Representations of Reality Enable Control – Part 1

What is the relationship between the world and our mental representation of it? What is the representation that we use to model the world, and run through in our minds alternative futures enabling us to anticipate and predict what might happen? How do we ‘mind the gap‘ between our expectations and our experience and work out how to fill our unmet needs? Things are not always what we expect.

YouTube Video, 10 Amazing Illusions – Richard Wiseman, Quirkology, November 2012, 2:36 minutes

Previous blogs considered how being oriented, and having purpose, formed the basis for having control, and how when needs were un-met, without control, wellbeing will suffer. Orientation was seen as a mental map or model that allows us to navigate around our knowledge and thoughts, to know where we are going and to plan the necessary steps on the way.

Representation is Crucial

I want to know whether it is shorter to go from B to D via A or C. I am told that A is 80 miles west of B. B is 33 miles south of C. C is 95 miles south east of D. D is 83 miles north of A. A is 103 south west of C. What’s the answer?

It is very difficult to figure this out without drawing a map or diagram. With a map the answer is visually obvious. Even knowing that A is Swindon, B is London, C is Stevenage, and D is Birmingham doesn’t help much unless you have a good knowledge of UK geography and can see the problem in your ‘mind’s eye’.

But even problems like ‘will I be happier taking a boring but highly paid job at the bank or a more challenging teaching job?’ are difficult to think about without employing some spatial reasoning, perhaps because they can involve some degree of quantitative comparison (across several dimensions – happiness, financial reward, degree of challenge etc.).
How you represent a problem is crucial to whether or not it is easy or difficult to solve.

The ‘framing’ of a problem and the mindset you bring to it, considerably influences which kinds of solutions are easy to find and which are near to impossible. If we think the sun goes round the earth then we will have considerably more difficulty predicting the positions of the planets than if we think the earth goes round the sun. If we think somebody is driven by a depressive disease when in fact their circumstances are appalling, we may give them medication rather than practical help. Having a suitable representation and mindset are crucial to enabling control.

The wonderful thing is that people can re-invent representations and make difficult problems easy. However, this often takes effort and because we are lazy, for the most part we do not bother and continue to do things in the same old way – until, that is, we get a surprise or shock that makes us think again.

Language and Thought

So familiar and ingrained is the notion of orientation and navigation that spatial metaphors are rife in language – ‘I don’t know which way to turn’, ‘she’s a distant relative but a close friend’, ‘house prices are climbing’, ‘I take a different position’ etc. However, language may only be a symptom or product of our thoughts and not the mental representation itself.

Philosophers and linguists have long speculated on the relationship between language and thought. Is it possible to think about certain things without the aid of linguistics hooks to hang the thoughts on?

Steven Pinker considers language as a window on how we think. Our choice and use of different linguistic constructions reveals much of the subtlety and nuances of our thoughts and intentions. How we phrase a sentence is as much to do with allowing space for interpretation, negotiation and the management of social roles as it is to do with the ‘face value’ communicating of information.

TED Video, Steven Pinker: What our Language Habits reveal, TED, September 2007, 17:41 minutes

Pinker also differentiates thought and language, demonstrating that it is possible to have thought without language and that we think first and then put language to the thoughts in order to communicate. For example, babies and animals are able to make sense of the world without being able to put it into language. We translate between different languages by reference to underlying meaning. Pinker uses the term ‘mentalise’ as the ‘language’ of thought. We often think with our senses, in images, sounds and probably also our other senses. We can also think non-linguistically in terms of propositions and abstract notions. This is not to say that language and thought are not intimately bound up – what one person says influences what another person thinks. However, the fact that words can be invented to convey new concepts suggest that the thoughts can come first and the language is created as a tool to capture and convey the thought.

TED Video, Stephen Pinker: Language and Consciousness, Part 1 Complete: Thinking Allowed w/ J. Mishlove , ThinkingAllowedTV, October 2012, 27:17 minutes

But just as language reflects and may constrain thought, it also facilitates it and allows us to see things from different perspectives without very much effort. In general, metaphor allows us to think of one concept in terms of another. In so doing it provides an opportunity to compare the metaphor to the characteristics of the thing we are referring to – ‘shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’. A summer’s day is bright, care-free, timeless and so forth. Metaphor opens up the possibility of attributing new characteristics that were not at first considered. It releases us from literal, figurative thought and takes us into the realm of possibility and new perspectives.

TED Video, James Geary, Metaphorically Speaking, TED, December 2009, 10:44 minutes


Mental Models

Despite the importance of language as both a mechanism of capturing and shaping thought, it is not the only way that thought is represented. In fact it is a comparatively high level and symbolic form of representation. Thoughts, for example, can be driven by perception, and to illustrate this it is useful to think about perceptual illusions. The following video shows a strong visual illusion that people would describe in language one way, when in fact, it can be revealed to be something else.

YouTube Video, Illusion and Mental Models, What are the odds, March 2014, 2:36 minutes

This video also illustrates the interaction between prior knowledge and the interpretation of what you perceive. It also mentions the tendency to ignore or find the easiest (most available) explanation for information that is ambiguous or difficult to deal with.

Mental representations are often referred to as mental models. Here’s one take of what they are:

Youtube Video, Mental Models, kfw., March 2011, 3:59 minutes

It turns out that much of the most advanced work on mental models has been in the applied area of user interface design. Understanding how a user thinks or models some aspect of the world is the key to the difference between producing a slick, usable design and a design that is unfathomable, frustrating and leads to making slips and mistakes.

