Most people think of memory as the ‘past’ and judge it by how well it preserves the past. But that is not its function. Memory is material to be used in the ‘present’ and the ‘future’. What happened in the past is not important except to help understand the present and predict/plan the future. Bits of memory out of historical context are the ingredients of imagination. With more context they are the tools we use to identify things in the present and understand their dangers and opportunities. We need to know if we are encountering the old or the new. We need to remember whether someone is trustworthy when we deal with them. When we look at what we remember, how and how long we remember it, and how closely we keep it to the original memory, we should think of what is the point of all of it.
What seems a fault with memory – that memories are not fixed but can change or be lost altogether – is only a side effect of their being modified to stay relevant and useful. We need memories that help us perceive the present and model the future and that is the real criteria, not absolute accuracy. The criteria for a well constructed memory system are biological evolutionary survival ones.
Colour vision is not about accurately perceiving the frequencies of light coming into the eye. It is not about the light; it is about the surface that reflected the light and how it can be identified. There is no use in saying that our vision is not giving us accurate colour, because accurate colour would interfere with accurate characterization of surfaces and identification of objects. The many optical illusions are not faults in the system – they are due to the ways that the visual system protects the stability of our vision so that things do not appear to change colour or size.
Language is not about meaning or logic; it is about communication. People worry about changes in the meaning of words and the use of grammatical forms. Well, here is what happens generation after generation: if people have difficulty communicating, they will change their language. If their way of life changes, if they move to a different region, if the people they are talking to change, then they will change their language. Our language is not the result of biological evolution so much as cultural evolution. But the same idea applies and the criteria have to do with communication. Is language logical? It may seem so from within that language but talk to anyone learning it as a new language and see the illogical, arbitrary quirks in it. There are languages that count negatives and there must be an odd number to be negative. There are languages that have to have all or no words carry a negative marking. Both types of negation seem logical to the speakers. Is language a good communication tool? Without doubt it is better than anything else we have ever tried to invent. No artificial language has ever made a dent on a natural language no matter how clear was the meaning or logical the grammar of the new language.
When we look at biological and even social systems it is important to consider what is their real, primary reason for existence. We have a tendency to misjudge the criteria and need to watch out for this trap.
How is it that people keep their superstitions even after they do not believe they are possible? It is because it is actually difficult to lose a superstition. We learn them as children and they stick at a deep emotional level.
Once long ago in the ’60s, my husband bought my soul. It started somehow in a conversation at a table of people in a cafe. I offered to sell my soul and we did some haggling over price and then he handed over the money and I declared that my soul belonged to him. It was an entertaining little drama but it caused a lot of discomfort in the group. There were people at the table that believed I had a soul and people who did not believe in souls – all were not happy. No one actually thought that my husband now actually had my soul in his possession or under his control but it was still disturbing. The most common phrase was that we were tempting fate, even though few would have agreed that our lives were ruled by fate. Why the disconnect?
ScienceDaily has an item, (here), “The power of magical thinking: Why superstitions are hard to shake”. The article points out that we all have superstitions that we do not rationally defend but that affect our behaviour. We knock on wood, walk around ladders and such things because we feel uncomfortable if we don’t. It feels like we are tempting fate. But we would not seriously defend these actions, instead we laugh apologetically and shrug and says its just a little habit with no harm. We allow an irrational thought to remain an influence on our emotions and behaviour.
The author of an upcoming article, Risen, “contends that detecting an irrational thought and correcting that error are two separate processes, not one as most dual-system cognitive models assume. This insight explains how people can detect irrational thought and choose not to correct it, a process she describes as “acquiescence”… Understanding how acquiescence unfolds in magical thinking can help provide insight into how it is that people knowingly behave irrationally in many other areas of life.”
In order to reverse these habits and rid thought of magic intuitions it is necessary to recognize that knowing that the intuition is not possible is not enough. Separate effort has to go into loosening the grip of the magic intuitions. And, I think was goes further than magic intuitions and superstitions, named by Risen, but applies also to many habits and thought patterns that we do not believe are rational but are comforting and therefore never corrected. It takes effort.
As a child you were probably taught to tell how far away lightening was. When there is a flash, you count with a particular rhythm until you hear the thunder and that is how many miles the lightening is away from you. Parents are not going to stop teaching this because it is something for a nervous child to do in a thunder storm and it convinces them that they are usually a safe distance from danger. But it only works for distant events.
Events that are close by are synchronized by the brain and consciously we collapse the vision and hearing clues both for time and space to make a single event. We are not conscious of a difference in the timing or of any slight difference in the placing of the event. A particular region of the brain does this aligning - “the superior colliculus, a midbrain region that functions imperatively for integrating auditory and visual signals for attending to and localizing audiovisual stimuli”. But if the difference is too large between the vision and hearing, the collapse into a single event does not happen.
However, we know that, even though it is not consciously experienced, the information about small differences in sound arrival can be used by blind humans to echo-locate by making continuous little clicking noises. Could it be that the discrepancy between sound and sight could be used in other ways? A recent paper (Jaekl P, Seidlitz J, Harris LR, Tadin D (2015) Audiovisual Delay as a Novel Cue to Visual Distance. PLoS ONE 10(10): e0141125. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0141125) studies the effect of sound delays on the perception of distance. Like the lightening calculation, but it is done unconsciously.
Here is the abstract:
“For audiovisual sensory events, sound arrives with a delay relative to light that increases with event distance. It is unknown, however, whether humans can use these ubiquitous sound delays as an information source for distance computation. Here, we tested the hypothesis that audiovisual delays can both bias and improve human perceptual distance discrimination, such that visual stimuli paired with auditory delays are perceived as more distant and are thereby an ordinal distance cue. In two experiments, participants judged the relative distance of two repetitively displayed three-dimensional dot clusters, both presented with sounds of varying delays. In the first experiment, dot clusters presented with a sound delay were judged to be more distant than dot clusters paired with equivalent sound leads. In the second experiment, we confirmed that the presence of a sound delay was sufficient to cause stimuli to appear as more distant. Additionally, we found that ecologically congruent pairing of more distant events with a sound delay resulted in an increase in the precision of distance judgments. A control experiment determined that the sound delay duration influencing these distance judgments was not detectable, thereby eliminating decision-level influence. In sum, we present evidence that audiovisual delays can be an ordinal cue to visual distance.”