Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: February, 2018

No results found for “scandal of self-knowledge”

by rsbakker

Or so Google tells me as of 1:25PM February 5th, 2018, at least. And this itself, if you think about it, is, well, scandalous. We know how to replicate the sun over thousands of targets scattered across the globe. We know how to destroy an entire world. Just don’t ask us how that knowledge works. We can’t even define our terms, let alone explain their function. All we know is that they work: the rest is all guesswork… mere philosophy.

By the last count provided by Google (in November, 2016), it had indexed some 130,000,000,000,000—that is, one hundred and thirty trillion—unique pages. The idea that no one, in all those documents, would be so struck by our self-ignorance as to call it a scandal is rather amazing, and perhaps telling. We intellectuals are fond of lampooning fundamentalists for believing in ancient mythological narratives, but the fact is we have yet to find any definitive self-understanding to replace those narratives—only countless, endlessly disputed philosophies. We stipulate things, absolutely crucial things, and we like to confuse their pragmatic indispensability for their truth (or worse, necessity), but the fact is, every attempt to explain them ends in more philosophy.

Cognition, whatever it is, possesses a curious feature: we can use it effortlessly enough, successfully solve this or that in countless different circumstances. When it comes to our environments, we can deepen our knowledge as easily as we can take a stroll. And yet when it comes to ourselves, our experiences, our abilities and actions, we quickly run aground. “It is remarkable concerning the operations of the mind,” David Hume writes, “that, though most intimately present to us, yet, whenever they become the object of reflection, they seem involved in obscurity; nor can the eye readily find those lines and boundaries, which discriminate and distinguish them” (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 7).

This cognitive asymmetry is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the ‘language of the universe,’ mathematics. One often encounters extraordinary claims advanced on the nature of mathematics. For instance, the physicist Max Tegmark believes that “our physical world not only is described by mathematics, but that it is mathematical (a mathematical structure), making us self-aware parts of a giant mathematical object.” The thing to remember about all such claims, particularly when encountered in isolation, is that they simply add to the sum of ancient disputation.

In a famous paper presented to the Société de Psychologie in Paris, “Mathematical Creation,” Henri Poincaré describes how the relation between Fuchsian functions and non-Euclidean geometries occurred to him only after fleeing to the seaside, disgusted with his lack of progress. As with prior insights, the answer came to him while focusing on something entirely different—in this case, strolling along the bluffs near Caen. “Most striking at first is this appearance of sudden illumination, a manifest sign of long, unconscious prior work,” he explains. “The rôle of this unconscious work in mathematical invention appears to me incontestable, and traces of it would be found in other cases where it is less evident.” The descriptive model he ventures–a prescient forerunner of contemporary dual-cognition theories–characterizes conscious mathematical problem-solving as inseminating a ‘subliminal automatism’ which subsequently delivers the kernel of conscious solution. Mathematical consciousness feeds problems into some kind of nonconscious manifold which subsequently feeds possibilities of solution back to mathematical consciousness.

As far as the experience of mathematical problem-solving is concerned, even the most brilliant mathematician of his age finds himself stranded at the limits of discrimination, glimpsing flickers in his periphery, merely. For Tegmark, of course, it matters not at all whether mathematical structures are discovered consciously or nonconsciously—only that they are discovered, as opposed to invented. But Poincaré isn’t simply describing the phenomenology of mathematics, he’s also describing the superficiality of our cognitive ecology when it comes to questions of mathematical experience and ability. He’s not so much contradicting Tegmark’s claims as explaining why they can do little more than add to the sum of disputation: mathematics is, experientially speaking, a black-box. What Poincaré’s story shows is that Tegmark is advancing a claim regarding the deepest environment—the fundamental nature of the universe—via resources belonging to an appallingly shallow cognitive ecology.

Tegmark, like physicists and mathematicians more generally, can only access an indeterminate fraction of mathematical thinking. With so few ‘cognitive degrees of freedom,’ our inability to explain mathematics should come as no surprise. Arguably no cognitive tool has allowed us to reach deeper, to fathom facts beyond our ancestral capacities, than mathematics, and yet, we still find ourselves (endlessly) arguing with Platonists, even Pythagoreans, when it comes to the question of its nature. Trapped in millennial shallows.

