Out to dinner recently, a friend and I were discussing an organization whose name implies one thing, when in actuality, what they promote is entirely the opposite. We both racked our brains to come up with the name of that organization with no success. Days later, without any recent thought of the elusive name – the words Discovery Institute sprung forward in my mind. It was a spontaneous and surprising recall that brought me relief and pleasure. “Ah Ha! That’s what we were trying to remember the other night. Yes!” I said to myself. These types of memories are called Mind Pops.
They are also referred to as involuntary semantic memories. As was the case in my example, they are completely involuntary in that this type of recall occurs without any current conscious, active thought. In the more scholarly term (involuntary semantic memories), the word semantic suggests that the relevant recall springs forth from one’s semantic knowledge – for example, most commonly the item recalled is a word, phrase, image, melody, or a proper name that one has learned or has previously been exposed to. These recall events pop into conscious thought (i.e., your “mind“), without current conscious active pursuit – thus the origin of the more compelling descriptor Mind Pops.
These memory events are a relatively new topic of research revealing, as was the case in my example, that such events are not always truly random. Although the memory may be irrelevant at the exact moment that it pops into awareness, they usually are linked to one’s past experiences. Sometimes they occur with no conscious awareness of the the trigger itself. In my example, there was an event that consciously set the stage for my Mind Pop (i.e., striving to recall the Discovery Institute), but some Mind Pops are more mysterious.
Kvavilashvili and her colleague George Mandler, propose that “the completely out of the blue” Mind Pops are often explained by “long-term priming.” Priming itself is an interesting topic, but essentially it is a phenomena whereby your behavior can be altered by exposure to stimuli that enters your unconscious (implicit) memory. Research has demonstrated that people can be primed to be more polite and patient if unwittingly exposed to words in an unrelated task that lists concepts associated with being polite and patient. People will walk more slowly if they are implicitly primed with words associated with the elderly. Furthermore, recall of trivia is better if people are asked to think about the role of being a college professor before being asked the trivia questions relative to folks asked to first think about being a soccer hooligan (with other variables held constant).
This unconscious priming sets the stage for these mysterious out of the blue Mind Pops. Subconscious exposure to an image, a word, a song, or a scene serves as the trigger for later Popping. As the word subconscious implies, the exposure occurs completely outside of conscious awareness. When Kvavilashvili and Mandler asked subjects to journal their Mind Pops, there were numerous examples where the Pops had no clear, or very subtle, triggers. “Most of the information we encounter on a daily basis activates certain representations in the mind,” Kvavilashvili explains. “If you go past a fish and chips shop, not only the concept of fish may get activated but lots of things related to fish, and they may stay activated for a certain amount of time—for hours or even days. Later on, other things in the environment may trigger these already active concepts, which have the feeling of coming out of nowhere.” Kvavilashvili noted that “I got curious about [Mind Pops] because they seemed so random and out of the blue, but these mind pops are genuine fragments of knowledge about the world. What it shows us is that our subconscious often knows the meaning of an experience, even if consciously we don’t.”
Researchers like Dr. Lia Kvavilashvili are finding that Mind Pops are quite common. I’m sure that you have likely experienced such events yourself. Kvavilashvili suggests that they are most often words or phrases rather than images or sounds and that they usually occur in the midst of some routine activity such as engaging self care. In other words, they are most likely to occur when your mind is not focused on the task at hand and is free to wander. A variant of this phenomena is the Tip of the Tongue (TOT) experience – where you may be struggling to remember a name or a word and it feels as though it is right on the tip of your tongue; yet, you just can’t spit it out. Then later, when you have stopped actively pursuing it, the word surfaces. That letting go of pursuit allows your implicit (unconscious) memory do its work.
Although almost everyone experiences Mind Pops, there seems to be an increased frequency of Mind Popping in individuals with mental health issues. Researchers Keith Laws, Lia Kvavilashvili, and Ia Elua, conducted some preliminary research whereby they compared the frequency of Mind Pops in 37 individuals with schizophrenia, 31 people with depression, and 26 individuals with no mental health issues. On average, individuals with Schizophrenia reported 3-4 Mind Pops a weeks, while individuals with depression reported 1-2 a month, and healthy individuals reported 1-2 every six months. Invasive thoughts that bleed through consciousness are indeed some of the prominent features of schizophrenia and depression, so these categorical differences do make sense.
