Cognitive Irreversibility and the Limits of Nomadic Life

Is the Never-Ending March of Transience a Given?

Since I first read Alvin Toffler’s book, Future Shock, as a child (ca. 1972), I had come to agree with his premise that our future will be wrought with increased transience across all aspects of life.  For instance our friendships would be increasingly temporary, jobs would be increasingly unstable and we would become increasingly nomadic out of necessity.  The intervening years have been kind to Toffler’s prognostication.  A colleague of mine, Scott Anderson, is beginning to suspect that he is due for a relocation as a result of some yet unforeseen set of circumstances waiting in the wings to boot him from his cozy abode.  There is a limit to how much ambiguity humans can and will put up with.  I am beginning to suspect that continual increased transience is not a given because, at the smallest of time scales, our lives become too ambiguous for us to handle.  We will find other ways of coping with the complexities of life, or at least appear to, in addition to the easy choice of decreasing time.  These other means may not be rational, and may even be violent.  To understand why it helps to understand the role of information loss and irreversibility in cognitive processes.

Information Omission and Irreversibility

Ayn Rand proposed that useful concepts in the human mind are dependent upon the process of informational omission.  Once we identify sensory measurements as related, or even abstract ideas as related, we “compress” the related measurements or abstractions into a grouping and then discard the original measurements.  The group, or concept she said, is then integrated into existing concepts in a hierarchical manner.  This informational omission reduces cognitive load and the integration allows us to reuse information across greater and greater scales.  Rand’s concepts are very closely related to groups in group theory.  However, group theory is inherently lossless.  Like wires extruded from a hot copper ingot, the continuum of real numbers in group theory can be “extruded” through the use of functions into finer and finer strands until individual elements have been isolated, such as discrete integers.

In group theory, functions are computable and reversible.  The results of extrusion functions can always be traced back to their source, like a wound-up, fine copper wire not yet separated from its generating ingot.  Human concept formation however is not inherently reversible.  A “cut” is necessarily made when concepts are formed, otherwise the continued explicit use of the original information (sensory data or other abstractions) would overwhelm our ability to think clearly, think quickly or think at all (especially under stress).  This cut may not be computable or traceable like the codomains of mathematical groups.  In his book, The Emperor’s New Mind, physicist Roger Penrose described the role of non-computability in human decision making.  Philosophers such as David Hume had long ago identified the non-logical (non-computable) nature of epistemological induction.  Rand, I believe correctly, identified the concept formation process as an inductive one, non-deductive, hence essentially non-computable.  Human concept formation, like all non-computable processes, is associated with information loss and thus varying degrees of cognitive irreversibility.

Cognitive load” is the burden of information variety in the mind.  Maintaining a large variety of ungrouped/unconceptualized information in working memory is often described as a state of high entropyambiguity, or of indecision, and in generally perceived as uncomfortable if not downright dangerous.  We could never make a decision without conceptualizing our problems and potential solutions.  To do so requires we commit to casting aside this information or that, and commit to compression of thought.  This will not occur on its own.  The simplistic memory systems of early evolution probably cataloged raw sensory information and did little else.  Those simplistic memory systems, which we still possess, quickly become filled to capacity.  Evolution, however, has favored the animal that could scale that memory through pruning and reuse. The predator-escaping human of pre-history would be dead if they could not make up their mind in time whether to turn right or left at a fork in the potential escape route because their mind was filled only with raw facts.  Decision-making, pruning the tree of facts to derive a conclusion, is a feature of evolution.  With decision-making come the epiphenomena of disambiguation and irreversibility.  Though our cognitive processes are adept at reducing ambiguity we do not explicitly seek ambiguity reduction for its own sake.  Similarly, while our inductive and concept-formation processes tend to exhibit varying degrees of irreversibility, we probably do not explicitly seek irreversibility for its own sake.  Rather we just do what we do and try to create working knowledge for ourselves so that the world makes sense and so that we can take action when we need or desire to.  Disambiguation and irreversibility are side effects of our normal cognitive processes.  On the other hand, we are motivated to form concepts and to take action in the world.

Cognitive irreversibility is not always complete.  Sometimes we discard original sensory data and basic abstractions, sometimes we don’t.  Human memory, especially when considering such phenomena as the reliability of witness testimony in law, is notoriously unreliable because we recreate many past events by “uncompressing” concepts and other mental structures in order to rebuild discarded (or otherwise inaccessible) original sensory data and abstraction.  In this respect, concepts act somewhat like mathematical groups, though imperfectly.  Some of the original raw memory may linger to make up for some of this loss.  In most cases however our neuroanatomy does a fine job of mimicking mathematical group reversibility and we fail notice the imperfections.  What is important to understand however is that actual information is discarded, or rendered inaccessible, and that we are utterly dependent upon non-computable, somewhat irreversible processes no matter how much we may convince ourselves otherwise.

