Posts Tagged ‘Perception’

Story of Behavior Modification

The passengers in my car demonstrated a nervous twitch, especially as I approached stop lights. Out of the side of my eye, I could see them moving their foot toward the front of the floor board to step on an imaginary break and grabbing the arm rest. My wife in particular was beginning to complain more about my driving. “It was red!” she would say with some disapproving tone. Yes, I did frequently see the red of the red light as I raced through the intersection at the last moment. “If I stop too quickly,” I rationalized, “I would have been rear ended by the guy behind me.” I knew that was an exaggeration because my heart would ramp up a bit myself. Of course, it was a real pain to have to stop and wait and wait for the light to change. So after one close call and a frightened yell by a passenger, I knew I needed to do something about this potentially hazardous habit. But it was not that simple to just quit. It was a very strong habit cultivated over several years.

I had heard of behavior modification as a technique to change behaviors. Would that work here? How? After some thought I decided to make a game of it. I decided that if I was the first person in line at a stop light, it meant I had stopped instead of driving through. If I was second in line or further back, then I had no part in deciding to stop as it was necessary to avoid hitting the car in front of me. So, I made some rules. If I was first in line, I would award myself one point. If I saw red on a light as I drove through an intersection, I would loose all my points and have to start all over. I decided that was not harsh enough. Instead of losing all my points I would go to minus 10 meaning I would have to successfully stop ten times before I even got to zero. I did not count the number of times I got set back to minus 10 because it happened a lot the first couple of months. In the third month I got as high as plus 20 once only to get set back to minus 10.

I decided that making my game public to my friends and co-workers would help apply social pressure. People would ask me how I was doing, what my score was, and what the rules of the game were. Some even began to play the game too. It amused me that some wanted to know if they were following the rules correctly. I had to explain that is was not a real game, that they could make up any rules that would help them accomplish what they wanted to accomplish. After about six months, I finally reached a score of 150. I decided that I had probably been successful in modifying my behavior and could stop playing. It worked! Ever since then my wife and other passengers ride with me with more comfort or at least they don’t stomp on the break on their side of the car and I don’t see red as I pass through the intersection any more.

I am now an advocate of self made games. Something you want to change? Make a game out of it with rules that will help you change the behavior.

As I grow older, it occurs to me that I have been a drain on the world. I have consumed its resources. The food I have eaten might have been available to others who hunger had I not be around to consume them. The way I spent the money I had might have gone to some other purpose or possibly not have been needed at all because I did not need to be a consumer of things. I never worried about that before, but now in my waning years, I think about it. Was I a Sink or a Source.

A Sink is something that consumes. A Source is something that creates. At least that is the way I mean to use these words. By living, we are all sinks of a sort. The question is whether or not we are any sort of source. More specifically, what is our net value; Sink or Source.

As I grow older, I think more about this. I think in the past, I was mainly a sink. If that is how I am to be in the future, it might be better that I not be at all. I think I need, even as my years move toward that ultimate end, I think I need to be more of a source. I need to be more conscious of my net worth. I don’t mean my net worth in money, but my net worth to the world in which I live.

I guess I should not be surprised that aspiring to positive net worth, to being a better source than sink is energizing, inspiring. There is a lot of work to be done.

Heaven or Hell?

I was just beginning to read the book, “Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril” and an interesting parallel occurred to me. The human being, as best we know, is the only species that can contemplate its own death. We despair when events like Columbine and now Aurora are presented in every media outlet. As I grow older and notice that there are many people my age and younger are dieing every day, I think about my own demise and wonder about the legacy I will leave behind. It causes me to invest a bit more time and attention to my grandson. It also activates me in my volunteer work with community organizing and study about the impact humans are having on the planet.

