Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Limitations of the Brain

It's often said that people are designed/evolved such that they recognize patterns easily even when they don't exist. Something about it helping us survive, but of course it causes problems when there aren't too many threats to our survival (prejudices and the like).

Anyway, this innate tendency towards pattern matching becomes quite apparent when going through my email. Scanning my email by subject and sender, I repeatedly classify each as "junk" but I find myself often pausing because I see email from a Suzie or some such and, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I find myself thinking ridiculous thoughts of "Oh, I knew a Suzie back in high school" even though some part of my brain is saying Suzie wouldn't be emailing and if she were, she wouldn't *also* put her name in the subject line!

So for just about every fourth email or so my brain can find some very remote connection I might have to a name or subject even though I know at the same time it's spam. What's strange is that, my other mail client does a better job of filtering the email, but has a few false positives. So I scan the junk folder periodically, and I find I'm remarkably good at spotting legitimate emails. Somehow my brain is better at avoiding the "false flags" of long lost friends' names in the way that that client presents them.

Speaking of limitations of one's brain, I recently had one of the new style Corvettes on my tail on a small, two lane road. At a certain point, the roadway opens up with two lanes in each direction so I pick one and hit the gas. I was hoping to be able to see if the 'Vette was the Z06 model or not. Thing is, I quickly realized it didn't matter what kind of 'Vette it was...it was going to accelerate much faster than I could. Basically, it saturated the dynamic range of my ability to measure acceleration. Reminds me of high school when people thought I'd get into all the colleges to which I applied. Of course, getting into a college is, to a large extent, a crapshoot, but the point is that people who have problems with high school algebra don't the have the range to tell someone who is really good at math from someone who is really a genius at math.

Over the holidays, I imagine most people find themselves in some strange conversations. I had one in which we were talking sports and somehow got onto the issue of the construction of new stadiums (not stadia ala Eratosthenes, right?) with municipal funds. I mentioned my distaste, and my fellow conversationalist agreed with some simplistic statement about how that's just awful. And of course, I find myself saying that there must be benefit to the city in terms of increased revenue brought in by the franchise/stadium. Does this person really think that simplistically? It's similar over simplification of complicated issues that I find all over the conservative blogosphere. Are the writers purposefully trying to incite people or does it really reflect how they see things? Are there liberal bloggers doing the same (to which I'm presumably blind)?


Anonymous said...

Rather than foster brilliance we allocate for its suppression. Universities embrace "diversity" to apologize for First World civilization. That's cute in a Poli Sci major (unless elected) but not for honchoing 1000 tonnes/day of anything.

No amount of effort will transform an adept into a prodigy. While other countries recruit their prodigious criminals and hackers for sub rosa conflicit, we imprison ours. Kevin Mitnick was crucified for diversity.

Diversity + recursion = Fall of Rome.

CarlBrannen said...

Bread and circuses are the only tried and true method of keeping the masses happy. And in order to fund science, the masses must certainly be kept happy.

There could be more people who care about your local football team than there are physicists in the whole world.

Anonymous said...

Your innate spam-filtering technique sounds vaguely Bayesian. Oh look.

On a totally unrelated note, thanks for a great blog - I always enjoy reading it.