Sunday, January 04, 2009

Futile search for a well-ordered mind

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, brain, mind, evolution

If you look up kluge or kludge at you will get:
  1. A system, especially a computer system, that is constituted of poorly matched elements or of elements originally intended for other applications.
  2. A clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem.
I think that about sums up the "seat-of-the-pants" that typically underlies the creation of a kluge. Psychology professor Gary Marcus thinks the term, particularly its first definition, exactly suits the "design" of, not only the human body, but particularly the brain and mind. He makes his case in Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.

I suspect the word "haphazard" is an editor's compromise. It doesn't convey a proper sense of the contingency plus ruthless pruning that constitutes evolutionary change. Our thinking and feelings are what they are because creatures that think and feel thus were able to have more offspring than creatures that think and feel differently. That doesn't mean our mind is the best that can be imagined, just that it is the best collection of mental and emotional tools that has so far been produced, based on the mental and emotional tools available to evolutionary processes that shaped our brain from the brain that existed in our chimp-like ancestors a few million years ago.

The author offers a few suggestions as to the origin of our word kluge. The letters KLUGE can be seen on this paper folding machine, of a kind still in use in small print shops. I have seen just the same name, but in a different typeface, proudly displayed on the front of a piece of electrical equipment from the 1940s, that looked like it came right off the set of Frankenstein.

Kluge means "clever" in German, but I suspect it is the almost scary look of the machines made by the two Kluge companies that prompted the term, which arose in America at a time that German scientists were involved in major projects such as the Manhattan Project, and probably using Kluge amplifiers and generators in their labs.

However the term came about, to an engineer it means something pretty specific, usually referring to a "breadboard" prototype that operates according to desired specifications, but needs a lot of work to become a production device. For a lot of home-brew builders, such as those ham radio operators who still build their own equipment, getting a kluge working is more of a goal than a process, and once something is working "well enough", the old proverb "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" kicks in. I've shared the microphone with many a friend whose transmitting amplifier was a kluge they'd cobbled together decades before.

In fact, while this image was unlabeled when I found it, it is of an 845 transmitting tube and supporting electronics, and perfectly exemplifies a home-brewed kluge. It is probably a radio amplifier intended to push the limits of legal power (1500 peak input watts) so the operator can "punch through" a signal in noisy conditions.

Does the human mind really match the concept of the kluge? Dr. Marcus makes a pretty strong case that it does. While many people have gotten somewhat used to the idea that we are smart apes, the idea that our smarts are still pretty ape-like is pretty uncomfortable. But consider the brain's construction.

At its base, the brain stem is most similar to the brain of a fish. It is overlaid by a series of additions that can be found in reptiles and amphibians, and the whole is surrounded by two levels of "cortex" ("bark"). The prefrontal cortex, which seems to be the seat of forethought and planning, is much larger in humans than in other mammals. In a pet cat, it is so small that Fluffy probably plans no farther than what she can see. Some philosophers may extol "living in the present", but if you had to become a housecat to really do so, I suspect the "ideal" would not be quite so popular.

In exploring these concepts, the author considers several realms of mental experience. I find three of these of the most interest. Firstly, memory. Do you know who is ROY G BIV? That's the mnemonic (memory helper) to remember the "seven colors" as proposed by Isaac Newton: Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet. How about "Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me"? It is used to teach budding astronomers the order of star spectral types, OBAFGKM, so created for historical reasons (Astronomers take note: that system is a kluge!). Why do we need mnemonics? It is because our memories are kluged up out of machinery needed by semi-predatory hunter-gatherer apes, and before them by half a billion years of brain development in which it was important to remember What and Where good food or good, safe sleeping places might be, but not so much When we found them, or How they might have arisen. For more than half a journalist's "7 W's", an early hominid would answer, "I couldn't care."

So, we remember where we usually park our car, but not necessarily where we parked it this time. I do that from time to time, and wind up going out the wrong door after work, then walking halfway around the building…when I don't first have a qualm that maybe it was stolen! We remember faces, an ancient skill, but not names. Only humans have names, and probably only for the last few tens of thousands of years. That is not enough time for an enhanced name memory skill to evolve. So instead, some people "peg" the name to some physical characteristic of a person's visage, and the rest of us muddle along until sheer repetition drills the name into our skull.

Secondly, there is language. Words can be very ambiguous, and are often used with more ambiguity still. The author reports how Noam Chomsky argues that syntax and semiotics arose to allow us to convey more exact meaning, to transmit information optimally while using less-than-optimal "atoms" (words). This makes some sense to me as a computer engineer: the TCP/IP system that is used for internet communication has two parts, one of which corrects for deficiencies in the other. IP is "Internet Protocol", which is error-prone but fast and simple. It was originally found better to send something two or three times quickly and correct errors by comparison.

Later, TCP, "Transmission Control Protocol" was developed. It takes care of the redundancy needed to send and correct short packets of information using IP, and has produced a system in which a whole digital movie, a gigabyte or two, can be downloaded with no errors in all its billions of bits. Grammar conventions, which differ from language to language, can take care of some of the problems, if we're diligent to apply them. But English is the most klugey of languages, so problems arise most freely here. Perhaps this is why there are so many lawyers in the English-speaking countries. They are trained to write bulletproof contractual language, which most of us find impossible. Not all languages have our problems.

