One model of understanding independent differences in sensory perception

This week my friend Anna said to me; “I just discovered my typical mind fallacy around visualisation is wrong”. Naturally I was perplexed and confused. She said;

“When I was in second grade the teacher had the class do an exercise in visualisation. The students sat in a circle and the teacher instructed us to picture an ice cream cone with our favourite ice cream. I thought about my favourite type of cone and my favourite flavor, but the teacher emphasised “picture this in your head, see the ice cream.” I tried this, and nothing happened. I couldn’t see anything in my head, let alone an ice cream. I concluded, in my childish vanity, that no one could see things in their head, “visualising” must just be strong figurative language for “pretending,” and the exercise was just boring.”

Typical mind fallacy

“everyone thinks like me” (Or A-typical mind fallacy – “no one thinks like me”). My good friend had discovered (a long time ago) that she had no visualisation function. But only recently made sense of it (approximately 15-20 years later). Anna came to me upset, “I am missing out on a function of the brain; limited in my experiences”. Yes; true. She was. And we talked about it and tried to measure and understand that loss in better terms. The next day Anna was back but resolved to feeling better about it. Of course realising the value of individual differences in humans, and accepting that whatever she was missing; she was compensating for it by being an ordinary functional human (give or take a few things here and there), and perhaps there were some advantages.

Together we set off down the road of evaluating the concept of the visualisation sense. So bearing in mind; that we started with “visualise an ice cream”… Here is what we covered.

Close your eyes for a moment, (after reading this paragraph), you can see the “blackness’ but you can also see the white sparkles/splotches and some red stuff (maybe beige), as well as the echo-y shadows of what you last looked at, probably your white computer screen. They echo and bounce around your vision. That’s pretty easy. Now close your eyes and picture an ice cream cone. The visualisation-imagination space is not in my visual field, but what I do have is a canvas somewhere on which I draw that ice cream; and anything else I visualise. It’s definitely in a different place. (We will come back to “where” it is later)

So either you have this “notepad“; “canvas” in your head for the visual perception space or you do not. Well; it’s more like a spectrum of strength of visualisation; where some people will visualise clear and vivid with a photographic memory; and others will have (for lack of better terms) “grey”; “echoes”; Shadows; or foggy visualisation, where drawing that is a really hard thing to do. Anna describes what she can get now in adulthood as a vague kind of bas relief of an image, like an after effect. So it should help you model other people by understanding that variously people can visualise better or worse. (probably not a big deal yet; just wait).

It occurs that there are other canvases; not just for the visual space but for smell and taste as well. So now try to canvas up some smells of lavender or rose, or some soap. You will probably find soap is possible to do; being memorable and regular. The taste of chocolate; kind of appears from all those memories you have; as does cheese; lemon and salt; (but of course someone is screaming at the page about how they don’t understand when I say that chocolate “kind of appears”, because it’s very very vivid to them, and someone else can smell soap but it’s quite far away and grey/cloudy).

It occurs to me now that as a teenage male I never cared about my odour; and that I regularly took feedback from some people about the fact that I should deal with that, (personal lack of noticing aside), and I would wonder why a few people would care a lot; and others would not ever care. I can make sense of these happenings by theorising that these people have a stronger smell canvas/faculty than other people. Which makes a whole lot of reasonable sense.

Interesting yet?  There is more.  This is a big one.

Sound

more specifically music. Having explored the insight of having a canvas for these senses with several people over the past week; And noting that Anna from the story above confidently boasts an over-active music canvas with tunes always going on in her head. For a very long time I decided that I was just not a person who cared about music; and never really knew to ask or try to explain why. Just that it doesn’t matter to me. Now I have a model.

I can canvas music as it happens – in real time; and reproduce to a tune; but I have no canvas for visualising auditory sounds without stimulation. (what inspired the entire write-up here was someone saying how it finally made them understand why they didn’t make sense of other people’s interests in sounds and music) If you ask me to “hear” the C note on my auditory canvas; I literally have no canvas on which to “draw” that note. I can probably hum a C (although I am not sure how), But I can’t play that thing in my head.

