Monday, August 27, 2007

The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

This Thursday I have a class about Hofstadter's cognitive theories, and, since I'm so deeply buried into that work, it's hard to know where to start. So here I'm thinking: Why do I feel it has so much promise? Why does Ariston and others immediately agree with me that, somehow, that's "exactly" how our minds work? Why do I feel it is the best right way towards the "cortical" algorithm? Why am I so impressed with this work?


My good friend Eric Nichols and I are operating under the rules of almighty Alli. When you're under Alli, you know better than feasting yourself in places such as these. A part of you wants to live a normal life and eat like everyone else, another says "remember Dostoyevsky; don't touch that poison". As Schelling would say, Alli helps "enforcing rules on oneself".


I once went skydiving in Chicago. Awesome experience. Very fun at the beginning, pages and pages of legal papers giving up any and all of your rights, and when the plane goes up, everyone is all smiles.

Not that the feeling will last for long.

When the door opens up, the smiles are gone. The chilling wind, and god!, the people disappearing at the plane's door, really make your heart beat--but not in a happy way. A part of you has planned to do this, has driven for almost an hour from downtown, has paid good money for it, and "hopes" that you'll jump. Another part of you, however, doesn't agree. This other part is screaming out: "are you f***ing out of your mind?", "You're gonna jump from a plane at 10.000 feet?", "No way I'll let you do it!"

Gladly, you had given up your rights before. All the guys have to do now is to throw you from the plane. Even if you'll become a human-flavored pizza 10.000 feet below, that will be no problem--for them at least. So they throw you from the plane.

Let me tell you, that's what they do.


In this blog I have mentioned before the case of the would-be cigarette quitter, and I am yet to apply Schelling's strategic commitment in what refers my presence in The Club of Rome. The idea that, by reducing one's options, one can actually enforce the behaviors decided rationally previously is not only an intriguing part of human nature, but also has important implications in economics and strategic behavior.

But let me focus on the psychology here. It certainly feels to me that I have these subcognitive urges competing between themselves. What are these processes like? Selfish & myopic--they do not care at all about the big picture. They do not care that there may be other urges fooling around, saying "no!", or saying "go!" In your brain, each of them selfishly seeks all your attention. And they ignore any and all long-term consequences.

When "you" are halfway awake and halfway asleep, if "you" open your eyes for a brief instant, to close them for "just a little minute", only to wake up hours after "you" had originally desired, let me ask: who are the real you? The one that "briefly, but consciously" had closed the eyes, or are you the one that woke up only to regret those lost hours? The answer, strange as it may seem, is: you are "both", and you are "neither".

"You" are "both", in the sense that what you do, think, and desire, is a fruit of the fight of all of these subcognitive processes--the competition between those that say "awake now" and those saying "just a sec". At the same time, "you" are "neither" of those individual processes--as neither your behavior nor your thoughts can be traced to any single one of them. Like the strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, "you" are not one nor the other, "you" are the emergent product of many.

This is, in my opinion, the first groundbreaking proposal from Hofstadter: the mind is the emergent product of a number of subcognitive processes.

(Not that Doug had brought up the idea originally, but, as Margaret Boden has said in her history of Cognitive Science, in GEB he paved the way so completely that it would finally have to be taken seriously. The other two ideas that he has gone way beyond others, in my opinion, are in modeling priming and understanding.)


Ponder Stibbons said...

Does subcognitive imply subconscious (or other way around)?