In my personal correspondence with Dr. Kvavilashvili, she differentiated Mind Pops from the Involuntary Autobiographical Memories I described in a previous post titled The Guilt-Empathy Connection. In that post I discussed a similar phenomena whereby “serenity seems to occasionally pave the way for a sequence of thoughts triggered by a song or a smell, or anything really, that ushers in a blast from the past. A cavalcade of memories then flow forth both effortlessly and seamlessly. And all of this occurs outside of conscious control. For me, it often begins with a pleasant memory, but it can take a circuitous route, bringing me to memories that I would prefer remain inaccessible. The ending point is usually a moment in time where I come face to face with a mistake I made – usually a long forgotten unintentional misstep that reveled a less sensitive or perceptive side of my persona.” Dr. Kvavilashvili noted that there seem to be “personality and individual difference variables at play” in my type of guilt based Involuntary Autobiographical Memories.
In a cursory review of the literature, I did come across a study by Dr. Dorthe Berntsen and she wrote that “The involuntary [autobiographical] memories more frequently referred to specific episodes, came with more physical reaction, had more impact on mood, and dealt with more unusual and less positive events.” This coincides with my anecdotal experiences (for whatever that is worth). For me, these events were indeed outliers, they were negative and viscerally so, and they did significantly affect my mood. Mind Pops are quite different from such Involuntary Autobiographical Memories in that the Pops are more semantic in nature (rather than biographical or experiential), and the Pops tend to be more positively experienced.
Although Mind Pops and Involuntary Autobiographical Memories are commonplace, they certainly constitute manifestations of our amazing and incredibly complex brain. Please share your interesting Mind Pops or Involuntary Autobiographical Memories in the Comments section below so that you can showcase the amazing capabilities of your brain. And when you have one of those “out of the blue” Mind Pops look deep to find the source of the subconscious trigger – you might be amazed by your inattentional blindness or the vastness of what your mind’s eye takes in beyond what you see.
Berntsen, D., and Hall, N. M., (2004). The episodic nature of involuntary autobiographical memories. Memory & Cognition. Jul; 32(5): 789-803.
Have you ever heard someone make an argument that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief? Does it seem to you like some people are coming from a completely different reality than your own? If so, then this blog is for you. I have spent the last year trying to develop an understanding of the common thought patterns that drive the acrimonious spirit of our social and political dialogue. I am continually amazed by what I hear coming from seemingly informed people. I have assumed that some folks are either deluded, disingenuous, or downright ignorant. There is yet another possibility here, including the reality that different moral schema or belief systems may be driving their thinking. And if this is the case, how do these divergent processes come to be? I have learned a lot through this exploration and feel compelled do provide a recap of the posts I have made. I want to share with you those posts that have gathered the most traction and some that I believe warrant a bit more attention.
Over the past year I have posted 52 articles often dealing with Erroneous Thought Processes, Intuitive Thinking, and Rational Thought. Additionally, I have explored the down stream implications of these processes with regard to politics, morality, religion, parenting, memory, willpower, and general perception. I have attempted to be evidenced-based and objective in this process – striving to avoid the very trappings of confirmation bias and the erroneous processes that I am trying to understand. As it turns out, the brain is very complicated: and although it is the single most amazing system known to human kind, it can and does lead us astray in very surprising and alarming ways.
As for this blog, the top ten posts, based on the shear number of hits, are as follows:
What started out as ramblings from a curious guy in a remote corner of New York State ended up being read by folks from all over the planet. It has been a difficult process at times, consuming huge amounts of time, but it has also been exhilarating and deeply fulfilling.
I have been heavily influenced by several scientists and authors in this exploration. Of particular importance have been Steven Pinker, Daniel Simons, Christopher Chabris, Jonah Lehrer, Bruce Hood, Carl Sagan, and Malcolm Gladwell. Exploring the combined works of these men has been full of twists and turns that in some cases necessitated deep re-evaluation of long held beliefs. Holding myself to important standards – valuing evidence over ideology – has been an important and guiding theme.