For example, consider the sentence, "Put the book in the box on the table." Most of us would respond by looking first for a book, expecting there to be a box on a nearby table to put it in. Were we to see a book already in a box, and a clear tabletop nearby, we'd suffer only a momentary lurch, then we'd be able to follow through. In Japanese, this particular ambiguity cannot arise. Japanese has a number of grammatical tags called Particles by linguists, or sometimes Postpositions, since they come after the word they modify. Here is the Japanese for the commonly-expected meaning of the sentence above, with Particles in CAPS, followed by a literal translation:

hon O te-buru NO UENI aru hako NI ireru.
book OBJ table POSS UPON exists box IN to enter: enter the book into the box that exists upon the table.

Here is the alternate meaning I had above:

hon GA haiteru hako O te-buru NO UENI oku.
book SUBJ inside box OBJ table POSS UPON to place: place the book that's inside the box upon the table.

My translator (wife) offered a third possible meaning:
hon O hako NI irete te-buru NO UENI oku.
book OBJ box IN to enter table POSS UPON to place: place the book into the box [then] onto the table.

Though Japanese typically uses word order SUBJect OBJect verb, as long as the main verb occurs last, the Particles allow a Japanese to put the words in many different orders and the meaning can be strung together using them. This makes it easiest for an interpreter to translate from any language into Japanese: she keeps the verb in mind if it comes early, translates all other words and adds particles as needed, then appends the verb in an appropriate tense. English word order (the most variable), French, German, Tagalog—all can be accommodated.

Finally, mental illnesses are distressing troubles to which far too many of us are prone. Depression alone, not just brief sadness nor even just grief with a cause, but causeless, grinding, hopeless-feeling depression will affect a quarter or more of us at some time in our lives. For too man of us, it ends that life, leading to suicide. Many others are schizophrenic or bipolar, or otherwise psychotic, and don't even talk about milder neuroses. Where do these come from?

At the core of our brain, we are lizards, instantly reflexive, driven to react quickly on scant clues. Grab food if it's to be found; run from everything else that moves. Our newer brain organs are more deliberative. This causes conflict, and conflict inside our heads can lead to trouble.

I could write a book on Bipolar from the Inside. Maybe I will some day. All of us experience causeless moods. Bright days followed by a tendency to melancholy. But neither is too strong, for most people. The brighter days, we think faster, react faster, are more impulsive, jump to conclusions, and tend to be irritable, though we forgive slights easily. We are more lizardish. Gray days (and I'm speaking only of the inner weather) we brood, introspect, think things through but suffer "analysis paralysis", are easily wounded but suffer in silence, and hold grudges. We are overusing our much-vaunted "human mind". We need a balance of both to be, well, balanced! The lizard quickly sees lots of possibilities and quickly chooses, but the smart ape can sidestep the sudden reaction and override the choice after more deliberation…when it wants to enough.

The author ruminates a time or two about the fallacy of intelligent design. If we were intelligently designed, mightn't we be, well, more intelligent! Better memory, more accurate recall; crisper and more precise language; less (near-zero?) tendency to go off the rails. Not necessarily less complex, but complex in a more robust way.

In contrast to any of the classic kluges or Kluges, a well-designed mechanism can be quite complex yet very robust. The Linotype as patented by Mergenthaler worked so well and so reliably that it was used without any significant modifications for a century. A friend of my ran a small typesetting shop with a Linotype as its main producer well into the 1970s. These lovely beasts were not supplanted until phototypesetting equipment got to be cheaper and more reliable, which took a while. The phototypesetters of the 1970s were lots more klugey than the Linotype. That has changed.

In evolution, contingency is nearly everything. Nature builds on what has come before, and seldom makes large evolutionary leaps. Consider the eye. Eyes have evolved four separate times, at the very least. The two best-developed, focusing eye designs are those found in mollusks such as squids, and those found in vertebrates including humans. It happens that the squid eye is the better design: the focusing mechanism is more robust and less prone to myopia, and and retina is the right way out, with the light-sensing cells on top and the nerves behind.

The vertebrate eye's retina is backwards, with the nerves lying on top of the light sensors. This has three unfortunate consequences: there is a blind spot where the nerves "bundle up" to exit the eye, there is less total sensitivity, and a large amount of brain power is needed to cancel out the shadowing by the nerves so we see a smooth, blue sky as smooth rather than patterned by branching rivers of nerve shadows.

In his last chapter the author outlines thirteen cognitive tools to help overcome the deficiencies of our cross-purposed mind. I find two rules are sufficient, being easier to remember, and capable of doing most of the good:
  • Don't do something you can't undo (like shoplifting or that impulsive murder)
  • Nothing good happens fast (think it over, unless you'll die quicker than that)

1 comment:

Mind Brain Power said...

well i want to increase my mind power