Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Leash of Hemp: Does our slow, overbearing consciousness mislead us about human nature?


Running is a precious 30 or so minutes for me. It's a drug. If the pace and the light and the rock'n'roll in the earpods are just right, it's god. But today while I ran on the old railroad-turned-trail in our neighborhood, everything was more or less ungodly, more or less routine. As always, I passed by many walkers, cyclists, runners, dogs, cats, squirrels going the other direction. Most humans say hi or wave. I give the peace sign. I live in Peace Dale. I like words and peace and cute.

And as I'm apt to do, I meditate on the people I see, sizing them up, giving them roles, stories, assessing their general vibe, riffing on them until new thoughts hijack those neurons, which is frequent on a run. And I want to tell you about a specific people-passing incident from this morning because it illustrates, just in that fleeting, mundane, snapshot of a throwaway moment something much more profound, not just about human nature but about how we perceive it which folds back on the nature of human nature itself. (whoa)

He's about 50 yards away when I first notice him:  White, in his twenties, gray hooded sweatshirt and jeans, hood up over his hair, walking a dark-brown pitbull-looking breed. 

And I think to myself, I bet his dog's leash is made of hemp.

To me, all those traits I'm observing together scream 'leash of hemp.'

And sure enough, as the space between us narrows, I can see it's a leash of hemp. 

Naturally I'm thinking something like, See? See, politically correct world? Stereotypes can be true. Some biological and cultural traits cluster together predictably. Calm down everybody. It's just human nature! We vary predictably in many ways.

And nobody can argue against the fact that some traits do cluster and that you can predict some things about people based on things like their sex, their clothes, their age, their gait, their dog breed, ... 

Okay, cool. But whoa whoa whoa.

Did I really use all those observations to successfully predict the leash was made of hemp? Did I really just validate that stereotype about 'hemp dog leash people?' Did I really just support that theory (stereotypes are real, baby) by forming a hypothesis that ended up being correct?

Of course it could have been a coincidence, my correct guess. There are only so many kinds of dog leashes: Leather, acrylic, and hemp are the main ones I think. So, given a leash exists, the odds are pretty good that I'll guess what kind it is, regardless of what the guy or the dog look like who are tethered together by it. 

But that's not what I meant by my doubt. I'm wondering about something other than coincidence, something quite sinister.

I'm wondering whether I actually predicted the leash was made of hemp or if my brain tricked me into thinking I did.

I mean, don't you think it's suspicious that I caught myself predicting what the leash would be made of? Doesn't that seem weird?

I could, just as easily, have tried to guess his shoe or jeans brand, whether he was wearing a watch or not, if he was going to smile at me or not, harass me or not. Many things that I could see or experience upon closer proximity were available for prediction and, instead of any those things, I chose to predict the material of the dog leash.

Why? What was my consciousness up to?

Let's cut to the punchline: I don't think I predicted anything at all. Right after the whole thing went down, I caught my consciousness red-handed.[1] 

From as far away as I was, I could still have quite easily perceived that the leash draped and swung like hemp, and unlike leather or acrylic. I could also have very easily perceived the pale color, unlike the dark colors that acrylic and leather usually are.

So I could have known it was hemp without yet knowing it, consciously, since there's a delay between perception and consciousness.

And instead of coming to know 'hemp' from my immediate perception of it, I think my consciousness narrated my experience in such a way that I was predicting something I already knew! My consciousness made me believe that I had a clever hunch, a hunch that was consistent with a stereotype of this 'hemp dog leash person.'

Put another way, my consciousness was taking creative credit for the observations that the perceptive parts of my brain were already processing. Sounds a bit like some people you work with, doesn't it?

All this is happening in split seconds. It's not hard to imagine how my consciousness--since it's already very busy trying to constantly make sense of the world--could garble this input and the timing of it by inserting a narrative. It's not hard to imagine, given the delay between perception and consciousness, how my mind could mangle the more likely true story which was simply...

input-input-input (ad nauseam)

by editing it into a story of ...


OK. Besides how fascinating this cognitive delay is, with all its relevancy for studies of ESP, pre-cognition, magic tricks, and falling for them. Besides all the implications for the existence (or not) of free will ... since, if your consciousness is delayed, are you really deciding your life or are you just experiencing life and narrating it as if you're deciding it?

Aside from all those fascinating supernatural and existential implications, this is the kicker: This illusion stemming from our slow and overbearing consciousness probably affects how we relate to other human beings who we encounter every day.

See, the leash of hemp boosted my confidence in two things that are already boosting one another to begin with:

1. I think I'm good at predicting human nature.

2. I think human nature, especially in stereotyped and categorical terms, is predictable.

These two things may be true in many regards. But my experience, my little experiment, my leash of hemp, lead me to believe that 1 and 2 are stronger than they are and that they're realer than they probably are, in reality.

And a leash of hemp moment is just so exhilarating, at least for a scientist like me, when it's about traits untied to value, like leash material. It's a similar feeling you get once you're so familiar with the chimpanzees you're observing that you can predict, given a set of circumstances or time of day or whatever, what they'll do next, where they'll walk, climb, who they'll play with or groom. It's a real high.