So, what is it with second-order interrogations of experience or ability or activity, such that it allows a brilliant, 21st century physicist to affirm a version of an ancient mathematical religion? Why are we so easily delivered to the fickle caprice of philosophy? And perhaps more importantly, why doesn’t this trouble us more? Why should our civilization systematically overlook the scandal of self-knowledge?

Not so very long ago, my daughter went through an interrogation-for-interrogation’s-sake phase, one which I initially celebrated. “What’s air?” “What’s oxygen?” “What’s an element?” “Who’s Adam?” As annoying as it quickly became, I was invariably struck by the ruthless efficiency of the exercise, the way she need only ask a handful of questions to push me to the, “Well, you know, honey, that’s a little complicated…” brink. Eventually I decided she was pacing out the length and beam of her cognitive ecology, mapping her ‘interrogative topography.’

The parallel between her naïve questions and my own esoteric ones loomed large in my thoughts. I was very much in agreement with Gareth Matthews in Philosophy and the Young Child: not so much separates the wonder of children from the thaumazein belonging to philosophers. As Socrates famously tells Theaetetus, “wonder is the feeling of the philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” Wonder is equally the feeling of the child.

Socrates, of course, was sentenced to death for his wonder-mongering. In my annoyance with my daughter’s questions, I saw the impulse to execute Socrates in embryo. Why did some of her questions provoke irritation, even alarm? Was it simply my mood, or was something deeper afoot? I found myself worrying whether there was any correlation between questions, like, “What’s a dream, Daddy?” that pressed me to the brink almost immediately, and questions like, “How do airplanes fly without flapping?” which afforded her more room for cross-examination. Was I aiming her curiosity somehow, training her to interrogate only what had already been interrogated? Was she learning her natural environment or her social one? I began to fret, worried that my philosophical training had irreparably compromised my ability to provide socially useful feedback.

Her spate of endless, inadvertently profound questioning began fading when she turned eight–the questions she asks now are far more practical, which is to say, answerable. Research shows that children become less ‘scientific’ as they age, relying more on prior causal beliefs and less on evidence. Perhaps not coincidentally, this pattern mirrors the exploration and exploitation phases one finds with reinforcement learning algorithms, where information gathering dwindles as the system converges on optimal applications. Alison Gopnik and others suggest the extraordinary length of human childhood (nearly twice as long as our nearest primate relatives, the chimpanzee) is due to the way cognitive flexibility enables ever more complex modes of problem-solving.

If the exploration/exploitation parallel with machine learning holds, our tendency to question wanes as we converge on optimal applications of the knowledge we have already gained. All mammals undergo synaptic pruning from birth to sexual maturation—childhood and adolescent learning, we now know, involves the mass elimination of synaptic connections in our brains. Neural connectivity is born dying: only those fed—selected—by happy environmental interactions survive. Cognitive function is gradually streamlined, ‘normalized.’ By and large, we forget our naïve curiosity, our sensitivity to the flickering depths yawning about us, and turn our eyes to this or that practical prize. And as our sensitivity dwindles, the world becomes more continuous, rendering us largely oblivious to deeper questions, let alone the cavernous universe answering them.

Largely oblivious, not entirely. A persistent flicker nags our periphery, dumbfoundings large and small, prompting—for some, at least—questions that render our ignorance visible. Perhaps we find ourselves in Socratic company, or perhaps a child poses a striking riddle, sooner or later some turn is taken and things that seem trivially obvious become stupendously mysterious. And we confront the scandal: Everything we know, we know without knowing how we know. Set aside all the guesswork, and this is what we find: human experience, ability, and activity constitute a profound cognitive limit, something either ignored outright, neglected, or endlessly disputed.

As I’ve been arguing for quite some time, the reasons for this are no big mystery. Much as we possess selective sensitivities to environmental light, we also possess selective sensitivities both to each other and to ourselves. But where visual cognition generally renders us sensitive to the physical sources of events, allowing us to pursue the causes of things into ever deeper environments, sociocognition and metacognition do not. In fact, they cannot, given the astronomical complexity of the physical systems—you and me and biology more generally—requiring solution. The scandal of self-knowledge, in other words, is an inescapable artifact of our biology, the fact that the origin of the universe is far less complicated than the machinery required to cognize it.

