Explanations, Redux 1

Explanation Redux 1

Here are provisional theses for this and succeeding essays: a brain is a survival device.  Neurons somehow symbolize the signals of the sensory systems and form a mental model – perceptions, patterns and connections – of the reality external to the brain, which, together with the survival rules of the species, generates neural and neurochemical output signals which modulate various systems in the body as a response to the sensory signals to enhance survival and reproduction: the neural system mediates between inputs and outputs.  Neural systems are, on the whole honest systems, that is, they have inherent discipline of reality.  But they do make mistakes.  And our neural systems invent things.  We call that imagination.  Imagination is both wonderful and terrible.  It may be beyond discipline yet need it.

A neural system’s only metrics are survival and reproduction.  For this it needs to be adequate to those needs of the species in its environment.  It only has the information that it can acquire through its sensory systems and that pass through its various filters which reduce the information input and in particular discard information that its survival rules deem irrelevant.  Neural systems frequently have to improvise on insufficient information, particularly when available sensory inputs sum to a danger perception.  One principle rules: better a false positive than an unreported danger. Our cognitive biases and heuristics operate under this rule as aids to quick response and making “judgments under uncertainty” which is a frequent necessity.  Neural systems match a perceptual pattern to a response pattern for survival and reproduction.

We draw conclusions from inadequate data.  We frequently make decisions on available information, particularly reaction to danger or quick grasping of personal advantage.  Better a false positive detection of a predator than no positive at all.  We were a prey animal through most of the evolution of our species and thus have a fine-tuned danger detection system.  Our ‘find food and eat it’ system is equally fine-tuned.  We like eating rather than being hungry, so better to pick it up and eat than miss an opportunity to eat.  Avoiding danger and eating are fundamental motivations so we draw conclusions and take actions on available or incomplete information whenever necessary.  Our brain fills in the rest of the details based upon matching the currently perceived information with a known pattern.  In this process they make mistakes.

This fascinating visual illusion solidified my usage of pattern detection and matching, and mistakes.  At first looks I could only see a small fuzzy blob of mortar in the joint just above the center of the photograph.  But the bricks are dry stacked without mortar except for one short joint below and to the right of the blob.  My brain devised the perception of a mortar blob all by itself, but possibly based upon that small bit of mortar.  Further, it suppressed the perception of the body of the cigar entirely and replaced it with a joint.  My brain could not see the cigar because it was anomalous and was therefore rejected in favor of something – a pattern – that made more ‘sense.’  The dry stacked brick wall pattern over-ruled the sensory input pattern which contained the information of a cigar with a long ash.  But while the shank of the cigar was suppressed, the ash was not.  It was re-interpreted as mortar which made more sense in this context.  There were two different false pattern matches in this illusion and both were reported to my conscious mind as ‘true’ perceptions.

Even after I had read that there was a cigar protruding at 90 degrees from the wall, it took me quite a while to ‘see’ it.  Once I saw the cigar, I could not unsee it – unlike some illusions I cannot toggle back and forth between different perceptions.  The cigar pattern now makes more sense and dominates my perception[efn_note]There are a few people whose brains can toggle between the two different perceptions.[/efn_note].  While my brain was stuck on ‘seeing’ a fuzzy mortar blob, I read the accompanying explanation of the illusion several times.  It took mental processing time for the words in my mind to alter a visual perception.  The pattern and connections of words can alter the pattern of visual perceptions: words can change vision.  This is an astonishing power and I can only point it out without being able to explain it.  It implies a connectivity within the neural systems that matches patterns of various types.

One source of truth is, then, a perceived pattern match.  Neural systems are designed to make them and a match is a neural success that is granted the benefice of a brain reward.  We like our pattern matches, we glory in them, we believe them to be true.  Likewise, our stories generated out of those pattern matches present as true.  They are only vibrations in the air or ink on paper but they possess a miraculous power: the power to rewire brains, to generate truth.

Explanation, Redux

Explanation has an evolutionary history, that is, there was a time before explanation.  I don’t think that chimpanzees or bonobos, our nearest biological relatives, can explain something to themselves or to each other.  They communicate emotion in real time by body language and utterances.  They learn by mimicry, not by transferring symbols from one mind to another.  At some time, we invented word symbols and explanation, and gradually developed the rules which underly the conversion of perception to symbol in one mind and for the successful transfer of symbols between minds to alter the connections within those minds to be more similar or congruent.  This is the essence of a verbal social species: shared knowledge underpinning social cohesion and cooperative behavior.  A group within a social species needs to go in approximately the same direction at the same time and for the same reason.  One source of social cohesion is telling the same, or at least similar, stories of explanation – meta-stories.  Symbols transmitted by sight or sound can alter another mind by establishing new connections between neurons or strengthening existing connections.

