Dispatches | April 03, 2007

Terrible, title, eh?  But I speak not as a Seventies holdout but of something a bit more universal: Stubborn pursuit of the irrelevant, failing to see the obvious, getting stuck in grooves.  It happens to all of us.  It accompanies youth as well as ageing, and it comprises every personality type from those who seem to grind away at the same thing every day to those who seem to float from one thing to another.  It is a classic theme in literature and entertainment. (Half the cartoons in the New Yorker are dedicated to it.)  For me, it calls to mind the larger issue of why human beings are so contingent on their history; why we don’t just move brightly ahead, fully aware of what is before us, clear eyed, rational, open to the present; why even the most mindful, receptive people are continually tracking mud from the past across the floor.

The image of the human mind that was projected during the Enlightenment was of a logical machine with hierarchically arranged faculties.  In the era of classic psychology the mind was seen as being dominated by drives and primitive conflicts in the past, with conscious thinking being caught in the undertow of one’s psychosexual history.  The model of the mind that has been projected since the development of artificial intelligence research — partly as a result of failed efforts in the field — is of a pragmatic thinking organ, “automated” in the sense that it stays at work most of the time, limited not by stylized conflicts between different drives but by an infinitely variable, particular past.  We are all different.  We are as different as we can be.  Yet still we are a product of our past.

This picture of the mind goes as follows:  As we navigate the fluid present, we confront a world of limitless variety.  To deal with it, we depend of a storehouse of rules of thumb, abstractions, and procedures that we have been gathering for as long as we’ve been alive.  Much of our learning scarcely enters conscious thought.  Our minds naturally go about their business, making connections, associating things, coming up with “loose” hypotheses and assumptions.  To some extent the brain does its work indiscriminately and continuously, extracting code from the world as naturally as our lungs extract oxygen from the air. 

At the process of retaining information, the mind tends to be like a secretary with a sloppy desk, who “files” things all over the office but is nevertheless usually able to find whatever’s needed, often with astonishing speed. 

Out my window, I see a young woman striding across a hilly park toward an exercise path; inside the confident adult is the child who stumbled around for months learning to navigate the peculiarities and anomalies of topography.  Today, walking across that field, she has no idea how much estimating, comparing, remembering, and rule testing are going on in order for her to accomplish the simple act of walking.  Her mind does her the favor of keeping most of these cerebrations hidden.

By attempting to imitate human thinking with computers, scientists have learned how much people depend on the details of their mostly “forgotten” past, and how bewilderingly broad human experience apparently needs to be in order for us to understand an unpredictable world.  Researchers in artificial intelligence have discovered, to their frustration, that human learning is very hard to divide into separate, describable systems.  People learn a lot of little things that build on each other and cross from one area of thought to another.

To some extent, the complicated world dooms us to follow previous experience.  Without mental inertia we could not move forward, indeed we could not move at all.  We have to project patterns before ourselves in order to get through the jungle.  But when the automatic systems take control, when we get lazy, when we do for too long what we’ve always done, believe what we’ve always believed, we may go in one direction, all right.  We may be “consistent,” but eventually we become blind and deaf to the world, a powerless emissary of the past.  The question of when the mind’s habits become imprisoning, when tradition becomes barren, or the past becomes a trap, is not only one of the favorite themes of comedy but of all literature.