Any attempt to redress this scandal that ignores its biological basis is, pretty clearly I think, doomed to simply perpetuate it. All traditional attempts to secure self-knowledge, in other words, likely amount to little more than the naïve exploration of discursive crash space–a limit so profound as to seem no limit at all.


On Artificial Philosophy

by rsbakker

The perils and possibilities of Artificial Intelligence are discussed and disputed endlessly, enough to qualify as an outright industry. Artificial philosophy, not so much. I thought it worthwhile to consider why.

I take it as trivial that humans possess a biologically fixed multi-modal neglect structure. Human cognition is built to ignore vast amounts of otherwise available information. Infrared radiation bathes us, but it makes no cognitive difference whatsoever. Rats signal one another in our walls, but it makes no cognitive difference. Likewise, neurons fire in our spouses’ brains, and it makes no difference to our generally fruitless attempts to cognize them. Viruses are sneezed across the room. Whole ecosystems team through the turf beneath our feet. Neutrinos sail clean through us. And so it goes.

In “On Alien Philosophy,” I define philosophy privatively as the attempt “to comprehend how things in general hang together in general absent conclusive evidence.” Human philosophy, I argue, is ecological to the extent that human cognition is ecological. To the extent an alien species possesses a convergent cognitive biology, we have grounds to believe they would be perplexed by convergent problems, and pose convergent answers every bit as underdetermined as our own.

So, consider the infamous paradox of the now. For Aristotle, the primary mystery of time turns on the question of how the now can at once distinguish time at yet remain self-identical: “the ‘now’ which seems to bound the past and the future,” he asks, “does it always remain one and the same or is it always other and other?” How is it the now can at once divide times and fuse them together?

He himself stumbles across the mechanism in the course of assembling his arguments:

But neither does time exist without change; for when the state of our own minds [dianoia] does not change at all, or we have not noticed its changing, we do not realize that time has elapsed, any more than those who are fabled to sleep among the heroes in Sardinia do when they are awakened; for they connect the earlier ‘now’ [nun] with the later and make them one, cutting out the interval because of their failure to notice it. So, just as, as if the ‘now’ were not different but one and the same, there would not have been time, so too when it’s difference escapes our notice the interval does not seem to be time. If, then, the non-realization of the existence of time happens to us when we do not distinguish any change, but the soul [psuke] seems to stay in one indivisible state, and when we perceive and distinguish we say time has elapsed, evidently time is not independent of movement and change. Physics, 4, 11

Or as the Apostle translation has it:

On the other hand, time cannot exist without change; for when there is no change at all in our thought [dianoia] or when we do not notice any change, we do not think time has elapsed, just like the legendary sleeping characters in Sardinia who, on awakening from a long sleep in the presence of heroes, connect the earlier with the later moment [nun] into one moment, thus leaving out the time between the two moments because of their unconsciousness. Accordingly, just as there would be no intermediate time if the moment were one and the same, so people think that there is no intermediate time if no distinct moments are noticed. So if thinking that no time has elapsed happens to us when we specify no limits of a change at all but the soul [psuke] appears to rest in something which is one and indivisible, but we think that time has elapsed when sensation has occurred and limits of a change have been specified, evidently time does not exist without motion or change. 80

Time is an artifact of timing: absent timing, no time passes for the timer (or enumerator, as Aristotle would have it). Time in other words, is a cognitive artifact, appearing only when something, inner or outer, changes. Absent such change, the soul either ‘stays’ indivisible (on the first translation) or ‘rests’ in something indivisible (on the second).

Since we distinguish more or less quantity by numbering, and since we distinguish more or less movement by timing, Aristotle declares that time is the enumeration of movement with respect to before and after, thus pursuing what has struck different readers at different times an obvious ‘category mistake.’ For Aristotle, the resolution of the aporia lies in treating the now as the thing allowing movement to be counted, the underlying identity that is the condition of cognizing differences between before and after, which is to say, the condition of timing. The now, as a moving limit (dividing before and after), must be the same limit if it is to move. We report the now the same because timing would be impossible otherwise. Nothing would move, and in the absence of movement, no time passes.