We also possess the ability to store symbolization in the permanent form of writing thus extending communication beyond the immediacy of body language and speech, and through time crossing thousands of years.  This is another powerful source of social cohesion – our written documents.  This power of a document is so pervasive and has become so fundamental and necessary that it leads to a worship of documents: documentarianism.  It may be seen in religion, economics, philosophy, politics, etc. where a book and its author are elevated above ordinary discourse and into the ethereal realm of authority and truth.

Verbal communication, spoken or written, is an extraordinarily powerful ‘device’ for generating and organizing information in one mind and transferring it from one mind to another via symbols.  It is also a most imperfect ‘device’ because symbols can encode nonsense in precisely the same grammar and syntax.  Communication itself cannot provide any measure of the reliability or verifiability of the communicated symbol set, the message.  That has to be accomplished in another mental process.  In an earlier essay I called this a BS detector.  In a recent essay I used the expression “the discipline of reality.”

In our long sojourn in the ecology of hunting and gathering, explanatory stories, meta-stories, could incorporate fanciful and imaginative elements with no negative implications for survival.  The larger structure of the myth could incorporate positive survival elements such as where to look for food, and the attribution of this element could be to a god or an imagined heroic predecessor without decreasing the effectiveness of the survival information.

A coupla essays ago I wrote that the smell of wood fires is that of home.  What kinds of stories are told in the dark around campfires – why, fanciful, imaginative, scary, fear and danger stories, of course.  As foraging hunter gatherers, we gathered together in the nights around a wood fire and told stories of gods and heroes, of danger, life and death.  We told scary stories, and shivered in fear and the night air.  We have done this since domesticating fire and confining it within the hearth.  Around those fires in long ago time, we were more prey than predator.  Agency, fear, and danger stories resonate in prey minds.  We are story inventers and tellers.  We love ‘em and that is a cognitive bias.  The fanciful is an integral element of a good story.

There is no inherent limit to imagination.  The easy and even fun part is devising and telling fanciful stories, myths, fictions, deceptions and lies.  The very difficult part is evaluating their reliability and verifiability.  The principle of parsimony, generally attributed to William of Ockham, is perhaps best translated as “Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.”  Occam’s Razor is a tacit recognition that our imagination and stories have multiplied, far outrunning their verifiability and reliability.  This is our greatest intellectual problem.  It is such a problem that it merits repeating myself:

“At some time, we invented symbols and explanation, and gradually developed the rules which underly the conversion of perception to symbol in one mind and for the successful transfer of symbols between minds to alter the connections within those minds to be more similar or congruent.”  For an unknown reason, the brains of H. sapiens are able to utilize the higher order symbol set of language.  There are two major consequences of this ability: enhanced resource utilization via increased information – that is one way of conceptualizing ‘increased intelligence’ – and on the other side the near complete loss of the discipline of reality.  With language we can deceive and lie to ourselves.  Language enhances lying to and deceiving others.  With language we devise fiction and tell tall tales.

We no longer live in a foraging hunter gather ecology, psychology, or sociology.  Our information needs have changed.  Civilization is a concatenation of technical improvisations.  Once our path was set onto sedentism and civilization, we were imprisoned in a continuing round of technical improvisations such as irrigation, agriculture, domestication, villages, and cities – each more demanding of technical understanding and explanation than the previous.  Fanciful explanations of the gods and heroes, of angels and devils, became less adequate, and Occam’s Razor and other heuristics became necessary.  But the fanciful remains.  I grant it the status of a cognitive bias – our neural systems generate the fanciful along with the reliable, and may have a preference for wrapping the reliable within the aura of the fanciful.

At another, much later, time to meet those increased needs, we began to develop the methods and rules for establishing verifiability and reliability of symbolized communications – for telling stories.  We call it science.  It is another type of story and has been most successful at testing stories, distilling out the imaginative and fanciful, and developing the useful, verifiable, and reliable.  It may also be a difficult endeavor, both intellectually and emotionally, for at times it will contradict our deepest cognitive biases.

