More on confirmation bias

September 26, 2013

“The “highlighting” I mentioned feels like reading something written on a wall.  If it, or our focus on it, is projected there from within us, that also doesn’t mean it originated with our thinking minds.”

I wrote this in a post two weeks ago and think it needs elaboration; certainly I’ve been trying to articulate my sense of the what’s a self-serving mental mechanism and what’s a way of gaining helpful understanding.  Confirmation bias as it’s usually used I think is about emphasizing what a fear or desire or predisposition draws us to noticing without our being sufficiently aware of this process.  Noticing what seems to be highlighted in one’s life, and then trying to infer a lesson from that, while remaining aware that that is what one is doing, I think is something else.

But before I get to that, I want to describe another form of confirmation bias.

Many’s the time I’ve perceived something that seems important and has a lot of explanatory power, but has been a little unclear to me or I have not felt confident about my understanding.  And then I’m in a bookstore and I’m pulling a book off a shelf and flipping it open and there it is:  somebody else has understood that, too, and they are explaining it in a way that clarifies it for me.

Now that is a confirmation bias in the sense of confirming what I could use to hear confirmed:  right on the money, the exact thing I understood confirmed for me, through a seemingly random set of steps (going to the bookstore, pulling out a particular volume, flipping it open, etc.)  I notice it because it’s surprising and helpful.  Do I have many experiences of browsing in book stores and pulling out books and finding what I read does not elucidate something I previously perceived but could have used clarification on?  No, I actually don’t.  In fact, I had to remind myself not to buy a book just because it contained an explication of something I was working on or contained an echo of a pattern I was currently experiencing in my life — I would have ended up with way too many books.  And I stopped a weekly trip to a bookstore I used to make, in part to avoid the issue.

This is to say that I think maybe we should have an open mind about the category “confirmation bias” and consider whether there are multiple varieties of processes which look like the interpretation of random events according to personal bias, with some being more helpful than others.

To get back to my original topic, of highlighting that does not seem to originate in the emotional or thinking self, I think the difference between varieties of confirmation bias will have to do with what apparatus of perception we are using and whence the prompt to pay attention.

I sense that we have an emotion apparatus, a thought apparatus, and a ground wire apparatus.  Just as “food flows through the phloem” and “water zips through the xylem” (if I remember Mr. Frick’s mnemonic device from high school biology correctly), we’ve got different apparatus for perceiving, as if we are multilingual.  Most of us don’t use what I’m calling our ground wire apparatus.  It’s what comes to the fore during prayer and meditation.  I suspect it, or something parallel, is involved when a writer or musician or other artist goes up into the cloud during creative activity.  It’s there, I think in all of us, even in people who have a really difficult time accessing theirs.  In some people it has developed into a huge conduit, in others it’s narrower at the moment.

Then there’s the issue of source.  Whence the prompt to pay attention to a potential input?  I’m saying that the prompt comes through the ground wire conduit, but where does it originate?  Not in the part of ourselves with which we identify as individuals — not in our imaginations or in our desires and fears.  I would make the analogy to solar wind or solar flares.

Clearly at some point we process a highlight that originates elsewhere, and comes to us through something that is not part of our ego, through thoughts and language which are bound up with our egos and the modes they oversee.  Our ground wire takes it in, it gets projected out as a highlighted thing in our material world, and we read it back with our senses and language and thoughts.  That’s the process I sense.

I am aware that this idea may sound far-fetched, and even among people who are open to other modes of perception, this one is considered a peculiar old native language, not the French or English we are supposed to be using in public.  The French or English equivalent I think are prayer and meditation.  But this highlighting business I think exists, is not confirmation bias as it is usually understood, because the emphasis perceived was not suggested by the self but by a different source, and actually allows the user to perceive the objects casting the shadows on the wall of the cave that Plato sees us as inhabiting.

[This is still a draft, but updated.  I may clean it up more later, but I wanted to post it now, in this form.]

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