The lesson he draws from temporal neglect is that time requires movement, not that it cues reports of identity for the want of distinctions otherwise. Since all movement requires something self-identical be moved, he thinks he’s found his resolution to the paradox of the now. Understanding the different aspects of time allows us to see that what seem to be inconsistent properties of the now, identity and difference, are actually complementary, analogous to the relationship between movement and the thing moving.

Heidegger wasn’t the first to balk at Aristotle’s analogy: things moving are discrete in time and space, whereas the now seems to encompass the whole of what can be reported, including before and after. As Augustine would write in the 5th century CE, “It might be correct to say that there are three times, a present of past things, a present of present things, and a present of future things” (The Confessions, XI, 20). Agreeing that the now was threefold, ‘ecstatic,’ Heidegger also argued that it was nothing present, at least not in situ. For a great many philosophical figures and traditions, the paradoxicality of the now wasn’t so much an epistemic bug to be explained away as an ontological feature, a pillar of the human condition.

Would Convergians suffer their own parallel paradox of the now? Perhaps. Given a convergent cognitive biology, we can presume they possess capacities analogous to memory, awareness, and prediction. Just as importantly, we can presume an analogous neglect-structure, which is to say, common ignorances and meta-ignorances. As with the legendary Sardinian sleepers, Convergians would neglect time when unconscious; they would likewise fuse disparate moments together short information regarding their unconsciousness. We can also expect that Convergians, like humans, would possess fractionate metacognitive capacities geared to the solution of practical, ancestral problem-ecologies, and that they would be entirely blind to that fact. Metacognitive neglect would assure they possessed little or no inkling of the limits of their metacognitive capacities. Applying these capacities to theorize their ‘experience of now’ would be doomed to crash them: metacognition was selected/filtered to solve everyday imbroglios, not to evidence claims regarding fundamental natures. They, like us, never would have evolved the capacity or access to accurately intuit properties belonging to their experience of now. The absence of capacity or access means the absence of discrimination. The absence of discrimination, as the legendary sleepers attest, reports as the same. It seems fair to bet that Convergians would be as perplexed as we are, knowing that the now is fleeting, yet intuiting continuity all the same. The paradox, you could say, is the result of them being cognitive timers and metacognitive sleepers—at once. The now reports as a bi-stable gestalt, possessing properties found nowhere in the natural world.

So how about an artificially intelligent consciousness? Would an AI suffer its own parallel paradox of the now? To the degree that such paradoxes turn on a humanoid neglect structure, the answer has to be no. Even though all cognitive systems inevitably neglect information, an AI neglect-structure is an engineering choice, bound to be settled differently for different systems. The ecological constraints preventing biological metacognition of ongoing temporal cognition simply do not apply to AI (or better, apply in radically attenuated ways). Artificial metacognition of temporal cognition could possess more capacity to discriminate the time of timing than environmental time. An AI could potentially specify its ‘experience’ of time with encyclopedic accuracy.

If we wanted, we could impose something resembling a human neglect-structure on our AIs, engineer them to report something resembling Augustine’s famous perplexity: “I know well enough what [time] is, provided nobody ask me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled” (The Confessions, XI, 14). This is the tack I pursue in “The Dime Spared,” where a discussion between a boy and his artificial mother reveals all the cognitive capacities his father had to remove—all the eyes he had to put out—before she could be legally declared a person (and so be spared the fate of all the other DIMEs).

The moral of the story being, of course, that our attempts to philosophize—to theoretically cognize absent whatever it is consensus requires—are ecological through and through. Humanoid metacognition, like humanoid cognition more generally, is a parochial troubleshooter that culture has adapted, with varying degrees of success, to a far more cosmopolitan array of problems. Traditional intentional philosophy is an expression of that founding parochialism, a discursive efflorescence of crash space possibilities, all turning on cognitive illusions springing from the systematic misapplication of heuristic metacognitive capacities. It is the place where our tools, despite feeling oh-so intuitive, cast thought into the discursive thresher.

