Sunday, April 1, 2012

Human Mind - The Users Manual

After having used our minds for many years, the only thing we know for sure about it is that we don't know enough! It is true that after many years of research, scientists have an inkling about what they do and don't know. It is also true that they do have an understanding of what they think they know, but really don't. It is an interesting fact that if we ask ourselves the right questions, we can occasionally come up with things we didn't think we knew, but actually did. But largely, the functioning of the human mind remains secretive, seemingly out of reach and full of surprises.

But you might be thinking, many researchers have told us so already, so what is new? Quite a lot, as I hope to show you further in this post. Freud was closely linked with the idea of an unconscious mind. But he did not invent that term and nor is his rather narrow view of the unconscious widely accepted by the modern psychologists. They do not reject the idea of an unconscious mind, but they do dispute the strict Freudian interpretation of its role in our mental lives.

The purpose of this post is to make you, the everyday mind user and the erring human, more familiar with the mysteries of your own mind and in the process, maybe tell you something that you did not already know. This post will also help introduce the larger subject of why Humans Err and commit violations.

The Tip of the Tongue.   The "Tip of the Tongue (TOT)" is a fairly commonplace experience and there is nothing like this to expose the subtleties of knowing and not-knowing the things that go on in your own mind. A TOT experience begins with an attempt to retrieve from your memory an item that you are sure you know, but the search fails to yield an immediate and "felt to be correct" response. Instead, it produces something that you know to be "close" or "similar", but not exactly what you are sure you know to be the correct item.

When you persist with the search, the same incorrect response keeps coming to mind in an irritating and obstructive manner! What makes this experience even more frustrating, is that this thought blocker is recognized as being "very close" to what you want to recall, and yet not exactly the correct one. We recognize that it might have very similar properties, like sound, meaning, spelling etc., but yet we are certain that it is wrong. So, how do we know all this when we do not know the correct item? Well, some part of our mind knows, but it's not the conscious part. After many attempts, we may suddenly "hit" on the correct response, or some other external stimuli may point us in the right direction, leaving us feeling stupid or inadequate for not being able to recall something "so simple and basic".

The Conscious and Automatic modes of control.   The TOT experience shows us that a user is in direct conscious contact with only a part of the whole. The conscious part is obviously located somewhere between the ears and behind the eyes, yet, at any given time, within this very limited space, the larger part of our current waking thoughts and feelings are experienced, our sense data interpreted, and our actions planned, initiated and monitored. It is also this tiny space that is is at any instant most closely identified with our innermost selves - our personal believes, attitudes, values, memories, likes, dislikes, loves, hates and the other passing clutter and 'baggage' that goes to make ones mental lives. But we are only aware of a very limited amount at any one time. The ideas, feelings, images and sensations seem to flow like a stream past a blinkered observer standing on its bank. We can't see very far upstream or downstream, but we can take in between one to two seconds worth of what goes past. This is what comprises our conscious workspace, our "here and now".

Beyond this present experience lies a vast and only partially accessible knowledge base. Some of the information contained therein is in the form of previous life experiences and events (though this gets very patchy for the time before we were 5 yrs old, maybe even later). Other parts are used to make sense of the world. And yet other knowledge structures control our routine perceptions, thoughts and actions.

We do have a rough idea of the contents of this long-term knowledge base - not all of them, of course, but enough to be aware of the general headings. But, what we don't know is how stored items are called to mind. Such retrievals can be so accurate and immediate as to convince us - incorrectly as I hope the TOT example has show - that we have direct voluntary access to all parts of the store. The reality is that while we are conscious of the products of such retrievals - the words, feelings, images, thoughts and actions - we have little or no awareness of the processes that seek them out and call them to mind. Understanding this is very important since most of our mental lives involve a continuous interaction between the conscious workspace and the long-term memory store. Sometimes we deliberately call items to mind, but at other times, they simply pop-up unbidden and at yet other times, fail to be recalled despite repeated and conscious attempts. 

The "conscious workspace" and the "long-term storage" are the two co-existing, and sometimes competing controllers of our mental lives. They work in harmony for much of the time. But they can also compete for command of the body's output mechanisms, both in observable physical world (through unintended words and actions), and in the conscious workspace (into which items may be delivered without conscious intent). This is hardly surprising, given their radically differing properties and the power of familiar environments to evoke habitual responses.

Comparing properties of "Conscious Workspace" and "Long-Term Storage".  The Conscious Workspace is: Accessible to memory, closely linked to attention and working memory, selective and resource limited, slow laborious and serial (i.e. one thing after another), Intermittently analytical (sets intentions and plans and can monitor them at various choice points, but often fails), Computationally powerful (Accepts inputs from nearly all senses, vision dominates) and accesses long-term memory by generating "calling conditions" or retrieval cues.

With the Long-term Memory, on the other hand, while the products (actions, thoughts, images, etc) are available to consciousness, the underlying processes are largely outside its reach. It has apparently unlimited resource in both the amount of stored information and the length of time for which it is retained. It is fast, effortless and parallel (i.e. can handle many things at the same time) and automatic and operation. Its behavior is governed by stored specialized knowledge structure, called Schemas, that respond only to related sensory inputs and do their own thing. It has twin basic retrieval processes: similarity-matching (like with like), and Frequency-gambling (resolving possible conflicts in favor of the most frequent, recent or emotionally charged items).