But how about when those links, those predictions, are about value-laden traits like beauty, intelligence, sexual orientation, religious belief, violence? I'm more likely to believe stereotypes and my own abilities to predict human nature when it comes to these much more sensitive or much more volatile issues simply because I guessed that a dog's leash was hemp while running this morning.

A leash of hemp's no big deal when it's just about a leash of hemp,[2] but a taking a 'leash of hemp' about someone who's wearing a head scarf or a short skirt, about someone who speaks with a Southern accent or an educated accent, who goes to temple or to church, who has darkly or lightly pigmented skin? Maybe that's when we should humble our consciousness. Maybe that's when we should remind it that perception was there first. Maybe help it question whether it's really so smart. After all, maybe it already saw, heard, smelt what it so cleverly claims to have sensed, believed, predicted. Maybe it doesn't deserve the credit it's taking, thereby encouraging itself to apply its methods to other situations that require more nuance, more sensitivity, more observation, more time, actually getting to know a person, that whole human connection thing, you know?

It might feel like it, but we're not, objectively, human nature experts. We can be too easily tricked by our delayed and overbearing consciousness. We're too quick to be seduced by these split-second cognitive events that validate our intellect, our experience, and our beliefs all at once.[3]

Knowing this, being conscious of the lag between perception and consciousness, catching one's mind in the act, why is it still so hard to change our minds going into the future?

Maybe if leashes of hemp were more ubiquitous they'd serve as a nice gimmicky reminder about these illusions--dampening our habit of skyrocketing all the way up to "human nature" from a dog's leash. But would that really do any good? After all, skin colors, eye shapes, skirt lengths, accents... these things are ubiquitous and yet they clearly aren't gimmick enough to humble our consciousness, to help us remain skeptical of what each of us knows so well about human nature just from our itty bitty n of 1.


Related reading...

[1] I thank running for opening my brain to such a thing--a good hypothesis considering how my most satisfying thoughts usually come during the 30 minutes of the day that I am pushing my body down the running trail.

[2] Unless you've got something against hemp, hippies, dogs, pitbulls, white people, men, hoodies.

[3] Implicit here is an assumption that all humans suffer from this delayed consciousness, that it's part of "human nature." oy, is it?


Anne Buchanan said...

I love this, Holly. The ultimate how do we know what we know.

Ken Weiss said...

Very interesting, as usual!

Consciousness is part of the story that is so resistant to understanding, because it is the ultimate subjective phenomenon that science must study objectively.

The prevailing approach for more than a century has been to study the 'correlates' of consciousness. The most direct evidence suggests that the brain figures things out and makes decisions split seconds before the person is aware of that. So much of what you try to figure out about the guy running ahead of you with his dog may be done before you're aware that you're thinking about it, or something to that effect. I think that means we may not be able to think out what our actual reasons, evidence, and so on, were.

Holly Dunsworth said...

But I did, Ken. I did think it out. Didn't you read it carefully? ;) hahaha.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks Anne. It helps a great deal to have your high bar to strive to meet.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, I made my point badly, and perhaps what you said is really what I had attempted to say.

The main pint is that we may experienced that we think something out, but subconscious brain activity may be doing things first -- in ways you described -- and handing us the results (or, perhaps, only some of the results) to our conscious awareness.

Anyway, this is one of the last or major frontiers of biology, at least in the sense of being the most fascinating....or at least my conscious mind has been told that I think that.

Holly Dunsworth said...

That emoticon in my previous comment was winking at you to portray sarcasm and meta-punning on the ideas.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Another delay-based explanation. I have seen this man before, taken in his traits including his dog's leash, and instead of remembering, I made up a story that I was seeing a brand new observation and oh-so-cleverly predicting things about it.

Ken Weiss said...

This may be related to the deja-vu phenomenon, I think. In my experience, for example, you predict that something will happen, and then see it a moment later. Presumably the conscious part of the brain is lagging behind the perceptions.

There are also the split-brain studies, showing that one hemisphere is thinking away normally, but the other hemisphere (where consciousness mainly resides) is happily oblivious to it.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Yes. I like to induce deja-vu (or at least try to) by opening a new book to a page somewhere in the middle, reading it, then starting the book from the beginning and ....

John R. Vokey said...

Peirce and Jastrow (1885) in one of the very first psychology experiments in North America (and also the first to use randomization long before Fisher) did so to make a similar argument:

Holly Dunsworth said...


Holly Dunsworth said...

insight... explanation...

Africa Gómez said...

Thank you for an insightful post. I have a similar thing when birdwatching, when bird song are heard 'subconsciously'. "Did I hear a chiffchaff? No, I can't hear anything" (this is a translated thought than in my brain feels like experiencing the word 'chiffchaff' in isolation, with no conscious sensory input (i.e. hearing the song of the chiffchaff). Then, a few minutes later, a clear Chiffchaff singing and a sense of relief, or like you 'prediction'. I am not sure why, but if has happened with this species several times.