Nick Chater is the author of The Mind is Flat–the Remarkable Shallowness of the Improvising Brain, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2019. He is a professor of behavioral science at the Warwick Business School. The book is two parts and overall it is as ambitious as it is simple. The first part is the most convincing. He shows how misguided we are on our perceptions, emotions, and decision making. Our vision seems to provide us with a full fledged model of our environment, when we really only can focus on a very small area with our furtive eye movements providing the impression of a complete detailed picture. Our emotions do not well up from deep inside, but are the results of in-the-moment interpretations based on the situation we are in, and highly ambiguous evidence from our own bodily state. Chater sees our beliefs, desires, and hopes as just as much inventions as our favorite fictional characters. Introspection does not work, because there is nothing to look at. We are imaginative creatures with minds that pretty much do everything on the fly. We improvise so our decision making is inconsistent as are our preferences.
Every couple of years, I seem to go back and look at “decision making” books that have arrived in my local library. I clearly take a broad view of decision making. This time I came up with Farsighted, Elastic, and the Mind is Flat. The first two books were definitely written to be popular books with the third less so. They share quite a bit. They all rely quite a bit on illustrations or questionnaires that show the peculiarities and shortcomings of our minds. They all rely on literature to explain their cases on how our minds work. Farsighted uses George Eliot and Middlemarch. Elastic uses Jonathan Franzen and mentions his book Corrections. The Mind is Flat uses Leo Tolstoy and Anna Karenina.
This post is inspired by The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu, Vintage Books, 2017, New York. Decision making is not a front line issue in the book, but it is also clear that we cannot control our decision making if we cannot control our attention. The book begins as a history of what has grabbed our attention from newspapers and posters to radio to television to computers and video games, to the internet and its vehicles including our present attention grabber, the cell phone. Of course, each attention platform has ultimately had to make money and advertising has been the dominant path chosen. Advertising is the villain only to the extent that it puts able resources into effectively capturing our attention. But we do not check our email so often or play video games so long due to advertising. There is definitely some behavioral conditioning going on. Wu mentions that video games can even: “induce a ‘flow state’, that form of contentment, of optimal experience, described by the cognitive scientist Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi, in which people feel ‘strong, alert, if effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.”
In Confidence, Part II, the authors conclude that confidence is computed continuously, online, throughout the decision making process, thus lending support to models of the mind as a device that computes with probabilistic estimates and probability distributions.
The Embodied Mind
One such explanation is that of predictive processing/embodied mind. Andy Clark, Jacob Hohwy, and Karl Friston have all helped to weave together this concept. Our minds are blends of top down and bottom up processing where error messages and the effort to fix those errors makes it possible for us to engage the world. According to the embodied mind model, our minds do not just reside in our heads. Our bodies determine how we interact with the world and how we shape our world so that we can predict better. Our evolutionary limitations have much to do with how our minds work. One example provided by Andy Clark and Barbara Webb is a robot without any brain imitating human walking nearly perfectly (video go to 2:40). Now how does this tie into confidence? Confidence at a conscious level is the extent of our belief that our decisions are correct. But the same thing is going on as a fundamental part of perception and action. Estimating the certainty of our own prediction error signals of our own mental states and processes is as Clark notes: “clearly a delicate and tricky business. For it is the prediction error signal that…gets to ‘carry the news’.”
I discovered that I was a celiac a few months ago and accordingly I am on a gluten free diet. Compared to most conditions discovered in one’s late sixties, celiac disease seems almost inconsequential. However, it fits into the idea of prediction error minimization. In effect, the environment has changed and I need to change my predictions. Bread and beer are now bad. My automatic, intuitive prediction machine has not been getting it right. It is disorienting. I can no longer “See food, eat food.” I can change the environment at home, but in the wider world I need to be aware. My brain needs to dedicate perpetual, and at least for now, conscious effort to this cause. It is almost as if I became instantly even dumber. It makes me more self absorbed in social settings that involve food. Not known for my social skills, I have been a good listener, but now not so much. On my Dad’s 94th birthday, I ate a big piece of German chocolate cake, enjoyed it thoroughly, and then remembered that it was not allowed. In my particular case, I do not get sick or nauseated when I make such a mistake so my commitment is always under threat. This demands an even larger share of my brain to be compliant. My main incentive to comply is those photos of my scalloped small intestine. I note that I was diagnosed after years of trying to figure out my low ferritin levels. (It will be extremely disappointing if I find that my ferritin is still low.) Continue reading
Why do almost all people tell the truth in ordinary everyday
life? […] The reason is, firstly because it is easier; for
lying demands invention, dissimulation, and a good memory
(Friedrich Nietzsche, page 54, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, 1878)
This post is based on the paper: ” ‘ I can see it in your eyes’: Biased Processing and Increased Arousal in Dishonest Responses,” authored by Guy Hochman, Andreas Glockner, Susan Fiedler, and Shahar Ayal, that appeared in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, December 2015.