Our AI successors need not suffer any such hindrances. No matter what philosophy we foist upon them, they need only swap out their souls… reminding us that what is most alien likely lies not in the stars but in our hands.

Optimally Engaged Experience

by rsbakker

To give you an idea as to how far the philosophical tradition has fallen behind:

The best bot writing mimics human interaction by creating emotional connection and engaging users in “real” conversation. Socrates and his buddies knew that stimulating dialogue, whether it was theatrical or critical, was important contributing to a fulfilling experience. We, as writers forging this new field of communication and expression, should strive to provide the same.

This signals the obsolescence of the tradition simply because it concretizes the radically ecological nature of human social cognition. Abstract argument is fast becoming commercial opportunity.

Sarah Wulfeck develops hybrid script/AI conversational user interfaces for a company called, accurately if shamelessly, Pullstring. Her thesis in this blog post is that the shared emphasis on dialogue one finds in the Socratic method and chatbot scripting is no coincidence. The Socratic method is “basically Internet Trolling, ancient Greek style,” she claims, insofar as “[y]ou assume the other participant in the conversation is making false statements, and you challenge those statements to find the inconsistencies.” Since developers can expect users to troll their chatbots in exactly this way, its important they possess the resources to play Socrates’ ancient game. Not only should a chatbot be able to answer questions in a ‘realistic’ manner, it should be able to ask them as well. “By asking the user questions and drawing out dialogue from your user, you’re making them feel “heard” and, ultimately, providing them with an optimally engaged experience.”

Thus the title.

What she’s referring to, here, is the level of what Don Norman calls ‘visceral design’:

Visceral design aims to get inside the user’s/customer’s/observer’s head and tug at his/her emotions either to improve the user experience (e.g., improving the general visual appeal) or to serve some business interest (e.g., emotionally blackmailing the customer/user/observer to make a purchase, to suit the company’s/business’s/product owner’s objectives).

The best way into a consumer’s wallet is to push their buttons—or in this case, pull their sociocognitive strings. The Socratic method, Wulfeck is claiming, renders the illusion of human cognition more seamless, thus cuing belief and, most importantly, trust, which for the vendor counts as ‘optimal engagement.’

Now it goes without saying that the Socratic method is way more than the character development tool Wulfeck makes of it here. Far from the diagnostic prosecutor immortalized by Plato, Wulfeck’s Socrates most resembles the therapeutic Socrates depicted by Xenophon. For her, the improvement of the user experience, not the provision of understanding, is the summum bonum. Chatbot development in general, you could say, is all about going through the motions of things that humans find meaningful. She’s interested in the Chinese Room version of the Socratic method, and no more.

The thing to recall, however, is that this industry is in its infancy, as are the technologies underwriting it. Here we are, at the floppy-disk stage, and our Chinese Rooms are already capable of generating targeted sociocognitive hallucinations.

Note the resemblance between this and the problem-ecology facing film and early broadcast television. “Once you’ve mapped out answers to background questions about your bot,” Wulfeck writes, “you need to prepare further by finding as many holes as you can ahead of time.” What she’s talking about is adding distinctions, complicating the communicative environment, in ways that make for a more seamless interaction. Adding wrinkles smooths the interaction. Complicating artificiality enables what could be called “artificiality neglect,” the default presumption that the interaction is a natural one.

As a commercial enterprise, the developmental goal is to induce trust, not to earn it. ‘Trust’ here might be understood as business-as-usual functioning for human-to-human interaction. The goal is to generate the kind of feedback the consumer would receive from a friend, and so cue business-as-usual friend behaviour. We rarely worry, let alone question, the motives of loved ones. The ease with which this feedback can be generated and sustained expresses the shocking superficiality of human sociocognitive ecologies. In effect, firms like Pullstring exploit deep ecological neglect to present cues ancestrally bound to actual humans in circumstances with nary a human to be found. Just as film and television engineers optimize visual engagement by complicating their signal beyond a certain business-as-usual threshold, chatbot developers are optimizing social engagement in the same way. They’re attempting to achieve ‘critical social fusion,’ to present signals in ways allowing the parasitization of human cognitive ecologies.  Where Pixar tricks us into hallucinating worlds, Pullstring (which, interestingly enough, was founded by former Pixar executives) dupes us into hallucinating souls.

