November 28, 2011
The other day I attempted to write an essay about the human brain and its extraordinary knack for pattern recognition. Brains are capable of identifying complex and subtle relationships between external stimuli that would confuse even the world’s most powerful computer. Our brains are also capable of accessing ancient memories almost instantly, though not with anything like the precision of a computer and its digitally-stored data.
However, I soon gave up on the idea of an entire post about the marvels of the human brain because I realized I was too lazy to research the subject again. I’m loathe to make generalized statements where actual facts are needed, and though I’ve read quite a lot about the workings of the human brain, I would have to go back and do the same research again because of this problem of how our minds don’t make bit-perfect recordings of incoming stimuli.
Even so, I remain fascinated by the subject. For instance, Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature selects for me individuals from two primary audiences: Wichita Falls High School acquaintances and people associated with The Nervous Breakdown. Usually I don’t actually know these suggested folks, because I only lived in Wichita Falls for a couple of years and because the TNB universe extends well beyond my core group of friends here. In almost every case, however, I can look at the 96-pixel-wide image and guess to which of the two groups the individual belongs. The clues at my disposal are the names of the individuals, the context and style of the photography, and maybe clothing choice and hairstyle. I can barely make out any actual detail in an image so small, and yet still I am able to make a ridiculously well-informed assumption about the person’s connection to me.
Pattern recognition comes to humans so easily that we often take it for granted. But anyone who writes software for a living can grasp the complexity of teaching a machine even the simplest task. A computer can’t do anything unless you tell it exactly what you want and how to do it. We have made strides in certain areas, like software that can modify and optimize its own code, and other programs that “learn” by observing trends in user input data, but we’re still pretty far away from creating a machine that can think like a human brain.
Even so, the brain’s weaknesses are unfortunate considering the amount of processing power available to it. For instance, because we’re so good at identifying patterns, we often see patterns where they don’t exist. Like constellations, for example–even a child could draw a better bull than the stars associated with Taurus. The brain can also be intentionally fooled into seeing patterns, which can be demonstrated by using the constellations again and their associated astrological signs. Read the typical newspaper horoscope and you’ll find the sort of generalized life experiences with which almost anyone can vaguely identify. And don’t get me started on how inaccurate our memories can be. If you’ve ever been locked in an argument with your spouse over what she just said five minutes ago, you know what I’m talking about. And further imperfections arise over time as we allow emotions to color our recollections of past life experiences.
Recently I considered compiling a list of everyday behaviors of other people that I find annoying, but most of them had to do with driving and that’s not very original. Still, it’s interesting to wonder why people behave in certain ways that have nothing to do with the logic of the situation. One of my favorites is when people drift into a turn lane and then absently activate their blinker, completely forgetting that a signal is meant to convey intent. What these folks are doing is essentially the same as punching someone in the face and then angrily notifying the offender that if he doesn’t stop insulting your mother, you’re going to hit him. Another favorite is when a driver on a very wide residential road approaches a stop sign and feels compelled to right-justify her vehicle when she plans to turn left. Why doesn’t the driver, when there is plenty of room for it, imagine a left turn lane? Thereby allowing someone behind her to freely turn right?
Decoding repetitive human behavior can be interesting to the layperson, but provides little direct benefit. It’s not as if I can approach every driver on the road and have this conversation with them. And even if I could, maybe that person wouldn’t bother to stop the illogical behavior. Maybe that person is in fact programmed to be illogical. Maybe the reason human brains ignore information easily available to them is because they aren’t making decisions at all. Maybe the universe is completely deterministic and nothing is left to chance or probability. Or perhaps everyone around you is a bit player in a computer simulation in which you’re the main character.
In September, as many of you already know, I published a novel calledThomas World. The primary question of this story is whether or not the protagonist is living in the real world or some artificial reality. And if his world isn’t real, what’s the point of the simulation in the first place? I chose to write about this idea because the existential implications fascinate me. If the world is fake, if the creator of it is some kid playing a more sophisticated version of The Sims, it would explain why horrifying tragedies occur in a world that many believe was built by a benevolent deity. My beliefs since my mid teens have wavered somewhere between atheism and agnosticism, and this is the first possible explanation for the world that ever caused me to rethink those beliefs. Already I’ve received feedback from readers who claim Thomas World has caused them to look at the world in a different way. But maybe it really didn’t. Maybe they’re only playing their roles.
Existential concerns don’t have much to do with everyday reality, though. You still have to get up and go to work every day regardless of whether or not the world is real. However, the difference between humans and current day computers is we are afforded the luxury to entertain ourselves with these concerns. We’re able to appreciate music, whereas computers are mainly limited to identifying a piece of music when you let your iPhone listen to a few seconds of it. The technology of music identification is a type of pattern recognition, and it is impressive, but it’s nothing like the abstract and complex relationships the human brain makes when listening to a beautiful passage of, say, Mozart.
My girlfriend was sitting next to me last night, and when I looked at her I wondered briefly if she was real. The reason I wondered this is she seems to be the physical manifestation of a set of attributes I’ve often wished could be found in a single person. And because I am a writer, and since I do enjoy contemplating existence and its possible meanings, it occurred to me that my life might be a video game for which I wrote the script. When I mentioned this to her, she smiled and even blushed a little. And then the moment passed, and I let go of the idea, because whether or not she is real or something other than real, she is nevertheless a part of my life, and rather than wonder how that came to pass, I decided instead to simply enjoy it.