Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Manners of Thinking

I came upon an interesting column at ABC news regarding the phenomena of synesthesia. That is where a person perceives stimuli from different sensory channels. Examples are seeing colors when reading a black word or hearing particular sounds. Rather than being seen as a handicap, it often allows the subject to process information in more efficient ways. I wonder if we tend to cultivate that type of capability with our phonetic alphabet, encouraging our minds to "hear" words when we read them on the page. Suddenly I have more respect for composers and music aficionados who hear the entire symphony when looking at the score.

The article describes people whose minds add colors to the images of letters and words. That would make reading poetry an entirely different experience, making the metaphor of a painting of words even more apropo.

I, on the other hand, tend toward the opposite end of the spectrum, so to speak. My normal perception of color, while not absent, is muted. I have a mild form of red-green color blindness referred to as protanomaly. The description of the experiences in the table on the site describe very well what I have perceived. It took me the longest time to figure out why people said that money was green, and the Big Can of Old Crayons we all had in elementary school was the bane of my existence. Note to teachers: if a child's coloring assignments have many parallel crayon marks on the back, that means that the child is testing the crayons to determine what color they really are and that a vision test might be warranted. My first grade teacher was not amused when I colored the flag pink, beige, and purple.

Over time I've learned to compensate. One can not go too wrong with blue jeans and solid T-shirts and sweats. It is said that color blind (drastic overstatement, but the common usage nonetheless) people are less likely to be fooled by camouflage. Perhaps there is something to that as I tend to have better luck than most at finding objects that have been misplaced.

For me, I tend to spot lines and regular patterns in my environment very readily. That skill has transferred to my other senses as well. My hearing may seem more acute than most people I know, but I think it is more of detecting the change in the pattern of the background noise. I enjoy classical music, not because of any images the sounds suggest, but because I can hear the patterns created in the melody and tempo. Also, my sense of timing with respect to timed events is sharp. I often get the urge to check on the microwave or some timed lab operation and arrive just as the duration is ending.

This compensation may be more general than just myself. It is said that color-blind soldiers were valued in WWII because they were less likely to be fooled by camouflage. Nature has extremely few straight lines or smooth curves, so when one appears, it stands out to one who looks for it rather than for color changes.

My habit of looking for patterns goes a long way toward my appreciation of math and science. Both are quests for pattern and predictability in the world. Events have patterns. Push an object off a table and it will fall to the floor. The regularity of one following the other indicates a relationship that can be measured and expressed. The danger of seeing false patterns is very real. To this day I can not shake the feeling that my game night die rolls are inversely related to the quality of the parking space I get on the pre-game munchie run (my parking karma). There can not possibly be any connection between the two, but whenever I have a run of bad luck, my friends inquire as to where I parked.

Experiments in synesthesia have shown that the brains of the subjects are stimulated in ways similar to the "real" perception of the colors, and I have had enough experience with finding patterns that I had hunches about to trust the feeling. What results from this is that the experiences of the world can be more subjective than many people can be comfortable with. The reality that we create in our minds can never be more than a model of what is outside of us. It is a combination of what sensory information we receive, the information that we extract from it, and our memories and opinions that come from previous experience. The sum total creation within our minds define our minds, and to a very great extent, who we are ourselves. A person who can turn a portion of their visual processing power over to their music will be better than those who can't. I believe that I am a better engineer because I can easily transfer back and forth between a physical system and the numbers that represent its behavior.

Which is the better way of thinking? That is a worthless question. Everyone in the course of growing up develops their own ways of processing data. While I can spot trends and patterns in lists of numbers, my brother has a good deal of spatial awareness and a knack for electrical systems that I envy. My sister has an amazing ability to connect with children that makes her a natural as a teacher. To ask "What is the best way of thinking?" is to assume that there is only one context to ask the question. The trick in life is to find the context that matches your manner of thinking. From that place, you will have the greatest understanding, and from that understanding comes your power.

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