In reading Moral Ground essays which outline the dire indications of a planet in peril, it occurred to me that contemplating death is more than personal. Many minds are now contemplating the extinction of not just their own persons, but the extinction of the human race as we head toward a cataclysmic crash of the planets systems. The dinosaurs did not see their extinction coming, or so it seems. But while we think of ourselves as the exception to almost everything on the planet, we have been blessed or cursed with the ability to imagine a future. And that future, as a logical extension of what is happening today, is one of extinction– not just of individual species of which we take little notice, but of our own human species.

This lead to an idea or thought experiment. Suppose for a moment that on planet earth, we happen to be living in the afterlife of some other existence. That is, we were living someplace else and then, from where ever that was, we died and now, our spirits were sent here on planet earth for our after life. The question comes up– are we living in Heaven or Hell?

The Ultimate Machine

The Brain as a Machine Created by Evolution

By Cecil Denney

This essay necessarily deals with a complex topic. If, as is proposed, man is little more than a biological machine, then how does one explain the ability to enter into an analysis of this perplexing situation? First of all, it has to be acknowledged that use of the term “machine” may evoke too rigid a mental image to be the best description of the concept being explored. There is no perfect example to serve as a perfect analogy. Machine seems to imply automaton like behavior, but if an automaton, then the human experience is far from the image drawn.

To begin with, the brain, the neural network that produces the feeling of consciousness, of self direction, of free will, is a most exquisite mechanism. Operated by chemical and electrical activity; organized into a variety of members dedicated to specific functional activities, it is extraordinary. Yet, it is ordinary in so much as it is carefully replicated in design in millions of operational systems in the world. Even though the design is replicated, the result of this design occurs in such variety of networks that no two are likely to exist that are physically equivalent. One brain which contemplates the complexity of the construct of brains is yet incapable of fully communicating to another brain the exact physical experience of a given thought.

One has to marvel at how inputs and outputs of the brain permit the rest of the brain’s support systems, the body, to function. One has to marvel at the symbiotic relationship between brain, body, and the millions of co-hosts of bacteria that make up the human experience. We are, individually, communities of such complexity of interrelated co-dependencies, that it is unlikely human brains will ever fully grasp the full spectrum of the communities. Although each community-individual is similar to other community-individuals, yet no two are likely alike.

The brain receives “signals” from its host support system, the body. Five inputs are commonly understood, eyes, ears, taste, smell, and touch. But, it also receives signals from its own internal operation. There is also noise in the inputs, both external inputs and internal ones. The brain is per-conditioned to organize inputs and will not necessarily distinguish between clean and noisy inputs. If the noise is too great, one experiences hallucinations; visual, auditory, taste, smell or touch phantom signals as a result of trying to interpret and integrate the noise into its highly organized structure. Dreams reflect this effort to integrate random firings of brain signals during sleep.

The most complex experience of the brain’s function is the experience of consciousness. The machine, the complex neural network, experiences a feedback mechanism in which the feedback becomes integrated as new sensory information creating a looping structure. It integrates the feedback along with current sensory information to create the illusion of consciousness. This system, however, contains a number of flaws due to the basic physical structure and limitations of the “machine” itself. This allows us to experience and be “aware” of visual illusions. It also contains limitations on how the looping attends to various sensory inputs, focusing on some and totally ignoring others. This is the bread and butter of a magicians trade, taking advantage of the brain’s inability to maintain attention to multiple points of focus simultaneously. The hypnotist can in effect place the brain in such a tight feedback loop that it is attentive only to actions suggested by the hypnotist.

The brain is a “meaning” machine. In its symbiotic relationship with its host, it is driven to insure continuation of mutual support, survival. To do this, it must assign values to external events that can support or hinder survival. This is a process of attaching “meaning” to experiences, ones that support survival and those which threaten survival and those which seem to have no value one way or the other. Every brain must develop its own “meaning bank”. We are not taught, but we do learn. From a very early age, we seek the “why’s” of existence. We are intrigued, as infants, by novelty and learn through all senses. The brain attempts to organize all experiences and sensations. It is assigning meaning to its inputs, Our brains are DNA wired to do this. It is highly practically oriented, ignoring some and incorporating other experiences. This practical orientation we call “meaning.”

