Saturday, August 22, 2009

She was Right the First Time, Too.

Judge Sotomayor’s retreat from her “rhetorical flourish” that a wise old Latina might decide better than a wise old man was the right tactic to secure confirmation, but it was also a retreat from our newly-gained understanding of how the human mind works. Back in 1890, William James formulated a general law of perception: “Whilst part of what we perceive comes through our senses from the object before us, another part (and it may be the larger part) always comes out of our mind” We now know that James did not go far enough. Even what comes to us through our senses is not what is actually out there, but a highly filtered construct created by brain circuits unique to each individual.

Our eyes don’t work like a camera. They wander in fits and starts about a scene while the retina cuts the welter of information into pieces: edges, changes, motion, contrasts, colors, textures, light and dark, eye status, and other image primitives that we don’t yet understand. The optic nerves transmit these to the back of the head where the brain starts to reassemble them into: line segments, segment pairings, orientations; then on up to outlines; to shapes; then objects; then concepts like “limb, leaf, dog, face, stone” and on to even broader constructs like “lithesome, laugh, dread, father, story.”

The response to any scene is unique to each individual. Circuits, built up by experience in one person, might deliver the perception: “old woman.” Another circuit in another brain would see: “wise Latina.” All the filtering and sorting in a third brain might trigger the elusive “grandmother cell” which stops the processing with the message, “that’s nana.”

As these higher-level perceptions are delivered to our conscious minds, most of the information that went into triggering those disparate interpretations is thrown away. Minds don’t clutter themselves with how the line segments were pieced together into a human outline, they just remember the final filtered output. This, by the way, should get us insensitive males off the hook for not noticing the color of that dress. It’s not that I couldn’t care, it’s that my life experiences never taught my mind’s filters to save or pass that information on to my front-end processor. Like words cut from early drafts of this essay, that data is simply not there to be noted or remembered, at least until my wife generates an important new life experience that creates in my brain a special circuit to insure that I do see and recall dress colors. Significant, repeated experience builds physical application-specific integrated circuits in our heads. In animals, we can actually watch those circuits develop. These filters are unique to each of us, created to let us see better, with no conscious thought, what we have seen before. No matter how much we might strive to be impartial observers, we simply cannot see what others see. They had different experiences and thus have different brain circuits.

My wife looks at a roadside and instantly sees half-a-dozen invasive exotic plants. My brain registers only green. A former boss looks at equations, things he works with every day, and instantly sees meaning. I struggle with the import of each symbol. It’s not just that he is three times smarter than I (although he is) but his experience has shaped specialty processors in his head to interpret what life has asked of his mind. Dennis Proffitt of the University of Virginia showed that everyone vastly over-estimate slopes (it comes as a great surprise to those of us who have driven up Lombard Street to learn that no road grade in San Francisco is greater than 18°). When tired, we see a slope as five to ten degrees steeper than we would had we been rested. This altered view of reality also varies with the observer’s longer-term life experiences, e.g., growing up on the planes or in the Colorado mountains. Iowans actually see slopes as steeper. These differences among people run amazingly deep. Richard Nisbett showed that they extend down to the very first steps we take to interpret the world; there are measurable cultural differences even in how our eyes scan a scene and on what features they dwell.

Brains are unique. People are unique. It is right for Judge Sotomayor to strive for objectivity. Even to aspire to impartiality is a triumph of human cognition. Still, as she, herself, pointed out in the hearings, we must seek to know what is true, not what we would wish to be true. What we do know should drive us to fill the Supreme Court with as wide a range of wisely-directed human filters as possible: Justices who will see truth in diverse ways. A wise Latina will make a healthy contribution to that mix.

Dr. Ralph Chatham is a former physicist and submariner, now retreaded as technology analyst and professional storyteller. Former chairman of Defense Science Board task forces on training superiority and training surprise he also managed research on the brain and human perception at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

No comments:

Post a Comment