Several important concepts have floated to the top as I poked through the diverse literature pertaining to thought processes. Of critical importance has been the realization that what we have, when it comes to our thought processes, is a highly developed yet deeply flawed system that has been shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution. Also important has been my increased understanding of the importance of genes, the basic element of selective pressures, as they play out in morality and political/religious beliefs. These issues are covered in the top ten posts listed above.
There are other worthy posts that did not garner as much attention as those listed above. Some of my other favorites included a review of Steven Pinker’s article in the New York Times (also titled Moral Instinct,) a look at Jonathon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory in Political Divide, as well as the tricks of Retail Mind Manipulation and the Illusion of Attention. This latter post and my series on Vaccines and Autism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) were perhaps the most important of the lot. Having the content of these become general knowledge would make the world a safer place.
The evolution of understanding regarding the power and importance of Intuitive relative to Rational Thinking was humbling at times and Daniel Simons’ and Christopher Chabris’ book, The Invisible Gorilla, certainly provided a mind opening experience. Hey, our intuitive capabilities are incredible (as illustrated by Gladwell in Blink & Lehrer in How We Decide) but the downfalls are amazingly humbling. I’ve covered other topics such as happiness, superstition, placebos, and the debate over human nature.
The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways. First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought. Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe. These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival. Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force. Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the everyday illusions impede us in important ways.
Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to put blind-folds on adherents. Often the blind- folds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology. And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized. As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture: “We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience. Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in. The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.
Because of our genetically inscribed tendencies toward mysticism and gullibility, we must make extra effort in order to find truth. As Dr. Steven Novella once wrote:
“We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process.”
We must therefore be humble with regard to beliefs and be willing to accept that we are vulnerable to error prone influences outside our awareness. Recognition and acceptance of these proclivities are important first steps. Are you ready to move forward? How do you think?
I find myself in an untenable situation. I have plenty to write about but I am finding that the choices I am making right now, in the splendor of summer, give me limited time and energy to write. I’ve decided to take a short hiatus.
Over the last seven months my writing has been spurred on by relentless curiosity about belief systems that are held despite mountains of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This cognitive conservatism absolutely befuddles me. And I am further driven to understand why ideology carries such overwhelming power over people and how it drives people to attack evidence or science in general. In a similar vain, I struggle with politics. The efforts made by the United States on the world’s stage to me seem to be a desperate attempt to slay the Hydra by means of decapitation. People close to me, that I love and have deep respect for, look at this war and even the environment in vastly different ways than I do.
Looking back, I have learned a great deal about the thinking processes that drive these different world views. Essentially we have what Michael Shermer calls a Belief Engine for a brain. We are hard wired to believe and make copious errors that incline us to believe – even silly things – regardless of evidence. We have successfully evolved in a world for hundreds of thousands of years devoid of statistics and analysis all the while thriving on snap judgments. Evolution itself, as a process, has inhibited our ability to accept its veracity. Stepping away from the belief engine demands a level of analysis that is foreign and often unpalatable. It is hard to be a skeptic yet oh so easy to go with our hard wired intuitive thinking. If you are new to my blog look back at entries that explore erroneous thinking, rational thought, the adaptive unconscious, memory, morality and even religion.
Looking forward I plan on delving further into our enigmatic Belief Engine. I want to further explore the errors of intuition, specifically the illusion of cause, implicit associations, as well as Jonathon Haidt’s work on political affiliation. Later I hope to switch gears and delve into the unique attributes of our planet that makes it hospitable for complex life.
Imagine yourself walking down a familiar street approaching a stranger who is obviously lost, staring hopelessly at a map. As you saunter by you provide eye contact and a look of willingness to help. He asks you for directions. As you begin to offer your advice, you are interrupted by a construction crew carrying a large door. They walk right between you and the stranger. Now imagine that as the construction crew parted you visually from the stranger a new and different person covertly took on the same lost role. This new stranger is wearing different clothes, is taller by three inches, has a different build, and different vocal qualities. Do you think you would notice?
