Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The mind as an activity network

The book I am reading about cognitive science is very interesting. It talks about the mind as a network that is constantly activated by external events. Mostly within the context of a book you read or a conversation you are part of.

Assuming you haven't drunk any alcohol that might impede this network activation... :) When reading a story, certain events become connected and you start to visualize them. They also become intertwined with your past experiences, so the exercise of recalling the actual events that happened at for example a restaurant may not actually be 100% true ( this is a problem for justice, thinking about it ).

If you read the following story:

"The men are sitting at the table in the diner. The waitress brings the coffee. The coffee spills on the table top. The men exchange documents. The contract is signed".

It sounds like a really boring story, but your past experiences fill in a lot of details here:
  • The men are probably businessmen, because there is a contract and documents (but the story doesn't tell)
  • The waiter looks like one of those waitress stereo-types you have seen in the movies.
  • The spill on the table is not the whole pot, but it's only the size of a coaster and since you didn't read any complaint, it might be a drop.
  • The men are not sitting next to each other, but confront each other.
  • There is an eery sense of mystery perhaps.
Cognitive science has different explanations for how the mind works. One of those is a network with activations that activate nodes and which, in parallel form, activates other nodes that are related.

Now consider memory... Memory is according to some theorists a regular activation of nodes that cause you to feel or think something similar to what you have experienced before.

So... when reality is difficult to recall perfectly... it's because memory isn't a perfect retrieval machine. It's an imperfect machine that retrieves the gist of things and something else that may or may not have occurred, but you may never be sure.

When you gather more experiences in your network, you'll probably form your opinions and personality as well. This means that you yourself becomes responsible for some things that you find important, thus those nodes become more visited and as they become more visited, they seem even stronger and more important than anything else. The objectivity of the mind in this sense is a bit of an utopia for sure. Yes, we are able to hide our subjectivity by writing and talking the right words, but it won't ever happen! :)

Recalling the events from above, you can think of various experiments like:
  • Show a couple of sentences and then ask people if they're sure they didn't read the sentence or actually did ( helps to find out how much they imagined and how much was real of the story ).
  • Re-tell the story factually, how it was read exactly.
  • After the story, let people choose words that are relevant and words that are not. This helps to find out more about the ability to associate between events and to find out the distance of concepts within a network.
Anyway, I'm just starting to read here... It's very interesting indeed!

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