Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist » Blog Archive » Filling in the blanks part 2

Filling in the blanks part 2

Posted: December 1, 2005 at 12:04 am in cognition

I was thinking more about the topic of how our mind fills in the blanks last week during the Messiah concerts, particularly in the “He was despised” aria. I meant to write this up on Sunday or Monday evening, but didn’t get around to it. So, of course, I’m writing it up after a two and a half hour chorus rehearsal. Because if I don’t, I’m not sure when I’ll have time to blog again (another rehearsal tomorrow (Thursday) night, plans on Friday night, the BrainJam on Saturday, brunch Sunday morning, ultimate frisbee Sunday afternoon, and then rehearsal Monday-Wednesday evenings (with a special bonus Wednesday afternoon rehearsal), and concerts Thursday through Saturday next week. When did my life get so crazy?)

One of the things I was grasping for at the end of the last post was “something about the connection between how our brains fill in the blanks, and how that reinforces our worldviews”. And I think I have some ideas about that now, with applications and a tie-in to another post I had half-written but gotten stuck on. So this thread will probably be a set of at least three posts, if not more.

One of the things that struck me about how our brains fill in blanks is that I already had a theory for this in one of my cognitive subroutines posts from last year.

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.

Or, to use Jeff Hawkins’s terminology, a set of cortical cells are activated by a stimulus, and based on the cells’ responses to other similar stimuli, those weak connections to other stimuli are activated since there are no strong activations from the original stimulus.

Using either formulation, the idea is that when your brain is presented with an incomplete pattern, it grabs among the patterns that it does have to fill out what it doesn’t know. It fills in the blanks. This ties into my statement from the last post where I noted “that when we don’t know something, we tend to assume whatever works to best preserve our worldview.” It’s even worse than that – we don’t assume it consciously. It happens completely automatically.

My point is that my brain is a fantastic pattern recognition machine. It can make a pretty good guess as to what goes in the blanks most of the time based on its previous experience. It is completely necessary for us to perceive the world as a continuous place – we assume that even though we only see the back end of a car poking out of a driveway, there is a front end associated with it. Our senses do this automatic filling in of blanks all the time. One of the insights of On Intelligence is that our cortical cells treat all inputs in the same way, looking for patterns of stimuli that occur together and using those patterns to make predictions about the world around us, whether the patterns are from our senses, or from processing what we think other people are going to do. Patterns are patterns, and our brain’s going to do the best it can to make our perception of the world continuous by filling in blanks wherever it can (as an aside, we have to beware of stereotypes and other breakdowns in the system, where the blanks are being filled in based on faulty assumptions (inexperience, etc.)).

I think I’m going to end this post here. Tonight I took a stab at hand-waving-ly justifying how and why our brains fill in blanks when presented with incomplete patterns, with the relevant point being that it fills in those blanks from its own experience. My next post will be examining the implications of how our brains fill in blanks in an actual real-world scenario (*gasp*). And then there’s a post tying this all into my adapting the global to the local thread. Somehow. It’s all tenuously connected in my head, but I may have to play with it some more to make it work.

“He was despised” is an aria in Part Two of the Messiah for the alto soloist. It’s slow, lugubrious and, frankly, boring, so it seems like it goes on _forever_. And then it repeats, because Handel decided once wasn’t enough. It’s painfully long. I’ve been in several Messiahs at this point, and it just doesn’t matter how good the alto soloist is (countertenor soloist in this case), the aria is just boring. During most of the other arias, the chorus is paying attention to the soloist, admiring their vocal acrobatics; during “He was despised”, I think we’re all struggling to stay awake, staring off into the audience, etc. Or thinking about the cognitive origin of filling in the blanks, like me.

“completely automatically”: I want to mention Brad’s post about choice blindness (pointing at this study) here, even though it’s not entirely relevant to my main point, mostly to illustrate how your brain does all sorts of weird stuff long before stimuli reach your conscious brain.

4 Responses to “Filling in the blanks part 2”

  1. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Mysterious connections || May || 2006 Says:

    […] It’s not just a matter of spending time together; for instance, I feel far closer to Jofish or my other TEP friends than, say, my former coworkers who I saw every day for years. I think it may have to do with my still-uncontinued thread on filling in the blanks; if two people don’t have similar enough experiences/backgrounds/cultural referents/senses of humor to have similar takes on what people are saying or experiencing, then there is a significant cognitive overhead to overcome before they can be friends. I talked about this last year in a post on conversational alignment. If I have to spend several sentences explaining each of my references, then the conversational momentum is disrupted and it’s hard to achieve that sense of flow in conversation (another topic which Wes suggested at one point that I need to follow up on) that I enjoy so much. As an aside, one of the reasons I really like blogging is that I can use the power of hypertext to insert references to other posts/pages where needed so as not to disrupt that flow. […]

  2. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Mike Murray on Hacking the Mind || July || 2006 Says:

    […] The next technique he mentioned was using ambiguous content, so that the person can make it specific to their own experience (shades of filling in the blanks posts that I have yet to write). For instance, when hypnotizing someone, he could say “you will feel a sharp tingling sensation in your left leg”, but then he’d be right only some percentage of the time, and if he’s wrong, it breaks the trance. If instead he says, “You feel a sensation in your leg. Focus on it.”, then however they are feeling they stay in the trance. Another example he gave was “You will continue to breathe, focusing on the breath”; as he quipped, “I know they’re breathing – if they’re not, I’ve got a whole other set of problems”. This is reminiscent of the political training that I took: His [Bob Mulholland’s] example was make your message “Stop Bush!” If you leave it at that, the person that sees it applies their own context and interprets in terms of their own personal woes. If you keep on going and say “Stop Bush because he’s against gay marriage”, then maybe that person goes “Well, I don’t know how I feel about gay marriage, so maybe I don’t agree with this campaigner.” Use the voters’ ability to supply context to your advantage. […]

  3. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert || May || 2007 Says:

    […] a new cognition category recently), and I’ve speculated before on some of the ways in which our brains fill in the blanks so these sorts of findings fascinate me. The brain is a complex thing, and reading a book like this […]

  4. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || True Enough, by Farhad Manjoo || July || 2008 Says:

    […] the same thing, we only notice and remember the things that fit into our existing worldview, and fill in the blanks […]

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