reflects reality.

I recall trying to learn to type using a different keyboard layout on my computer. It was hard. I was slow. I made lots of mistakes. It distracted me from my other thought processes so much so that so that I was much less efficient. I finally gave up. I remember moving my computer mouse from my right hand to my left due to a pain in my right hand. Necessity required me not to give up on that one, but it too was hard and for a long time, when I sat down at my computer, my right hand reached for a mouse that was not there, operating according to the old model until the old model failed and I realized the mouse was now on my left for my left hand. If you don’t believe this model idea is powerful, you are challenged to switch hands for all your future hand-writing endeavors.

We build models for a lot more than just physical tasks. We build models of our home too. We have a model of where things are stored. Try moving things from one drawer to another and see how long before you stop opening the wrong drawer. We build models of our community so that we know how to get places without having to have a map each time. We have mental maps that allow us to navigate as we need to. We build models of what people are like based on such sensory cues as tone of voice, clothing, color of skin, political statements, to name just a few. Language is a model in our brain too. Each of us has a model of words and what they mean and every person’s model is slightly different than someone else. What a word means is just as subject to experience as are the skills of riding a bike, finding our sock drawer, breaking an arm, going to the doctor, experiencing an illness, — you name it. Each model is the unique model our brain has constructed over time out of our unique set of experiences. No other person has a model identical to our own, maybe similar, but not identical. And because no two models of the meaning of words are identical, communication between people is always just an approximation, just giving us a partial insight into another person’s thoughts. We may connect on the words, but the words invoke in each of us our own unique models giving us slightly different experiences. There is no pathway of perfect understanding.

Next time, in part three, I will continue to develop this idea of Brain Efficiency or the Brain as a model builder and discuss how it leads to making mistakes in life. (Link to Part 3)

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