Here we have a biological system with the capacity to process limited sensory input from its environment, make an approximate record of the experiences and then incorporate the recorded experiences as if they were additional sensory input sources building even more complex records. The system as a whole over time builds a model of experiences and memories in a process we call learning by experience. Furthermore, the building of the model also takes place in a feedback loop that the system experiences a state we call consciousness being little more than the amalgamation or current sensory input and internal feedback from “learned” experience, models of what is perceived as an external reality. With the ability to attach symbolic forms to certain models or memories, we can then manipulate the symbols to create new and novel combinations which in turn create new and novel models.

The ability to symbolize a mental model into what we call a word and then to utter that word as an external sensory input to a disconnected brain (another person), we can create an exchange of approximate model recall. The model recall process having been processed as a symbol requires the recall of a memory experience which in most cases does not exactly match between two brains having not shared the exact same sequence of external sensory events from the exact same physical location at the exact same time. Hence, the passing of symbols between two brains may share symbols, but not exactly the same “meaning” being derived from unique model experiences.

With sophistication, symbol passing can approximate closer and closer common understandings between two or more brains through a process of specialization of symbol meaning. This specialization is common in areas of science where precision of meaning is necessary to derive practical outcomes that can be shared among many distinct brains.

Even more curious is the meaning behind that which is symbolized by the term “logic.” In this domain, multiple brains agree on how symbols can be reliably manipulated so that novel outcomes can be produced through the manipulation of symbols alone and then accepted as new reliable input. So, the rules of logic can be adopted by the biological systems as a way to manipulate symbols that represent defined external realities in order to provide reliable conclusions, ones that can be replicated by multiple brains that have agreed to the rules of manipulation. The brains then draw conclusions about the probable truth of certain symbolically formulated combinations.

In all cases, there is a symbolic root, a root below which there is only a neural network that has formed in the brain and about which there is nothing to say except “look at that network.” Like a string of DNA which codes for a specific amino acid, we can point to it, but not necessarily explain why it happens. Or, if we do offer an explanation, we just invoke a new more descriptive root cause to which the question “why” can still be applied till eventually we just get to “because that is the way external reality seems to be.”

This raises the question “What is true?” or “What is the nature of Truth?” At some point, if it all yields to “that is just the way it is”, then we end up with what is commonly referred to as “belief.” That is, what is true is just what is true regardless of the brain’s interpretation. The question of interest is whether or not the brain can ascertain what is true. Is the extent of the brain’s reliance on what sensory information it can manage sufficient to reveal what is true? More likely, it will determine what is useful to survival, true or not. In this regard, then, the brain relies not only on sensory information but constructs of neural networks it contains to arrive at conclusions about reality. This is where belief enters the picture.

Belief is itself based on both conscious and unconscious models constructed in the learning process by the brain. It is composed of direct experience and other-brain induced experience, what we were told using the symbolic nature of language which we have asserted is imperfect in communicating equivalent meaning. Belief is unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable symbolic or emotional memory of or model of some idea (neural network). Belief is experienced as assumed truth. In some cases, that assumption can be tested against an external reality. In some cases it can not.

There is a bias toward belief firmly reinforced by experience whether that experience be direct sensory information or indirect via symbolic manipulation from symbolic sensory input, language, what we have been told is true. This bias helps the brain build models around these symbolically represented models which we might call concepts or ideas. The bias has to do with survival in that it requires less real physical energy consumption for the brain to work from internal models than to build such models in the first place. In the same sense, it conserves energy to maintain or hold onto a model versus questioning the model or even changing the model. Therefore, once a belief is settled into a model neural network, it has a bias for maintenance versus questioning or change.

