Monday, June 5, 2017


318. Escape from routine: how does it work?

Routines, where you operate automatically, unconsciously, are useful. They enable you to think about other things while conducting daily activities. Like talking to someone while driving a car. But the danger is then that you fail to pay attention when conditions escape from the routine, and attention is required. Then something must shock you into awareness, to take remedial action. How does this work?

One explanation is that of the decision heuristic of ‘availability’: you pay attention to what is emotionally loaded, such as danger, or opportunity. That can be irrational, in neglect of things that are important but emotionally less salient, but it does serve to catapult you into awareness of danger.  

I hve argued before that while decision heuristics are generally considered to be ‘irrational’, there may well be conditions where they helped to survive under the pressures of selection, in evolution. This may be such a case. Immediate attention under imminent danger overrides prudence.    

How does that work in the brain? I recently read about an answer from the philosopher Metzinger, as follows.[i] The chance of our becoming aware of the goings on in our brain increases to the extent that neurons fire simultaneously which usually do not. Routines are regular patterns of simultaneous firing. Irregularity, outside a routine, triggers awareness.  

But awareness is not yet attention. So, the two ideas may be complementary. First, unusual connections trigger awareness, and the extent to which they are emotionally laden triggers attention.

Does escape from routine arise only then, in danger or opportunity? In creativity, unusual connections arise not from an outside shock, but from within, seemingly autonomously, and surprisingly. It pops up. ‘Eureka’, the inventor cries. One then is aware, but it springs from serendipity, unforced. But it occurs to the prepared mind, previously stocked with knowledge painstakingly collected and mastered. It is an example of how conscious thought can feed unconscious choice or decision. 

How about dreams? There, the craziest connections occur, violating all logic and ontology.  However, during the dream, chaotic as it is, there is some sense of self. When awake, consciousness filters unusual connections, and in that sense routine, established cognition is still in place outside dreaming.

How about the higher awareness that mystics and meditation adepts claim? Apparently they make connections that transcend the self, and customary logic and categorization, to connect with a cosmic whole. This has been studied, with the help of brain imaging, and indeed, during the height of meditative trance there is an unusually large area of simultaneous firing in the brain.

How about simultaneous firing in different brains? That is being studied in brain science as well, and it seems to be possible to achieve, with much concentration and training. People focusing on a joint task activate similar brain regions.   



[i] Thomas Metzinger, The ego tunnel; The science of the mind and the myth of the self, 2009, New York: Basic Books.