Behind the Numbers

ClockInsideI struggled to some up with something for this week’s photo challenge about numbers. There are lots of numbers in our modern world, but none of them inspired me, until I thought to look behind the numbers on my clock radio. Here’s what I found, and why I think it’s interesting.

Those who design the devices we interact with every day work hard to hide the complicated working parts behind a sleek facade. We interact with the facade, setting the radio station and alarm times without worrying about how everything is accomplished behind the scenes. This clearly makes our lives easier.

What makes this interesting to me as a cognitive psychologist is that it’s a perfect metaphor for how our minds work. Most of the time we are completely unaware of the enormous amount of processing that enables us to function in our everyday world. The abilities of a three-year-old child to process language, visual information, and social interactions far outstrip those of the most complex computer systems. We can do the most amazing things, but for the most part we have no idea how.

Most of the time this automatic, back-room processing is breathtakingly accurate and efficient. We can dodge a thrown ball, adjust our steps as we walk to meet an upcoming curb correctly, assess the emotional nuances in someone’s facial expression, and do a million more finicky tasks in a split second without thinking about it. The processing is so seamless and apparently effortless, the only way we really have to study how it works is to find and analyze its rare failures. That’s why psychologists are interested in perceptual illusions. Here’s a very simple example: the Cafe Wall Illusion. Take a look:

Cafe Wall Illusion

The horizontal lines in this image are all absolutely horizontal and all parallel. It doesn’t look that way, does it? Go ahead: expand it, get out a ruler and measure everything. Those lines really are completely horizontal. But knowing this doesn’t change how it looks. That’s because the visual processing that assesses the angles of the lines takes place back stage, in the processing area we can’t directly access. This automatic processing reports to our conscious mind about the angles, and nothing the conscious mind can do will change how that processing takes place. Even for something as simple and obvious as the cafe wall illusion, psychologists aren’t completely sure why it happens, though some careful research has indicated it probably has a lot to do with light/dark contrast.

Here’s what the cafe wall illusion and the innards of my clock radio have in common: all the interesting complexity of how the processing happens is sealed in a black box, difficult or impossible to reach. For my radio, all I had to do was remove four screws, but that didn’t really get me to the deepest level, since the actual processing occurs in the semiconductor chip (the black rectangle toward the left side) and you can’t see it from the outside. For human cognition, it all happens between our ears in a 3-pound lump of gray jello with no moving parts, and we’ve never been given a circuit diagram. Decades of painstaking research had uncovered a lot of what goes on, but all we learn tells us how much we don’t know. It is inspiring and intimidating, and my favorite part of cognitive science.

Posted in response to the WordPress photo challenge: Numbers


2 thoughts on “Behind the Numbers

  1. Intimidating is accurate. But so is fascinating. Just thinking about the number of decisions we make in a day is daunting. When you go deeper and think of the thought behind each of those decisions … well, it starts to get overwhelming. I think I’ll curl up and hide behind the clock radio.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes indeed. It’s a great thing to study, but you can’t think about it while you’re actually going around doing stuff, or it paralyses you. Like thinking “just act natural.”


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