Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Unclear Horizons

"Transmitters are glued to the backs of ants. I've no idea what this proves apart from that scientists have too much time on their hands" (Daily Mirror, TV Review)

Horizon (BBC1) looked at the "unconscious mind". At the start, it gave a false dichotomy between the conscious and unconscious mind, as though these were two quite separate and discrete things - although it did revisit this area later, and actually partially undermine its own argument.

What is conscious can become become unconscious. Skills are learnt with attention, but they become automatic and mostly unconscious. That's how people learn to walk, to drive, to sky - to do anything which requires the body to have known what it needs to do without perceptible conscious thought. John Eccles, the neurologist and Karl Popper noted this in "The Self and Its Brain", and has also been noted by other psychologists:

Typing and driving a car (for the experienced typist and driver, respectively) are classic examples of the latter -both are efficient procedures that can run off outside of consciousness, but nonetheless both are intentional processes. (One doesn't sit down to type without meaning to in the first place, and the same applies to driving a car.) These and other difficulties with the monolithic, all-or-nothing division of mental processes into either conscious or unconscious have resulted today in different ''flavors'' of the unconscious-different operational definitions that lead to dramatically different conclusions about the power and scope of the unconscious. (1)

An experiment on Horizon showed that an individual has trouble remembering the positions and colours of just four objects in one go, and then it was concluded that most of us have trouble remembering more than around 2 or 3 (if lucky) things at a time; we are not built to multitask. Again, that begs the question of skills becoming automatic. A friend of mine has a radio controlled model plane. He used to crash it a lot; now he flies it with ease, and can conduct a conversation at the same time. It has become a skill, and he doesn't need to devote as much attention to it.

I'm sure that given time, if you wanted to, the positions and colours experiment could be improved on. After all, Derren Brown played 9 chess players simultaneously. He was in fact only playing one game of chess; he was remembering the other 8 positions, and playing 4 of them off against the other four. How would he fare?

And the nature of objects helps memory. An abstraction like shapes and colours on a white computer screen cannot be simply translated to the real world, because how we remember things depends on other associations in the real world. I am surprised they didn't look at the tray game, which I remember as a child.

Find a selection of interesting small objects and arrange them on a tray, which you should keep covered with a tea-towel until you are ready to play the game. Vary the number of objects according to the ages of your children. Give each child a pencil and paper and ask them to write their name at the top. Uncover the tray and place it where all children can see it. Give the children a certain amount of time to memorize the contents of the tray, then cover it up again. Ask the children to write down all of the objects that they can remember.

Remembering real objects is easier because we can construct links, associations, mnemonics in our mind to help us do so - and that's why experiments with abstractions cannot be taken as proof of how we behave in the real world.

The programme then looked at the behaviour of ants - that's when individual ants were tracked with radio transmitters. Separate neurons, it was stated, behaved collectively in a pattern like the ants, so we can understand neurons collective behaviour by looking at these ants.

The jump from an analogy - which was not proven - to a fact - was astounding. At this point, I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the programme had been put together by Mr Nit Wit from the Mr Men. Neurons behave like ants is a supposition, not a fact, but part of the problem of Horizon is that it nowadays presents supposition as fact.

This perverse narration then explained that because of the way neurons operate, pretty well everyone is an optimist seeing the world through rose tinted spectacles, and this gives the push to explorers, man's exodus from Africa, and even the drive to go to the moon. (cue shots of astronauts on the moon) So why did we stop going to the moon if everything looks so rosy and there is a drive to explore space?

The trouble with visuals like this is that while they purport to illustrate what the programme is saying, if you stop to think about it, they actually undermine it. It is as if the producer has been thinking of suitable images to illustrate what the narration is saying, but without considering the import of the images, and where they lead us.

Horizon seems have have a fear of being too full of "talking heads", so it fills up the narrative with imagery, sometimes swirly coloured patterns - "the unconscious" as released by the graphic artists - or by stock shots.

Another question asked was how much of our behaviour is our own intention? And how much is "the unconscious mind"?