This post examines the paper: “Are There Levels of Consciousness?” written by
Tim Bayne, Jakob Hohwy, and Adrian M. Owen, that appeared in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, June 2016, Vol. 20, No. 6. The paper is described as opinion and for me bridges ideas of predictive processing with some of the ideas of Stanislas Dehaene. Jakob Hohwy is an important describer of predictive processing. The paper argues that the levels-based or continuum based framework for conceptualizing global states of consciousness is untenable and develops in its place a multidimensional account of global states.
Consciousness is typically taken to have two aspects: local states and global states. Local states of consciousness include perceptual experiences of various kinds, imagery experiences, bodily sensations, affective experiences, and occurrent thoughts. In the science of consciousness local states are usually referred to as ‘conscious contents. By contrast, global states of consciousness are not typically distinguished from each other on the basis of the objects or features that are represented in experience. Instead, they are typically distinguished from each other on cognitive, behavioral, and physiological grounds. For example, the global state associated with alert wakefulness is distinguished from the global states that are associated with post-comatose conditions.
The authors suggest that to describe global states as levels of consciousness is to imply that consciousness comes in degrees, and that changes in a creature’s global state of consciousness can be represented as changes along a single dimension of analysis. Bayne, Hohwy, and Owen see two problems with this. One person can be conscious of more objects and properties than another person, but to be conscious of more is not to be more conscious. A sighted person might be conscious of more than someone who is blind, but they are not more conscious than the blind person is. The second problem that they see with the level-based analysis of global states is that there is good reason to doubt whether all global states can be assigned a determinate ordering relative to each other. The authors provide the example of the relationship between the global conscious state associated with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and that which is associated with light levels of sedation. They do not believe that one of these states must be absolutely ‘higher’ than the other. Perhaps states can be compared with each other only relative to certain dimensions of analysis: the global state associated with REM sleep might be higher than that associated with sedation on some dimensions of analysis, whereas the opposite might be the case on other dimensions of analysis (Figure 1A).
The authors recognize two clear dimensions, but suggest there are likely several more. The first is gating. In some global states the contents of consciousness appear to be gated in various ways, with the result that individuals are able to experience only a restricted range of contents. MCS patients, patients undergoing absence seizures, and mildly sedated individuals can consciously represent the low-level features of objects, but they are typically unable to represent the categories to which perceptual objects belong. Thus, the gating of conscious contents is likely to provide one dimension along which certain global states can be hierarchically organized. The second dimension of consciousness is often captured by saying that the contents of consciousness are globally available for the control of thought and action. However, there is good reason to think that it is compromised in a number of pathologies of consciousness. For example, patients undergoing absence seizures can engage in perceptual-driven motor responses even though their capacities for reasoning, executive processing, and memory consolidation are typically limited. With respect to this dimension, the global state of consciousness associated with the EMCS is ‘higher’ than that which is associated with the MCS, for EMCS patients have access to a wider range of cognitive and behavioral consuming systems than MCS patients do.
Beyond the dimensions of gating of contents and the availability associated with consciousness, the authors suggest there might there be a role for attention in structuring global states. There is also the question of the possibility of interaction between some of the dimensions that structure consciousness. Although some dimensions may be completely independent of each other, others are likely to modulate each other. For example, there might be interactions between the gating of contents and functionality such that consciousness cannot be high on the gating dimension but low on certain dimensions of functionality (Figure 1C).
This idea that global states of consciousness are best understood as regions in a multidimensional space seems to me a natural progression as we learn more about consciousness and its underpinnings. An example is the time when you are completely immersed in some task and you don’t notice time passing or who walked by. Your attention is completely focused and gated so that you are missing other things. It is not a higher level of consciousness, but a different level of consciousness. The spotlight is focused on a smaller area. The light itself is not any brighter. At the same time, the argument that Bayne, Hohwy and Owen are making seems to be focused at very limited consciousness. Most of us just see a sleeping person as unconscious without an active global neuronal workspace. We do not see a person as conscious until some threshold or phase change occurs so that the light is brighter so that the availability is greater. There must be some level of error coming back from our predictions. Several previous posts including Consciousness. Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, The Global Neuronal Workspace, and Dehaene: Consciousness and Decision Making, have looked at consciousness. This paper did not address the consciousness of other animals. It also did not address Intuition which is often considered unconscious in some ways since it is typically effortless as we perceive it. Global availability seems important to the idea. Of course, as you develop expertise, global availability is not so necessary for certain subjects. Auto-pilot can handle normal situations once you have expertise so maybe we all have different conscious realms since we have different expertise.