One example will suffice:

It is plainly obvious to any and every observer that the earth is stationary.  There is absolutely no perceivable movement of the ground beneath our feet.  It is equally obvious that the moon, sun and stars revolve around the earth and the Ptolemaic geocentric paradigm encapsulates this obviosity.  But in fact, only the moon revolves around the earth and together they revolve around the sun which is revolving around the gravitational center of our galaxy, the Milky Way.  From the observations of Tycho Brahe to the calculus of Newton, it took roughly 100 years of difficult and intense intellectual labor to work out celestial mechanics and to understand that our perceptions were wrong.  The Science Problem is that, at times, science contradicts the plainly obvious solid truth of our naïf perceptions and cognitive biases.  For perhaps a thousand millennia H. sapiens looked at the heavens and watched them revolve around the earth.  That perception was survival and reproduction neutral – it had no effect – and thus there could be no discipline of reality.  Our brains do the best they can with what they have.  They are largely successful despite their limitations.

We tell fantastic stories.  We love fantastic stories.  We enjoy the ‘suspension of disbelief.’  In this I see a relief from the discipline of reality, and indeed, fiction is sometimes described as an ‘escape.’  So, I posit a need for ‘escape from reality,’ and grace that need with the status of a cognitive bias – one that is in direct opposition to the discipline of reality: there are times and places where the brain will prefer a fantastic over a mundane story – in particular where the story has no survival implications.  Note that I did not include reproductive implications in the previous statement.  Fantastic stories may carry a positive reproductive benefit as a potential mate may evaluate a fantastic story as a signal of reproductive fitness – I like the stories so I like the story teller[efn_note]It occurs to me that this is a variety of the sexy son hypothesis within sexual selection.[/efn_note].

The autistic professor of animal scientist, Temple Grandin, expounds the thesis that the development of word symbol systems – language – has, in some people, suppressed the visual system.  In autistic individuals the visual system is much more active and the word system is suppressed or defective.  But many individuals have the ability to form mental images, pictures in the mind – phantasia.  They can remember people, their faces and dress.  They can remember places and details of geography and weather.

Many years ago, I encountered the memory method known as a memory palace or the method of loci (places.)  The method begins with the formation of a mental image of a place, a building or geographic with a number of specific elements which can be visualized separately – that is, places.  Clues about information to be remembered are associated with visual elements in the image.

More recently, there was a thread on a machinist’s forum about visualizing a part from its drawing.  All of the responders could do this.  One machinist says that he will lie in bed in the morning visualizing the part, and if he wishes to turn it in his mind he will also turn and twist his body to better see the ‘other side.’  Another poster said that he could visualize the part from the print and cut various cross-sections to check such details as ensuring that a drilled hole will not cut into another feature.

A friend who is a superintendent in residential construction, says that he can look at a floor plan for a kitchen and then visualize the cabinets and a person walking around them.  He can visualize the grading, landscaping and the building together from looking at the print.

Another friend, when asked about mental visualization, said that he is sometimes shockingly visual.  Joan d’Arc heard the voices of the angels Michael and Gabriel in the bells of her village church – an auditorialization, accompanied by a visualization of the angels.  She heard the angels, she saw the angels, and she believed in the angels.  Joan was, and my friend is, hyperphastasic – extreme visualizers.  Just as the words in my mind present as true, the visions in their minds presented as true.

A related mental ability is pareidolia: seeing images in random data.  My sister-in-law was talking about learning in pre-school children and she said “They saw the images.” I said something about pattern perception and matching because that is a major element of my current concept set and I use it to explain things to myself.  She came back with “no!  I said images!  They saw the images!”  She was rather adamant.  I must have had a clueless look on my face for she handed me a piece of paper and a pencil.  “Hold the pencil in your left hand and scribble on the paper.  Just anything, don’t think about it.  Cover the paper.”  I did some loops and some zig-zags and some whatevers in a single line all over the paper.  It looked a mess to me, lines crossing at random with absolutely no pattern.  My artistic abilities are so meagre that my straight lines look like scribbles, so when I set out to scribble, I succeed beyond anyone’s possible expectations.  She took the pencil, looked at the scribbles for a few seconds and then smoothly drew a single line connecting various parts of the scribbles.  It looked a lot like a side view outline of a Sesame Street dinosaur.  She said “I see images.”  She could see something that was quite invisible to me, an image imposed upon random scribbles.  She cannot tell me why she sees images, and what the images look like, only that they are real to her.  Images, patterns, in her mind.  My sister-in-law is, by the way, dyslexic, she has difficulty reading.

