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Science

Reading and Calculating With Your Unconscious 85

Posted by timothy
from the coca-cola-available-in-the-lobby dept.
lee1 writes "Using special techniques that present information to one eye while hiding the information from the conscious mind (by masking it with more distracting imagery presented to the other eye), researchers have shown two new and very unexpected things: we can read and understand short sentences, and we can perform multi-step arithmetic problems, entirely unconsciously. The results of the reading and calculating are available to and influence the conscious mind, but we remain unaware of their existence. While we have known for some time that a great deal of sensory processing occurs below the surface and affects our deliberative behavior, it was widely believed until now that the subconscious was not able to actually do arithmetic or parse sentences."
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Reading and Calculating With Your Unconscious

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  • by sandytaru (1158959) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @02:30PM (#42020567) Journal
    I'm not sure their method for suppressing consciousness is as locked down as they believe it is. Someone with a near-eidetic memory could take a "snapshot" of the static image in one eye, and hold it in conscious memory even while dealing with the images in the other eye. (Frankly, video games have taught us how to do this sort of stuff quite well.)

    And even if this is the case, I'm not sure what, if any, useful information we can extra from the study, other than "this is cool."
  • by Yogiz (1123127) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @03:26PM (#42021077) Journal

    Looks pretty consistent with the kind of view of human conciousness, as forms the core of Peter Watts' "Blindsight". The body can do most anything without being conscious of it, we just put a rubber stamp on all the actions and call them our own.

    If the subject interests you I highly recommend reading the book. It's available free from author's homepage: http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm [rifters.com]

  • by Theovon (109752) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @03:42PM (#42021199)

    There's a lot of cognitive science I could ramble on about here, but the fact is that the conclusion stated in the summary is obvious to anyone who has studied brain function in detail.

    Putting aside the debate over whether or not consciousness is an epiphenomenon, just about the only part of thought that we are consciously aware of is information that takes a trip through short-term memory. Everything else is in dedicated (innate or due to learning) circuitry that just computes what we've learned and either spoon-feeds our consciousness with the results or directly interacts with the sensory and motor systems. (In other words, we are only consciously aware of punctuations in multi-step processes.)

    Consider when you first learn a new skill. At that time, it's entirely conscious, because we have to pay special attention to every step. Like when we're new to cooking and baking some new recipe, we consciously reason over each step in preparation. But when we've gotten really expert at something ("unconsciously competent"), most of it goes on automatic. We don't think so much about the steps; we just execute them, and our conscious mind can wander off on something else. By that point, many of us have forgotten what we went through when learning and generally have a challenge explaining how we're doing what we're doing.

    Other examples: Playing an instrument -- really experienced players practice so much that the motor system is completely on automatic, while the conscious mind is (often to a very limited extent) focusing on the sheet music and timing reference (conductor or percussion). Reading radiology images -- an experienced doctor can show you a lesion they've observed, and after it's pointed out, you can sorta see it, but finding it in the first place is a well-honed skill that can be very difficult to explain; how do you tell that that one extremely vague splotch is a lesion while one nearby is normal?

    The really interesting bit is this: Most people can explain more or less how they do something. But none of that is from direct access to how we ACTUALLY process the information. Rather, our explanation about how we THINK we do something is based on conscious theories we construct to explain behaviors we've observed in others and ourselves. In other words, our "skills" and our "'mental models' of our skills" are stored in entirely different parts of our memory.

    It's also interesting to study teachers. Really good teachers (particularly on subjects more abstract than what you get in grade school, which are mostly rote learning from books) are people who have some combination of a good memory about how they learned something and a really good takent for self-observation when they perform a skill (i.e. a good conscious mental model of their otherwise unconscious skill).

    The next level up is teachers who are good at teaching how to teach. :)

    So, to address the article here: Our unconscious minds can read and do math, because the unconscious mind is what already does those things anyway. (Once you're past elementary school.)

  • by AthanasiusKircher (1333179) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @05:38PM (#42021969)

    The body can do most anything without being conscious of it, we just put a rubber stamp on all the actions and call them our own.

    What then is the point of consciousness ?

    Maybe your question has no meaning. Maybe "consciousness" is this thing that philosophers got obsessed with when dealing with potentially made-up issues like the "mind-body" distinction. Maybe the reality is that "awareness" and "consciousness" are much more flexible than we think.

    I'm a pianist and I've done a lot of accompanying for choirs. I've also in the past been a choir director. At times, when working through a new piece, I've often been essentially sight-reading a piano part while giving cues and direction to the choir. And I don't claim to be the best person at this activity -- I know many directors who are more skilled than I am.

    So, all at the same time, I am simultaneously:

    • Sight-reading the music, which involves parsing the notes not only into measures and rhythms, but also picking up on harmonic patterns and "filling in" some notes in those chords when I don't have a chance to read every single note precisely while sight-reading
    • Coordinating my body in playing a piano, including not only both hands, but also my feet in pedaling
    • Responding to basic interpretation while playing -- getting louder/softer, changing attacks, rhythmic feel, legato/staccato, etc. -- not to mention handling tempo changes and things like that -- while sight-reading, there's only so much you can do, but you need to play at least somewhat musically
    • Turning pages, which requires finding a gap in the music or "filling in" some parts on the fly while turning the page
    • Giving basic cues to the choir for entrances, etc., which may involve getting a free hand up or at least nodding or whatever
    • Evaluating whether the choir is still on track, and helping to correct it or stopping if not
    • Perhaps emphasizing voice parts on the piano and/or singing one of them rather than simply playing the piano part if some part in the chorus gets lost
    • Etc.

    In all of this, how much of what I am doing is "conscious"? How much is "unconscious" or "subconscious" or whatever? My attention is continuously shifting back and forth -- cue the choir, pay attention to that weird rhythm, have to slow down here, turn the page, etc., etc. I'm certainly not consciously "thinking" about sight-reading the music or playing the piano for the most part, since I'm primarily concerned about making sure the choir is learning something -- but those tasks seem quite a bit more complex than the ones mentioned in TFA.

    I would defintely not saying I am consciously "multitasking," since my attention usually is skipping back and forth between things -- I can't really "think" actively about more than one of these activities at once.

    Yet, it's all happening. My body is managing to do all of these things, including potentially decoding a new piece of music and instantiating a performance of it, while giving basic direction and evaluation to a choir... most of it at any giving moment happening without my direct "conscious" attention.

    In such a situation, what is the "point" of consciousness? To me, the only meaning "consciousness" has there is "the thing I'm giving slightly heightened focus to at a given moment," usually the thing that is most novel and can't just be "put on autopilot."

    I realize that to some people this may sound like I'm demeaning consciousness -- but I'm not. And all of us do stuff like this all the time, coordinating all sorts of body motions and behavior while managing to focus on some other task. Does that mean I don't have ("conscious") control over these "autopilot" tasks? Of course I do -- they just aren't at the center of focus.

    What's really going on is a lot of degrees of awareness, some bubbling up to visual, auditory, and/or verbal consciousness, while others (like the coordination of my body in playing the keyboard) are mostly part of my body remembering and responding to musical patterns as it has done thousands of times before.

We warn the reader in advance that the proof presented here depends on a clever but highly unmotivated trick. -- Howard Anton, "Elementary Linear Algebra"

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