This bias can be observed in all areas of human existence. Even scientists who have chosen to struggle with a methodology that allows for the introduction of revision and change based on experimental evidence have a tendency to resist changes to their world models. Some change only in the presence of overwhelming evidence that their closely held scientific beliefs are questionable. For the non scientist, in domains where beliefs are not built on proof or fully sensory input, beliefs can be more tightly held. Belief’s not based on the methodology that permits free questioning of beliefs can be created and maintained by symbolic input from other grains, influence by culture, influence by groups to which a brain feels an attachment. These beliefs can be held firmly over time only so long as affiliation with other brains remains in tact, but once that affiliation is broken, there is an opening for belief revision. However, there is a tendency for one brain having broken one affiliation, to seek a new affiliation that continues to reinforce the brain’s belief systems. Since virtually every affiliation, made up of unique brains with unique experiences is itself unique, when a brain changes affiliations, it is also likely to find some of its beliefs challenged and faced with reevaluation. That is to say, changes in the environment, whether it be through association with other brains or with external sensory reality, can force a dissonance that leads to changes in belief.

All brains suffer from a structural affect to create the illusion of consciousness and free will. More likely, the environment in which brains develop are so sensory rich and complex that an individual brain can not experience inputs as only illusions. As this essay is written, even the author writes it with the illusion of being creative, free thinking, conscious so as to be observing itself. It is virtually impossible to avoid the illusion because it flows from the structure of the brain itself.

Because we can observe our environment, and because we can construct changes to it, we have the illusion of individual creativeness. However, this illusion is nothing less than the artifact of the complexity of multi-brain interactions forcing changes in models held by the brain. This complex web of interaction naturally, because of defects in reasoning and defects in interpreting sensory input, arrive at incorrect but creative conclusions to the input, both external and internal. Feedback loops similar to those contained in the structure of the brain itself exist in multi-brain environments. They create the concept of the whole being greater than the parts individually which is true because of the creative aspect of inter-brain interactions in large complex exchanges of symbolic sensory sharing. This sharing creates a kind of change that appears to be intentional, intelligent, non-automaton, creativeness. Unfortunately, it is a simple artifact of the interaction of a bunch of neural-network machines.

What about the illusion of “wants”? That is, the brain-body symbiosis is motivated or is activated to physical motion or symbolic written or spoken actions to declarations of future expectations by the experience called “stress.” The stress can be physical or mental, but it has the effect of causing action until the stress is removed, either by stress relieving neural-network action or by physically experiencing a counteracting action that reduces or removes the cause of the stress. This illusion of wanting something then is nothing more than environmental changes or neural-network activity consistent with the overall brain neural-network.

So what of love, hope, beauty, goodness, wonder-of-nature? What of honesty, integrity, faithfulness, loyalty? What of all these abstract concepts? Given that the brain is a electrical-chemical soupy neural-network these abstractions are structured networks of electrical and chemical reactions stimulated from internal and external sensory experiences. There is little more to say. They are real in the sense of experience while simultaneously being simply illusions, artifacts of the overall structure of the brain.

One might conclude from this exposition that the author is cynical, depressed, discouraged, or simply paralyzed into a discouraging fetal position, ready to exit this sense of reality. On the contrary, it is a hopeful understanding of sentient life in that it can be improved upon. It seems possible that artificial, that is to say not occurring today in nature, forms might be generated by this illusion of consciousness and creativeness to themselves experience consciousness and creativeness. Today, we refer to them as robots. It seems likely these will evolve to represent the next stage in the evolutionary process. Although today we perceive of robots as becoming the servants of human kind, they will most likely become superior. One day, there may no longer be a need for human forms and these evolving entities with consciousness and creativeness will perceive themselves as having evolved from nature, being created by nature, their predecessors, humans. Who knows? Certainly, it is not within the capacity of the current human system to know how or when this transformation will occur, but it will not take more than 10,000 years, a mere blip in the history of earth.