Interestingly I asked a very talented pianist. And the response was; “of course I have a musical canvas”, (to my slight disappointment). Of course she mentioned it being a big space; and a trained thing as well. (As a professional concert pianist) She can play fully imagined practice on a not-real piano and hear a whole piece. Which makes for excellent practice when waiting for other things to happen, (waiting rooms, ques, public transport…).

Anna is not a musician, and says her head-music is not always pleasant but simply satisfactory to her. Sometimes songs she has heard, but mostly noises her mind produces. And words, always words. She speaks quickly and fluently, because her thoughts occur to her in words fully formed.

I don’t care very much about music because I don’t “see” (imagine) it. Songs do get stuck in my head but they are more like echoes of songs I have just heard, not ones I can canvas myself.

Now to my favourite sense. My sense of touch. My biggest canvas is my touch canvas. “feel the weight on your shoulders?”, I can feel that. “Wind through your hair?”, yes. The itch; yes, The scrape on your skin, The rough wall, the sand between your toes. All of that.

It occurs to me that this explains a lot of details of my life that never really came together. When I was little I used to touch a lot of things, my parents were notorious for shouting my name just as I reached to grab things. I was known as a “bull in a china shop” because I would touch everything and move everything and feel everything and get into all kinds of trouble with my touch. I once found myself walking along next to a building while swiping my hand along the building – I was with a friend who was trying out drugs (weed), She put her hands on the wall and remarked how this would be interesting to touch while high. At the time I probably said something like; “right okay”. And now I understand just what everyone else is missing out on.

I spend most days wearing as few clothes as possible, (while being normal and modest), I still pick up odd objects around. There is a branch of Autism where the people are super-sensitive to touch and any touch upsets or distracts them; a solution is to wear tight-fitting clothing to dull the senses. I completely understand that and what it means to have a noisy-touch canvas.

All I can say to someone is that you have no idea what you are missing out on; and before this week – neither did I. But from today I can better understand myself and the people around me.

There is something to be said on this topic for various methods of thinking; some people “think in words”, and some people don’t think in words, they think in pictures or concepts. I can’t cover that in this post; but keep that in mind as well for “the natural language of my brain”

One more exercise (try to play along – it pays off). Can you imagine 3 lines, connected; an equilateral triangle on a 2D plane. Rotate that around; good (some people will already be unable to do this). Now draw three more of these. Easy for some. Now I want you to line them up so that the three triangles are around the first one. Now fold the shape into a 3D shape.

How many corners?
How many edges?
How many faces?

Okay good. Now I want you to draw a 2D square. Simple; Now add another 4 triangles. Then; like before surround the square with the triangles and fold it into a pyramid. Again;

How many edges?
How many corners?
How many faces?

Now I want you to take the previous triangle shape; and attach it to one of the triangles of the square-pyramid shape. Got it?

Now how many corners?
How many edges?
How many faces?

That was easy right? Maybe not that last step. So it turns out I am not a super visualiser. I know this because those people who are a super visualisers will find that when they place the triangular pyramid on to the square pyramid; The side faces of the triangle pyramid merge into a rhombus with the square pyramid; effectively making 1 face out of 2 triangle faces; and removing an edge (and doing that twice over for two sides of the shape). Those who understand will be going “duh” and those who don’t understand will be going “huh?”, what happened?

Pretty cool right?

Don’t believe me? Don’t worry – there is a good explanation for those who don’t see it right away – at this link http://wordplay.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/pyramid-2/?_r=1

From a super-visualiser:

“I would say, for me, visualisation is less like having a mental playground, and more like having an entire other pair of eyes. And there’s this empty darkness into which I can insert almost anything. If it gets too detailed, I might have to stop and close my outer eyes, or I might have to stop moving so I don’t walk into anything. That makes it sound like a playground, but there’s much more to it than that.