Chabris and Simons (2010) in the The Invisible Gorilla share the results of a study carried out by Dan Simons and a colleague where they tested whether people would notice such changes in a scenario very much like the one I just described. When the scenario was described to undergraduates, 95% believed that they would certainly notice such a change (as is likely the case for you as well). Yet when this experiment was carried out in the real world, nearly 50% of the participants did not notice the switch!
This particularly startling data is indicative of change blindness, defined by Chabris and Simons (2010) as failure to notice changes between what was in view moments before and what is in view currently. Essentially, we tend not to compare and thus notice stimuli changes from moment to moment. As a result we tend to be “blind” in many cases to pretty obvious changes. And what is equally salient is that we are unaware of this blindness. If you are like most people you said “No way I’d miss that!” Yet it is likely that about half of you would miss such changes.
Unconvinced? So were a group of Harvard undergraduates who had just attended a lecture that covered the above “door study” and change blindness. After the lecture, students were recruited to participate in further research. Interested students were directed to a different floor where they were greeted by an experimenter behind a counter. As the recruits proceeded to review and complete the necessary paperwork, the experimenter who greeted and instructed them regarding the paperwork ducked down behind the counter, presumably to file some papers, only to depart as a new and different experimenter took over the role. Even after being primed with the knowledge of change blindness, not one of the students noticed the swap! This was true even for some of the students who had just moments before boldly stated that they would notice such a change. We are in fact largely blind to our change blindness regardless of our confidence regarding our vigilance.
These results, contend Chabris and Simons, comprise conclusive evidence for the illusion of memory, (which is the disconnect between how our memory works and how we think it works).
Most of us are all too aware of the failings of our short-term memory. We often forget where we put the car keys, cell phone, or sunglasses. These authors note that we are generally pretty accurate when it comes to knowing the limits of this type of memory. License plates and phone numbers have only seven digits because most of us can only hold that much data in short-term memory. However, when it comes to understanding the limits of our long-term memory we tend to hold entirely unrealistic, fallacious, and illusory expectations.
“In a national survey of fifteen hundred people [Chabris and Simons] commissioned in 2009, we included several questions designed to probe how people think memory works. Nearly half (47%) of the respondents believed that ‘once you have experienced an event and formed a memory of it, that memory doesn’t change.’ An even greater percentage (63%) believed that ‘human memory works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, pp. 45-46).
“People who agreed with both statements apparently think that memories of all our experiences are stored permanently in our brains in an immutable form, even if we can’t access them. It is impossible to disprove this belief… but most experts on human memory find it implausible that the brain would devote energy and space to storing every detail of our lives…” (p. 46).
So, as it turns out, our memories of even significant life events are quite fallible. Although we perceive such memories as being vivid and clear, they are individual constructions based on what we already know, our previous experiences, and other cognitive and emotional associations that we ultimately pair with the event. “These associations help us discern what is important and to recall details about what we’ve seen. They provide ‘retrieval cues’ that make our memories more fluent. In most cases, such cues are helpful. But these associations can also lead us astray, precisely because they lead to an inflated sense of precision of memory.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 48). In other words, our memories are not exact recordings, they are instead modified and codified personal replicas that are anything but permanent.
I cannot do justice to the impressive and exhaustive detailing that Chabris and Simons provide in the The Invisible Gorilla regarding the illusion of memory. However, suffice it to say, that we give way too much credit to the accuracy of our own long-term memories and have unrealistic expectations regarding others’ recall. People recall what they expect to remember and memories are modified over time based on malleable belief systems. Memories fade and morph over time depending on the “motives and goals of the rememberer.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 51).
“Although we believe that our memories contain precise accounts of what we see and hear, in reality these records can be remarkably scanty. What we retrieve often is filled in based on gist, inference, and other influences; it is more like an improvised riff on a familiar melody than a digital recording of an original performance. We mistakenly believe that our memories are accurate and precise, and we cannot readily separate those aspects of our memory that accurately reflect what happened from those that were introduced later.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, pp 62-63).
They detail with riveting stories continuity errors in movies, source memory errors (is it your memory or mine?), flashbulb memories, and false memories in a way that really drives home the point that our memories are not to be trusted as factual depictions of historical fact. They beg the question: Can you trust your memory?