Ecological Sustainability

Posted: March 29, 2012 in Environment
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Arguments from Scripture – NOT

 The church has a historical reliance on acting out what it believes is God’s Will. The expression of God’s Will is articulated in the scriptures revealed over thousands of years to the people willing to listen and to grow in their understanding and world view. Today, we find many people who no longer find scripture to be compelling. Many find the concept of God, as the church tells us, is revealed in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. They find the explanation of the origination of sin a concept from a mythical story in the Garden of Eden superstitious. As a mythical story, they find the necessity of the death of Jesus a strange explanation for redemption or even the need for redemption.

Into these ears, then, ecological sustainability presented as based on God’s Will makes no sense. Surely, it is not God’s Will that every one on the planet die. Was the human race just a grand experiment? No, they do not see the rationale for caring for the planet, creating a sustainable world based in scripture and to do so marginalizes the advocates. They look the same as those who advocate that God, who created everything, hates gay people, thinks it is ok to enslave people, is opposed to contraception. They want no part of that God and further, would prefer not to have to do anything with those who propose they speak for God because of their scriptures, the word of God.

Religious people, Christians to be specific should not attempt to argue for a sustainable world based on some interpretation of scripture no matter how confident they are that this is the basis for a sustainable world. Rather,we should adopt a more rational appeal, one based on appeals to the human value of self-interest and immortality, the immortality achieved by our surviving progeny. Whether or not one believes in an afterlife; whether or not we believe it is a “heaven” or a “hell”, we all prefer to postpone that experience in preference for the certainty of the life we have over the uncertainty of a possible life to come. We all find that adrenaline surge when frightened or threatened, that human experience of fear. And, if we are indeed God’s creatures, then this is a naturally endowed aspect of this life, a preference for not dying prematurely and perhaps not at all.

So, even the religious appeal for care for this planet on which we live should be based on the God-given characteristics of being the human creatures we are, not on some scriptural interpretation of words written long before sustainability was even a consideration on the distant horizon. We want to engage all humanity in a concern for the survivability of the human race. We want all humanity to be engaged in living as though survivability depended on them individually. This is not a Christian issue uniquely, not even a religious issue uniquely, but a fundamental necessity for every human alive today, even those with short-term pleasure as more important than the well-being of their progeny.

Please read the first part of this two part blog.  Star Dust

First a couple of facts (as opposed to beliefs).  No one can prove there is a GOD.  It is also true that no one can prove there is NOT a GOD.  Yes, I know there are those who claim to have “experienced” the presence of what they BELIEVE (with all their hearts) was God.  They can cite the difference in their lives as evidence of the experience, but they can’t give you the experience they had.  Unfortunately, we are all isolated creatures, capable of communication, but that communication, at its very best, can only communicate an approximate facsimile of the experience, not proof.  Enough of that, my position should be clear.

Yet, I have the experience of God every day. When I think about the implication of being star dust (see Star Dust blog) I see there is some underlying force of nature that allows, indeed fosters the creation of elements that in all their richness have the capacity to form into organized structures.  Obviously they organize into stars.  We have learned that exploding stars broadcast higher level elements.  We have learned that these tend to “gravitate” toward each other and under the influence of greater and greater collections, form planets.  We have come to understand that if these planets are just the right distance from the galaxy center and just the right distance from a supporting star, and rotate just the right amount, they are capable of collecting liquid water.  When there is liquid water, we have learned elements can collect in the presence of solar and planet heat, form collections capable of replicating themselves with the ultimate outcome of becoming what we call living systems, interdependent on the environment that supported their development.

I call this a Life Force, a fundamental structure, created in the big bang which has resulted in living systems that can exchange information, learn, grow, and come to understand, at least at some primitive level, the very system that created them.  So, to me, I see this Life Force as the embodiment of what people call God.  I have found, in my own spiritual practices with people in a liberal protestant setting, that I can share in worship understanding what some people see as an external reality they call their God by mentally substituting my understanding of this grand, magnificent Life Force.  As I pray, I understand that I seek to complement, not work against this Life Force.  I feel morally responsible to sustain the capabilities of this planet.  I celebrate the scientific discoveries that inform our understanding of our place in the universe all the way down to my own family dynamics.  When I see a beautiful sunset or peaceful lake, or snow on the tree branches, I can celebrate the fact that I have been given the chance to experience this Life Force personally.

