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Monday, December 8, 2008

Blinkages, Pt. I

Are you ever in a phone conversation, and while you’re in the middle of talking, something in the back of your mind tells you that something’s not right? That could be your subconscious analyzing the difference of having no feedback in the middle of talking, but your conscious is not as aware of it and doesn’t pick up on the nuances as easily. So you might go on for a few sentences, and then when you get to a stopping point, or ask a question, you finally realize that the other person lost their connection and you’ve been talking to empty air for awhile.

There are many such instances in life where things just don’t seem right, but at that moment we’re not sure why. We just have a strange feeling about it without being able to identify what it is.

I recently turned the pages of a book by Malcolm Gladwell called “Blink” (pub. 2005), which is a study on instinctual impulses. Blink is Gladwell’s term for the first two seconds or so of when we analyze something. In that short time, our subconscious can observe and analyze the clues, and often provide us with all the useful information we need to know. And in many cases, additional information only serves to cloud the issue, and makes our decision making more difficult, subject to more potential error.

A review of Blink gave this synopsis:
Gladwell maintains that we "blink" when we think without thinking. We do that by "thin-slicing," using limited information to come to our conclusion. In what Gladwell contends is an age of information overload, he finds that experts often make better decisions with snap judgments than they do with volumes of analysis.

Gladwell says “There are moments, particularly in times of stress, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world.”

That’s why many times things just don’t feel “right”, even though we can’t really put our finger on what it is, and have difficulty explaining to someone else why. Gladwell also shows how people who try to assign a reason to those impulses misinterpret the source, and seem to invent reasons without realizing what they’re doing. In other words, they’re getting messages from their subconscious which they’re attributing to unrelated conscious sources.

The book itself is loaded with intriguing studies and concepts, though Gladwell doesn’t bring them together into a coherent whole. Gladwell also recognizes that heat of the moment-type reaction can produce irrational judgment, and while he accounts for this, a clear delineation as to when it’s rational and when it’s not isn’t outlined in the book. In these senses, Blink is an unfinished product, but then this might just be a reflection of this whole field of study in general. At any rate, the author introduces a lot of ideas that are worthy of further inquiry, so he does set the table for us and give us a good menu to select from.

I’ve always marvelled at how our minds can anticipate things through our subconscious without even concentrating on it consciously. One example I’ve noticed is when you’re walking on a sidewalk, and you can instinctively predict with practically flawless precision whether you’ll be stepping with your left or right foot at any point at about 20 feet away. If you pick out a line in the cement, your brain can instantly tell you which foot will step on or over that line up to about six steps in advance. I’ve been able to do seven steps on occasion, but six has been more of the norm. (Note also that it doesn’t have to do with distance so much as it has to do with deriving a pattern from your stride, so you could alter your pace from one experiment to the next and it would still work) You just do it naturally without even thinking about it, and it's instantaneous. There's no conscious analysis involved. In fact, trying to analyze it would cause you to break your stride and delay an answer. This is a good lesson for life. We try to analyze things so much that often the ambitious analysis can do more harm than good, defeating the whole purpose.

One other interesting application of this concept involves tapping into your memory without your realizing it. There have been times when I've been editing the formatting of a document written by someone else, without paying attention to the content. From out of the blue, I find myself humming a tune without even knowing why. And then a little while later, I notice some words in the document that triggered the response, which were part of the lyrics of a song. I had read it without knowing that I saw it. Not only that, but I processed it and retrieved an associated thought from my memory without knowing that this was going on. And to top it off, I started humming the tune, not knowing why I was humming it!

I don't know if this one has happened to you, but sometimes when I'm driving and the traffic gets monotonous, I might be daydreaming while watching the road at the same time. There have been times where I've realized after the fact that I had just stopped at a red stoplight and then started up again when it was green while being lost in thought regarding something else. As I come back to reality, I become aware of the passage of time from the last time I was consciously driving, which might have been two blocks earlier. Fortunately, my subconscious knows how to stop at intersections!

