The middle distance

At the end of my last post, I talked about Brian Cantwell Smith’s idea of ‘the middle distance’ – an intermediate space between complete causal disconnectedness and rigid causal coupling. I was already vaguely aware of this idea from a helpful exchange somewhere in the bowels of a Meaningness comments section but hadn’t quite grasped its importance (the whole thread is worth reading, but I’m thinking about the bit starting here). Then I blundered into my own clumsy restatement of the idea while thinking about cognitive decoupling, and finally saw the point. So I started reading On the Origin of Objects.

It’s a difficult book, with a lot more metaphysics than I realised I was signing up for, and this ‘middle distance’ idea is only a small part of a very complex, densely interconnected argument that that I don’t understand at all well and am not even going to attempt to explain. But the examples Smith uses to illustrate the idea are very accessible without the rest of the machinery of the book, and helpful on their own.

I was also surprised by how little I could find online – searching for e.g. “brian cantwell smith” “middle distance” turns up lots of direct references to On The Origin of Objects, and a couple of reviews, but not much in the way of secondary commentary explaining the term. You pretty much have to just go and read the whole book. So I thought it was worth making a post that just extracted these three examples out.

Example 1: Super-sunflowers

Smith’s first example is fanciful but intended to quickly give the flavour of the idea:

… imagine that a species of “super-sunflower” develops in California to grow in the presence of large redwoods. Suppose that ordinary sunflowers move heliotropically, as the myth would have it, but that they stop or even droop when the sun goes behind a tree. Once the sun re-emerges, they can once again be effectively driven by the direction of the incident rays, lifting up their faces, and reorienting to the new position. But this takes time. Super-sunflowers perform the following trick: even when the sun disappears, they continue to rotate at approximately the requisite ¼° per minute, so that the super-sunflowers are more nearly oriented to the light when the sun appears.

A normal sunflower is directly coupled to the movement of the sun. This is analogous to simple feedback systems like, for example, the bimetallic strip in a thermostat, which curls when the strip is heated and one side expands more than the other. In some weak sense, the curve of the bimetallic strip ‘represents’ the change in temperature. But the coupling is so direct that calling it ‘representation’ is dragging in more intentional language that we need. It’s just a load of physics.

The super-sunflower brings in a new ingredient: it carries on attempting to track the sun even when they’re out of direct causal contact. Smith argues that this disconnected tracking is the (sunflower) seed that genuine intentionality grows from. We are now on the way to something that can really be said to ‘represent’ the movement of the sun:

This behaviour, which I will call “non-effective tracking”, is no less than the forerunner of semantics: a very simple form of effect-transcending coordination in some way essential to the overall existence or well-being of the constituted system.

Example 2: Error checking

Now for a more realistic example. Consider the following simple error-checking system:


There’s a 32 bit word that we want to send, but we want to be sure that it’s been transmitted correctly. So we also send a 6-bit ‘check code’ containing the number of ones (19 of them in this instance, or 010011 in binary). If these don’t match, we know something’s gone wrong.

Obviously, we want the 6-bit code to stay coordinated with the 32-bit word for the whole storage period, and not just randomly change to some other count of ones, or it’s useless. Less obviously (“because it is such a basic assumption underlying the whole situation that we do not tend to think about it explicitly”), we don’t want the 6-bit code to invariably be correlated to the 32-bit word, so that a change in the word always changes the code. Otherwise we couldn’t do error checking at all! If a cosmic ray flips one of the bits in the word, we want the code to remain intact, so we can use it to detect the error. So again we have this ‘middle distance’ between direct coupling and irrelevance.

Example 3: File caches

One final real-world example: file caches. We want the data stored in the cache to be similar to the real data, or it’s not going to be much of a cache. At the same time, though, if we make everything exactly the same as the original data store, it’s going to take exactly as long to access the cache as it is to access the original data, so that it’s no longer really a cache.

Flex and slop

In all these examples, it’s important that the ‘representing’ system tries to stay coordinated with the distant ‘represented’ system while they’re out of direct contact. The super-sunflower keeps turning, the check code maintains its count of ones, the file cache maintains the data that was previously written to it:

In all these situations, what starts out as effectively coupled is gradually pulled apart, but separated in such a way as to honor a non-effective long-distance coordination condition, leading eventually to effective reconnection or reconciliation.

For this to be possible, the world needs to be able to support the right level of separation:

The world is fundamentally characterized by an underlying flex or slop – a kind of slack or ‘play’ that allows some bits to move about or adjust without much influencing, and without being much influenced by, other bits. Thus we can play jazz in Helsinki, as loud as we please, without troubling the Trappists in Montana. Moths can fly into the night with only a minimal expenditure of energy, because they have to rearrange only a tiny fraction of the world’s mass. An idea can erupt in Los Angeles, turn into a project, capture the fancy of hundreds of people, and later subside, never to be heard of again, all without having any impact whatsoever on the goings-on in New York.

This slop makes causal disconnection possible – ‘subjects’ can rearrange the representation independently of the ‘objects’ being represented. (This is what makes computation ‘cheap’ – we can rearrange some bits without having to also rearrange some big object elsewhere that they are supposed to represent some aspect of.) To make the point, Smith compares this with two imaginary worlds where this sort of ‘middle distance’ representation couldn’t get started. The first world consists of nothing but a huge assemblage of interlocking gears that turn together exactly without slipping, all at the same time. In this world, there is no slop at all, so nothing can ever get out of causal contact with anything else. You could maybe say that one cog ‘represents’ another cog, but really everything is just like the thermostat, too directly coupled to count interestingly as a representation. The second world is just a bunch of particles drifting in the void without interaction. This has gone beyond slop into complete irrelevance. Nothing is connected enough to have any kind of structural relation to anything else.

The three examples given above – file caches, error checking and the super-sunflower – are really only one step up from the thermostat, too simple to have anything much like genuine ‘intentional content’. The tracking behaviour of the representing object is too simple – the super-sunflower just moves across the sky, and the file cache and check code just sit there unchanged. Smith acknowledges this, and says that the exchange between ‘representer’ and ‘represented’ has to have a lot more structure, with alternating patterns of being in and out of causal contact, and some other ‘stabilisation’ patterns that I don’t really understand, that somehow help to individuate the two as separate objects. At this point, the concrete examples run completely dry, and I get lost in some complicated argument about ‘patterns of cross-cutting extension’ which I haven’t managed to disentangle yet. The basic idea illustrated by the three examples was new to me, though, and worth having on its own.

Cognitive decoupling and banana phones

Last year I wrote a post which used an obscure term from cognitive psychology and an obscure passage from The Bell Jar to make a confused point about something I didn’t understand very well. I wasn’t expecting this to go very far, but it got more interest than I expected, and some very thoughtful comments. Then John Nerst wrote a much clearer summary of the central idea, attached it to a noisily controversial argument-of-the-month and sent it flying off around the internet. Suddenly ‘cognitive decoupling’ was something of a hit.

If I’d known this was going to happen I might have put a bit more effort into the original blog post. For a start, I might have done some actual reading, instead of just grabbing a term I liked the sound of from one of Sarah Constantin’s blog posts and running with it. So I wanted to understand how the term as we’ve been applying it differs from Stanovich’s original use, and what his influences were. I haven’t done a particularly thorough job on this, but I have turned up a few interesting things, including a surprisingly direct link to a 1987 paper on pretending that a banana is a phone. I also learned that the intellectual history I’d hallucinated for the term based on zero reading was completely wrong, but wrong in a way that’s been strangely productive to think about. I’ll describe both the actual history and my weird fake one below. But first I’ll briefly go back over what the hell ‘cognitive decoupling’ is supposed to mean, for people who don’t want to wade through all those links.

Roses, tripe, and the bat and ball again

Stanovich is interested in whether, to use Constantin’s phrase, ‘rational people exist’. In this case ‘rational’ behaviour is meant to mean something like systematically avoiding cognitive biases that most people fall into. One of his examples is the Wason selection task, which involves turning over cards to verify the statement ‘If the card has an even number on one face it will be red on the reverse’. More vivid real-world situations, like Stanovich’s example of ‘if you eat tripe you will get sick’, are much easier for people to reason about than the decontextualised card-picking version. (Cosmides and Tooby’s beer version is even easier than the tripe one.)

A second example he gives is the ‘rose syllogism’:

Premise 1: All living things need water
Premise 2: Roses need water
Therefore, Roses are living things

A majority of university students incorrectly judge this as valid, whereas almost nobody thinks this structurally equivalent version makes sense:

Premise 1: All insects need oxygen
Premise 2: Mice need oxygen
Therefore, Mice are insects

The rose conclusion fits well with our existing background understanding of the world, so we are inclined to accept it. The mouse conclusion is stupid, so this doesn’t happen.

A final example would be the bat and ball problem from the Cognitive Reflection Test: ‘A bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?’. I’ve already written about that one in excruciating detail, so I won’t repeat myself too much, but in this case the interfering context isn’t so much background knowledge as a very distracting wrong answer.

Stanovich’s contention is that people that manage to navigate these problems successfully have an unusually high capacity for something he calls ‘cognitive decoupling’: separating out the knowledge we need to reason about a specific situation from other, interfering contextual information. In a 2013 paper with Toplak he describes decoupling as follows:

When we reason hypothetically, we create temporary models of the world and test out actions (or alternative causes) in that simulated world. In order to reason hypothetically we must, however, have one critical cognitive capability—we must be able to prevent our representations of the real world from becoming confused with representations of imaginary situations. The so-called cognitive decoupling operations are the central feature of Type 2 processing that make this possible…

The important issue for our purposes is that decoupling secondary representations from the world and then maintaining the decoupling while simulation is carried out is the defining feature of Type 2 processing.

(‘Type 2’ is a more recent name for ‘System 2’, in the ‘System 1’/’System 2’ dual process typology made famous by Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. See Kaj Sotala’s post here for a nice discussion of Stanovich and Evan’s work relating this split to the idea of cognitive decoupling, and other work that has questioned the relevance of this split.)

I don’t know how well this works as an explanation of what’s really going on in these situations. I haven’t dug into the history of the Wason or rose-syllogism tests at all, and, as with the bat and ball question, I’d really like to know what was done to validate these as good tests. What similar questions were tried? What other explanations, like prior exposure to logical reasoning, were identified, and how were these controlled for? I don’t have time for that currently. For the purposes of this post, I’m more interested in understanding what Stanovich’s influences were in coming up with this idea, rather than whether it’s a particularly good explanation.

Context, wide and narrow

Constantin’s post is more or less what she calls a ‘fact post’, summarising research in the area without too much editorial gloss. When I picked this up, I was mostly excited by the one bit of speculation at the end, and the striking ‘cognitive decoupling elite’ phrase, and didn’t make any effort to stay close to Stanovich’s meaning. Now I’ve read some more, I think that in the end we didn’t drift too far away. Here is Nerst’s summary of the idea:

High-decouplers isolate ideas from each other and the surrounding context. This is a necessary practice in science which works by isolating variables, teasing out causality and formalizing and operationalizing claims into carefully delineated hypotheses. Cognitive decoupling is what scientists do.

To a high-decoupler, all you need to do to isolate an idea from its context or implications is to say so: “by X I don’t mean Y”. When that magical ritual has been performed you have the right to have your claims evaluated in isolation. This is Rational Style debate…

While science and engineering disciplines (and analytic philosophy) are populated by people with a knack for decoupling who learn to take this norm for granted, other intellectual disciplines are not. Instead they’re largely composed of what’s opposite the scientist in the gallery of brainy archetypes: the literary or artistic intellectual.

This crowd doesn’t live in a world where decoupling is standard practice. On the contrary, coupling is what makes what they do work. Novelists, poets, artists and other storytellers like journalists, politicians and PR people rely on thick, rich and ambiguous meanings, associations, implications and allusions to evoke feelings, impressions and ideas in their audience. The words “artistic” and “literary” refers to using idea couplings well to subtly and indirectly push the audience’s meaning-buttons.

Now of course, Nerst is aiming at a much wider scope – he’s trying to apply this to controversial real-world arguments, rather than experimental studies of cognitive biases. But he’s talking about roughly the same mechanism of isolating an idea from its surrounding context.

There is a more subtle difference, though, that I find interesting. It’s not a sharp distinction so much as a difference in emphasis. In Nerst’s description, we’re looking at the coupling between one specific idea and its whole background context, which can be a complex soup of ‘thick, rich and ambiguous meanings, associations, implications and allusions’. This is a clear ‘outside’ description of the beautiful ‘inside’ one that I pulled from The Bell Jar, talking about how it actually feels (to some of us, anyway) to drag ideas out from the context that gave them meaning:

Botany was fine, because I loved cutting up leaves and putting them under the microscope and drawing diagrams of bread mould and the odd, heart-shaped leaf in the sex cycle of the fern, it seemed so real to me.

The day I went in to physics class it was death.

A short dark man with a high, lisping voice, named Mr Manzi, stood in front of the class in a tight blue suit holding a little wooden ball. He put the ball on a steep grooved slide and let it run down to the bottom. Then he started talking about let a equal acceleration and let t equal time and suddenly he was scribbling letters and numbers and equals signs all over the blackboard and my mind went dead.

… I may have made a straight A in physics, but I was panic-struck. Physics made me sick the whole time I learned it. What I couldn’t stand was this shrinking everything into letters and numbers. Instead of leaf shapes and enlarged diagrams of the hole the leaves breathe through and fascinating words like carotene and xanthophyll on the blackboard, there were these hideous, cramped, scorpion-lettered formulas in Mr Manzi’s special red chalk.

In this description, the satisfying thing about the botany classes is the rich sensory context: the sounds of the words, the vivid images of ferns and bread mould, the tactile sense of chopping leaves. This is a very broad-spectrum idea of context.

Now, Stanovich does seem to want cognitive decoupling to apply in situations where people access a wide range of background knowledge (‘roses are living things’), but when he comes to hypothesising a mechanism for how this works he goes for something with a much narrower focus. In the 2013 paper with Toplak he talks about specific, explicit ‘representations’ of knowledge interfering with other explicit representations. (I’ll go into more detail later about exactly what he means by a ‘representation’.) He cites an older paper, Pretense and Representation by Leslie, as inspiration for the ‘decoupling’ term:

In a much-cited article, Leslie (1987) modeled pretense by positing a so-called secondary representation (see Perner 1991) that was a copy of the primary representation but that was decoupled from the world so that it could be manipulated — that is, be a mechanism for simulation.

This is very clearly about being able to decouple one specific explicit belief from another similarly explicit ‘secondary representation’, rather than the whole background morass of implicit context. I wanted to understand how this was supposed to work, so I went back and read the paper. This is where the banana phones come in.

Pretending a banana is a phone

The first surprise for me was how literal this paper was. (Apparently 80s cognitive science was like that.) Leslie is interested in how pretending works – how a small child pretends that a banana is a telephone, to take his main example. And the mechanism he posits is… copy-and-paste, but for the brain:


As in, we get some kind of perceptual input which causes us to store a ‘representation’ that means ‘this is a banana’. Then we make a copy of this. Now we can operate on the copy (‘this banana is a telephone’) without also messing up the banana representation. They’ve become decoupled.

