My Banana

I’m listening to a very interesting audio book How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow. It’s a popular science book, meaning it’s a science book for the masses not that it’s a science book that is popular. It’s the usual compendium of science tidbits, study summaries, and other interesting stuff.

For example. There was a man who suffered a stroke. The stroke destroyed a specific part of his brain that interprets what the eyes see. He was not just effectively blind but truly blind – no light/dark comprehension, no shape recognition, total darkness as far as he could perceive. But your eyes don’t just connect to this one brain region. They also connect to an older part of the brain that we are not consciously aware of. (Ugh, prepositions have always been my bane.)

When asked to identify two different shapes, say a circle and a square, his success rate was 50%, the same as flipping a coin and what the researchers expected. But when he was asked to identify emotions in photographs – that he couldn’t consciously realize he was seeing even – he was correct 60% of the time. Statistically very significant.

He was also able to navigate a cluttered hall without his cane. Not by feeling his way through but just by walking. Something in his brain that was still wired to his eyes directed him around obstacles. When the researchers asked him how he did it he couldn’t tell them.

Some of the information is rote: Women dress sexier when they are ovulating, the Pepsi paradox (branding affects taste results), a slight touch during conversation improves outcome, stuff like that. One thing that I found fascinating and can’t quite get out of my head is his tangential example of Theory of Mind. I don’t know who originated it or even if I quite understand it yet but it goes something like this:

I think I want a banana.

I think that you want my banana.

I think that you think that I want a banana.

I think that you think that I think you want my banana.

I think that you think that I think that you think that I want a banana.

I think that you think that I think that you think that I think that you want my banana.

Theory of Mind is the ability to ascribe mental states to oneself and others. It’s the recognition that “I think” but also that “you think” and that I can think about you thinking AND that I can think about you thinking about me thinking, and so on. Supposedly, we (humans) are able to do this to six degrees while other vertebrates can do it to two or three degrees. I kinda lose track around the Kevin Bacon level. (See what I did there?)

Of course my description is just a really sketchy sketch of a complicated thing. Theory of Mind also encompasses emotions, what drives decisions and actions, beliefs, and false beliefs. And more of course.

 

Honestly, I think the Matrix would be easier.

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