Monday, October 29, 2007

Unconscious Cognitive Processes

In Sack's chapter on Prodigies, I was alarmed by his descriptions of how their special abilities are carried out. This was shown with the "calculators" and with Stephan. With the former, Sacks explains how not only are they unaware of the methods used to arrive at their answers, but that people with this ability seem to store such problems in an unconscious part of their minds and work out the answers there. The idea that someone can come up with ANY mathmatical answer intuitively makes me uneasy, let alone the level of difficulty and long numbers they can work with. They arent using their working memory, they arent using our ideas of reasoning.

I was reminded of mathmetical tests that have been done on infants that show a basic mathmatical sense. This is done by observing surprise and how long babies look at objects to infer what babies expected to see juxtaposed with what what they find in front of them. These are very basic mathmatical concepts, however, and suggest an abstract mathmatical and spacial understanding rather than a numerical one, which is what the calculators show.

We saw how Stephen's artistic process was similar to the calculators' processes when Sack's is told that while Stephen is drawing, he does not need to worry about distractions. He seems to simply absorb the visual information in front of him as he "bestowed a quick, indifferent look at my house--there hardly seemed to be any act of attention." His "transcription" is similar to the calculators in that he can converse while working and outside distractions cannot deter the process in anyway. Concentration does not work in the way that it does in the "normal" mind, where any distractions in our trains of thought may cause us to forget the information we are temporarily holding. Stephen and other savants work out of their own realm of understanding, which processes and stores information independently of a guiding and controlling "self". Perhaps these processes are heightened in the autistic because the information is not first filtered through the connections that the "self" makes, which temporarily discards information in order to see the big picture.

The part that makes me uneasy is that this means all of us with "normal" brains really do have cognitive processes that we are unaware of, though they are not as well developed as in the savants. To what extent can we tap into them, to what extent are we unconsciously controlled by them? Awww man, I hate Freud!

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