Now that I have visualization in my concept set, I can return to a previous statement: “our neural systems generate the fanciful along with the reliable, and may have a preference for wrapping the reliable within the aura of the fanciful.”  For millennia we shared stories in spoken words.  Some spoken stories, like documents, have been preserved and passed down through the generations to become our cultural heritages.  The group survives long beyond the individual and the preservation of the group is more important than that of any single individual.  Stories and shared knowledge are essential elements of the preservation of the group.  The fanciful fulfills an important function in the preservation of a story, for the images it elicits are themselves memorable.  The power of words to generate visual imagery, our ability to remember images and the embedment of the story in the visualization must surely be the reason for the retention of the fanciful and wrapping the reliable within it – a memory palace retaining valuable and memorable stories whether fiction or non-fiction, expressional or useful, to be communicated from mind to mind through time.  The fanciful is the memorable, and in learning and memory is survival.

Several essays ago, I told the story of my oldest great-grandson at play.  I think this is one of my most delightful essays, rich in memories and ideas.  For some reason, as I was working on it, I got to wondering how a prospective reader might regard it.  It was a good story, but was it a true story?  It was two intertwined stories, a first-person account of the play, and an interpretative or explanatory meta-story.  Would a reader be able to judge the reliability and verifiability – the truth – of either story?  It is frequently very difficult to verify first person accounts.  Just ask a lawyer or judge.  There were no other witnesses so my story rests upon a reader’s assessment of my reliability.  The meta-stories are another problem because they rise from my motivations and history which surely are different from a reader’s.  My subsequent essays have been an attempt to understand truth, a most vexing problem.

If I have problems with the reliability and verifiability – the discipline of reality – of my word stories, then what of the visualizations?  Joan experienced them as true and responded appropriately.  She had no need for a critical examination of her visions.  She had no reason to do so.  Her visions were within her cultural norms.  They were useful.  The angels commanded her to defeat the English and restore the king of France to his throne – a fine example of national tribalism[efn_note]I wish I could further examine the problem of the effect of hyperphantasia on the development of the Western intellectual canon.  I hope that someone will eventually take up this topic.[/efn_note].

In my next essay, I take up a rather different type of explanation, conspiracy theorists who posit invisible agents of evil.  These stories also present difficulties with assessing their validity and reliability.


For pareidolia see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareidolia and https://www.livescience.com/25448-pareidolia.html.

For phantasia, aphantasia and hyperphantasia see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphantasia and https://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/exeterblog/blog/2016/11/08/aphantasia-10000-people-make-contact-over-visual-imagery/.  Also: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-the-minds-eye-is-blind1/

In the 1880’s Francis Galton found that some scientists were aphantasic and that they were quite incredible that someone could form mental images.  George Bernard Shaw described Joan d’Arc as a Galtonic visualizer in the preface to his play Saint Joan.

I did a brief web search looking for information on how visualizers understand their mental images, that is, do they initially regard them as true in the same way that the words in my mind present as true.  If so, how do they evaluate their images and cope with the knowledge that they are only visual patterns imposed on the sensory input data.  The web references give examples of artifacts that have been imbued with images and of the psychological and sociological consequences, that is, people believe in these visions.  I eventually found this: “Dr Paul Broks, a clinical psychologist turned creative writer, who engagingly introduced the concept of ‘imaginal reality’ “ in: https://www.sciculture.ac.uk/2016/05/25/the-eyes-mind-visual-imagination-neuroscience-and-the-humanities-2/   This phrase bolsters my contention that visual images present as true as do words in my mind.  A successful pattern match, visual, auditory, or verbal, is granted the benefice of the brain reward of truth.

The provenance of the cigar illusion is currently unknown.  Some people have gone looking with no positive results.  I would like to know more about it – how it came to be.  I don’t think it was a ‘found’ illusion, that is, it was deliberately contrived to illustrate the functioning of our brains.

Eight days after I published this essay I once again thought of the cigar illusion and realized the illusion was based upon the photographic suppression of the dimension of depth.  There would be no illusion in a three-dimensional view, the cigar would be immediately apparent.  The illusion only exists in a two-dimensional image.  The cigar covers and interrupts the pattern of the joints of the wall which has vanishing point depth.  Together the two patterns over-ride the sensory data of the cigar shank to complete both the pattern of the wall and the depth perception.  The brain cannot completely suppress the ash which does not fit the pattern of the joints, so it is replaced by a blob of mortar, the closest thing to an ash that the mind can find in its library of images that would be found in a brick wall.  The suppression of depth confuses the mind, which ever so avid for pattern and missing the essential element for detecting the correct pattern, supplies one of its own making.  This is an example of a mental mistake illuminating how the brain works.