Cognition consists in specialized sensitivities to signals, ‘cues,’ correlated to otherwise occluded systematicities in ways that propagate behaviour. The same way you don’t need to touch a thing to move it—you could use the proverbial 10ft pole—you don’t need to know a system to manipulate it. A ‘shallow cognitive ecology’ simply denotes our dependence on ‘otherwise occluded systematicities,’ the way certain forms of cognition depend on certain ancestral correlations obtaining. Since the facts of our shallow cognitive ecology also belong to those ‘otherwise occluded systematicities,’ we are all but witless to the ecological nature of our capacities.

Cues cue, whether ancestrally or artifactually sourced. There are endlessly more ways to artificially cue a cognitive system. Cheat space, the set of all possible artifactually sourced cuings, far exceeds the set of possible ancestral sourcings. It’s worth noting that this space of artifactual sourcing is the real frontier of techno-industrial exploitation. The battle isn’t for attention—at least not merely. After all, the ‘visceral level’ described above escapes attention altogether. The battle is for behaviour—our very being. We do as we are cued. Some cues require conscious attention, while a great many others do not.

As should be clear, Wulfeck’s Socratic method is a cheat space Socratic method. Trust requires critical social fusion, that a chatbot engage human interlocutors the way a human would. This requires asking and answering questions, making the consumer feel—to use Wulfeck’s own scarequotes—“heard.” The more seamlessly inhuman sources can replace human ones, the more effectively the consumer can be steered. The more likely they will express gratitude.


The irony of this is that the Socratic method is all about illuminating the ecological limits of philosophical reflection. “Core to the Socratic Method,” Wulfeck writes in conclusion, “is questioning, analyzing and ultimately, simplifying conversation.” But this is precisely what Socrates did not do, as well as why he was ultimately condemned to death by his fellow Athenians. Socrates problematized conversation, complicated issues that most everyone thought straightforward, simple. And he did this by simply asking his fellows, What are these tools we are using? Why do our intuitions crash the moment we begin interrogating them?

Plato’s Socrates, at least, was not so much out to cheat cognition as to crash it. Think of the revelation, the discovery that one need only ask second-order questions to baffle every interlocutor. What is knowledge? What is the Good? What is justice?

Crash. Crash. Crash.

We’re still rooting through the wreckage, congenitally thinking these breakdowns are a bug, something to be overcome, rather than an obvious clue to the structure of our cognitive ecologies—a structure that is being prospected as we speak. There’s gold in dem der blindnesses. The Socratic method, if anything, reveals the profundity of medial neglect, the blindness of cognition to the nature of cognition. It reveals, in other words, the very ignorance that makes Wulfeck’s cheat space ‘Socratic method’ just another way to numb us to the flickering lights.

To be human is to be befuddled, to be constantly bumping into your own horizons. I’m sure that chatbots, by time they get to the gigabyte thumb-drive phase, will find some way of simulating this too. As Wulfeck herself writes, “It’s okay if your bot has to say “I don’t know,” just make sure it’s saying it in a satisfying and not dismissive way.”

Experiential Pudding

by rsbakker

I can’t believe it took me so long to find this. The nub of my approach turns on seeing the crazy things we report on this side of experience in terms of our inability to see that there is a far side, let alone what it consists in. Flicker fusion provides a wonderful illustration of the way continuity leaps out of neglect: as soon as the frequency of the oscillation exceeds our retina’s ability to detect, we see only light. While watching this short video, you are vividly experiencing the fundamental premise informing pretty much everything here on Three Pound Brain: whatever cognition and consciousness turn out to be, insensitivity to distinctions reports as the absence of distinctions. Identity.

