The Traffic Guy: Perspective

20 03 2007

If I had to define a cognitive system in the most broad sense, I would say that it is any system that receives information (input), transposes it into one or more representations, manipulates them in a meaningful way (computation- if you will), and outputs that information in a meaningful way. I don’t really want to get into the specifics and the caveats, because I just want to discuss one aspect of these cognitive systems: perspective.

In a cognitive system, each player has a field of operation that concerns them.

  • In a soccer team, each player has a position, and a role.
  • In an emergency task force division, each member has a duty, a specialty, or a role in each situation.
  • In a brain, each nucleus of neurons and even each neuron has a receptive field and a specialization of sorts.

Further, every member or cell of these system also has a specific position in time and space. That seems obvious- and it is- but it is important with respect to perspective.The information that one member has about the system as a whole is usually quite different from the information atained by the other members, and also quite different from the shared information as a whole. This is, of course, a good thing because it allows for rich distributed computation to be done about different types and different ranges of inputs.

However, is the difference of perspective sometimes a bad thing? And if so, can it sometimes be minimized?

In a soccer team, one player may have open sights to the goal, but if the player who has the ball doesn’t know that because his view is obstructed, he won’t know to pass the ball to him. Opportunity lost.

This morning, I was listening to the Mikey Show, a morning show on FM 105.3. The traffic guy was talking about the traffic conditions and started off saying that traffic was looking great today. It went something like this:

Good morning everyone, traffic is looking fantastic today. There’s really not too much going on to worry about. There was an accident on the 78 eastbound this morning, but it looks like that is clearning up quite nicely. South I5 is slow from Encinitas to Solana Beach as usual, but starting to pick up. The 8 is surprisingly smooth this morning. The only freeway with traffic issues is the southbound 15. It’s packed from Valley Parkway to Via Rancho Parkway.

Now, I happen to take the 15 south to work, and I get on right near Valley Pkwy and exit about 2 exits after Via Rancho Pkwy. Obviously, for me, traffic is definitely not fantastic this morning. I could care less about the 8, or the 5, or the 78 for that matter. But the traffic guy said “traffic is looking fantastic”. I beg to differ.

The problem lies in perspective. For him, he sees the overall picture. In fact, if he’s not flying in a helicopter, he probably has a nice little animated graphic of a map of san diego freeways with symbols, and colored flow arrows representing blockage or lack there of. For him, if he sees only one red slow arrow on his screen, traffic is otherwise pretty damn good. “One red arrow? Not bad at all”

But his perspective is much larger than mine- both cognitively and visually. He cares about the 8 and the 5 freeways. I don’t. He sees activity in the entire county. I don’t. What this leads to is a contrast in system status. He feels that the status is good. I don’t.

The problem gets complicated in that the purpose of the whole cognitive system of traffic reporting is to aid the audience (radio listeners). It’s not so important to give the overall status of the entire system of transportation, because nobody in the audience cares about the entire system! They only care about what applies to them and their morning commute.

If I were in a hurry, trying to figure out which route to take to work, I might just listen to the first five seconds of his report and conclude that my ride should be fine. After all, traffic conditions are fantastic, right?

I don’t have a great solution. After all, it is radio. It’s just something that I’ve been thinking about this morning- how perspective in a system can sometimes lead to inaccuracies and misleading interpretations.


Intelligence: chances are you got some

19 03 2007

Intelligence is something of a scourge to neuroscientists and the rest of human kind alike. Its definition and understanding has flipped, swayed, and morphed over the last 100 years so much that the confusion around it is more than beguiling.I am a believer of the multiple intelligences idea- that there are different types of brain specializations that cannot qualitatively be compared against each other to show how smart one person is over another, as we often try to do today. E.g., a pianist vs. an athlete or an accountant. I also am a believer that these different types of intelligence may possibly use the same exact methods- hierarchical temporal memory systems interacting with lower-level brain structures (emotional, etc.) and motor generator circuits.

However, today I just want to talk about that area of intelligence that we typically use in our daily life(without care) to describe how smart somebody is. What I mean is that quality of some person that we describe as that broad result of their genes, their grades in school, and their breadth of knowledge that we perceive when we interact with them.

I believe that this understanding of intelligence can be separated into two semi-distinct areas. One, is that amount of knowledge- or Memory. This is a common judgement of someone’s intelligence. We see it in game shows like jeopardy, Who wants to be a millionaire, and in most tests that we are given in the school system. This area of intelligence is simply due to (first, of course the underlying allowing structure and ability provided by the genome) the amount of stimuli and the ability to retain the stimuli representations. If I never learn anything intelligent or retain anything I’ve learned, I won’t appear to be so smart.

I think the second area- which may even be more important- is the ORGANIZATION of this knowledge. It is how somebody’s thoughts are structured. It is what pops out to somebody when they process some stimulus because of how their output is structured in accordance with that input.

For instance, If I remember everything from the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, that would be very impressive. I would probably do very well on a comprehension test. However, if I don’t organize my thoughts and beliefs in accordance to what I’ve read, I won’t get much good out of it. If I don’t associate some of the meanings from the book with other meanings in life that can be equated with some of the situations in the book, then I won’t be able to apply the book to anything in my life, and I will not have gotten much good from it.

