Cognition – Intuition – Stereotypes

Friday, February 27th, 2009 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

You have learned how repetition, practice and exposure to a pattern can build recognition systems in your brain, and that we call these ‘intuitions’. Of course, sometimes you can find yourself exposed to false correlation. For example if you happen to come across a really obnoxious and horrible guy who happens to have a certain set of facial expressions, you may come to associate those facial expressions with obnoxiousness, just through seeing those expressions and that guy together lots of times. Then some other guy with similar facial expressions but who’s perfectly nice comes into your life and every time you’re around him you get a creepy feeling that he’s horrible.

It doesn’t always even take many repetitions, especially if a strong emotional response is involved. If you’re bitten by the first dog you ever come across you may well find a fear of dogs develops almost instantly in just one exposure since the intense fear and pain of the bite can cause the Long Term Potentiation to set quick and hard. Just a single exposure builds this pattern of association and you can find yourself saddled with a phobia, for the rest of time without treatment.

These problems are quite enough you would think, but on top of this the human species is a deeply verbal species. Just by the power of words we can evoke experiences in each other’s head. You don’t even need to actually be exposed to an object in reality at all to find you’ve built intuitions about that object just from the words and attitudes of those around you. Just from constant association between an object and negative emotional responses when talking about an object, person or group you can find you’ve built up prejudices against or for those objects without even directly experiencing them. If you see enough plane crashes on TV then your first experience on a plane may fill you with debilitating fear. Often the strongest racists are people who’ve never met a person in the ethnic group they revile, let alone known one well. They pick up the associations through the language and behaviour of those around them, most of whom may not have met the relevent people either.

All these things, these systems for building intuitions, build up stereotypes in your mind.

The word “Stereotype” will have no doubt fired negative associations in your mind already. The word is most often used in connection with false relationships, with over-broad generalisations, with racism and classism, snobbery and religious intolerance. The truth is though that all thinking is stereotypical thinking. When you think “All mice are mammals”, or “All guitars are string instruments” or “All books have pages” you’re using the facts you know about an object’s membership of a group to conclude facts about the object itself. Those three examples were of true stereotypes, which are a useful and logical way to think about the world. At least until you get your first eBook, with no pages at all.

However, as your stereotype of the word stereotype will have already implied to you, often your intuitive stereotypes are not true. It’s not true that all people with certain features are horrible. It’s not true that all dogs should inspire fear. Just about any racist statement you care to make simply doesn’t hold water.

Stereotypical thinking is good and useful when the stereotypes are true but false and very misleading when they are false.

Recognising False Intuitions

There is no easy way to know when your intuition about something is right or wrong. The very brain that you are using to judge the intuition is, by definition, a brain which will agree that the intuition is true. However, you will sometimes notice that two contradictory intuitions have formed in your head. Or you may be able to use logic and reason to conclude that some belief that you have formed is untrue or unproductive. Or your trusted friends may convince you that you are mistaken.

Often that very acknowledgement of that contradiction, logical impossibility or convincing argument will be enough to erase the false intuition from your mind. However some false intuitions may be more stubborn. Particularly phobias or strong dislikes can be difficult to shift simply by acknowledging them. You could know that spiders are mostly completely harmless, but this alone may not stop the fear from forming when you find one in the bath with you.

Removing Bad Stereotypes

The meditation we are about to introduce is designed to help you improve your intuitions, but often the most useful improvement you can make is to remove an old irrelevant or untrue intuition rather than building or improving a new one. Often the best way to increase your confidence of your intuitions is to reduce their rate of error.

The following meditation can be used to try and remove false intuitions as well as to improve good ones. It will ask you to remember, or imagine, some time when you felt an intuition strongly which turned out to be correct. If you’re attempting to remove an untrue intuition, instead think of exceptions to your rule. If you’re afraid of spiders, remember (or imagine) times when you dealt with spiders harmlessly. If you’re afraid of the dark or distrust foreigners, try to think of nice things which happen in the dark, or trusted yet foreign friends. If you tend to suffer from unthinking deference to authority, recall times you trusted that authority figure, be they a doctor or a politician or a policeman, and they turned out to be lying to you, seeking their own advantage or just plain dumb and wrong.

As you examine your state of mind when you were in that situation, turn DOWN the volume of your intuition rather than turning it UP.

This Month’s Meditation

Our meditation this month will help you to improve your intuitions, to build pattern recognition systems which will help you operate in the world more effectively, and to increase your confidence and trust of those intuitions.

You’ll be asked to think of, or imagine, some time when you were particularly astute, when you noticed some fact before all your friends or acquaintances. When you were perhaps doubtful of your own experience but turned out to be wrong. You’ll recall that event in as much detail as possible, really powerfully re-activating the neurons involved in that experience and so increasing the Long Term Potentiation between them. Strengthening the network, improving both the pattern recognition system itself and your confidence in it.

In the second half you’ll continue to visualise and relive that experience, but vary some irrelevant details. Details which make no part of the pattern, details which are just distracting and unhelpful. Thereby you’ll be ensuring that only the relevent parts of that intuition are built up rather than, say, associating the colour of the carpet with your intuition rather than the salient details.

Guided Meditation File 13 – Cognition Intuition
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