Context, cognitive subroutines, and collectives

Posted: June 11, 2005 at 8:34 pm in cognition

In my last post, I mentioned that I wanted to think about how to connect the ideas in this post, where I describe how we have different groups of people in different contexts and often find them difficult to identify them outside of the context in which we know them, and this post, where I build off of the idea of cognitive subroutines and claim that “we are different people in different situations in a very real sense”. So while I was sitting last night in the chorus through the first three movements of Beethoven’s Ninth, I thought about it.

And the answer is pretty obvious. If we are actually different people in different contexts, then of course it’s difficult for us to identify people from a given context when we’re in a different one. We’re not the same person.

Let me take a step back here and reconstruct my meaning for those who may not have been following along for months. I have this notion of cognitive subroutines (which I also came up with during a concert oddly enough), which is that our brain identifies patterns that we perform often and creates a “subroutine” that will let us quickly call that pattern. These patterns encompass both physical activities like learning to spike a volleyball and mental activities like stereotypes and mental models. A followup post suggested that these subroutines were like computers in another way, establishing the importance of context:

They have a certain set of inputs which defines their behavior, much like a function prototype defines the inputs for a computer function. When our brain is presented with a situation with certain stimuli, it grabs among its set of cognitive subroutines, finds the one with the closest matching set of inputs, and uses it, even if it’s not a perfect fit. In other words, these cognitive subroutines are called in an event-driven fashion based on incoming stimuli.

From there, we got to the idea of identity as context, where if the way we react changes based on our environment, then we are different people in different environments. The set of brain patterns/cognitive subroutines that get activated change. So the people I recognize in my chorus context are tied in with the environment of being in rehearsal, sitting in Davies Hall. When I see them out and about (or on BART), they are not processed by the same set of routines, so I fail to identify them immediately. My internal processor thrashes, and eventually loads the right context, but it takes time. (Wow, and if I wanted to get ubergnurdly, I’d start speculating about caching here, but I won’t).

So, having resolved that particular connection, and still being in only the second movement of the Ninth (we don’t sing until the fourth and final movement), I continued doing some exploration work. In particular, I started thinking about the second question I brought up in yesterday’s post – what’s the connection of all of this stuff to the Latour-ian madness I’ve been going on about? In particular, I wanted to connect the idea of cognitive subroutines with the idea of a personal, internal collective. I came up with a rough idea, so I’m throwing it out there for further refinement.

Cognitive subroutines are reactions that have been embedded and institutionalized into the collective. In the Latour process, collectives are exposed to new unknown stimuli, and either reject them or figure out a way to incorporate them into the collective. My theory of the moment is that one way such stimuli can be incorporated is by prescribing a standard way of responding to them; in other words, developing a cognitive subroutine. From then on, the collective will respond consistently when exposed to that now-known stimuli.

I think it’s a good start, because it brings the cognitive subroutines back out of the subconscious and puts them up for the discussion inherent in Latour’s model. We may have an ingrained reaction, but when we are exposed to new stimuli or when we discover unexpected consequences of our already constructed responses (in the same way that asbestos was handled by the collective in Latour’s book), we can examine the reaction and decide to change it. It gives us the responsibility for the consequences of our actions, even when they’ve been built into our subconscious. And it forces us to strive towards self-awareness as the best defense against complacency, as discussed in the comments on this post.

I think that captures the idea as I worked it out last night. Let me know if I make any sense. Tomorrow I’ll try to finish up another post that’s been half-written for a while, which ties into the ideas of mental models and classification systems.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering why I’m not posting much, as usual, it’s been busy. New job still keeping me hopping, this week and next week are concerts weeks with the Ninth (concert reviews forthcoming in a sec), plus ultimate frisbee on Mondays, and occasionally I like to relax, unforgivable as that may be. The car has still been behaving – could it actually be fixed?

One Response to “Context, cognitive subroutines, and collectives”

  1. Beemer Says:

    I wanted to point you towards a pointer to a comment thread on somebody’s journal, because it seems parallel and coherent with this set of ideas here.

    Parallel and coherent… hey, it’s meme-amplification by stimulated emission of links — a MASEL!

    Hmm… is it a joke, a metaphor, or an insight? The world may never know…

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