I believe that this organization quality of intelligence is what makes somebody creative, or intuitive. I believe it is also what makes somebody “level-headed” or have great “common-sense”. Further, I feel that if I want to be very sharp, wise, smart, agile, etc. (indeed, intelligent in all of it’s forms) I need to master this essence of having an organized mind model. I think it takes both areas- amount of knowledge, and organization of it- to be truly intelligent in the sense that we use in our daily language.

I’ll leave this post with a question- How can I purposefully make my organization better? Is this something that I can modify by learning a lot and consciously making connections and metaphors with other parts of my knowledge? Or is it handled by my genes exclusively, meaning that all I can do is learn and lot and read a lot, hoping that my brain will organize it well due to its ability to structure my neuronal connections in accordance with my DNA?

…Maybe both?

Subtleties and Their Implications

16 02 2007

A little excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller, “The Tipping Point”:

A large group of students were recruited for what they were told was a market research study by a company headset and and told that the company wanted to test to see how well they worked when the listener was in motion – dancing up and down, say, or moving his or her head. All of the students listened to songs by Linda Ronstandt and the Eagles, and then heard a radio editorial arguing that tuition at their university should be raised from its present level of $587 to $750. A third were told that while they listened to the taped radio editorial they should nod their heads vigorously up and down. The next third were told to shake their heads from side to side. The final third were the control group. They were told to keep their heads still. When they were finished, all the students were given a short questionnaire, asking them questions about the quality of the songs and the effect of the shaking. Slipped in at the end was the question the experimenters really wanted and answer to: “What do you feel would be an appropriate dollar amount for undergraduates tuition per year?”
The answers to that question are… difficult to believe…The students who kept their heads still were unmoved by the editorial. The tuition amount that they guessed was appropriate was $582 – or just about where tuition was already. Those who shook their heads from side to side as they listened to the editorial – even though they thought they were simply testing headset quality – strongly with the proposed increase. They wanted tuition to fall on average to $467 a year. Those who were told to nod their heads up and down, meanwhile, found the editorial very persuasive. They wanted tuition to rise, on average, to $646. The simple act of moving their heads up and down, ostensibly for another reason entirely – was sufficient to cause them to recommend a policy that would take money out of their pockets.

I mention this excerpt for a couple of reasons. One is that it is so very interesting to reaffirm how strong the unconscious behaviors – which have no conscious semantic value – can influence a person’s conscious beliefs and attitudes. This is not unlike the well-known psychological effect we see when a person deliberately smiling can actually physiologically modify their mood to a happier state.

I want to stress to designers and marketing geniuses alike, that often times people’s subconscious cues can be as strong, if not stronger, than actual deliberate conscious thought about something.

What can be learned from this? Two things: One is that Marketers can have have a greater effect with their advertising if they cater to people’s subconscious processing. I am not talking about subliminal messages (which have been shown in many studies to be a complete farce). Rather, I mean to use knowledge about people’s motor circuits, or even their mirror neurons (empathy, reflection of other people’s actions and emotions) to develop campaigns that take advantage of this, without being discovered by their conscious recognition.

If you are trying to market a basketball, you don’t need to explain to the customer all of the benefits and specifications in order to make them understand at a cognitive level how good the ball is. You don’t need to endorse a celebrity. You also don’t need to spend millions of dollars on great writing and dense traffic times for a good television commercial. All you need to do is force the consumers, at a basic processing level, to associate this ball with positive thoughts about sports and performance. There are many ways to do this, such as the use of high-tempo and rhythmic music, or hi-definition shots of muscles in action with sweat droplets (Gatorade commercials come to mind with their striking neon-colored sweat that resembles the sports drink itself), which engage the consumers at a visceral layer of their subconscious processing. If the person actually goes out to buy the basketball, they will not say that it is because they heard upbeat tunes on the commercial, or that he/she liked the hi-res sweat on the muscles. In most cases, they will either claim they don’t know why they chose this over others, or – more likely – they will rationalize their decision with concrete, logical points.

Many of these message are well-implemented by the marketing geniuses of the world. However, I am willing to bet that a lot of them don’t know why it works, and therefore may sometimes be hindered to come up with effective ideas in realms they are not experienced with.

The second thing we can learn from Gladwell’s references example is that designers need to pay strong attention to the basic subconscious processing abilities of consumers, the emotional design levels of their designed products. They need to pay strong attention to it because it works, and it manipulates people’s cognitive opinions.

This may be best served by reading Don Norman’s “Emotional Design.” In this book, Norman points out that products are embraced by the masses not only if they are effective and usable, but also if they are aesthetically pleasing at the visceral level of use. A writing pen may be just as usable and efficient as another, but if it looks sharp, has a nice feel and weight to it, and perhaps may even at some higher emotional level create an associative attachment to how you acquired it, or how you used it once to fill out an application to a job you were got, you will most likely heavily favor this pen against others…

It’s just a pen…isn’t it?

