Pareidolia

Thanks to Steven Novella and The Great Courses, I have recently learned a new word: pareidolia.

Pareidolia is a tendency (a very human tendency) to see a pattern in random noise. One example of this is seeing faces in random shapes like clouds.

In Dr. Steven Novella’s lecture series, “Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills,” Dr. Novella tells how a particular memory is a construction that is re-constructed every time we recall it. Our memories are not recorded and played back for us the same way every time we access them—like a movie or a song. Instead, we assemble our memories again and again each time we recall them, with the effect of changing them every time.

Reality is also a construction. We take in sensory input and mash it all together to form a picture, a view or opinion, of what reality is. We have a system of “reality checking” to verify that we have done an adequate job at this. Some people have better reality checking systems than others. Some people have very poor reality checking systems. Those people may have schizophrenia.

Reality testing is switched down when we dream. That’s why we don’t question the odd things we see in our dreams. I recently listened to a TED Talk by a woman with schizophrenia who said that her reality was like living with a dream going on.

Novella echos this when he says that psychosis is the lack or decreased ability to test reality.

People can contaminate each other’s memories. I was suspicious of this after my husband fell in the shower and the guys from the hotel asked him: “You felt dizzy didn’t you and then you fell?” (Rather than, did you slip and fall?) Liability speaking, that probably makes a difference. Medically speaking, it definitely makes a difference.

I also learned a new definition for emotional intelligence: “the relationship between our motivations and our decisions; the tendency to relieve cognitive dissonance with rationalization.”

Dr. Novella tells us that we are awash in misinformation.

Our brain, approximately 3 pounds of grey jelly, is a tool for thinking, but it’s also a “believing machine.” Novella tells us that our brains are deceptive. Humans possess logic, but we are not inherently logical creatures. And, our thoughts follow the path of least resistance.

The brain consists of 100 billion neurons “and a lot of other cells that support those neurons by modifying and modulating function.”

What (who) are these other cells? We must make friends with them.

It seems that humans are plagued with a brain that can be logical but that evolved to easily accept logical fallacies.

There is so much in this course of thinking about thinking that I can’t even scratch the surface here. This course goes a long way to explain scientific skepticism and how to arrive at conclusions that are likely to be true and to have a sense of how reliable our conclusions are.

When faced with built-in deceptive thinking (even in the healthy brain), the barrage of information we have thrown at us, outside forces that seek to influence us for a buck (or lots of bucks), Dr. Novella gives us some strategies for examining conclusions. He urges us to invest the in process of thinking critically rather than the conclusions we arrive at.

He tells us that we tend to remember emotional events, so want to remember something? Tie an emotion to it.

Narratives are important to us, and we tend to make up the details as needed to make our memory narrative work. This means our memories are terribly flawed.

Reality seems to be a construct that we all need to agree upon. We need to collectively agree on which patterns have significance and which ones are meaningless.

I think that pareidolia must help us with language. Once you speak a language fluently, you can understand a variety of accents without a problem. However, the language learner has trouble understanding a variety of accents because they actually hear and analyze each sound. Fluent speakers rely on this innate pattern finding ability to approximate (and predict) words or phrases to decide quickly what they “must” mean.

Stay with the course to learn about statistics, the scientific method, and how logic works. I found the section on non sequiturs very engaging.

How should we cope with the urge to impose meaning on the patterns that we see? How can we not become emotionally attached to our conclusions?

Novella tells us that humans have an innate desire for control. Feeling a lack of control increases our pattern recognition or pareidolia. Magical thinking gives us the illusion that we can exert some control over otherwise random events. Superstitions are a result of this desire for control.

Novella tells us that “reality is always more complicated than you think.”

If you’re interested in hearing more of what Dr. Novella has to say, you can follow his blog, Science-Based Medicine.

Michael Faraday and Other Musings

FaradayWhen asked about heroes, who comes to mind?

My grandfather loved Einstein. My grandmother never quite got on board. I’m not sure why. It could have been the womanizing thing. Or, maybe it was the bomb.

Me, I sometimes wonder who my heroes are. I don’t spend a lot of time looking. For some reason, I want my heroes to just show up and knock on my door. But for a long time, I was in my grandfather’s camp. Einstein is (was) kind of cool.

I’ve been spending the whole year clearing clutter, going through old papers and throwing out as much as possible. I had this crazy idea of leaving. Running away. I often joke that I’m a flight risk.

As I was doing this, I came across some Internet printouts on Thomas Edison, Edith Clarke, Michael Faraday, and Nicola Tesla. I had been hoarding them as is my nature. I couldn’t bear to throw them out until I had read them. So I’ve been holding onto them, for years.

Reading through this stack of papers, I discovered that these were some impressive people. At first glance, you’d think I’d like Edison, but no. He lost me with the experiments on dogs. I don’t care how much the guy perspired. Although the sudden windfall that sent him from rags to riches did capture my imagination, he came across as kind of, well, stuffy and gruff. So no, I am no Edison girl.

Edith Clarke—a female engineer, a human computer. She had the Texas connection. She and I walked on the same 40 acres. She traveled to Turkey to teach for a couple of years and then wound up retiring from the University of Texas. There must still be some Texas loyalty in my blood because I was left unimpressed to learn that upon her retirement she didn’t stay in Texas. She returned home to wherever it was she was from. So no, kudos to Edith, but no, it’s not her.

Tesla, the man who stood up to Edison. The guy who turned out to be right. AC is better. I have to admit; he was in the running. But no. It wasn’t him either.

