Cognitive subroutines and context

More thoughts on yesterday’s cognitive subroutines post after thinking about it some more, partially in response to Jofish’s comment.

Jofish brings up the importance of leveraging the real world. We don’t have to store a hypothetical model for everything in the real world, because we can use the real world to store information about itself, and use that to jog our memory. This is partially why people can find things more easily in a physical spatial environment than in a file system; the physical cues and landmarks of the real world help guide them to their destination. To some extent, the brain uses inputs from the real world to decide which of the cognitive subroutines to run.

This gets back to a running theme of mine that I never fully developed, which is the importance of context. I wrote a footnote post about it at one point, but never returned to the subject. One of the things that fascinates me about our brains is how incredibly contextual they are. For instance, my memory is totally associative. When I get to the grocery store, I often can’t remember what I’m supposed to get, until I walk down the aisle, see something, and my memory is jogged. I’ve mentioned this phenomenon in social contexts as well.

When I put the importance of context together with the idea of cognitive subroutines, a neat idea pops out. Perhaps these cognitive subroutines are like computer functions in yet another way. 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.

An interesting idea, but is there any evidence to support it? I think there may be in the existence of logically inconsistent positions. We all have positions on various issues that may conflict with each other. The canonical one is the person who is pro-life in opposing abortion, but pro-death in supporting the death penalty. How can the person reconcile these opposing viewpoints? Within a single hierarchical logical structure, it’s difficult. However, if the brain and its beliefs are treated as a set of separately created cognitive subroutines, each of which is activated by its own set of inputs, then the contradiction goes away. Each belief isn’t part of a large scale integrated thought structure; it’s contained within its own idea space, its own scope to use the programming term. Within that scope, it’s self-consistent, and it doesn’t care about what happens outside of that scope.

Only if you make the effort to try to reconcile all of your individual beliefs do contradictions start to pop up. But it’s a difficult task to break the beliefs out of their individual scopes, so most people don’t bother unless they are philosophers.

And to tie this all back to my favorite unifying topic, of stories, the effectiveness of stories lies precisely in their ability to activate certain contexts within our brains. This is why Lakoff emphasizes framing; by framing issues in a certain way, the conservatives set the context that the audience uses and actually choose which cognitive subroutines are activated in considering that issue. Advertisers seek to take advantage of this as well; commercials showing beautiful women drinking beer are trying to activate certain cognitive subroutines to connect the concepts.

Wow. When I started this post, I didn’t know I was going to be able to tie all of my hobby horses together into one overarching model, but there ya go. I know I’m ignoring a lot of details, and making a bunch of simplifying assumptions, and using an overly reductive model of the mind, and being unclear on language, but, hey, that’s what you get when you read a blog. Eit.

P.S. The Firefly critique is written. I’ll get to it tomorrow. Unless I end up expounding more on this subject.