The helicopter experiment showed how - as a toy helicopter darted back and forth - people moved to keep its motion in a straight line to catch it, and rationalised their actions when asked about it afterwards. A clever experiment. So the conclusion (stated by the voiceover) that pretty well all our actions is lining things up in patterns because our unconscious is driving our actions.

But the experimenter moved the helicopter in a seemingly random pattern - and they seemed to assume there was no deliberate pattern or rationalisation to that.  For no one suggested the experimenter was not controlling the helicopter by intent rather than just by unconscious processes that he was unaware of! Another wild generalisation bites the dust; but it shouldn't have been made in the first place.

As C.S. Lewis has noted:

Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people's values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough. And this phenomenon is very usual.

I think another failing of the problem is its conceptualisation of what "the unconscious mind" meant. Like Dawkin's "selfish gene", the term "unconscious" is a very slippery one. For a start, it is an abstraction, a model or analogy, but all the time in Horizon, it is assumed it is something that exists, which is dangerously close to the fallacy called reification, when an abstraction is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity. By doing this, Horizon it is pushing a scientific mythology which is only tangentially related to real science.

There are at least four different ways of understanding "unconscious" with regard to how we function, and what motivates us, and Horizon didn't seem to ever know where it was going with its umbrella term.

In cognitive psychology, unconscious information processing has been equated with subliminal information processing, which raises the question, ''How good is the mind at extracting meaning from stimuli of which one is not consciously aware?'

However, the term unconscious originally had a different meaning. The earliest use of the term in the early 1800s referred to hypnotically induced behavior in which the hypnotized subject was not aware of the causes and reasons for his or her behavior (Goldsmith, 1934).

In On the Origin of Species, Darwin (1859) used the term to refer to ''unconscious selection'' processes in nature and contrasted them with the intentional and deliberate selection long engaged in by farmers and animal breeders to develop better strains of corn, fatter cows, and woollier sheep.

Freud, who credited the early hypnosis research with the original discovery of the unconscious (see Brill, 1938), also used the term to refer to behavior and ideation that was not consciously intended or caused-for example, ''Freudian slips'' and nearly all the examples given in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life involve unintended behavior, the source or cause of which was unknown to the individual.

In all these cases, the term unconscious referred to the unintentional nature of the behavior or process, and the concomitant lack of awareness was not of the stimuli that provoked the behavior, but of the influence or consequences of those stimuli.

And this equation of unconscious with unintentional is how unconscious phenomena have been conceptualized and studied within social psychology for the past quarter century or so. (1)

One of the conclusions drawn by Horizon was that consciousness of the world is not continuous but like a series of snapshots giving an illusion of continuity, a dotted line which we grasp incompletely what we see.

This is nothing new. In one of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown story, we read of a Professor outlining this idea of consciousness:

Recent experiments,' went on the professor, quietly, 'have suggested that our consciousness is not continuous, but is a succession of very rapid impressions like a cinema; it is possible that somebody or something may, so to speak, slip in or out between the scenes. It acts only in the instant while the curtain is down. Probably the patter of conjurors and all forms of sleight of hand depend on what we may call these black flashes of blindness between the flashes of sight.

The Professor has just about as poor a view of the limitations of consciousness as Horizon does:

Now this priest and preacher of transcendental notions had filled you with a transcendental imagery; the image of the Celt like a Titan shaking the tower with his curse. Probably he accompanied it with some slight but compelling gesture, pointing your eyes and minds in the direction of the unknown destroyer below. Or perhaps something else happened, or somebody else passed by.'

'Wilson, the servant,' grunted Alboin, 'went down the hallway to wait on the bench, but I guess he didn't distract us much.'

And the final description of how the murder was done - through gaps in consciousness - really sum up this Horizon, in terms of how well it presented its muddled and dumbed-down case:

'You never know how much,' replied Vair; 'it might have been that or more likely your eyes following some gesture of the priest as he told his tale of magic. It was in one of those black flashes that Mr Warren Wynd slipped out of his door and went to his death. That is the most probable explanation. It is an illustration of the new discovery. The mind is not a continuous line, but rather a dotted line.'

'Very dotted,' said Fenner feebly. 'Not to say dotty.'


No comments: