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Mental Crystallography

13 Post author: Alicorn 27 February 2010 01:04AM

Brains organize things into familiar patterns, which are different for different people.  This can make communication tricky, so it's useful to conceptualize these patterns and use them to help translation efforts.

Crystals are nifty things!  The same sort of crystal will reliably organize in the same pattern, and always break the same way under stress.

Brains are also nifty things!  The same person's brain will typically view everything through a favorite lens (or two), and will need to work hard to translate input that comes in through another channel or in different terms.  When a brain acquires new concepts - even really vital ones - the new idea will result in recognizeably-shaped brain-bits.  Different brains, therefore, handle concepts differently, and this can make it hard for us to talk to each other.

This works on a number of levels, although perhaps the most obvious is the divide between styles of thought on the order of "visual thinker", "verbal thinker", etc.  People who differ here have to constantly reinterpret everything they say to one another, moving from non-native mode to native mode and back with every bit of data exchanged.  People also store and retrieve memories differently, form first-approximation hypotheses and models differently, prioritize sensory input differently, have different levels of introspective luminosity1, and experience different affect around concepts and propositions.  Over time, we accumulate different skills, knowledge, cognitive habits, shortcuts, and mental filing debris.  Intuitions differ - appeals to intuition will only convert people who share the premises natively.  We have lots in common, but high enough variance that it's impressive how much we do manage to communicate over not only inferential distances, but also fundamentally diverse brain plans.  Basically, you can hit two crystals the same way with the same hammer, but they can still break along different cleavage planes.

This phenomenon is a little like man-with-a-hammer syndrome, which is why I chose that extension of my crystal metaphor.  But a person's dependence on their mental crystallography, unlike their wanton use of their hammer, rarely seems to diminish with time.  (In fact, youth probably confers some increased flexibility - it seems that you can probably train children to have different crystalline structures to some degree, but much less so with adults).  MWaH is actually partially explained by the brain's crystallographic regularities.  A hammer-idea will only be compelling to you if it aligns with the crystals in your head.

Having "useful" mental crystallography - which lets you comprehend, synthesize, and apply ideas in their most accurate, valuable form - is a type of epistemic luck about the things you can best understand.  If you're intrinsically oriented towards mathematical explanations, for instance, and this lets you promptly apprehend the truth and falsity of strings of numbers that would leave my head swimming, you're epistemically lucky about math (while I'm rather likely to be led astray if someone takes the time to put together a plausible verbal explanation that may not match up to the numbers).  Some brain structures can use more notions than others, although I'm skeptical that any human has a pure generalist crystal pattern that can make great use of every sort of concept interchangeably without some native mode to touch base with regularly.

When you're trying to communicate facts, opinions, and concepts - most especially concepts - it is a useful investment of effort to try to categorize both your audience's crystallography and your own.  With only one of these pieces of information, you can't optimize your message for its recipient, because you need to know what you're translating from, not just have a bead on what you are translating to.  (If you want to translate the word "blesser" into, say, Tagalog, it might be useful to know if "blesser" is English or French.)  And even with fairly good information on both origin and destination, you can wind up with a frustrating disconnect; but given that head start on bridging the gap, you can find wherever the two crystals are most likely to touch with less trial and error.


1Introspective luminosity (or just "luminosity") is the subject of a sequence I have planned - this is a preparatory post of sorts.  In a nutshell, I use it to mean the discernibility of mental states to their haver - if you're luminously happy, clap your hands.

Comments (55)

Comment author: wedrifid 27 February 2010 09:14:30AM 11 points [-]

This works on a number of levels, although perhaps the most obvious is the divide between styles of thought on the order of "visual thinker", "verbal thinker", etc. People who differ here have to constantly reinterpret everything they say to one another, moving from non-native mode to native mode and back with every bit of data exchanged.

This is an important point and I would also add 'social thinker'. That tends to be the non-native mode that I most benefit from emulating. I translate the words into what they would mean as bits of status processing rather than descriptions of reality and suddenly things make sense. I am not sure to what extent this kind of thinking is related to 'verbal'. I don't think verbally either, which causes me to be dumbfounded at times at the kinds of communications that people find most persuasive.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 27 February 2010 11:41:43PM 5 points [-]

Could you give examples? both of status-processing translation and what is persuasive to verbal thinkers and not to you?

on a possibly related note, I think that there is as much or more variation from person to person in what is meant by "verbal thinking," than there is between two styles of thinking named by one person.

