Co-opting Mental Machinery

Co-opting Mental Machinery

The human mind is great at pattern recognition, but it is not the only brain that can recognize a pattern. Pigeons can recognize patterns for food distribution with button presses, mice can remember mazes and navigate through complex patterns to a reward, and other animals can recognize patterns in hunting, mating, and other activities. What humans do differently is use pattern recognition to determine causal structures by imagining and testing alternative hypotheses. This is a crucial step beyond the pattern recognition of other animals.
In The Book of Why Judea Pearl writes, “It is not too much of a stretch to think that 40,000 years ago, humans co-opted the machinery in their brain that already existed for pattern recognition and started to use it for causal reasoning.” This idea is interesting because it explains our pattern recognition linkage with other animals and helps us think about how brain structures and ways of thinking may have evolved.
In isolation, a brain process is interesting, but not as interesting as when considered alongside similar brain processes. When we look at pattern recognition and its similarities to causal reasoning, we see a jumping off point. We can see how brain processes that helped us in one area opened up new possibilities through development. This helps us think more deeply about the mental abilities that we have.
The ways we think and how our brains work is not static. Different cultural factors, environmental factors, and existing brain processes can all shape how our brains work and evolve individually and as a species.  As Pearl notes, it is likely that many of our brain processes co-opted other mental machinery for new purposes. Very few of what see in human psychology can be well understood in isolation. Asking why and how evolution could have played a role is crucial to understanding who we are now and how we got to this point. Causality is not something that just existed naturally in the brain. It was built by taking other processes and co-opting them for new purposes, and those new purposes have allowed us to do magnificent things like build rockets, play football, and develop clean water systems.
Can You Remember Your Prior Beliefs? - Joe Abittan

Can You Remember Your Prior Beliefs?

“A general limitation of the human mind,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past states of knowledge, or beliefs that have changed. Once you adopt a new view of the world (or any part of it), you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed.”


What Kahneman is referring to with this quote is the difficulty we have in understanding how our thinking evolves and changes over time. To each of us, our thinking slowly adapts and revises itself, sometimes quite dramatically, but often very slowly. Our experience of our changing mind isn’t very reflective of these changes, unless we had a salient change that I would argue is tied in one way or another to an important aspect of our identity. For most changes in our mental approach, we generally don’t remember our prior beliefs and views, and we likely don’t remember a point at which our beliefs changed.


In the book Kahneman uses an example of two football teams with the same record playing each other. One team crushes the other, but before we knew the outcome, we didn’t have a strong sense of how the game would go. After watching a resounding victory, it is hard to remember that we once were so uncertain about the future outcome.


This tendency of the mind wouldn’t be much of a problem if it was restricted to our thinking about sports – unless we had a serious betting problem. However, this applies to our thinking on many more important topics such as family member marriages, career choices, political voting patterns, and consumer brand loyalty. At this moment, many Democrat voters in our nation probably don’t remember exactly what their opinions were on topics like free trade, immigration, or infectious disease policy prior to the 2016 election. If they do remember their stances on any of those issues, they probably don’t remember all the legal and moral arguments they expressed at that time. Their minds and opinions on the matter have probably shifted in response to President Trump’s policy positions, but it is probably hard for many to say exactly how or why their views have changed.


In a less charged example, imagine that you are back in high school, and for years you have really been into a certain brand of shoes. But, one day, you are bullied for liking that brand, or perhaps someone you really dislike is now sporting that same brand, and you want to do everything in your power to distance yourself from any association with the bullying or the person you don’t like. Ditching the shoes and forgetting that you ever liked that brand is an easy switch for our minds to make, and you never have to remember that you too wore those shoes.


The high school example is silly, but for me it helps put our brain’s failure to remember previous opinions and beliefs in context. Our brains evolved in a social context, and for our ancestors, navigating complex tribal social structures and hierarchies was complex and sometimes a matter of life and death (not just social media death for a few years in high school like today). Being able to ditch beliefs that no longer fit our needs was probably helpful for our ancestors, especially if it helped them fully commit to a new tribal leader’s strange quirks and new spiritual beliefs. Today, this behavior can cause us to form strange high school (or office) social cliques and can foment toxic political debates, but it may have served a more constructive role for our ancestors forming early human civilizations.