Friday, February 13, 2015

Beginnings II: Establishing Common Ground

A closer look at the attributes, and at why their universality matters

In "Beginnings: Toward an Open Source Map of Human Nature," I stated:

"Four basic human attributes—habitual pattern recognition, analogical thinking, a limited attention span, and a body governed by instincts—are all that are needed to assemble a coherent, accessible explanation for all possible human behavior."

and then proceeded to lay down an outline of sorts.

Let's take a closer look at those attributes.

Part I

(~720 words)

Human conscious attention is shockingly limited, so much so that we often fail to notice just how much of the world around us we are missing.


You cannot simultaneously think of everything you know (limited conscious capacity). You cannot list everything you have ever learned (limited retrieval). You cannot consciously micromanage running up a flight of stairs (limited processing speed). And you certainly cannot pay close attention to everything that is going on around you at once (limited targeting).

Even allowing for individual variation, the universality of these four attentional limits is so obvious as to be self-evident.

They apply equally to each of us, all of the time.

Somewhat surprisingly, our attentional limits turn out to be far, far stricter than most of us have ever imagined.

Try to count the number of "n's" remaining in this post while simultaneously reading for comprehension and actively monitoring the noises in your surroundings, and you'll begin to get an idea of the scope of the problem.

Our ability to overlook the severity of our own attentional limits is almost entirely due to the presence of a pair of hardwired cognitive workarounds:

First, we instinctively recognize patterns. The most stable and persistent of these are automatically saved as unconscious habits of thought and action. These habits accumulate continuously over the course of a lifetime, sinking below the waterline of consciousness in vast and ever-increasingly tangled layers.


It matters because, as Jeff Hawkins pointed out in 2004, pattern recognition enables pattern prediction.

As with autocorrect,* built-in pattern recognition allows the outcomes of sufficiently familiar events to be quickly and automatically anticipated.

*Although with the following caveat: as with autocorrect, the predictions can be wrong.*

In other words, pattern recognition enables us to react both consciously and unconsciously(!) to events even before they have finished unfolding. Pattern recognition brings a big functional upgrade to our attentional capacity, retrieval, speed, and targeting, improving real-world performance many times over.

MORE: As local patterns accumulate in tangled layers, they gradually knit into predictive habits of enormous sophistication. Letters are grouped into familiar syllables, syllables form familiar words, words become familiar phrases, and so on.

The attentional headroom needed to extract meaning from the words you are currently reading is only available because the heavy work of letter recognition is being done below attentional decks.

Accumulated habit, not conscious micromanagement, is how we run up flights of stairs, follow conversations, and generally manage the unique details of our own everyday lives.

Second, we reflexively engage in analogical thinking.

Analogies in the form of generalizations and creative metaphors greatly extend the range of existing habits, further easing the demand on limited attention. They too accumulate continuously over the course of a lifetime, sinking below the waterline of consciousness in vast and ever-increasingly tangled layers.


Generalizations, or “patterns in the output of patterns,” are what allow you to run up any flight of stairs, while wearing different shoes, while carrying something unusual. Creative metaphors let you repurpose the chair as a table, or the table as a chair, or declare the pen mightier than the sword.

Generalizations pull together entire ranges of patterns under a single idea. Metaphors bring wide ranges of existing ideas to bear on otherwise unrelated problems. Both forms of analogy offer dramatic reductions in attentional load.

The prevalence of analogical thinking, according to cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, is also why most human conceptual categories have clear centers, but fuzzy boundaries.* Not only do single patterns tend to fall into multiple overlapping categories, but the categories themselves may also be vertically layered, stacked several analogies deep. The human mind is an interesting place.

*Exceptions to boundary fuzziness in categories can occasionally be found in formally rigorous systems, such as philosophy, science, mathematics, and engineering.*

To these three attributes we add a catch-all fourth, the broadly defined "instinct", under which we collect all of the complex behavioral, motivational, and neurological hardwiring that keeps the human body alive and running.

For strategic reasons, this definition has deliberately been left as vague and inclusive as possible. We’ll return to defining instinct in more detail at the proper time, after a few more cards have been laid on the table.

So ends Part I, our first up-close look at the four attributes. Since this post is already long enough, I'll save any discussion of why their universality matters for a new post, Part II.

Hold onto your hats.

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