Relationships, Law and Superstition

Hunter-gatherer tribes which experienced the ambiguity of multiple locations and varying meal options traveled together and kept their interpersonal relationships constant.  One benefit that consistency of social network provides is a reduction of ambiguity and cognitive load.  Creating new relationships, especially trusted relationships, is hard.  Relationship building requires understanding the behavior new people.  It also requires the time necessary for our endocrine systems to work properly to literally allows us to chemically bond with one another.  Breaking relationships with other humans is difficult.  In particular break-ups, either with friends, family or colleagues, is fraught with the perils of emotional reaction.  It is easier to bind to other human beings than it is to unbind.  This difficult-to-reverse behavior is why we as a species are described as “social animals”.  We need good reason to destroy relationships.  The lead up to the break-up usually consumes a lot of thought and emotion.  Hunter-gatherer tribes typically develop complex rules in order to keep their tribes together.  After all, if family and friends were in constant flux, how much mind would have been left to concentrate on the perils of travel, feeding and defense?

Hard-and-fast rules for anything reduce cognitive load.  Committing to a credo of “eye for an eye” is easy.  Instead of examining all evidence for every crime, instead of revisiting ethical and moral propositions for each and every case, the simple heuristic allows people under stress to survive.  By pruning the possibility for revisiting ethical and moral propositions over and over, laws allow difficult situations in human relationships to be arbitrated with speed and allows all concerned to spend more time thinking about the more important problems in life such as food and health concerns.  If the human brain power were, perhaps a few orders of magnitude higher in terms of I.Q., perhaps we could revisit ethical and moral propositions over and over again and make better decisions.  However, we are not intelligent gods.  The relative irreversibility of enforced law allows human beings, on the whole, to thrive, even if individual cases here and there may not be adjudicated fairly.

For similar reasons it is not difficult to see why superstition comes to be so readily.  Creating a rule, any rule, then discarding the original thought behind it is a natural survival skill.  Some rules are useful, some rules are neutral, some rules might even be deadly on occasion.  No matter, we are excellent concept-generating and rule-developing machines.  The general mechanisms for concept-generation and rule-development are what allowed us to survive and thrive in the great maelstrom of the evolutionary process, not specific concepts or specific rules.  We come to cherish our concepts and rules, even institutionalize them, for the benefit of survival.  In fact we are even rewarded for our concept and rule creation with the flush of opiates that come with the moment of, “Eureka!”  That some rules come to be called superstition is par for the course for a system that, biologically, does not favor specifics but in general favors something, anything.  What makes superstition “sticky”, what makes it last so long, what makes it spread from human to human and over generations, is the one-way nature of information which accompanies the creation of rules of any kind: if you are motivated to embrace a simple idea instead of ambiguity, a rule can last for a very long time and what is more, others will be similarly motivated to think it is a good idea as well.

Monarchies and Irreversible Social Structures

Why do humans follow their leaders?  Being empathetic as we are, why were our ancestors not more egalitarian than they turned out to be?  The simple answer is that to follow a leader is easy.  To surrender choice to a leader is like adopting a simple law or a superstition, it lowers cognitive load by removing the need to think about those things the leader is thinking for you.  To the extent that a leader’s reign might be temporary, the self interested human cannot completely unload their decision making.  To the extent that a leader’s reign is protected and assumed to be long lasting—to the extent it is perceived to be irreversible—then the self interested is free to lighten their cognitive load and concentrate on other things in life.

It is common in some schools of legal theory to attribute the existence of a monarchy to the need solve various regress problems of permission and enforcement.  It is the sovereign who charters the legislators, the jurists and the enforcers to act on their behalf.  Familial inheritance solves the problem of chartering the sovereign.  The original monarch arose by force of “habit” amongst the populace.  When considering cognitive load, a simpler explanation becomes apparent: surrendering to a sovereign is, for the subject, a simple solution to a set of hard problems present in complex societies and in a dangerous world.  The inheritable nature of monarchies is valuable in that it provides the subjects with a sense of perceived irreversibility, which reduces the need for any subject to consider all aspects of law for themselves at any time.  This sense of ease and utility in reducing cognitive load also helps explain why even egalitarian democracies drift towards strong, central control over time, assuming extraordinary efforts are not taken to stop such drift.  If the end of a monarchy was perceived as near, or if a strong, central government were perceived as close to dissolution, panic might ensue amongst the citizenry.  What to do?  How to fend for thyself?  How to defend one’s property?  The burden of the enormity of thinking required to solve complex problems in a complex society would be avoided if possible.  It seems that, for some, it is better to lose information and keep it lost by surrendering to a tyrant than it is to shoulder the responsibilities of citizenship for thyself.  Irreversible social structures of all kinds fulfill the role of cognitive salve including institutional religions, labor unions, fraternal orders and, as mentioned previously, families.

