Brain Efficiency (part 3)

Posted: February 3, 2012 in psychology
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(Link to part 1) Allow me to develop the brain as model builder further.  We have models of people in our brains. Based on the amount, the depth, the emotional engagement and the like, we have a model of each of the people we know. The model is not the real person, just a model. Over time, we form strong models of those we must interact with on a daily basis. If we are engaged in a relationship, we work very hard to make the model predictive. We want to be able to know before interacting with that person, how they will react. Fact is, we don’t do all that well at building the model, but it works most of the time. I know that even with my wife, who I dearly love and want to please, I can not always predict how she will react to some thought I express or action I take. So, here is what happens in any relationship we have, close or formal, friend or work. When we interact with that person, instead of interacting with them as though we had just met them where we would have to begin to build a new model, we take a few sensory cues and then work with the model we have created of that person that we have built up in our brains. This is all automatic and designed to reduce, to minimize, the mental effort, to increase our brain’s efficiency for interacting with the person. Many times mis-communication occurs because we are “listening” to or “interpreting” the interaction via the efficient but imperfect model, not the actual external reality. It is automatic. We are not even conscious of it. It is the way we are built, the way the brain works.

But what happens when the model fails us? It can take any number of routes. We can ignore the contradiction, go into denial, continue to operate off the model even though it is not working correctly. When this is about a whole class of people, events, actions, we call it prejudice. When it applies to a person we can think “He or she is acting weird.” According to whom? Our model of course. We could be shocked so strongly, that we question the model and begin to make significant changes to it. In the case of prejudice, we can either re-think our model, or we can chose to believe the model over the facts that challenge it. In the case of people, we might think, “Oh, Wow, I did not realize that about this person. I have to tell somebody about this!” We could internalize the problem and think our model of our own self is at fault. “I must be an idiot. I did not know I was abnormal.” I am sure you can think of other such experiences where your model of someone or even yourself was challenged and you had to make model repairs. You may not have been even aware when some of the model changes were going on or how the process worked. Although I have been married for over fifty years, I still get surprised at times, but by now, my model of both my spouse and myself work pretty well. I must say, it was not a bump free ride, but any long term relationship is an investment that is worth the effort. Unfortunately, some of my friends were not willing to do the model adjustment work that was required.

Consider this geographical example of a faulty model. I lived in Kansas before I moved to Poughkeepsie, New York. One day, I needed to make a trip to Hartford, Connecticut. I looked at a map of Connecticut and immediately, my model of Kansas was subconsciously invoked. Connecticut is approximately the same shape as Kansas. On two fold-out maps, the distribution of towns on the map look approximately the same. So, my Kansas model informed me that the trip to Hartford in the middle of Connecticut would take about as long as a trip to the middle of Kansas. WRONG! Connecticut may be the same shape and on a map have the same appearance of town distribution, but Connecticut is much smaller and the towns are much closer together. I arrived at Hartford almost one and a half hours early. Lesson learned; a new model created specific to Connecticut.

Next and final section on Brain Efficiency, I want to explore the impact of model building on an individual’s decision to make a life change.(Link to Final Part 4)

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