Thursday, June 3, 2010

Consciousness / Religion / Blitz chess

Chess can be thought of as an anology for the way in which our minds work in regard to decision making. I am not making a grandiose (or even useful) statement here. But it is interesting to look at some of the scientific results about consciousness. We have a rather simplistic mental image of ourselves - consciousness is our user illusion of ourselves.

This (not the bit about chess) is explored in the book "The User Illusion" by Tor Norretranders. This post focuses on the notion that our "consciousness presents its possessor with a picture of the world and a picture of himself as an active player in this world. But both pictures are heavily edited". Experiments (chiefly by Benjamin Libet) clearly show that there is a half second delay before consciousness is even aware of a particular sensation. Our unconscious mind has already reacted to someone sticking a pin in us BEFORE we know about the event in our conscious mind. So you don't actually go through a decision making process of saying "Ah, pin sticking in me, better do something" - no, your unconscious mind gets there first.

What then happens is that the conscious mind relocates the event temporarily so that we somehow think (in our conscious mind) that we experienced the pinprick immediately. This sounds surreal, but can be shown experimentally. I refer you to the book itself, rather than saying more about it here And undoubtedly failing to convince you! However you may be interested to know that this research goes right back to the sixties and seventies - but has not been systematically followed up (why this is so is another interesting question, dealt with in the text).

Basically the unconscious mind receives so much data that we would be overwhelmed if our minds were confronted with it all at once (think how much data you are currently ignoring as provided by your peripheral vision for example). So the brain needs time to sift through the data and reduce it to manageable proportions.

"The important thing is that consciousness occurs when we have discarded all the information we do not need". (Page 242).

"But what about 'free will'? Never mind our getting up from the thumb tack without a lot of discussion; do Benjamin Libet's findings mean we do not possess 'free will'? For what but the consciousness can exercise free will? If the brain is already in action when we think we decide to reach for the relish, there is not much free will in us".

OK, don't panic - there is an answer - and it may also illuminate the way that we make chess moves as I will eventually talk about. Critically we can exercise a veto. In the case of reaching for the relish, our conscious mind can decide to stop our hand before we actually pick it up from the table. "Consciousness cannot initiate an action, but it can decide that it should not be carried out".

"Veto principles have always been common in human morality. Many ethical strictures, such as most of the Ten Commandments, are injunctions not to act in certain ways," Libet wrote in 1985. So here we arrive at what suddenly seems to be a religious debate. Should people be castigated for having 'bad thoughts' over which it would seem they have no conscious control? Does this abdicate them from responsibility, thus:

"Christianity says that we must do the right thing and not even feel like doing anything wrong. Judaism says you may not do what is wrong. ... if our consciousness has no possibility of controlling the urge to act (because it is not even informed when the urge arises), it is difficult to see how we can be responsible for our urges and dreams".

It sounds as if the author has taken sides and 'prefers' Judaism to Christianity, in which only our actions count - how can we be held responsible for any 'bad thoughts' over which we have no control? This contrasts with the idea that Christianity says that our thoughts count too - so 'bad thoughts' are sinful, whether acted upon or not. However, as a consequence of the 'half second lag', "it is hard to control how many of our thoughts do become actions". The book is also saying that "we actually know more about what other people think and feel than our consciousness does" - so what we think and feel about each other does matter".

Well, these are controversial waters (you'll have to read the book for yourself!) - and perhaps not in the remit of a chess blog! Best to return to chess itself, specifically Blitz play. For is it not here that we confront the half second delay between collecting huge masses of data and presenting an edited version to the conscious mind for appraisal and decision making?

So I look at a chess position and assimilate the data and decide my move. My suggestion to you, Dear Reader, is that if I make a move immediately, I am only likely to come up with one of the random possibilities. I will not have even given myself the crucial half second needed to sift the data and to "start thinking". In view of the "temporal time delay" mentioned in the book, this may be an erroneous view - but it seems to me to have some justification. Anyway, my conclusion is that, unless I give myself at least half a second before making my move - I will not be able to apply the veto (refered to above). How many times have we made a move at Blitz, only to see almost immediately  that it was a catastrophic blunder? Lots of, in my case!

So I am going to try to restrain the instinct of reacting instantaneously any more. That's the point of my posting this. Of course I may have previously decided on a combination of moves, in which case there is no problem in playing the 5th move (or whichever) of the sequence right away. That is specifically excluded from my injunction. No, it's the 'spur of the moment', instantaneous moves that can cause the problems. We need to curb the instinct to CHOP the opponent down as soon as he/she makes a move. Sometimes we think that we are thereby sending a message that "I am in such a strong position against you that I have the answer to your move ready to go immediately, I don't even need to think about it".

So we try to intimidate them  ... and then comes THE BLUNDER!


Afterthought (August 2010)

I was reminded of this post (slightly edited) when I saw the following related comment in an ICC forum, thus:

"(Of course we all make blunders) and have thought about what was going on ... my feeling is that this sort of experience is the simply product of a lack of discipline in the way I sometimes think about moves (not to mention other things in life!) ... that is, for some reason at times one actually blocks out some of what you're actually seeing on the board ... I think that's just a reflection of the human inclination to simplify complex situations by focusing on patterns, etc ... once you make the move, you relax this decision-making mindset and suddenly you notice that you were blocking out important information ... in any case I think this is within one's own power to combat, rather than something to be addressed through a technical fix (such as, in online chess, a 'confirm move' window.".

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