Wednesday, September 29, 2004

the human brain: a user's guide

Here are some inter-related links on framing and cognitive symmetry-breaking. Among many other detailed observations, the second article has this to say about taking away freedom by giving choices, i.e. 'framing' the options:

As any good hypnotist, magician, or comedian knows, the offer or availability of freely choosing between alternatives at a given contextual level brings the particularities of choice into the foreground of conscious awareness. This necessarily relegates to the background (i.e. out of awareness and out of the realm of conscious choice) the higher-level context or premise determining the range and meaning of the offered alternatives. The presence of choice (between particularities) at one level masks - and in some sense precludes - choice (between premises) at a more encompassing level.

They also talk about how easy it is for the observer to become part of a system that involves cognitive dissonance:

It is possible to use the idea of 'symmetry-breaking' to model mental illnesses such as OCD. Our theoretical starting-off point is the state of cognitive symmetry, which is where there is no issue, no problem. Suppose you are married to me and you leave the cap off the toothpaste one morning. Now, if I have an issue with this, then there is clearly a right way and a wrong way to it. If I don't have an issue with it then it is not 'right' to leave the cap off, and neither is it 'wrong'. It isn't right and it isn't wrong because there isn't an issue - no one is asking a question and so how can there be a 'correct' answer? Similarly, if I develop obsessive compulsive disorder, and have an issue with the way the tins of baked beans are put away in the cupboard, then there is a right way and a wrong way to do it, there is a distinct lack of symmetry with regard to the spatial orientation of canned foodstuff in the cupboard. The cure is not for me to ask what is the really 'right' way to think about it, because in order for me not to have an issue with it I simply would not think about it at all. There is no right way to think about it! If you reply to my question with any kind of affirming or denying response, you will only confirm that my question is an appropriate one. Your response will be framed within the cognitive symmetry-break which is the source of my difficulty, it will in fact be a manifestation of that symmetry-break.

Some things to think about as the pseudo-debates start up.