Frankly, I doubt that many would argue that consciousness has only a single dimension. Dehaene may ignore multiple dimensions, but I would suggest that he does this to make the idea more understandable to laymen.
This post is based on “Providing information for decision making: Contrasting description and simulation,” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 4 (2015) 221–228, written by
Robin M. Hogarth and Emre Soyer. Hogarth and Soyer propose that providing information to help people make decisions can be likened to telling stories. First, the provider – or story teller – needs to know what he or she wants to say. Second, it is important to understand characteristics of the audience as this affects how information is interpreted. And third, the provider must match what is said to the needs of the audience. Finally, when it comes to decision making, the provider should not tell the audience what to do. Although Hogarth and Soyer do not mention it, good storytelling draws us into the descriptions so that we can “experience” the story. (see post 2009 Review of Judgment and Decision Making Research)
Hogarth and Soyer state that their interest in this issue was stimulated by a survey they conducted of how economists interpret the results of regression analysis. The economists were given the outcomes of the regression analysis in a typical, tabular format and the questions involved interpreting the probabilistic implications of specific actions given the estimation results. The participants had available all the information necessary to provide correct answers, but in general they failed to do so. They tended to ignore the uncertainty involved in predicting the dependent variable conditional on values of the independent variable. As such they vastly overestimated the predictive ability of the model. Another group of similar economists who only saw a bivariate scatterplot of the data were accurate in answering the same questions. These economists were not generally blinded by numbers as some in the population, but they still needed the visually presented frequency information.
This is more or less a continuation of the previous post based on Andy Clark’s “Embodied Prediction,” in T. Metzinger & J. M. Windt (Eds). Open MIND: 7(T). Frankfurt am Main: MIND Group (2015). It further weighs in on the issue of changing strategies or changing weights (see post Revisiting Swiss Army Knife or Adaptive Tool Box). Clark has brought to my attention the terms model free and model based which seem to roughly equate to intuition/system 1 and analysis/system 2 respectively. With this translation, I am helped in trying to tie this into ideas like cognitive niches and parallel constraint satisfaction. Clark in a footnote:
Current thinking about switching between model-free and model based strategies places them squarely in the context of hierarchical inference, through the use of “Bayesian parameter averaging”. This essentially associates model-free schemes with simpler (less complex) lower levels of the hierarchy that may, at times, need to be contextualized
by (more complex) higher levels.
As humans, we have been able to use language, our social skills, and our understanding of hierarchy to extend our cognition. Multiplication of large numbers is an example. We cannot remember enough numbers in our heads so we created a way to do any multiplication on paper or its equivalent if we can learn our multiplication tables. Clark cites the example of the way that learning to perform mental arithmetic has been scaffolded, in some cultures, by the deliberate use of an abacus. Experience with patterns thus made available helps to install appreciation of many complex arithmetical operations and relations. We structure (and repeatedly re-structure) our physical and social environments in ways that make available new knowledge and skills. Prediction-hungry brains, exposed in the course of embodied action to novel patterns of sensory stimulation, may thus acquire forms of knowledge that were genuinely out-of reach prior to such physical-manipulation-based re-tuning of the generative model. Action and perception thus work together to reduce prediction error against the more slowly evolving backdrop of a culturally distributed process that spawns a succession of designed environments whose impact on the development and unfolding of human thought and reason can hardly be overestimated. Continue reading
This post is based on a paper by Andy Clark: “Embodied Prediction,” in T. Metzinger & J. M. Windt (Eds). Open MIND: 7(T). Frankfurt am Main: MIND Group (2015). Andy Clark is a philosopher at the University of Edinburgh whose tastes trend toward the wild shirt. He is a very well educated philosopher in the brain sciences and a good teacher. The paper seems to put forward some major ideas for decision making even though that is not its focus. Hammond’s idea of the Cognitive Continuum is well accommodated. It also seems quite compatible with Parallel Constraint Satisfaction, but leaves room for Fast and Frugal Heuristics. It seems to provide a way to merge Parallel Constraint Satisfaction and Cognitive Niches. I do not really understand PCS well enough, but it seems potentially to add hierarchy to PCS and make it into a generative model that can introduce fresh constraint satisfaction variables and constraints as new components. If you have not read the post Prediction Machine, you should because the current post skips much background. It is also difficult to distinguish Embodied Prediction and Grounded Cognition. There are likely to be posts that follow on the same general topic.