Friday, May 25, 2007

VS Ramachandran: Cognitive Illusions

We are in the final hour of Beyond Belief 2006, which has been the subject of my weekend posts for the last four months. The conference is starting to wrap up, so when Ramachandran gets up to give his second presentation of the conference, it was with the intention of responding to the claims others had made that he thinks he has an important response to.

In Ramachandran’s first presentation, which I discussed in “Brain States” he spoke about optical illusions – about how the brain is hard wired so as to make certain mistakes in perception. These mistakes are caused by using a trait that works particularly well in the world we typically live in, and using them to interpret events in a modified representation of that world. For example, those traits allow us to accurately perceive three-dimensional objects, but to make mistakes when perceiving two-dimensional representations of those same objects.

This had similarities to the topic of a presentation by Mahzarin Banaji, which I discussed in, “Bugs of the Mind”, she talked about prejudice, on how experience can cause us to form a habit of categorizing things in a particular way.

Ramachandran pointed out that these associations are not necessarily irrational. He asserts that our brain is constantly looking to form associations. If, as a matter of experience, we find women often associated with cooking, then our brain is going to get into the habit of associating women with cooking.

This is true in the same way that, if we listen to a Top 40 radio station during a particular summer job, and end up listening to a particular set of songs that was popular at the time, we will continue to associate that song with memories of that job long into the future. There is no necessary, logical relationship between those songs and that job. However, the association will be easy. Just as there is no necessary, logical relationship between cooking and women. However, repeated exposure to this relationship will make it easy for that relationship to come to mind.

The mistake we make is when we take these relationships as moral principles – as the way things should be. For example, we get used to associating women with cooking, so we draw the conclusion that cooking should be done by women, and then act so as to push women into that role. This is as foolish as using a relationship between a song and a particular job to conclude that one should be performing that job whenever one listens to that song.

However, Ramachandran went on to discuss other cognitive mistakes that we make in a context that made it clear that they can be and often are prejudicial (harmful) to others. For example, he recounted a story in which he and a friend were walking when they noticed a black man behind them. Shortly thereafter they found themselves walking faster (out of fear).

This started a discussion (continued in the question and answer session after Ramachandran’s presentation) about how the brain processes statistical information.

An unidentified member of the audience pointed out that even if black men are more likely to mug people than Caucasian men, since there are more Caucasians than blacks, one is still more likely to be mugged by a Caucasian man than a black man.

Another unidentified member of the audience pointed out that for every incidence of being followed by a black man that resulted in a mugging, there are billions of incidences of being followed by a black man that did not result in a mugging. At that moment there were probably countless threats that were statistically more likely than being mugged (such as tripping on the sidewalk) that the pair were irrationally perceiving as less significant than the threat of being mugged.

The fact is, the human brain is not very good at processing statistical information and making rational choices. For example, I am currently reading Al Gore’s new book The Assault on Reason. He identified research that showed that people are willing to pay more for insurance against terrorism than they are for insurance against all causes of harm. This is in spite of the fact that ‘insurance against all causes of harm’ would cover terrorism.

The word ‘terrorism’ generates a fear response which exaggerates the risk of harm in the minds of many people, causing them to irrationally evaluate the risk of harm from terrorism as greater than the risk of harm from all causes.

President Bush has bragged that he thinks with his gut. He has also spoken as if he thinks that his ‘gut’ is transmitting messages from Jesus, guiding him as to the correct course of action. What is happening in fact is that he is ‘listening’ to these cognitive illusions, and giving these cognitive illusions the status of unshakable truth, against which he then evaluates the evidence.

In the case of the agent buying a ticket above, somebody who thinks like Bush would take the fear generated by the word ‘terrorism’ to conclude that the risk of terrorism is greater than the risk of harm from all causes (including terrorism). This would be taken as a message from God that he then needs to focus his efforts on protecting the country from terrorism – which is greater than his need to protect the country from harm from all causes (including terrorism). Any suggestion that this course of action is irrational would then be dismissed, since it conflicts with God’s word.

Such is the case when we have leaders who think with their gut.

Now, there are cases where it is appropriate to think with one’s gut. We evolved these dispositions for a reason. When we face a sudden crisis that demands immediate action, we simply do not have time to think everything through rationally. We must act immediately. In these cases, a quick ‘rule of thumb’ which is fast but sometimes wrong is much better than reasoned deliberation which is much slower though less likely to be wrong.

The ‘cognitive illusions’ that Ramachandran is talking about come about by taking these rules of thumb meant for emergency situations and assumes that their conclusions are more reliable than the conclusions of deliberation and reason. This is as much of a mistake as taking the input from an optical sense designed to work in a 3D universe and applies it to a 2D picture.

This explains many of the mistakes that Bush has made in his tenure as President. Unfortunately, we are living under a President who is too stupid to even comprehend these facts – let alone allow them into his decision making. He simply cannot understand how or why a reasoned conclusion can contradict a gut feeling and still be right. So, unless reason actually has the power to change his gut feeling, he will not see reason to change his mind on a policy.

Yet, reason does not have this power.

We have seen, with optical illusions, that even when an agent knows that this is an illusion, he does not suddenly ‘perceive’ the object correctly. He still sees the illusion. The best that reason gives him the power to do is to say, “In these types of circumstances, I know that I cannot trust what I see. These are cases where I need to trust reason even more than I trust what is right before my eyes.”

Similarly, reason does not have the power to change one’s gut instinct. At best, it will show when gut instinct cannot be trusted. The gut will still be there demanding that the agent do X, while reason suggests not-X. In these circumstances, somebody like President Bush, who lacks the ability to grasp the distinction, will choose the wrong option, and the whole nation will suffer for it.

One thing that we could really use are leaders who not only understand these elements of human psychology, but who have the moral character not to exploit them for personal gain.

1 comment:

Hume's Ghost said...

I'm reading Al Gore's book, too, and since you mentioned it I'm gong to use that as a tangential jump-off point.

Can you believe that Jack Schafer of Slate dismissed Gore's substantial and well-developed/evidenced argument that certain forms of media can have a deleterious effect on democracy as "loony'?

Its not just that we're living under a stupid president. We're also living with an establishment media which attacks people like Gore - people making serious and substantial criticisms of the state of the media and reason in general - as loons and "unserious" without even bothering to actually engage their arguments.

Gore got this book out, which I'm sure you can tell is worthy of serious discussion, and he's got tv "jounralists" asking him about his friggin' weight.

Its like we're living in Wonder Land.