Feedback Loops, Money and the Economics of Time

Economic activity is human collaboration motivated by the exchange of economically liquid—exchangeable—goods or services.  Humans by themselves pursuing their self interests do not economic activity make.  Humans in spontaneous collaboration do not economic make.  The exchange of an exchangeable good or service is an interesting motivational force in human affairs.  While one-on-one collaboration takes place, motivation to collaborate can become increasingly difficult to obtain the more complex the activity.  To motivate a group of people to build a complex farming community, for instance, requires the development of interpersonal bonds, cajoling, arguing, reasoning, discussion, more discussion and sometimes even violence.  When a human exchanges of a good or service however, our ability for symbolic manipulation and concept formation do something miraculous: it reduces the need for the kind of cognitive activity normally required to trigger collaborative activity.  Instead of long, arduous argument about why such and such a barn might need to be built, the exchange of consumable goods reduces the cognitive loads of all parties by alleviating the need to concentrate on the logic of the need to collaborate.  Instead, the participants can allow themselves the luxury of concentrating on the logic of their self-interests.

Information is lost in the economic exchange however, specifically much of the information about the need to collaborate that would have normally been exchanged need not be exchanged at all.  The interesting thing about this information loss, especially since the invention of money, is that the information loss can accelerate human collaboration.  Since the logic of the need to collaborate need not enter the collaboration equation, as long as goods are exchanged humans can remain motivated to continue their collaboration, even if the original conditions of collaboration have long been satisfied.  Positive economic activity is actually a case where cognitive irreversibility fails to be achieved in some aspect.  It may be the easy thing to do to ignore the original conditions of the collaboration as long as the opportunity for the transaction of goods, and the rush the closing of those transactions provide, continue to present themselves.  Humans remain motivated, perhaps to continue building barns.  As long as goods exchange continues satisfactorily, collaboration with other humans suddenly becomes easier because motivation is high and cognitive load for all concerned remain low.  As long as the original logic of the collaboration need not be reexamined, cycles of activity can continue accelerate and miracles occur.  Money accelerates the cycles even more because they are not directly consumable and thus likely to survive serial exchange from one motivated human to another.  This is one of the advantages of the use of gold as a currency as opposed to wheat or even oil.  Information loss in human affairs leads to feedback cycles of all kinds, not just economic booms.  We sometimes call negative feedback cycles born of information loss “moral hazards” or, sometimes, insanity.

Of course, fish will always grow to fill their fish tank.  Economic exchange reduces human cognitive load, which enables collaboration to occur more easily and can even lead to enhanced motivation to build or to serve.  Economic exchange allows humans not just to survive, but to thrive as individuals and allows societies to grow.  Eventually however, cognitive limits are reached once again as the collaborative activities reach critical levels of complexity.  Many cognitive reduction techniques are brought to bare to handle complex collaborations such as forming collaborative hierarchies, surrender to legal authority or reduction of time.  Management hierarchies work because all participants are alleviated of the need to consider all information all the time; “managers” make decisions upon which others are compelled to act.  The effect of the manager is similar to that of the legal sovereign: information load is reduced and the perception of compulsion allows the participants to relax in their anticipation of the future need to think too hard.  Breaking up large activities into smaller serial activities play a similar role to sovereigns and management in that cognitive information is allowed to pass once a subgoal has been reached.  Reducing the length of time required for each unit of economic activity to complete allows human collaborations to scale into yet larger scales of complexity.

Our Complex World and the Limit To Scott’s Fears

Our world is becoming increasingly complex every day.  My colleague Scott is correct to assume that units of economic activity will continue to be reduced in time.  Units of economic activity also include his employment tenure, the housing values in his neighborhood and even the positive economic feedback cycles found in the society of any geographic location.  Time units, in human activity, can only be reduced so far however before the number of discrete activities themselves overwhelm the limited human mind.  Fortunately, we do not need to reduce economic activity into the scale of the microsecond since evolution has provided us with other tricks to toss out “unwanted” information and perception.  Not to worry Scott, perhaps the people you live and work with might stop running faster and faster and might instead start adopting more hard and fast rules of conduct, more superstitions, attempt to throw more money at their problems or surrender themselves to tyrants.  Sometimes people also drink to forget or entertain themselves to death.

When we humans feel we have too much on our mind, we are very, very inventive in our ways to lighten our mental loads.  In a complex world, sometimes the insane are the luckiest of them all, for they can escape the pain of overload through the simple bliss of ignorance.

[Update 5 July 2011: a word of caution here]

The “Principal-Agent Problem”

You hire someone to perform a complex and risky service, a service you know nothing about.  Perhaps you hire a surgeon or a lawyer and you know nothing about modern medicine or law.  How do you know the person you hired is performing, or has performed their job ethically, effectively and efficiently?  Can you tell by the results?  How can you judge their work prior to their work being complete?

Many of the dilemmas associated with this kind of relationship are referred to by the moniker, “the principal-agent problem”.

Professionalism is a collaborative form which solves certain aspects of the principal-agent problem.  How?