Youtube Video, Mental Models | HCI Course | Stanford University, May 2016, 15:28 minutes

Mental models apply to people’s behaviour (output) in much the same way as they apply to sensory input.

Youtube Video, Visualization – A Mental Skill to learn, Wally Kozak, May 2010, 4:05 minutes

In the same way that an expert learns to ‘see’ patterns quickly and easily (e.g. in recognising a disease), they also learn skilled behaviours (e.g. how to perform an examination or play a game of tennis) by developing an appropriate mental representation. It is possible to apply expert knowledge in, for example, diagnosis or decision making without either language or thought. Once we have attained a high degree of expertise in some subject, much ‘problem solving’ becomes recognition rather than reasoning.

YouTube Video, How do Medical Experts Think?, MjSylvesterMD, June 2013, 4:44 minutes

So mental representations apply at the level of senses and behaviours as well as at the higher levels of problem solving. We can distinguish between ‘automatic’, relatively effort-free thinking (system 1 thinking in Kahneman’s terms) and conscious problem solving thought (system 2 thinking).

System 1 thinking is intuitive and can be the product of sustained practice and mastery. Most perceptual and motor skills are learned in infancy and practiced to the point of mastery without explicitly realising it. In language, a child’s intuitive understanding of grammar (e.g. that you add an s to make a plural) is automatic. System 1 thinking can also be applied to seemingly simple skills, like catching a ball or something seemingly complex, like diagnosing the illness of a patient. A skilled general practitioner often does not have to think about a diagnosis. It is so familiar that it is a kind of pattern recognition. With the automated mechanisms of system 1 thinking you just know how to do it or just see it. It requires no effort.

System 2 thinking, by contrast, requires effort and resource. It is the type of thinking that requires conscious navigation across the territory of one’s knowledge and beliefs. Because this consumes limited resources, it involves avoiding the pitfall, locating the easier downhill slopes and only climbing when absolutely necessary on the way to the destination. It is as if it needs some sort of central cognitive control to allocate attention to the most productive paths.

Computational Approaches

Although, to my knowledge, Daniel Kahneman does not reference it, the mechanism whereby system 2 problem solving type thinking becomes system 1 type automated thinking was described and then thoroughly modelled back in the 1970s and 80s. It is a process called ‘universal sub-goaling and chunking’ and accounts well for empirical data on how skills are learned and improve with practice.

http://www.springer.com/computer/ai/book/978-0-89838-213-6

This theoretical model gave rise to the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) software called ‘Soar’ to model a general problem solving mechanism.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soar_(cognitive_architecture)

According to this mechanism, when confronted with a problem, a search is performed of the ‘problem space’ for a solution. If a solution is not found then the problem is broken down into sub-tasks and a variety of standard methods are used to manage the search for solutions to these. If solutions to sub-goals cannot be found then deeper level sub-goals can be spawned. Once a solution, or path to a solution, is found (at any level in the goal hierarchy) it is stored (or chunked) so that when confronted with the same problem next time it is available without the need for further problem solving or search.

In this way, novel problems can be tackled, and as solutions are found they effectively become automated and easy to access using minimal resource.

The ambitions of the Soar project, which continue at the University of Michigan, are to ‘support all the capabilities of an intelligent agent’. Project funding comes from a variety of sources including the US department of Defense (DARPA).

http://soar.eecs.umich.edu

Work continues on the Soar architecture and a project called Rosie is now looking at how Soar might be taught by people, to learn a particular task, and then to generalise this knowledge to similar tasks. Also, work is being done on how recency and frequency can be used as criteria for retrieving memories. The size of memory can be contained by ‘forgetting’ memories that have not been recently or frequently used (so long as they can be reconstructed if need be).

Youtube Video, MIT AGI: Cognitive Architecture (Nate Derbinsky), March 2018, 1:30:51 starting at 45:00

Whatever the state of the implementation, the Soar cognitive architecture is in close alignment with much else that is described here. It provided insight into the following:


  • How system 1 and system 2 type thinking can be integrated into a single framework
  • How ‘navigation’ around what is currently believed or known might be managed
  • How learning occurs and an explanation for the ‘power law of practice’ (the well established and consistent relationship between practice and skill development over a wide range of tasks)
  • How it is possible to create solutions out of fragmentary and incomplete knowledge
  • How the ‘availability principle’ described by Kahneman can operate to perform quick fixes and conserve resources
  • What a top-down central cognitive control mechanism might look like
  • The possible ways in which disruption to the normal operation of this high level control mechanism might help explain conditions such as autism and dementia


In this blog: ‘The Representation of Reality Enables Control – Part 1’ looked at language and thought, mental models and computational approaches to how the mind represents what it knows about the world (and itself).

Part 2 contrasts thinking in words with thinking in pictures, looking first at how evidence from brain studies inform the debate, and then concludes how all these approaches – linguistic, psychological, computational, neurophysiological and phenomenological are addressing much the same set of phenomena from different perspectives. Can freedom be defined in terms of our ability to reflect on our own perceptions and thoughts?

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Rod Rivers' passions include writing about economics, psychology, and philosophy; listening to Radio 4 and watching TED and YouTube videos; engaging in conversations with friends and colleagues, and re-experiencing the world through the eyes of his two teenage sons. Living in the 21st century is a huge privilege.

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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

• Quite Easy - Just read the text in bold. This brings out the main points in each posting.

• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.