Imagine that you see someone buying something in a shop. They pay cash, and the red of the twenty catches your eye. It’s pretty, and it’s vivid, and it makes you happy. And if you imagine a camera zooming out, you see red moving from customers to clerks at all the registers. Not everyone is paying with twenties, but commerce is red, now. It’s like the air flashes and lights up like fireworks, every time somebody buys something.

And if you keep zooming out, you can see red blurs all over the town, all over the map. So if you read about international trade, it’s almost like the paper comes to life, and some parts of it are highlighted red. And if you do that for long enough, it becomes a habit, and something really weird starts to happen.

When someone tells you about their car, there’s a little red flash just out the corner of your eye, and you know they probably didn’t pay full price, because there’s a movie you can watch, and in the time they got the car, they didn’t have a job and they were stressed, so there’s not as much red in that part of the movie, so there has to be some way they got the car without losing even more red. But it’s not just colors, and it’s definitely not just money.

Happiness might be shimmering motion. Connection with friends might be almost a blurring together at the center. And all these amazing visual metaphors that you usually only see in an art gallery are almost literally there in the world, if you look with the other pair of eyes. So sometimes things really do sort of jump out at you, and nobody else noticed them. But it has to start with one thing. One meaning, one visual metaphor.”

Synaesthesia

Way up top I mentioned the “where” of the visualisation space. It’s not really in the eye, a good name for it might be “the mind’s eye“. My personal visualisation canvas is located back up left tilted downwards and facing forwards.

Synaesthesia is a lot of possible effects. The most well known one is where people associate a colour with a letter, when they think of the letter they have a sense of a colour that goes with the letter. Some letter’s don’t have colours, sometimes numbers have colours.

There are other branches of Synaesthesia. Locating things in the physical space. Days of the week can be laid out in a row in front of you; numbers can be located somewhere. Some can be heavier than others. Sounds can have weights; Smells can have colours; Musical notes can have a taste. Words can feel rough or smooth.

Synaesthesia is a class of cross-classification that is done when the brain interprets a stimulus, where (we think) it can be caused by crossed sensory wiring in the brain; It’s pretty fun. Turns out most people have some kind of Synaesthesia. Usually to do with weights of numbers, or days being in a row. Sometimes Tuesdays are lower than the other days. Who knows. If you pay attention to how sometimes things have an alternative sensory perception, chances are that’s a bit of the natural Synaesthete coming out.

So what now?

Synaesthesia is supposed to make you smarter. Crossing brain faculty help you remember things better; if you can think of numbers in terms of how heavy they are you could probably train your system 1 to do simple arithmetic by “knowing” how heavy the answer is. If it doesn’t come naturally to you – these are no longer low-hanging fruit implementations of these ideas.

What is a low-hanging fruit; Consider all your “canvases” of thinking; Work out which ones you care more about; and which ones don’t matter. (when I write it I will insert a link to superpowers and kryptonites: use your strong senses to your advantage; and make sure you avoid using your weaker senses) (or go on a bender to rebuild your map; influence your territory and train your sensory canvases. Or don’t because that wouldn’t be a low hanging fruit).

Keep this model around

It can be used for both good and evil. But get the model out there. Talk to people about it. Ask your friends and family if they are able to visualise. Ask about all the senses. Imagine if suddenly you discovered that someone you know; can’t “smell” things in their imagination. Or doesn’t know what you mean by, “feel this” (you have no idea what you are missing out on the touch spectrum in my little bubble).

You are going to have good senses and bad ones. That’s okay! The more you know; the more you can use it to your advantage!


Meta: Post write up time 1 hour; plus a week of my social life being dominated by the same conversation over and over with different people where I excitedly explain the most exciting thing of this week. plus 1hr*4, plus 3 people editing and reviewing, plus a rationality dojo where I presented this topic.

Meta2: I waited 3 weeks for other people to review this. There were no substantial changes and I should have not waited so long. in future I won’t wait that long.

Originally posted here:  http://lesswrong.com/lw/ms9/one_model_of_understanding_independent/

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