The answer: Partially, but you must be aware that your memory is not immutable. It is erroneous to assume that your memories are factual and it is equally fallacious to presume that other’s memories are likewise infallible. Two people witnessing the same event from the same perspective are likely to recall the event differently because of their unique personal histories, capabilities, internal associations, and thus their unique internal cognitive associations, as they store into memory the bits and pieces of the event.
Isn’t it amazing and scary that we give so much credit and power to eye-witness testimony in the court of law? Such power is conferred based on the pervasive and deeply held belief in the accuracy of memory – which you must know by now is an illusion. This is just another example pertaining to the illusion of justice in this country.
On a more personal level, next time you and your significant other get into a debate about how some past event went down, you have to know that you both are probably wrong (and right) to some degree. There is your truth, their truth, and the real truth. These can be illustrated in a Venn Diagram with three circles that from time to time have various degrees of mutual overlap. We must admit that over time the real truth is likely to become a smaller piece of the story. This necessitates that we get comfortable with the reality that we don’t possess a DVR in our brains and that we part ways with yet another illusion of the importance and power of our uniquely human intuition.
“I saw it with my own two eyes!” Does this argument suffice? As it turns out – “NO!” that’s not quite good enough. Seeing should not necessarily conclude in believing. Need proof? Play the video below.
As should be evident as a result of this video, what we perceive, can’t necessarily be fully trusted. Our brains complete patterns, fill in missing data, interpret, and make sense of chaos in ways that do not necessarily coincide with reality. Need more proof? Check these out.
Visual Illusion – A & B are the same shade of gray
Illusion – Notice the perceived motion around the green circles.
Convinced? The software in our brains is responsible for these phenomena. And this software was coded through progressive evolutionary steps that conferred survival benefits to those with such capabilities. Just as pareidolia confers as survival advantage to those that assign agency to things that go bump in the night, there are survival advantages offered to those that evidence the adaptations that are responsible for these errors.
So really, you can’t trust what you see. Check out the following video for further implications.
Many of you are likely surprised by what you missed. We tend to see what we are looking for and we may miss other important pieces of information. The implications of this video seriously challenge the value of eye witness testimony.
To add insult to injury you have to know that even our memory is vulnerable. Memory is a reconstructive process not a reproductive one.2 During memory retrieval we piece together fragments of information, however, due to our own biases and expectations, errors creep in.2 Most often these errors are minimal, so regardless of these small deviations from reality, our memories are usually pretty reliable. Sometimes however, too many errors are inserted and our memory becomes unreliable.2 In extreme cases, our memories can be completely false2 (even though we are convinced of their accuracy). This confabulation as it is called, is most often unintentional and can spontaneously occur as a result of the power of suggestion (e.g., leading questions or exposure to a manipulated photograph).2 Frontal lobe damage (due to a tumor or traumatic brain injury) is known to make one more vulnerable to such errors.2
Even when our brain is functioning properly, we are susceptible to such departures from reality. We are more vulnerable to illusions and hallucinations, be they hypnagogic or otherwise, when we are ill (e.g., have a high fever, are sleep deprived, oxygen deprived, or have neurotransmitter imbalances). All of us are likely to experience at least one if not many illusions or hallucinations throughout our lifetime. In most cases the occurrence is perfectly normal, simply an acute neurological misfiring. Regardless, many individuals experience religious conversions or become convinced of personal alien abductions as a result of these aberrant neurological phenomena.
We are most susceptible to these particular inaccuracies when we are ignorant of them. On the other hand, improved decisions are likely if we understand these mechanisms, as well as, the limitations of the brain’s capacity to process incoming sensory information. Bottom line – you can’t necessarily believe what you see. The same is true for your other senses as well – and these sensory experiences are tightly associated and integrated into long-term memory storage. When you consider the vulnerabilities of our memory, it leaves one wondering to what degree we reside within reality.
For the most part, our perceptions of the world are real. If you think about it, were it otherwise we would be at a survival disadvantage. The errors in perception we experience are in part a result of the rapid cognitions we make in our adaptive unconscious (intuitive brain) so that we can quickly process and successfully react to our environment. For the most part it works very well. But sometimes we experience aberrations, and it is important that we understand the workings of these cognitive missteps. This awareness absolutely necessitates skepticism. Be careful what you believe!