Three Levels of Performance.   The extent to which our current actions are governed either directly by conscious attention or more emotionally by pre-programmed habit patterns gives rise to three levels of performance: Knowledge Based, Rule Based and Skill Based.

KNOWLEDGE BASED PERFORMANCE.  All human performance, with the exception of what comes "hard wired" at birth, begins at Knowledge based level in which our actions are governed online by the slow, limited and laborious application of conscious attention. This level relies very heavily on conscious images or words to guide our actions, either in the form of inner speech or through the instructions of others. While this type of control is flexible and computationally powerful, it is also highly effortful, enormously tiring, extremely restricted in scope and very error prone - and we don't like it very much.

Although we all know what attention feels like, its precise function in mental life is not at all obvious. An optimum  amount of attention is needed for successful performance in all spheres of activity. But, both, too little as well as too much, can be highly disruptive. The consequences of inattention are clear enough. For understanding over-attention, try using the keyboard while thinking about what the index finger of your right hand is doing. The greater your typing skills, the more likely it is that this will cause problems.

SKILL BASED PERFORMANCE. At the other end of the spectrum, there is skill based performance. By regular practice, self-discipline, and the reshaping of our perceptions, we can gradually acquire the rudiments of a skill - that is, the ability to mix conscious goal-setting and guidance with the largely automatic control of our individual actions. This is what habits are made of. Instead of thinking of each individual word and action, we are able to package them into a series of automated actions or pre-packaged sequences. Habits diminish the conscious attention with which our acts are performed. But there are no "free lunches". Automation comes with the penalty of occasional absent-mindedness, when our actions do not go as planned.

RULE BASED PERFORMANCE.  Intermediate between the above two comes the rule based performance. This comes when we need to break-off from a sequence of largely habitual (Skill-based) activity to deal with some kind of problem, or in which our behavior needs to be modified to accommodate some change of circumstances. The commonest kinds of problems are those for which we have a pre-packaged solution, something that we have acquired through training, experience or some written procedure. These solutions are typically expressed as : if [problem X] then [apply solution Y], or if [indications A and B are present] then [it is a type C problem]. These rules are what our "experience" is made of.

However, even here there are no "Free Lunches". This is also associated with a variety of errors. We can misapply a normally good rule to an incorrect situation because we did not notice the contraindications, we can apply a bad rule, or we can fail to apply a normally good rule - a mistaken violation!

When we run out of pre-programed solutions, as in some novel or unexpected situation, we are forced to resort to working out a solution "on the hoof" using the slow, effortful, but computationally powerful conscious control mode. This is a highly error prone level of performance and is subject to a range of systematic biases. These knowledge based mistakes will be discussed later. 

Interacting with the "Long-term knowledge base".  

The selective properties of long-term memory and the process by which stored items are recalled to mind lie at the heart of the mind user's misunderstandings of his or her mental function. While there appear to be many different mechanisms involved in this, similarity matching and frequency-gambling are the two that are automatic, unconscious and continuously operative. 

When the initial search cues are detailed or highly specific, matching these calling conditions to the characteristics of stored memory schema's on a like-to-like basis is the primary retrieval process. However, when the search cues match several stored knowledge structures, the mind gambles that the most frequently used knowledge item in that particular context will be the one that is required.

For example, if we ask "what is it that has four legs, barks, cocks its leg at lamp posts and is regarded as the mans best friend" most of us will almost instantly retrieve the word "Dog" from their memory. This retrieval is so quick and instantaneous that we would feel as if this was reached out and retrieved in a conscious and deliberate fashion. However, if we are asked to list examples of all "Four legged animals", it is unlikely that "Dog" would be the first item listed for every one that responded with Dog in the first example. While it is most likely that the items called to mind here will include Dog, cat, horse and cow, but the order and rapidity would depend on the responders familiarity with the animal. Familiarity being a function of frequency of encounter, in this divergent memory search, frequency-gambling is the primary search process.

Memory searches are strongly influenced by the feeling of knowing. While we would continue to make attempts to search for items we "feel we know", we would quickly abandon search for an item we think we do not know, even if we actually knew it in a different way. This is the genesis of the "Tip of the tongue" state mentioned earlier in this post.  So, from a mind-users point of view, these feelings about the contents of memory are of considerable value. They are not always right, of course. But they are right often enough for us to rely on them and treat them as a handy guide to whether or not we should invest mental effort in a memory search. There are also things we don't always realize we know, but actually do as well as those we think we know, but actually don't!

The human mind is exceptionally good at simplifying complex information-handling tasks. It does this by relying as far as possible on the automatic mode of control and using intuitive "rule of thumb" or heuristics. These are unconscious strategies that work well most of the time, but they can be over-utilized and produce predictable forms of error. The two most common heuristics are those mentioned above i.e. matching like for like (similarity-matching) and resolving any competition for limited conscious access by favoring the most frequently encountered candidate (Frequency-gambling).

Under conditions of stress and danger, we are inclined to fall back on well-tried solutions or past plans rather than ones that might be more appropriate for the current circumstances. The moral here is: Be wary of the commonplace and familiar response for any situation. It may indeed be appropriate, but it needs to be considered carefully as it may well be an automatic heuristic response that could equally well be inappropriate for the situation! This is the stuff "strong-but-wrong" error responses are made of!

So, where is all this leading us? We will discuss that in the next post where we discuss the nature and varieties of Human Error.

Until then,

The Erring Human.