July 28, 2010

The Mind Isn't a Camera

Sorry, for the recent inactivity I've been in the midst of the awful task of looking for a new job and haven't been too motivated to write anything, although some ideas have been floating around waiting to be put into text. I came upon this topic when an older episode of House came on, I can't find the specific episode by browsing through IMDB, but if you know which one it is just leave the information in a comment and I'll add it. The episode involved a woman dreaming, and House and his team watching that dream on a monitor and interrupting the dream to find a cure for the the woman.Someone was getting high, reading Freud and thinking about the future when this episode was written...

Now looking at a live feed of someones dreams and interrupting them to find a solution to someones health problems brings up enough questions for this blog to talk about for the remainder of the year. How does that machine work? How does it translate thoughts to a video feed? Why does looking at a dream have any relevance to solving someones health issues? Couldn't the time be spent in a much more productive fashion? Those would all be the start of deep questions about the issue raised on the show, but I'm going to constrain myself to what I view as a more fundamental problem.

That problem is encapsulated partly by one of the questions, but it differs slightly. Could the mind ever really be translated into a video projection? This question also deals with the fallacy many people have of treating memory and imagination as if they existed in a series of created photographs. That fallacy and many others can be found at Religious-Tolerance.org, and their reporting on Recovered Memory Therapy.

Now here I am admittingly leaving the realm of science and knowingly entering the realm of speculation, but I think that there is enough of a knowledge base to at least limit the plausibility of any such device to ever being created, especially within the near future.

1. The imagination and memory aren't pictures to be looked at when the mind brings them up, they are associations and pieces connected together with a great deal of plasticity.

Now a this can be shown a number of ways, but the there is one way that you don't even have to leave your chair for. All that has to be done is to imagine a huge temple with numerous pillars. Once you have your 'image' of the temple in your mind, then try to count the individual pillars. The mind can't keep the 'picture' of the temple and while trying to count the pillars. There isn't an image of a temple being created when you think of a temple, but more of a rough framework of the idea of a temple. I'd like to say that, that example was mine, but it isn't and I think it can be credited to Spinoza, although I'm not entirely sure it was him. Anyway, on to more examples of memory not being like the playback of a video tape.

2. Plasticity of memory: How suggestible memory  is and how even sure 'flashbulb memories' can be false.

For suggestibility Elizabeth Loftus shows how a memory can be implanted into the mind, even a traumatic memory.

"A14-year-old boy named Chris Coan, was describing a visit to the University City shopping mall in Spokane, Wash., when he was 5. "I think I went over to look at the toy store, the Kay-Bee toys," he recalled. "We got lost, and I was looking around and I thought, 'Uh-oh. I'm in trouble now.' " He remembered his feelings: "I thought I was never going to see my family again. I was really scared, you know. And then this old man, I think he was wearing a blue flannel, came up to me." The man, old and balding with glasses, helped Chris find his parents." 

This surely would be a traumatic event in a persons life, being lost all alone in a mall, but this memory never really happened.

"Jim, had made it up as an assignment for Loftus' cognitive psychology class. Jim, pretending the story was real, had fed Chris the basics—the name of the mall, the old man, the flannel shirt, the crying—and Chris, believing his brother's fabrication, had filled in the rest. He had proved what Loftus suspected: If you were carefully coached to remember something, and if you tried hard enough, you could do it."

Loftus went on to implant memories of near-drownings, chokings, animal attacks, and demonic possession in thousands of people. Memory is too suggestible to resemble anything close to a rigid video of the past.

That is only a problem with the suggestibility of memory, there is another problem that exists  even when events are real. Memories often are 'recorded' wrongly. Daniel Greenberg shows this through the use of the recollections of former President George W. Bush.  Bush gives three accounts of what happened on the infamous day of 9/11.

In the first account Bush notes that he saw the first plane hit a tower and attributed it to pilot error. He was notified later by Andy Card that a second plane had hit the towers while reading to children.

In the second account Bush notes that Karl Rove brought him the news that a plane had hit the towers, but assumed it was pilot error and was then notified  by Andy Card that a second plane had hit the towers.

In the third account he saw a plane hit the towers on tv and attributed it to pilot error. He was then sitting and listening to a briefing when he was told a second plane had hit the towers.

Now these accounts have conflicts that have been used to point out that Bush must be hiding something, but there is a simpler explanation. Bush's memories are like others that have seen traumatic events that are said to burn into a persons mind what that person was doing and where they were. Greenberg shows this by citing that,

"Neisser and Harsch (1992) developed a rating scale to try to quantify changes in memories of the Challenger explosion. Twenty four hours after the disaster, they asked people how they heard the news; then, 2.5 years later, they interviewed some of those participants again. When they compared the consistency of the two answers, they found that people did quite poorly: the average score was 2.95 out of a possible 7."

Memories are not burned into the mind as some would suggest and many more believe. Even memories of traumatic events and memories that people are sure of are just as fallible as any other memory. Its not that the mental pictures are recorded wrongly, or that the minds images have changed over time, it is that there are no mental images to speak of.

The mind isn't doesn't work with pictures and by replaying videos, it instead uses parallel processing and ideas.  The image to the right is a common misconception. The mind is not a series of images or videos. It is closer to a group of sand dunes where the individual grains of sand are memories. Those grains can be formed with flaws that then get blown around by the wind of suggestibility and weathered by time.

Because the mind doesn't work with images there would have to be a conversion to make thoughts able to be seen on a screen as they were in the show House. At minimum there would be something lost in translation between the thoughts and the pictures, as there is a loss in any conversion, and I think more correctly the task could never be done well enough to have any confidence in being able to see someones thoughts.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

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