Our subjective experience presents a very narrow view of the mind. We experience a sequential, slow train of thought. An image bubbles up, a symbol is manipulated, or a future is imagined. This is the the thinking, not the seeing. Knowing seems arises from some vast unconsious store of memory not currently in consciousness, but able to be loaded as needed. Brought to mind, but not part of it.
This conscious experience is misleading because it fails to capture everything going on in the brain. Cal Newport calls the broader enterprise of understanding by using all of the components of the brain deep working. I’ll call deciding using the whole brain deep deciding.
Deep deciding feels like intuition- decisions from the gut are based on internal models of the world. Its a deep understanding of other people that allows us to choose the right thing to say whether the goal is to convince or to comfort.
The idea that the brain models the world and the models are used for deciding was, for me, a fundemental insight. It was where the brain science met decision making. These internal brain models are not directly accessabile to us and can’t be directly examined, yet they allow us to know what’s true without thinking at all. We make decisions with any explicit train of thought of weighing alternatives. We can tell ourselves a story about how the world got to be in its present state and what we can do to change it in an instant, without any process in consciousness. The mind is much deeper. In an “aha moment”, puzzlement changes instantly to deep and pervasive understanding … at least for a little while.
This deep thinking by the brain seems natural for the neuroscientist who understands the brain as a complex web of connections that build internal representions – the visual world, the rise and fall of a melody or the complex shades of meaning in a single choice of word. Deciding better depends on improving the quality of those internal representations. It’s in the seeing, not the thinking.
Since this personal journal first appeared in 1999, I’ve restarted it many times. Here I am once again, at the start.
I’m at a new job, having spent the last two years as Chief Medical Officer at a biotech, I’m now back on the Contract Research Organization (CRO) side of drug development The work environment is more conducive to this long-term project I call “On Deciding … Better”.
It’s easy to declare a new start at these transition points. Just as every morning it should be easy to start again with the opportunity provided by a new day.
But realistically, what chance does a new beginning have against the weight of personal history? My beliefs that determine how I parse the world are not new today. The accumulated experiences that have shaped my mind can’t be put aside in the morning though a simple act of will, by any decision to start over.
Writing this journal has given me the opportunity to create a personal body of work in photography and in writing. There’s traction created by the act of publishing that puts what I’ve done in the past and creates a new blank page that challenges me to create once again. I don’t need the audience and I have no intention of making a living as an artist. But as Austin Kleon points out in Show Your Work!, the act of putting work out there on a blog or Flickr brings it into the world and allows for a communal process of creation. My work would be nothing if never shown.
Sharing these texts and photographs on the blog has marked my progress over time. Without the string of posts, the work is suspended in an eternal middle. And so I return in order to begin again, to rise up and start off down the road..
Dave Rogers always reminds me what it’s like to be read.
It may seem that we’re caught in horrible solipsistic trap, interpreting the world via these brain maps. If we can only know our own mind, then the real world out there is really just illusion. Fortunately, the real world pushes back and asserts itself like the pain produced when banging the head against the wall. With our symbolic tools of language that abstract the maps into notes, conversations and blog posts, we can get out of our heads and team up with other minds to improve the usefulness of our internal maps, even to the point of knowing things that are beyond any ability to experience.
Even the lone mind, with reflection and self-examination, can see the world more clearly through a more accurate map of its own actions. Perhaps just the recognition of that these deep assumptions and models of the world are embodied in the brain, controlling actions without conscious consideration can help. We can free those higher aspirations to have just a few more degrees of freedom to choose more wisely.
Intuitively, the idea that the brain is creating maps is appealing. Our language is full of the metaphor of the physical world, like distance (“We’re far apart on this issue” or “Lets take a step back and look at the whole picture”). Whether an idea is hot or cool, a company is big or small, there is an inescapable physicality to metaphor. And it may be inescapable for a very good reason- mind is embodied in a physical world.
Since there’s no direct contact with this physical world, these metaphors leave the world directly unknowable. We only experience maps of the world, rendering the metaphor as a subjective illusion. William James assumed the world should be out there, but as a neuropsychologist, realized it doesn’t really look like that, not the way we think it looks.
Fortunately, a world of illusion allows for creating better maps, better metaphors that work better. I think the journey to deciding better is learning better mapping methods, ones that work better.
It may be that the brain really only contains maps that are analogues of the physical world. The eyes are a simple mapping of the three dimensional visual world onto two flat maps, the retina at the back of each eye. Binocular vision and a three channel color system provides several maps that are eventually assembled in the brain into maps of line, form, color, motion, and the world in space as it would appear visual if the brain could see directly. Similarly sound is mapped through two ears binaurally in time and by frequency to create a sound map of timbre and spatial location.
It seems possible that, in the brain, the maps of mathematics, morality and meaning are adaptations of the maps of the physical world. What if we move in moral space toward what’s right? In the space of desire toward what is most desired?
The pleasures of the world can’t be an end in themselves. They are here to permit a settled mind and calm spirit. This is how the material world can free the heart.
[R’ Chaim Luzzatto, Mesillas Yesharim]
During my explorations here at ODB, I shifted focus from the act of deciding to perception. I believe that most decisions are made without involvement of deliberative, conscious level thought. Mental models that shape the perception of the state of the world or desired goals are more important than methods to make better choices. I now call this mistaken focus on conscious thought the Cartesian Fallacy, in recognition of the power we give to the subjective “I” that seems somehow separate from the body. The brain is a complex processing and behavioral system that has an executive level supervision with limited access to the brain mechanisms that shape what we perceive, what we feel and what we do.
Unfortunately, it makes the work of deciding better much more difficult. The work of shifting mental models from within is challenging, a task the world’s wisdom literature has taken on for thousands of years.
Let photography symbolize the quest to perceive what is not always readily apparent at least in the visual world and its mental constructs.
It’s almost 15 years ago that I looked at a web page that challenged me to “Edit This Page”. It was Dave Winer’s open web logging experiment that gave me a voice on the internet. I called it “On Deciding . . . Better” in recognition of my interest at the time in Decision Theory.
I now call the project ODB in my personal notes. It’s a project that has moved through areas of philosophy, through photography and most recently to neuroscience. It’s a big project that simply extends my lifelong project to understand brain and mind, perception and thought, knowledge and belief.
As this continues to be a journey, ODB remains some record of the path, a personal journal.
It’s the seeing that is all. These maps are metaphors that remind me of seeing.
Sigma has added a monochrome conversion to the newest version of Sigma Photo Pro. In keeping with Vincent Versace’s dictum to do RAW conversion for Nikon “the Nikon way”, I’m trying monochrome conversion for the DP2 “the Sigma way”.
I think it’s an impressive result, providing a level of image quality that can’t be reproduced by any other camera this size. The Leica ME has a different way of rendering as a system but also requires a good bit more of me as a photographer for image capture.