Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How the brain works, part 2

Tonight I played nay (middle eastern flute) in a middle eastern music and dance concert at UCSB (Santa Barbara, Ca., here's the URL). We had a guest artist, an oud player from New Mexico who was originally from Iraq. (You see, the university is having a middle eastern conference this weekend and the focus is on Iraq. You can read about it linked from the URL I gave above under "Performances".) The guest artist's name was Rahim Alhaj (Here's his web page). He was a really nice person and he plays amazingly well! I love the mellow sound of his oud and the way he plays the strings very softly even while he's going quickly, unlike some other people who strike the strings hard.) 

But this isn't what I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to talk about is that he told me afterward that when he first saw me sitting on stage during the rehearsal he thought to himself, "I've met this guy before somewhere!" He couldn't get it out of his head that we had definitely met somewhere before. Now, I don't think I've met him before anywhere, but I"m not sure. He, at first, suggested that maybe we had met at some airport somewhere. Well, that's a good bet if it's someone from far away because people meet quickly in airports all of the time while traveling to distance places and then never see each other again. (Someone should write a story about that sometime. About how chance meetings in airports and railroad stations, etc., can sometimes end up changing people's lives and the person who has the effect on someone will never know what effect they had. Very Buddhist, connectedness of everything in the world, etc.) Anyway, he then said what many people say these days, "maybe in a previous life..." Now, how many people who say this really truly believe in previous lives? Probably no more than half, I would think. 

So, had we met before? Maybe. Probably not. Yes, I do have my Buddhist moments and thinking of it in that way, I can't say we *didn't* meet in a previous life. But then I also have my Atheist moments (one day I'll have to try writing about how Buddhism and Atheism are compatible and even in many ways the same thing) and during those moments I have what Occam's Razor would say is a much more likely possibility, and it tells you something about how the brain works. (See, I *did* get to the topic finally!) 

You see, the brain is primarily a pattern matcher. We see evidence of this visually all of the time. Just think of all of those optical illusions we've all seen since childhood. Many of them deal with how the brain completes a pattern, fills in a missing line, etc. We also have lots of evidence that the hearing brain is a big pattern matcher as well. Think about what happens when you hear the beginning off a song you know. You tend to fill in the rest. Sometimes we hear a song which is similar to something we know and we may say, "I know this song!", only to have another person say, "Ah, you know a similar one! This one is new!" We do it with other senses as well. How many times have you tasted something which tasted familiar but knew you had never eaten it before? Then you realized what the similar item was later. You then tend to think of those two things together even if they're not really related at all, simply because your brain said, "this is like that", "this fits a pattern that I know already". How about touch? Do we do it there? I think so. We might feel some fabric and say, "Oh, that feels like silk!", even though we know it isn't. We don't put it in a category by itself even though we know it's something different. Instead, we try to clump it in with other stuff we already know. 

Researchers on how the brain works sometimes call this "clumping". We know, for example, that people can only remember, on average, about 7 things at a time. You can remember more than 7 things fairly easily, however, if you clump some of them together. It's harder to remember 7 random numbers (14, 23, 74, 89, 52, 28, 93) than it is to remember numbers in which you can see a pattern (11, 22, 33, 44, 55, 66, 77). This is because, in the first case, you're remember 7 items while in the second case you're only remember three (two digits, both the same, increasing by one). 

How many times have you met someone and said, "You remind me of someone I know. I remember. You look sorta like Joe!", or something similar? We tend to clump people we know into categories according to how they look, how they act, etc. 

So, my theory is that Rahim probably met someone who looked sorta like me and the two faces were close enough that his mind simply merged the two and said, "we've met before". It's a rather common occurance, actually. But knowing that the brain is always pattern matching, helps you see how such things can happen. It also helps you deal with those times when your brain is tricked by events or items which are so close that your brain claims they're the same (usually only until someone points out how they're different at which point you immediately see the difference and say, "oh yeah, how could I have missed that!"
This pattern matching thing is huge, actually. Once you start recognizing pattern matching and clumping when it's happening, you start to realize that it's happening all of the time in many forms. Habits, for example. (Buddhism would, at this point, mention "karma". When you do something, "good" or "bad", you build up a "habit" of acting that way. When you find yourself in a similar situation again, you will now have a small tendency to repeat the action. If you repeat it, you will then have a stronger tendency to repeat it again when the situation occurs again. In this way we all build up "habits" or "tendencies toward a particular view or action", otherwise known as "karma". There's no such thing as "good" karma or "bad" karma. There's only "karma". If you act the way you want to be, you'll eventually find yourself being that way and it won't be an act.) You see, your brain matches a pattern, fits the next thing into the overall view which you've built up over the years. You can chanage your entire view of the world but it takes a while because you need to break down all of those associations which you've built up. Eventually, you end up with a new world view and you start to fit new experiences, etc., into that instead. It definitely works. I can tell you first hand. But not tonight. 

Thanks for reading! I'd be interested in feedback if you want to give me any.
Goodnight and take care!