Saturday, November 30, 2013

High-Level, Low Level

I think it’s fair to say I write a lot about psychology.  Or, at least, I turn my relatively unartful hand to the subject, and try to get some things right.  If they can’t be right, I at least try to make them helpful.

Every now and then I have identity crises regarding this blog.  It’s very much about growing and the mindsets we adopt when competing.  I like writing about game design (I should do more of that) and I like giving concrete advice about steps you can take to improve either your attitudes, your feelings, or your performance.  Most of that advice comes from my experience and observation, which means it falls far short of infallible.

Some people find it useful or inspirational.  Some have read the words, used them, and then improved.  Then again, most people on this planet aren’t reading it, but managing to improve anyhow.

One thing I think about, when writing about psychological stuff, is how little I really know about the brain.  You might think this is actually a bit scary; who am I to give advice, if that's the case?  But I think it’s remarkably similar to how good I am at some video games, compared to how little I know about programming, circuit boards, electrical engineering.  The main difference is that there’s no evidence that I actually know what I’m talking about when it comes to psychological stuff, other than the occasional person saying "that's so true." But they say that about horoscopes.  Sigmund Freud is one of the most recognized names in psychology, but he guessed at how brains and minds worked, and he got a lot of stuff wrong.

This introduction--besides attempting to destroy your faith that anything on this blog is worth reading--is meant to make a point, which is that there is a difference between high-level knowledge and low-level knowledge.  What do I mean by this?

Low-level refers to things on a fundamental level.  Not just the first floor of a building, but the concrete foundation beneath it.  If we start at a fairly high-level--your heart pumps blood--then go lower, we start talking about how the muscles contract, then we might talk about the way impulses trigger those heart muscles to do so, then we might talk about the biochemical whatevers that make those impulses happen.  Each time you go down a level, you describe things in a more nuts-and-bolts kind of way.

Low-level learning is how you create and manipulate.  You might to choose to learn more about the coding of your particular video game so you can understand and play it better.  You might choose to learn more about programming so you can make your own games.  You might choose to learn how computers actually work so you can make your own programming language.  You might learn about circuits and electrical engineering and chemistry so you can build better computers.  And so on.

The most fundamental skill that I can think of, at a guess, is pure mathematics.  Mathematics is nothing less than the study of how things relate to one another, how they equate.  By understanding math, you find ways to describe and predict natural phenomena at progressively higher and lower levels.  It’s possible, once our computers are impressive enough, that we will have ways to describe nearly (if not actually) everything in terms of numbers.

Higher-level means that you have chunked that lower-level stuff and group them into categories.  In short, it’s a way of skipping all the math and getting things to work.  It’s one of the miracles of our brains, in fact, that we don’t see everything as a big collection of numbers and probabilities.  You could calculate the current velocity of an oblate spheroid, modify its short term changes by gravity, the likely horizontal travel distance (don’t forget to calculate air-resistance) and pinpoint its location in the next two seconds (you know, “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom*,” times two).  Then you would calculate the necessary energy cost of repeated biomechanical transactions of the lower-body, modified by current weight and momentum, then the necessary flood of chemicals and electrical impulses to trigger the muscular interactions that lift your arm and extend the fingers.  Then, during a span of fractions of a second, judge the necessary force to apply to the surface of the oblate spheroid to prevent it from exceeding the coefficient of friction multiplied by the surface area of your fingers and palm, based on its rebound velocity off your hand, calculated by considering a bunch of other stuff.

Or you could catch a ball.

It’s miraculous that we are able to take--using the scientific term--a metric crapton of information and convert into behaviors which we consider mind-bogglingly simple.  “Just catch it!  What’s the big deal?”  The big deal?  Do you know how complicated reality is?!  It seems like a joke that so much can be going on, but then I will have the audacity to write a blog where I discuss concepts of self-worth and value, and how that turns into emotion and focus, and how that turns into your ability to compete with other people.  Then I’ll tell you “this is how it really works.”

And yet we all have this ability.  We have the magic power, repeatedly and consistently, to condense bajillions of bits of information into singular packets, then convert that information into proper action to achieve given goals.  If there is an omnipotent and omniscient being out there, one that knows really everything, I think the ability to process all levels of information at once is far more impressive and scary than the fact that it knows you like really weird porn.

We are darn near magical at converting low-level to high-level.  We are not as naturally talented at doing it the other way; it takes a lot of work, a lot of being wrong, a lot of refining.  You have to be careful when somebody tries to convert high-level observations into statements about low-level functioning.  When somebody says, “we seem to have a sense of worth tied to our performance,” you might nod your head and say “that kind of makes sense.”  When he he tells you “this means we probably have a sense-of-worth-molecule-imbalance, and that you will increase worth molecules by drinking pickle brine.  Pickle brine appears to have a high concentration of worth molecules in it, and I know this because I drank it once and I didn’t feel sad later,” you may consider running for the door.  Until somebody has done the legwork, has actually dug deep and explored the mechanisms, has combined observation with prediction and come up with a fairly reliable model, you shouldn’t trust explanations that run from high to low.  Even if they seem to make intuitive sense.

It’s very easy for one person to go, “higher level is better, it means you’re actually living,” or somebody else to say “lower level is better, it means you actually understand things.”  The stance you adopt will probably depend on your job, or your major, or whether your third grade math teacher was an asshole. We don't want to be people that "know the price of everything and the value of nothing," but we also don't want to live in a world of fuzzy thinking and ignorance.

For my part, I'm a filthy, dirty, fence-sitter.  I like both ends of the spectrum, and all the stuff in between.  This is because without people that understood electronics, I wouldn’t have video games to play, but video games are made to be played, enjoyed, and perfected.  I think chefs learn what the perfect temperature is for cooking so people can enjoy delicious meals, and that chemists study the properties of different materials so we have better cookware (because chemists like tasty food).  Mathematicians have feelings and psychologists use algebra.  When I observe behavioral differences in different situations, and guess at the interactions of the feelings and beliefs that lead to those behaviors and their results, I hope it turns into better higher-level action while encouraging people to pursue lower-level understanding.

With any luck, this is what actually happens when I write my blog.  Identity crisis solved, for now.

Thanks for reading.

* -- thanks Wikipedia.

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