And I also can feel anger and even rage when I see actions that through ignorance or selfishness lead to thwarting this Life Force in the here and now.  I get frustrated when people ignore this Life Force and seek their own personal pleasure and gain at the expense of others.  In other words, my moral capacity is not diminished by this understanding and the fact that this Life Force has a cycle that will one day deny my ability to participate.  It is the kingdom of god here and now that we are all given by this undeserved gift of life.  How will be respond?  Will we resist or conspire to support the Life Force for all of life’s creation and creatures?

Brain Efficiency (part 4)

Posted: February 3, 2012 in psychology
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(Link to Part 1) There is an aspect of this brain-natural working that I find interesting with regard to an individual’s decision to make a change in their own life. We tend to think of that as an individual decision and event. We think that all we have to do is make the decision and commitment to change and carry through and things will be different. Yes, some things will be different, but many times we fail to realize that we have direct control over only one of the many “MEs.” All of the people with whom we have interacted to any extent at all have a model of ME active in THEIR brains. The more we have to interact with people, the stronger will be the model. Not necessarily accurate models, but ones that work for them. And remember, as hard as it might be for me to make actual changes in my behavior or life style, I represent only one of the many MEs that exist as models in other people’s brains. I can’t FORCE them to change their models. In fact, asking them to change their models is asking them to expend energy; to make an effort on our behalf, for our benefit.

A lot of politics is about trying to create in your brain a desirable or undesirable model of a personality. Since you normally don’t have a chance to know the person on an intimate basis, your model is left with characterizations of their friends and foes. Their friends hope to help you build a favorable model based on psychological associations with models you already have and perhaps famous people they think you will tend to believe. In negative cases, they try to have you associate negative things with the person or policy they oppose. The models I want you to think about for a few minutes are the models of you that exist in other people’s brains.

If I try to change, there will be resistance. Some people will ignore me. Some will think I am acting weird. Some will just not want to make the effort to change their own model of me and will continue to treat me as if I had not changed at all. They may even actively encourage me to fail to change so their model will remain in tact, so they will not have to deal with being wrong — most of this subconsciously going on. They may be depending so totally on their model, they do not even notice sensory input does not match their model. If I try to diet and let people know, they may try to tempt me with old-style eating habits. If I try to improve my education, they may try to put obstacles in my way to successfully completing my goals. In a close relationship, a change can be taken as challenge to that person’s model of themselves, a threat to their own self assessment, a criticism of their life-style and hence resisted because they don’t want to change either their model of you and even more so recognize the flaws in the model of themselves. So change ‘in situ’, that is staying in the same place, dealing with the same people, the same job, the same everything can be extremely difficult. You might successfully change yourself only to realize that no one else acknowledges that change. You might find new resistance even to old acceptable relationships.

There is a solution. Change the environment. Interesting how this simple statement can apply to so many situations. It is a common advice given to parents and child-care personnel when a problem has developed with a child. Change the environment. It disrupts the models or if the environment is completely different, it permits you to develop entirely new models with new people. You can become any person you choose within your capacity and skills when moving to a new geographical area where no one knows you. If you are changing jobs, it is important to think about this when developing a resume as it is the beginning point of a new model that will be formed in the readers brain. So too will the interview be the new employer’s effort to build a hire/no-hire decision based on their own model, unfortunately unknown to you, of things they should be looking for while building their model of you in heir brains. But, it is still the only way to make a break with the past, to create a new you. It is the only way to defeat the powerful model-building, model-sustaining work of the human brain in other people.