Comment author: wedrifid 28 February 2010 12:17:38AM 2 points [-]

Douglas asks a good question, and one that isn't necessarily easy to answer. I wish there was a 'leave unread' feature here so that I would be prompted to answer it when I next browse.

Comment author: Fhyve 19 July 2012 05:05:08AM 2 points [-]

More than two years later - did you ever come up with an example?

Comment author: SilasBarta 01 March 2010 09:58:38PM 1 point [-]

How about writing a top-level post about it with a few examples?

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 27 February 2010 02:44:40PM *  10 points [-]

I'm reminded of a set of papers (here's one of them) I've encountered, which treat human language in an rather interesting fashion. In their model, different individuals have different conceptual spaces, representations of all the concepts and information that the individuals know about. Language maps areas of this conceptual space to individual words and sentences. Communication fails when the words you use map to different areas in your and the other person's conceptual space.

As a way of illustration, see this image. The two images are the conceptual spaces of two people, with the lines marking the areas that different words map to for the two. As they put it in the paper:

We can consider an example illustrated by Fig. 2: a buyer agent expresses the wish for finding an item belonging to a specific category, represented as an area on the diagram. It may very well be that the selling agent understands the query differently and therefore the items considered as candidates by the selling agent differs from the buyers intentions. Within traditional epistemological theory, this situation could be considered through set theory: by a symbol the agents refer to different sets of items. However, as many features (or quality dimensions) are continuous, it appears to be more natural to consider the situation within a continuous multidimensional space. Moreover, the exact features of an item may not be known but they need to be considered as a probability distribution.

One implication is that in business transactions there should be means for checking what is a meant by some expressions via an access to a broader context (cf. symbol grounding). Moreover, rather than relying solely on a standardized conceptual system, one could introduce mechanisms of meaning negotiation. Before two business agents get into negotiation about, for instance, the price of some commodity, they should first check if they agree on what they refer to by the expressions that are used in the negotiation. This concern is valid both for human and computerized systems, even though humans are usually capable of conducting meaning negotiations even when they are not aware of it.

The need for meaning negotiations becomes even more obvious when one considers qualities like being ‘interesting’ or ‘beautiful’. The concepts of interestingness and beauty are highly subjective and the criteria used may depend on very different underlying features. These kinds of concepts are, however, the basis of a vast number of daily business related transactions. For instance, when a person is considering a gift for her spouse, she is usually, at least implicitly, considering the taste of her spouse, for which she has a mental model formed over time.

Personally, I've noticed that there's a great many deal of disagreements that vanish completely after I and the other person finally get our mappings in synch and realize that we agreed all along. After running into this problem several times with some close friends, I've come to the conclusion that I need to apply the heuristic "if somebody seems to be saying something that just doesn't make sense, find out if he's really saying what you think he's saying" more often.

Comment author: Jack 27 February 2010 08:23:59PM 5 points [-]

So I think there is something to this but I can't see it being practically helpful without a pretty full account of the different kinds of brain crystallography.

When you're trying to communicate facts, opinions, and concepts - most especially concepts - it is a useful investment of effort to try to categorize both your audience's crystallography and your own

But I don't have any categories to do this with! Can we try and list some?

Comment author: Alicorn 27 February 2010 09:05:13PM 6 points [-]

I'm actually planning to do a little of this in the luminosity sequence I mentioned in the footnote. (The luminosity sequence will not make use of crystal metaphors.) But it's awfully hard to do exhaustively.

Comment author: zero_call 27 February 2010 04:01:39AM 5 points [-]

Is it true that people process things so differently? Or is it more of a subtle difference with overblown consequences? Can we change the bounds of the way we perceive?

Comment author: Nisan 27 February 2010 07:05:03AM 14 points [-]

Is it true that people process things so differently?

Yes. I'd love to list a bunch of first- and second-hand anecdotal evidence for this, but anecdotal evidence is not great evidence. Instead, consider the example of synaesthesia, and the fact that synaesthetes can live for decades without realizing that not all people are synaesthetes. It's easy not to notice huge differences in the way people's minds work.

Comment author: SilasBarta 01 March 2010 10:03:56PM 0 points [-]

I wish there were some general test you could take that tells you if you differ from other people in a fundamental way like this.

I've heard of a condition that's like "superempathy" where you actually feel the pain you see in others as if it were done to you. E.g., you see someone injected with a needle, you feel as if you were stabbed with a needle. Such a test would tell you whether you have a normal "ick" reaction, or some sort of abnormal ability.

Comment author: CronoDAS 01 March 2010 10:06:36PM 1 point [-]

That came from a novel by Octavia Butler; as far as I know, it isn't real.

Comment author: SilasBarta 01 March 2010 10:19:51PM 0 points [-]

That's not where I got it.

Comment author: CronoDAS 02 March 2010 01:37:05AM 3 points [-]

The novels in question were Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents and the main character of the novels has "hyperempathy syndrome" which has exactly the effects you describe. And it was invented for the novel; it isn't real.

Comment author: orthonormal 28 February 2010 05:22:35PM 0 points [-]

Upvoted both the good question and the good answer.

Comment author: Jesse_L 18 March 2010 02:53:25AM 1 point [-]

My friend thinks in print, usually in the font of whatever she last read. In conversation, she mentally transcribes every word. Not surprisingly, she reads super fast and dislikes homophonic puns.

Comment author: wedrifid 18 March 2010 03:30:42AM 2 points [-]

Wow! I wonder if you could change the nature of her thoughts by priming her with font styles with different associations...

Comment author: Jack 18 March 2010 03:41:21AM 1 point [-]

Or could you slow her down with difficult to read fonts? Shut her up with wingdings...

Comment author: Alicorn 18 March 2010 03:59:41AM 1 point [-]

I think in text too.

Comment author: CronoDAS 18 March 2010 04:13:10AM 1 point [-]

My inner monologue is aural, but I sometimes read just by looking at the words without imagining the way they sound. I do tend to hear words when I type them, though.

(I can also "play back" songs in my head, but often it's only the melody line...)

Comment author: ABranco 30 March 2010 02:30:44AM 0 points [-]

In particular, I have realized that trying to visualize the words as you hear them works wonderfully both for:

(a) focusing on what the other person is saying, especially if the theme is difficult to grasp and/or if you tend to get easily distracted; and

(b) associating sounds to words while learning foreign languages.

Comment author: Rain 02 March 2010 03:31:14PM 4 points [-]

I like this topic. I've described "understanding" (click) as a form of pattern-matching before. It's also why I avoid "word arguments", where people endlessly debate definitions instead of going for the substance of the discussion (the crystals), and why I avoid technical words with heavily loaded definitions (big, complex crystals with tiny labels). It can also help explain why some people just won't get it... their brain might not have the processing power to fully contain a crystal (pattern) all at one time, or they might not be able to encode all of it into memory, so it ends up warped.

Comment author: FAWS 27 February 2010 01:22:15AM 8 points [-]

I don't think crystals make a good metaphor for brains and your post suffers from mixing metaphors all through, most notably by also using a lot of computer metaphors.

Comment author: wedrifid 27 February 2010 09:08:53AM 3 points [-]

I don't think crystals make a good metaphor for brains

Agree. I had to filter out that part because it just didn't (seem to) fit.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 27 February 2010 02:47:37PM 1 point [-]

Same, I found the crystal stuff distracting.

Comment author: Alicorn 27 February 2010 04:59:31PM 3 points [-]

Hmm. I didn't expect this. (I had not previously identified myself as someone unusually compelled by metaphors involving crystals, perhaps due to a lack of data.) I think it's too deeply embedded to pull out, not to mention I'd have to change the title. Sorry =/

Comment author: Alicorn 27 February 2010 01:23:28AM 0 points [-]

Computer metaphors? Where?

Comment author: FAWS 27 February 2010 02:17:11AM *  0 points [-]


moving from non-native mode to native mode and back with every bit of data exchanged.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 27 February 2010 02:29:26AM 8 points [-]

I don't parse either of those as computer-related. I use the term "brain-bits" to mean cognitive modules; the 'bits' part is just a more alliterative synonym of 'pieces' or 'sections' in that context. I'm not even sure how to reply to the suggestion that the second example is computer-related; none of the terms in that sentence except 'bit' (which I again parse as 'piece') parse that way to me, outside of the fact that they're sometimes used to describe computers.

Comment author: FAWS 27 February 2010 02:42:45AM *  3 points [-]

Well, I guess it's an example of the sort of effect described in the article then. Some other parts also sounded somewhat computery to me, but that probably just was priming.

Comment author: Kevin 27 February 2010 02:29:03AM *  2 points [-]

I'm a verbal thinker, I read really fast, I learn best by reading, my SAT verbal score was higher than my math score.

I think I'm missing a fair amount of knowledge and/or other types of intelligence compared to the median poster here but I can make up for it with linguistic magic.

It definitely would be useful if I could learn how to think more visually...

Comment author: sketerpot 01 March 2010 03:26:31AM 2 points [-]

I'm not sure what verbal and visual thinking mean. I hear people talking about it, and I'm actually not sure if they know either. Can anybody explain, or link to a good explanation?

Comment author: arundelo 01 March 2010 01:08:24PM *  13 points [-]

Verbal thinking is talking to yourself silently, and visual thinking is seeing things in your imagination. A verbal thinker is someone who thinks primarily in the first way and a visual thinker is someone who thinks primarily in the second way.

There was a debate, in the late 1800s, about whether "imagination" was simply a turn of phrase or a real phenomenon. That is, can people actually create images in their minds which they see vividly, or do they simply say "I saw it in my mind" as a metaphor for considering what it looked like?

[... Francis] Galton gave people some very detailed surveys, and found that some people did have mental imagery and others didn't.

-- Yvain, "Generalizing from One Example"

When I was a kid growing up in Far Rockaway, I had a friend named Bernie Walker. We both had "labs" at home, and we would do various "experiments." One time, we were discussing something -- we must have been eleven or twelve at the time -- and I said, "But thinking is nothing but talking to yourself inside."

"How yeah?" Bernie said. "Do you know the crazy shape of the crankshaft in a car?"

"Yeah, what of it?"

"Good. Now, tell me: how did you describe it when you were talking to yourself?"

-- Richard Feynman, What Do You Care What Other People Think?

Comment author: Morendil 01 March 2010 09:18:05AM 7 points [-]

Once I asked a friend of mine, who's a Go player like me, what "reading" felt like to him.

For those who don't know, "reading" is the term in Go for thinking through the consequences of a move before you make the move. There's a saying, "reading is the muscle of Go" - you can improve your play by having good heuristics and by memorizing some fixed patterns of play, but really good play requires being able to consider the state of play N moves ahead (depth), often for M possible variations (breadth).

My friend, it turns out, is a visual thinker. When he "reads" a Go sequence, he literally hallucinates stones in the appropriate positions; he sees them there. (The difficulty for him is to remember the various pictures.) I'm a "verbal thinker". (Actually verbal/kinesthetic.) I can stare at the Go board until my eyes bleed and never hallucinate a damn thing.

I have improved a lot at Go by solving small exercises, "tsumego" as they are called. The interesting thing is that I can now look at some non-trivial problems and instantly "spot" the right sequence (sometimes the correct answer plus several alternatives), but I still don't see a damn thing. The intersections don't light up with an overlay of imagined stones. It's more like I feel where the right answer is.

This is a mild disappointment, because one of the reasons I took up Go in the first place was to improve my visual thinking.

Comment author: Jesse_L 17 March 2010 04:24:53PM *  1 point [-]

Of course your friend hallucinates stones: there's no other way to read, unless you're going to recite "black c4, white e3, ...". The intersections don't light up automatically: they must be "manually" switched on. Even a visual thinker must string words together in order to speak.

With practice you can learn to read. Start with visualizing one move ahead. That's only one extra stone on the board---anyone can learn to imagine that. Then work on imagining two stones...

"Feeling" the right move without reading is a separate skill. Both skills are fundamental to the game.

Comment author: FAWS 17 March 2010 04:41:40PM *  1 point [-]

You are generalizing from one example. I'm not very good at visual thinking either, and while I haven't seriously tried to learn go well I can imagine what Morendil describes. Some things that seem like they ought to be expressed in images instead come as some sort of vague feelings that convey the information content the images should, but without any discernible actual image attached. In some cases I manage actual visual thinking, and the images have a similar information content, but because there are actual images the information is much easier to analyse, reference to and reflect on. It's not much like a string of words, only vaguely comparable to a stream like "move that there and then do that thing" with each reference being clear. Of course I don't know whether Morendil's experience is similar.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 17 March 2010 05:01:11PM 0 points [-]

I suspect that you're also overgeneralizing. In particular, you probably underestimating what it means to be good at getting information from feelings-- they don't have to be "vague".

Comment author: FAWS 17 March 2010 05:05:29PM *  0 points [-]

I suspect that you're also overgeneralizing.