Who was it? Michael Faraday, of course. The poor boy who divided up his loaf of bread into 14 equal pieces to ensure that he would have something to eat every day of the week. The boy who went to a chemistry lecture, took copious notes, returned to his bookbinding job, bound those notes, and sent them to the lecturer along with a letter begging for employment, begging to be taken away from the drudgery that was his life. Sounds like something I would do. I like this guy. And for Faraday, it worked.

Faraday was interested in all the things I’m interested in: light, magnets, electricity, force fields, strain, tension. He seemed to be onto how all of these things are connected. Light: particle or wave? Both? That’s what I grew up wondering about. It’s all connected. Chemistry is in there too, somewhere.

Faraday figured out induction which led to the generator, and the production of electricity. My life. It would seem.

I’m notorious for connecting things that should not be connected. But upon reading about Faraday, I thought of a conversation I had not so long ago with someone I admire. He was telling me that sometimes tension is good. Bah humbug, I wanted to say. And then I read about Faraday and about waves, the tension that is caught up in a wave, drawn oh so tight until its release and the wave that washes back in the other direction. The ocean. The moon. Tension. Stress.

“Unlike his contemporaries, Faraday was not convinced that electricity was a material fluid that flowed through wires like water through a pipe. Instead, he thought of it as a vibration or force that was somehow transmitted as the result of tensions created in the conductor.”

“When he opened the circuit, however, he was astonished to see the galvanometer jump in the opposite direction. Somehow, turning off the current also created an induced current in the secondary circuit, equal and opposite to the original current. This phenomenon led Faraday to propose what he called the ‘electronic’ state of particles in the wire, which he considered to be in a state of tension. A current thus appeared to be the setting up of such a state of tension or the collapse of such a state.”

He never found the experimental evidence to support this theory, but I like it. Sounds pretty darn good to me.

Unfortunately, I’m way out of my league when I try to talk about these things. But they fascinate me. Gosh, sit me down with a particle physicist any day, and I would be in heaven.

 

 

The treason of the artist

I was trying to think of something to post today, and I saw that someone had searched and found my blog using this question: What does “the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain” mean?

This quote is from the short story by Ursula Le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

I thought I’d take a stab at answering this question. Alternatively, whoever asked the question might try contacting Ursula. Who knows, she might answer you. Some authors are quite friendly and happy to expound on the topics that interest them. But, sometimes I find questions in stories to be opportunities to do a little soul searching, a little probing to see what I can make of their significance.  So here is my take.

The quote that I put on my blog was this:

“They [the citizens of Omelas] were no less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pendants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

Le Guin is contrasting the citizens of Omelas with us—the world she has created (a utopian world where everyone is happy) and the real world (where there is much hardship and pain).

The quote goes on to say:

“If you can’t lick ’em join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy…”

To me, Ursula is saying that the treason of the artist is that artists regard evil as supremely interesting. Artists value pain and despair. These things drive creativity behind art; they are at its core. Artists don’t recognize the commonplace or ordinary nature of evil. Artists see evil as unique, worth writing about, worth centering stories around, worth painting and showing off. Evil fuels the news. We fight evil in our games. In a way, all this attention to evil elevates evil as though it were extraordinary, as though it were unique, as though it could be categorized as new and different.

But, argues Ursula, there is nothing new about evil, or pain. They are quite ordinary to our world and to our condition in the world. The treason of the artist, therefore, is to refuse to see evil this way. Artists idolize our world. Artists see the world as a place that should not have evil and pain, and therefore they continue their treason, that of regarding evil and pain as interesting above happiness, as extraordinary, as something worth examining in every creation. Evil and pain are the points of interest. Our resistance to them, how and why we resist, consumes our imagination as we obsessively and compulsively ruminate over these fundamental elements of our existence.

As for the terrible boredom of pain, I struggle with this idea. When someone is in pain, their pain fascinates them. Nothing else can absorb their interest. If someone, as in Ursula’s story, was condemned to a life of pain, I suppose there could be a terrible boredom in that. Would there come a horrible point when the pain became boring? And would that point result only from a hideous pain and psychological struggle hard for us to even imagine? I don’t know.

In the end, I think Ursula is saying that artists betray our trust. They commit “treason” against us by continuing to demonstrate that evil is unique/extraordinary and that pain is interesting.

But are artists by nature of our world and the very nature of our existence condemned to be treasonous? Writing exists (art) only when there is conflict. Art arises out of resistance to conflict. We regard our world as “creation.” Could “creation” exist without conflict? Is it even possible to have a world, “creation,” without pain?

In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” Ursula has tried to not commit this treason; she has tried to create art, a utopian world, where pain is unique and not banal, not commonplace. This becomes a horrible world where everyone is in on inflicting the pain so that they don’t have to personally experience it. If there were such a world, asks Ursula, would you want to be part of it? Would you want to live in a world where evil is unique because wouldn’t that mean that if you yourself did not experience the pain of evil, wouldn’t you then be the one who inflicts the evil? To not rescue someone in pain makes you a party to inflicting the pain.

Ursula also tell us that the victim of this pain and evil can never be truly rescued, can never be healed, can never recover. They are permanently damaged by all this pain and degradation beyond all repair. There is nothing you can do to help them. Even if they were released from their bondage, they are forever imprisoned psychologically. You can’t fix this.

And so, some people, a limited few, upon realizing their powerlessness to affect change in Omelas refuse to be a part of that society and they walk away. They leave a world where their happiness is ensured and enter a dark world where they will know suffering and despair. They chose to take on their part of the burden of the world’s suffering.

So in the end, do artists commit treason? Are artists by the very nature of the creation we all live in compelled to commit treason? Is it possible to create an interesting story without evil or pain?