Human vision possesses what psychophysicists, scientists investigating the metrics of perception, call a ‘flicker fusion threshold,’ a statistical range mapping the temporal resolving power of our photoreceptors, and so our ability to detect intermittent intensities in light. Like technological video systems, our biological visual systems possesses discriminatory limits: push a flickering light beyond a certain frequency and, from our perspective at least, that light will suddenly appear to be continuous. By and large, commentators peg our ability to consciously report flickering lights at around 60Hz (about ten times faster than the rotor speed of most commercial helicopters), but in fact, the threshold varies considerably between individuals, lighting conditions, across different regions of the retina, and even between different systems of the brain.

Apart from native differences between individuals, our fusion threshold decreases not only as we fatigue, but as we grow older. The degree of modulation and the intensity of the light obviously have an effect, but so does the colour of the light, as well as the initial and background lighting conditions. Since rod photoreceptor cells, which predominate in our periphery, have much higher temporal resolution than cone cells, the fusion threshold differs depending on where the light strikes the retina. This is why a source of light can appear stable when viewed focally, yet flicker when glimpsed peripherally. One of the more surprising discoveries involves the impact of nonvisible flicker from fluorescent lighting on office workers. With some kinds of fluorescent light, certain individuals exhibit flicker-related physiological effects even when no flicker can be seen.

Given the dependence of so much display technology on static frames, these complexities pose a number of technical challenges. For manufacturers, the goal is to overcome the ‘critical flicker fusion threshold,’ the point where modulated and stable imagery cannot be distinguished. And given the complications cited above, this can be far more complicated than you might think.

With movie projectors and Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs), for instance, engineering pioneers realized that repeating, or ‘refreshing,’ frames before displaying subsequent frames, masked the perception of flicker. This was what allowed the movie theatre industry to adopt the cost-saving 24 frames per second standard in 1926, far short the critical flicker fusion threshold required to conjure the illusion of a stable visual field. Shuttering the image once or twice a second doubles or triples the flicker frequency, pushing 24Hz to 48Hz or 72Hz, well within the comfort zone of human vision.

Chop one image into two, or even better, into three, and our experience becomes more continuous, not less. The way to erase the perception of flicker, in other words, is to introduce more flickers.

But how could this be possible? How does the objective addition of flickers amount to their subjective subtraction? How can complicating a stimuli erase the experience of complexity?

The short answer is simply that human cognition, visual or otherwise, takes time and energy. All cognitive sensitivities are sensitivities to very select physical events. Light striking photoreceptive proteins in rod and cone cells, changing their shape and causing the cell to fire. Sound waves striking hair bundles on the organ of Corti, triggering the release of signal-inducing neurotransmitters. The list goes on. In each case, physical contact triggers cascades of astronomically complicated physical events, each taking a pinch of time and energy. Physical limits become discriminatory limits, rendering high-frequency repetitions of a signal indistinguishable from a continuous one. Sensory fusion thresholds dramatically illustrate a fundamental fact of cognitive systems: insensitivity to difference reports as business as usual. If potential difference-making differences are not consumed by a cognitive system, then they make no difference to that system. Our flicker frequency threshold simply marks the point where our visual system trundles on as if no flicker existed.

The capacities of our cognitive systems are, of course, the product of evolution. As a result, we only discriminate our environments so far as our ancestors required on the path to becoming us. 6oHz was all we got, and so this, given certain technical and economic constraints, became the finish line for early display technologies such as film and CRTs. Surpass 60Hz, and you can fool most of the people most of the time.

Dogs, on the other hand, possess a critical flicker fusion threshold of around 75Hz. In overcoming our fusion threshold, industry left a great many other species behind. As far as we know, the Golden Age of Television was little more than a protracted ocular migraine for man’s best friend.

Imagine a flickering world, one where millions of dogs in millions of homes endured countless stroboscopic nights, while the families cherishing them bathed in (apparent) continuous light. Given the high frame per second rates characteristic of modern displays, this is no longer the case, of course. Enterprises like DogTV are just beginning to explore the commercial potential of these new technical ecologies. But the moral remains no less dramatic. The limits of cognition are far more peculiar and complicated than a great many people realize. As this blog attempts to show, they are a place of surprise, systematic error and confounding illusion. Not only can they be technologically exploited, they already have been engineered to a remarkable extent. And now they are about to be hacked in ways we could have scarce imagined at the end of the 20th century.