Often, people will come up with their best ideas when they’re doing something other than trying to focus on the task at hand. This is probably the conscious getting in the way of the subconscious. Something will occur to you instead while showering, taking a bathroom break, going for a walk, etc. If you're trying hard to remember something, often that can block it, but then later when your mind is clear and you're not even thinking about it, it will come to you freely. Thinking hard many times makes it harder to think.

So, back to Blink, here’s an excerpt with one of the studies:

Imagine that I were to ask you to play a very simple gambling game. In front of you are four decks of cards — two of them red and the other two blue. Each card in those four decks either wins you a sum of money or costs you some money, and your job is to turn over cards from any of the decks, one at a time, in such a way that maximizes your winnings. What you don’t know at the beginning, however, is that the red decks are a minefield. The rewards are high, but when you lose on the red cards, you lose a lot. Actually, you can win only by taking cards from the blue decks, which offer a nice steady diet of $50 payouts and modest penalties. The question is how long will it take you to figure this out?

A group of scientists at the University of Iowa did this experiment a few years ago, and what they found is that after we’ve turned over about fifty cards, most of us start to develop a hunch about what’s going on. We don’t know why we prefer the blue decks, but we’re pretty sure at that point that they are a better bet. After turning over about eighty cards, most of us have figured out the game and can explain exactly why the first two decks are such a bad idea. That much is straightforward. We have some experiences. We think them through. We develop a theory. And then finally we put two and two together. That’s the way learning works.

But the Iowa scientists did something else, and this is where the strange part of the
experiment begins. They hooked each gambler up to a machine that measured the
activity of the sweat glands below the skin in the palms of their hands. Like
most of our sweat glands, those in our palms respond to stress as well as
temperature — which is why we get clammy hands when we are nervous. What the
Iowa scientists found is that gamblers started generating stress responses to
the red decks by the tenth card, forty cards before they were able to say that
they had a hunch about what was wrong with those two decks. More important,
right around the time their palms started sweating, their behavior began to
change as well. They started favoring the blue cards and taking fewer and fewer
cards from the red decks [without realizing it]. They began making the necessary
adjustments long before they were consciously aware of what adjustments they
were supposed to be making.
Fascinating stuff. This suggests that we can change our behavior to something without realizing that we’re doing it, and it can be in response to our subconscious making an analysis. Blink has several such studies cited, which together form a strong case for Gladwell’s premise.

There’s too much from the book to fit into only one or two posts, so in the coming weeks I’ll post more of its findings, along with some of my own commentary.


Anonymous said...

I haven't finished this book but I started it a while back. I've noticed myself doing things similar to your humming of the song.

One thing I've noticed, since I was a kid, that is very, very cool, is that when I'm reading a book or magazine article, and I stop and put it down, when I come back to it, my eyes immediately go to the spot where I left off. Most of the time, I second guess myself and let my eyes scan the pages to confirm that I'm at the right spot. And ALWAYS-- like, 100% of the time-- I am at the very next paragraph. So, my eyes won't even go to the end of the last paragraph I read. They will know to go to the beginning of the next paragraph I am ready to read. Even though my eyes hadn't seen the words of that paragraph yet. At least, not that I consciously remember.

It's very cool stuff.

Rusty Southwick said...

Wow, the human bookmark, eh? You must be very visual in that sense.

It is cool, huh? Just makes you wonder what all is going on in your subconscious. Our brains are extraordinary things.

That reminds me of something else, though I haven't had that particular one happen with me. Often when I'm looking for a certain word on a page that I've read before, my eyes go right to the word, as if I can't see any other words on the page. It's uncanny when that happens. Out of the hundreds of words on a page, by random chance it wouldn't occur that often, but it happens a lot. I've never figured out a pattern for it, for when it happens and when it doesn't.

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