Consistency vs. OCD

13 02 2007

consistency: a logical coherence that keeps to a style or patternI just realized today that I have this idea so ingrained in my head that it seems alien to me for consistency not be be used or even understood when designing (or doing anything for that matter!). When you are designing an interface, there needs to be consistency- it’s one of the basic guiding principles. Text should not change color for no reason. Buttons should behave similarly. Margins and alignments should be maintained. There are many others.

These things are documented, but it also pertains to other facets of life and work. For instance, if you are writing a paper, titles and fonts should be consistent. You shouldn’t change from a number outline system to a roman numeral outline system for no reason at some random point in the document.

I realized that I employ these pattern-maintaining behaviors in almost everything I do or think about. Today, in my office, I overheard somebody explaining to another person that they should keep some sections in a poster consistent to each other regarding formatting, style, and alignment. The person on the other end seemed to take it in as good instruction but seemed to not understand what the big deal was. The person didn’t get it. It made me realize that something like that would have been so obvious to me that it wouldn’t have even been a issue…I have been brainwashed.

It also made me wonder, how is the behavior to maintain consistency in your work and in your daily life different from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Is there a line that can be drawn? Perhaps everyone has OCD to a degree, which is why pattern consistency is a desired trait (besides the fact that it is easier on the perceptual and cognitive systems). Perhaps being consistent with things in your environment is adaptive up to a certain extent? Maybe it’s just that individuals who are diagnosed with OCD manifest these patterns beyond the extreme to the point that they lose their semantic value, and that they interrupt their daily behaviors.

I can’t tell you how many people I know (including myself) who has at one point explained, “I’m OCD,” when they describe a reason for some action or opinion. I suspect that all of these people aren’t really clinically diagnosed…

If I showed you a picture of a kitchen with all of the cupboard doors closed except one, would it bother you? And if it wouldn’t, would you still agree that it would seem cleaner and nicer if that one cupboard door were to be closed along with its siblings?

Divided attention and the amazing relevance of unrelated things

7 10 2006

Now, if that’s that not the raddest title to a cognitive science book or paper that I’ve ever seen, then I don’t know what is…

No seriously, here’s my question:

WHY IS IT that people often find it comforting or even necessary to “fumble” with inanimate objects when performing cognitive tasks? In my last quarter at UCSD, I knew a guy in one of my project groups who found it helpful and insight-giving to kick around a little soccer ball in the lab while trying to think about critical parts of our project. In fact, it was almost debilitating for him not to have a ball to kick against the wall if there was a pressing issue amongst the team. I mean, he was a smart guy, so he was doing something right. It just always struck me as odd and a little irritating to be honest.

But, I realized that we all do this stuff! Myself, I find pleasure in clicking on and off the caps of dry erase markers when I am trying to think brilliant thoughts. It REALLY does help. You might argue that this is just the effect similar to the placebo, whereby the actual belief that it helps me leads to the justification when I perform it….But why is this so prevalent? And why can’t we just imagine fumbling with things? Why is the physical action itself so beneficial? Its all over the place:

  • people often pace back and forth when concentrating
  • they may tap on things
  • they may pick their nails (I admit, I pick at my lips when concentrating sometimes)
  • they might twirl a pencil
  • many people keep toys and thing-a-majigs on their office desks
  • straying from physical fumblings, people often listen to music, which becomes a source of competition with the senses!

So here’s the issue: When people find that they need to rely on their most concentrated wits for a difficult issue, whether it be an emotional one or a cognitive one, you would think that they would employ every psychological resource they could towards working on this problem. But they don’t! In fact, quite the opposite; they take on other tasks that engage the body in irrelevant actions and perceptions…And it works!

I spoke to my uncle about this once, and as soon as he got the gist of what I was pondering, he interrupted me and left the room, returning with a little foam-brain toy that is slightly smaller than one’s palm. He explained to me that he keeps these and other little meaningless objects in the center of board room tables, because he finds that people always gravitate towards fumbling with them during difficult conversations, and he believes that it helps lead them towards more creative ideas.

I have to say that I believe this to an extent as well. But I want to understand why it is that this happens. Why should fumbling result in more brilliant thoughts than quiet stillness?

Some possible (albeit far from complete) explanations:

  1. engaging in simple tasks that require minimal conscious effort can inhibit centers in the brain that block highly abstract thought
  2. physical activity releases endorphins making it more enjoyable to move and fumble with things. If an activity if more enjoyable and a person acquires a more positive attitude, cognition can often improve
  3. If attention is too focused, there is too much neural activity flooding through the same circuits, so it may become harder to result in unique and intelligent thoughts
  4. (MY CURRENT FAVORITE) How did we learn things when we were little children? How did we develop our perceptions of the world and even ourselves? We played with toys! We learned cultural customs, physical mechanics, and new ways to interact! Additionally, in a time where many of us were so much more imaginative, we used our imagination to create story lines and reinforce consolidated memories from other stories we had seen on television and read in books. Toy-playing was a very important activity for our cognitive development. Perhaps this gives us much insight into why it is often so comforting to do similar toy-playing in our adulthood.