Repetitive Blindness of Meaning

Posted: February 17, 2006 at 4:59 pm in cognition

Jofish recently pointed me at a recording of Cry If You Want To, a song performed by the Holly Cole Trio. I really liked it, and started listening to it regularly. Interestingly, the more I listened to it, the less I appreciated it. It became a song I listened to as a whole, without listening to the individual lyrics that had struck me the first time. It became background music.

This actually happens to me a lot – when I get new music, I listen to it all the time for a while, and then it gets completely absorbed into my brain and I tend to stop paying attention to it unless I make a special effort to do so. And there are certain albums which have a totemic power to me that I don’t want to lessen by ever listening to them without paying full attention, so they only get played when I’ve blocked out a chunk of time such that I can listen to the whole thing.

This experience got me back to thinking about the amazing pattern building properties of our brains. When we first encounter something, the details are what we notice – we can’t absorb the whole thing, so we are often distracted by less important details. As we grow more familiar with the object, we begin to see it as a whole, and not as the sum of its elements. We are no longer the blind men feeling a wall, a spear, a snake and a tree – we see that it’s an elephant.

But the flip side of this is that as we grow to perceive it as a whole, we sometimes lose track of those details. We don’t appreciate the many different ways in which an object can be experienced. We forget what drew us to the entity in the first place.

Along similar lines, sometimes we also lose our appreciation for an experience through repetition. It becomes something that we’ve seen so much that it is no longer interesting, just part of the background scenery. This is the principle behind the Zen View as described in Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language:

This is the essence of the problem with any view. It is a beautiful thing. One wants to enjoy it and drink it in every day. But the more open it is, the more obvious, the more it shouts, the sooner it will fade. Gradually it will become part of the building, like the wallpaper; and the intensity of its beauty will no longer be accessible to the people who live there.

One of the reasons we enjoy going places with children is that their enthusiasm and glee in seeing new things lets us appreciate those things as if for the first time. Our glazed detachment is ripped away, and we experience it anew. And it’s hard to achieve that on our own – it takes a certain talent to be able to take down our filters built up through experience and look at things with a fresh perspective. The best thinkers have that ability to constantly “forget” what they “know”, and consider other possibilities. And yet children do it effortlessly because they have not yet accumulated the weight of experience that becomes the equivalent of blinders.

At the same time, if we were always experiencing everything anew, we would never be able to make progress. We would be like the sheep who is surprised every morning by the sun rising. As with everything else, there needs to be a balance, in this case between leveraging our previous experience and being able to ignore that experience. Taking an example from the chorus, by the concert week, we have often internalized the music completely such that we’re not even thinking about what we’re singing about, especially when we’re singing in a foreign language – it’s just syllables that go with certain notes. Our conductor fights this tendency by having us write in the translation next to the musical notes so that we are reminded of the meaning. The physical act of singing syllables has to be almost automatic for us to perform, but we take the performance to another level by adding back the meaning to our learned patterns.

One more perspective on the subject – I often use re-readability/re-watchability as my metric for judging books, movies and TV shows. There are books that I read and get everything from immediately, so I don’t feel like I need to ever read them again. There are other books that I can read over and over again and get something new from it each time, as I mention in this post. My theory of the moment is that certain works have a greater depth such that I can revisit them and notice different details depending on my current state of mind. I don’t experience the works the same way each time, such that repetition is rewarded. If the view didn’t change, it wouldn’t be worth looking at again.

This post doesn’t really have a point. I guess maybe it’s just a reminder to myself to occasionally turn off the pattern recognition center in the brain and try to see things with a fresh perspective, difficult as that may be. Either that, or ask a kid for what they think.

P.S. I couldn’t come up with a good name for this post and was throwing around various combinations of repetition, meaning and blindness and ended up with the one that echos “Unbearable Lightness of Being”. This amuses me for some reason.

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