Friday, December 29, 2006

Life without intuition, part (i)

Ok. If you took a look at those chess masters, you might be interested in analyzing, scientifically, what goes on on the minds of people. Since science grows by comparing stuff, perhaps it is high time to compare intuition to the alternative: The lack of it.

What is life like if you don't have intuition? There are two possibilities, either you (i) cannot learn all those subtle things we do unconsciously, and are bound to respond to your impulses, or (ii) you badly suffer from analysis paralysis. In both cases what is lacking is perhaps the ability to create invisible, subgconitive, associations, the ability to obtain preferences, the basis of all judgement--more on this on another post; for now, let's consider the condition Hofstadter refers to as Sphexiness:

When the time comes for egg-laying, the wasp Sphex builds a burrow for the purpose and seeks out a cricket which she stings in such a way as to paralyze but not kill it. She drags the cricket into the burrow, lays her eggs alongside, closes the burrow, then flies away, never to return. In due course, the eggs hatch and the wasp grubs feed off the paralyzed cricket, which has not decayed, having been kept in the wasp equivalent of a deepfreeze.


Here is our hero working with the delicious, paralyzed, cricket, and checking how the newly buried home looks.



Hofstadter continues:

To the human mind, such an elaborately organized and seemingly purposeful routine conveys a convincing flavor of logic and thoughtfulness, until more details are examined. For example, the wasp's routine is to bring the paralyzed cricket to the burrow, leave it on the threshold, go inside to see that all is well, emerge, and then drag the cricket in. If the cricket is moved a few inches away while the wasp is inside making the preliminary inspection, the wasp, on emerging from the burrow, will bring the cricket back to the threshold, but not inside, and will then repeat the preparatory procedure of entering the burrow to see that everything is all right. If again the cricket is removed a few inches while the wasp is inside, once again she will move the cricket up to the threshold and reenter the burrow for a final check. The wasp never thinks of pulling the cricket straight in. On one occasion, this procedure was repeated forty times, with the same result.


Talk about a behaviorist dream. The poor Sphex is condemned to obey its impulses, without a shred of understanding, and without the ability to recognize that 'something is not ok here... but what exactly?" This funny feeling is the subcognitive basis for intuition, and not all species are privileged to have it. Of course, the elaborate behavior has a name: instinct.

Despite your consideration of the unstoppable gambler, the alcoholic, and other compulsive or obsessed people, humans do display their powers of intuition most of the time. This begs two questions: what are the mechanisms that enable human intuition? How do those funny feelings arise? And why do some species have intuition, while others do not?

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