Friday, November 04, 2011

The Power of the Unconscious

Let's say you see / hear some stuff that makes an impression on you. And then you seem to start seeing similar stuff at a rate far higher than what you think is normal. Does this phenomenon have a name? [Update: It does: Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. In a kind-of-BM, the moment I saw Nishant-Dasgupta's comment giving me the name, I knew I had asked the same question and got the same answer several years ago].

Anyways, here's a bunch of links that came my way within the last three days:

  1. David Eagleman in Discover: Your Brain Knows a Lot More Than You Realize

    The Knowledge Gap

    There can be a large gap between knowledge and awareness. When we examine skills that are not amenable to introspection, the first surprise is that implicit memory is completely separable from explicit memory: You can damage one without hurting the other.

    Consider patients with anterograde amnesia, who cannot consciously recall new experiences in their lives. If you spend an afternoon trying to teach them the video game Tetris, they will tell you the next day that they have no recollection of the experience, that they have never seen this game before—and, most likely, that they have no idea who you are, either. But if you look at their performance on the game the next day, you’ll find that they have improved exactly as much as nonamnesiacs. Implicitly their brains have learned the game: The knowledge is simply not accessible to their consciousness.

  2. Shreeharsh Kelkar: Propositional Knowledge and Tacit Knowledge: The Case of Tennis. Commenting on an article by Jonah Lehrer, he points out the role of coaches [and others] in translating "propositional knowledge of physics" into a bunch of practices that allow players to flaunt their "tacit knowledge".

    Lehrer points out - correctly - that that laws of tennis are ultimately the laws of physics but the speed of the game means that no player actually computes the trajectory of the ball using Newtonian mechanics while playing. Instead the knowledge is displayed tacitly, in the way their bodies move, in the way they adjust their footwork and their racket motion, etc. In Michael Polanyi's terms, this is tacit knowledge - knowledge that is expressed in action but is hard to express propositionally. [...]

    "The top-ranked guys are all intuitive physicists," Hofmann says. "They know how the ball will bounce even if they can't explain why. This is what allows them to change their strategy based on the surface."

    I don't want to de-emphasize how talented the top tennis players are. But this makes it seem as though that that the only way of bringing propositional knowledge of physics into the game is if the players start calculating in their heads. If you look at the role of knowledge in tennis, as simply something that gets displayed on courts, then, sure, there's only tacit knowledge. But if you look at the world of tennis as a network (channeling Edwin Hutchins and Bruno Latour), then the propositional knowledge of physics comes into it at a number of different points: [...]

    Coaching: Coaches help to get a lot of propositional knowledge on to the courts. What's a "good" service action? How much back-swing should you have while playing a stroke? Is a long back-swing bad for grass? A lot of this is backed up by actually thinking about physics and it gets incorporated into a player's game. Novak Djokovic recently improved his service by making a "minor" adjustment - but this may have been key to his recent success because he is able to get some free points on his serve (69 more aces, according to the article).

  3. Samuel McNerny in Scientific American: A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You are not Your Brain

    Lakoff and Johnson to publish Philosophy in the Flesh, a six hundred-page giant that challenges the foundations of western philosophy by discussing whole systems of embodied metaphors in great detail and furthermore arguing that philosophical theories themselves are constructed metaphorically. Specifically, they argued that the mind is inherently embodied, thought is mostly unconscious and abstract concepts are largely metaphorical. What’s left is the idea that reason is not based on abstract laws because cognition is grounded in bodily experience (A few years later Lakoff teamed with Rafael Núñez to publish Where Mathematics Comes From to argue at great length that higher mathematics is also grounded in the body and embodied metaphorical thought).

    As Lakoff points out, metaphors are more than mere language and literary devices, they are conceptual in nature and represented physically in the brain. As a result, such metaphorical brain circuitry can affect behavior. For example, in a study done by Yale psychologist John Bargh, participants holding warm as opposed to cold cups of coffee were more likely to judge a confederate as trustworthy after only a brief interaction. Similarly, at the University of Toronto, “subjects were asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those with warm memories of acceptance judged the room to be 5 degrees warmer on the average than those who remembered being coldly snubbed. Another effect of Affection Is Warmth.” This means that we both physically and literary “warm up” to people.

  4. And here's a great quote from Vaughn Bell:

    ... The drive to "understand ourselves", the mantra of 21st century pop psychology, often produces more complex, more acceptable, "reasons", but little additional understanding of what causes us to react as we do. Ironically, this is where psychology has helped me out the most. There are causes we will never know about and sometimes it’s better to live with the ambiguity. I suspect we understand ourselves better by knowing the limitations of our insight.


  1. Nishant Dasgupta said...

    It's called the Baader-Meinhof phenomena.