I have personally experienced this several times. The first time was when I was only thirteen. My family moved from Macon, Georgia to Miami, Florida. I had developed some friends in Georgia and as a result some habits that I was not proud of and wanted to change but had not been successful in changing. I had a reputation (a set of models in other kids brains). When I moved, I decided to be a different person. As it turned out, it was not that hard to do and I noticed that and began to think about it. Conscious of that, I have managed to repeat it several times, changing aspects of my personality and behavior, improving on my self-assessed version of my model. And I am a different person than I used to be.

A person who has been incarcerated will have difficulty not falling into the same patterns if they return to the environment that preceded incarceration. A person who has been the victim of domestic violence can not expect to alter their experience if they return to the environment where the violence originated. A person who maintains long term residence in one location will have many strong models of themselves built in the people who know them.

This “Brain as a Model Builder” idea is itself a model, a model that fits a number of experiences around how people relate to the external world. It also helps explain how prejudice works. A person builds a model of the “other” based on limited experience with a sample from the “other” or based on what someone has told us about the “other”. Then, we use the model we have built rather than any broad experience. In some cases, we build the model and then, when we encounter members of the “other”, we look for things to affirm the validity of our model. Having our model be “right” is far more satisfying, taking far less energy than adjusting the model based on new experiences. A model can be so powerful that we totally discount counter examples preferring instead to use the easier, less energy consuming task of re-working the model. When we are ignorant that we are operating off a model, when we believe our model rather than considering it open to revision based on new evidence, that is bigotry. Bigotry is not knowing you are prejudiced, not realizing you are working off a faulty model.

In conclusion, if a person wants to make a significant life change, how can they improve the chance for success. In a few words, “change the environment.” If you are working full time in a large organization, it might only take a move from one department to another or from one building to another to accomplish life changes with considerably greater success than is possible staying put where you are, dealing with the same people, the same situations, the same problems. But if you do have to make the changes ‘in situ’, you will have to work extra hard to force the changes in the many models of you for the changes to be complete and acknowledged. If you are trying to overcome a situation that has resulted in detrimental impacts on you, you need to avoid the environments that caused the harm. How many of “you” are there? The real you and then the many models of you existing in other peoples brains.  (the end)

Brain Efficiency (part 3)

Posted: February 3, 2012 in psychology
Tags: , ,

(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)

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)

Brain Efficiency (part 1)

Posted: January 28, 2012 in psychology
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This series of blogs will explain a number of otherwise puzzling human behaviors.  So if that interests you, hang in there for each part.

PART 1: Our brains are efficiency experts, at least in their own operation.  The brain uses a lot of the energy we need each day to survive, so it needs to operate as efficiently as it can.  Over time, it has developed a clever means to accomplish this:  It makes models of the external world that reduce its need to discover what to do every time it gets a bunch of signals from our senses.  If it makes a good model, then it can tell what is happening without having to analyze all sensory input all the time.  In fact, it is not very good at multitasking that requires attention to multiple external stimuli.

A Story: A few years ago I decided to grow a beard.  A colleague of mine in a different department also independently decided to grow a beard.  Some months later, I shaved my beard off.  When I went to work, very few people made a comment as though they did not notice.  That was surprising to me, so the next time I had lunch with my colleague, I was commenting on this experience of people not noticing I had shaved my beard.  He said, “me too.  No one noticed me either.”  at which point and not before I noticed he had also shaved his beard.  How do you account for my experiences in this true story?

Here is my explanation.  People knew me before I grew a beard and during that time, they created visual models of what I looked like as I also did with my colleague.  Then, when we grew beards, people had to create another model of our appearance which they did.  After the initial multiple comments from people about the new beard, things settled down to normal.  However, when I shaved my beard, I reappeared to people as the model they already had built and in fact, they did not realize how their brains just switched back automatically, so much so, they did not in this case notice the switch.  The same thing happened to me when I had lunch with my colleague.

There is a lot more to this model building idea than I can expound on in this one blog, so I will save further comments for later blogs.  (Link to Part 2)