Unaware

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by maria on 25 Oct 2010 - 18:06  

Our brains have to sort out a lot of stuff. We aren't consciously aware of most of the stuff going on, which is a good thing, since just walking across the room would be a serious challenge if we had to think about every bit of muscle movement. There was a bit on npr recently about a guy who had a stroke that wiped out his ability to read. English suddenly looked like some foreign language that he didn't know. But, his motor memory of writing was still in tact, so if he pretended to write the letters that he saw, he was now able to recognize the letters. But, that is a lot of effort, and if you had to think like that for everything you did, it would be difficult to get anything done. Fortunately, our brain takes care of lots of stuff behind the scenes, and we are unaware of it even happening. However, now we are discovering that some things our brains do without our realizing it may be causing us problems. I recently ran across an old article by Gavin Mandel, published in Science magazine in 2005, which was fascinating, and I hope people that missed it when it came out will take a look at it now. The basic finding is that we are profoundly influenced by our environment, but completely unaware of this influence. Not only that, but even when people/researchers try to make us aware when we have been influenced, we do not believe it, and our mind makes up stories to otherwise explain the influenced behavior. So, I guess when we sound like we are making something up to justify our actions after the fact, rather than explaining why we decided to do something, we may be doing just that. It does put an interesting light on our gut feelings.

The majority of the time, our unconscious does a stellar job picking out the relevant information, and making decisions based on that, but unsurprisingly, it doesn't always get it correct. It seems likely that the more we are bombarded by media trying to influence our decisions, the less reliable it may become. It is hard to imagine how our unconscious deals with such a large amount of, often conflicting, data, but scientists are starting to figure this out. It appears that there are certain rules that our unconsciousness uses to guide it. One is exemplified by a pantyhose experiment summarized in the 'Introspective Essay', and it points to a bias for the first thing the brain sees. One of the best studied biases is race. I am trying to find a source of various biases that our brains have constructed, because I think this would be useful knowledge for everyone to have when they are making decisions. Because intuition is not always correct, it is sometimes based on rules that we may not consciously agree with, but have internalized. I will close with a quote from cognitive neuroscientist Itiel Dror,

"Take what you believe is an absolute truth with a grain of salt," Dorr suggested. "Question yourself, and understand that we're all locked in our own brain, in our own perceptions, with our own experiences that paint the world. We may have a better understanding of the world if we know that what we see is not 100 percent the world itself, it iw us interacting with the world around us." *

* From the article, Experts Live and Die With Mental Shortcuts, from Miller-McCune.


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25.10.2010 - 21:15  

Broski comments:

This brings up a lot more questions than provides answers. Such as: --What sort of pantyhose experiment, exactly? --Is Gavin Mandel related to Howie Mandel? --If I am profoundly influenced by my environment, and I own two dogs, will I look like one of them or a cross-breed of both? --Why am I so entertained by myself?

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