I don't see how that could possibly be true when all I do is describe my own experience (mostly actual, partly imagined) as one example how things can be different than how Jesse seems to expect them to be in a way that matches the words Morendil uses.

Comment author: Morendil 17 March 2010 04:38:36PM 1 point [-]

I don't mean that I "feel the right move without reading". I mean that reading, for me, has a tactile rather than visual quality. When I imagine an extra stone on the board I don't see it.

Comment author: Amanojack 08 April 2010 05:55:45PM 0 points [-]

When I imagine an extra stone on the board I don't see it.

You say you don't see it, but surely you know the exact board location. Perhaps you don't (consciously) visualize a stone there but instead look at the spot and get a certain tactile sensation?

Comment author: Morendil 08 April 2010 06:15:21PM 0 points [-]

Yep. Not sure where you're driving at with that parenthetical though...

Comment author: Amanojack 08 April 2010 06:24:04PM 0 points [-]

I would call that visual+tactile, which are the same two modalities Einstein described thinking in. The parenthetical was to cover the possibility that the visualization happens, but it's so fast that you don't notice it (I'm assuming there's a soft threshold between conscious and unconscious thought, not a sharp dividing line).

Comment author: Jesse_L 18 March 2010 02:25:54AM *  0 points [-]

Interesting, so there is more than one way to read. Sorry, I had misread your comment.

Comment author: Kevin 02 March 2010 05:08:05AM 2 points [-]

When I go to sleep, I am thinking words in my head that eventually become nonsense thoughts that I am not in control of and then I fall asleep. When my girlfriend goes to sleep, she sees a kind of black and white spherical planar blob thing until she falls asleep.

I tried falling asleep to visual imagery a few nights ago and it worked. I saw nothing for almost exactly 15 minutes, but then some natural reaction must have happened as I started seeing a surprisingly vivid black and white spherical image blob thing.

So in training myself to think more visually, that's about as far as I've gotten.

Comment author: nerzhin 27 February 2010 11:03:47PM 0 points [-]

It is possible, but very hard, to train yourself to think in a different mode at least some of the time. If you want to learn to think more visually, you can.

Comment author: Kevin 02 March 2010 05:09:51AM *  0 points [-]

I googled for "visual thinking training" and the first link took me to my favorite internet crackpot, Win Wenger. Dude's awesome. I might actually start trying his suggestion to do underwater held-breath swimming.


Comment author: komponisto 27 February 2010 01:56:15AM 2 points [-]

I have to say that of all your posts I've read so far, this one could most have used one of your little two-sentence summaries at the top -- and yet, it's like the only one that doesn't have one!

Comment author: Alicorn 27 February 2010 02:12:26AM 1 point [-]

I'll go add one - I was experimenting, and clearly it could have benefited from a blurb.

Comment author: Morendil 27 February 2010 08:56:10AM 1 point [-]

Suggestion: replace the linked "this" in the final paragraph with a very short expansion, so that clicking the link is optional. E.g. "you can wind up with a frustrating result".

If your writing flows, don't break the flow. If your writing doesn't flow, rewrite. ;)

Comment author: Alicorn 27 February 2010 05:01:20PM 1 point [-]

Replaced, thanks.

Comment author: chatquitevoit 18 July 2011 04:12:26PM 0 points [-]

So.......luminosity equals subtlety of metacognition? Er, I'll read the sequence. :)

Comment author: MendelSchmiedekamp 01 March 2010 02:31:42PM 0 points [-]

When you're trying to communicate facts, opinions, and concepts - most especially concepts - it is a useful investment of effort to try to categorize both your audience's crystallography and your own.

This is something of an oversimplification. Categories are one possible first step, but eventually you will need more nuance than that. I suggest forming estimates based on the communication being serving also as a sequence of experiments. And being very strict about not ruling things out, especially if you have not managed to beat down your typical mind fallacy.

And that's just for a simply dialogue. Communication in a public forum with other audiences and even other participants, well, that is even more complex.

Comment author: h-H 27 February 2010 01:16:08AM *  0 points [-]

"When a brain acquires new concepts - even really vital ones - the new idea will leave recognizably-shaped brain-bits behind."

hmm, I think this could be better structured, not sure how though.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 27 February 2010 03:49:20AM 0 points [-]

I agree. Leave brain-bits behind? Where is behind?

Comment author: Alicorn 27 February 2010 03:54:47AM 0 points [-]

Edited; you're right, that was awkward.