What are these ‘representations’? Leslie has this to say:

What I mean by representation will, I hope, become clear as the discussion progresses. It has much in common with the concepts developed by the information-processing, or cognitivist, approach to cognition and perception…

This is followed by a long string of references to Chomsky, Dennett, etc. So his main influence appears to be, roughly, computational theories of mind. Looking at how he uses the term in the paper itself, it appears that we’re in the domain of Good Old-Fashioned AI: ‘representations’ can be put into a rough correspondence with English propositions about bananas, telephones, and cups of tea, and that we then use them as a kind of raw material to run inference rules on and come to new conclusions:


Leslie doesn’t talk about how all these representations come to mean anything in the real world — how do we know that the string of characters ‘cups contain water’, or its postulated mental equivalent, has anything to do with actual cups and actual water? How do we even parse the complicated flux of the real world into discrete named objects, like ‘cups’, to start with? There’s no story in the paper that tries to bridge this gap — these representations are just sitting there ‘in the head’, causally disconnected from the world.

Well, OK, maybe 80s cognitive science was like that. Maybe Leslie thought that someone else already had a convincing story for how this bit works, and he could just apply the resulting formalism of propositions and inference rules. But this same language of ‘representations’ and ‘simulations’ is still being used uncritically in much more recent papers. Stanovich and Toplak, for example, reproduce Leslie’s decoupling diagram and describe it using the same terms:

For Leslie (1987), the decoupled secondary representation is necessary in order to avoid representational abuse — the possibility of confusing our simulations with our primary representations of the world as it actually is… decoupled representations of actions about to be taken become representations of potential actions, but the latter must not infect the former while the mental simulation is being carried out.

There’s another strange thing about Stanovich using this paper as a model to build on. (I completely missed this, but David Chapman pointed it out to me in an earlier conversation.) Stanovich is interested in what makes actions or behaviours rational, and he wants cognitive decoupling to be at least a partial explanation of this. Leslie is looking at toddlers pretending that bananas are telephones. If even very young children are passing this test for ‘rationality’, it’s not going to be much use for discriminating between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ behaviour in adults. So Stanovich would need a narrower definition of ‘decoupling’ that excludes the banana-telephone example if he wants to eventually use it as a rationality criterion.

So I wasn’t very impressed with this as a plausible mechanism for decoupling. Then again, the mechanism I’d been imagining turns out to have some obvious failings too.

Rabbits and the St. Louis Arch

When I first started thinking about cognitive decoupling, I imagined a very different history for the term. ‘Decoupling’ sounds very physicsy to me, bringing up associations of actual interaction forces and coupling constants, and I’d been reading Dreyfus’s Why Heideggerian AI Failed, which discusses dynamical-systems-inspired models of cognition:

Fortunately, there is at least one model of how the brain could provide the causal basis for the intentional arc. Walter Freeman, a founding figure in neuroscience and the first to take seriously the idea of the brain as a nonlinear dynamical system, has worked out an account of how the brain of an active animal can find and augment significance in its world. On the basis of years of work on olfaction, vision, touch, and hearing in alert and moving rabbits, Freeman proposes a model of rabbit learning based on the coupling of the brain and the environment…

The organism normally actively seeks to improve its current situation. Thus, according to Freeman’s model, when hungry, frightened, disoriented, etc., the rabbit sniffs around until it falls upon food, a hiding place, or whatever else it senses it needs. The animal’s neural connections are then strengthened to the extent that reflects the extent to which the result satisfied the animal’s current need. In Freeman’s neurodynamic model, the input to the rabbit’s olfactory bulb modifies the bulb’s neuron connections according to the Hebbian rule that neurons that fire together wire together.

In many ways this still sounds like a much more promising starting point to me than the inference-rule-following of the Leslie paper. For a start, it seems to fit much better with what’s known about the architecture of the brain (I think – I’m pretty ignorant about this). Neurons are very slow compared to computer processors, but make up for this by being very densely interconnected. So getting anything useful done would rely on a huge amount of activation happening in parallel, producing a kind of global, diffuse ‘background context’ that isn’t sharply divided into separate concepts.

Better still, the problem of how situations intrinsically mean something about the world is sidestepped, because in this case, the rabbit and environment are literally, physically coupled together. A carrot smell out in the world pulls its olfactory bulb into a different state, which itself pulls the rabbit into a different kind of behaviour, which in turn alters the global structure of the bulb in such a way that this behaviour is more likely to occur again in the future. This coupling is so direct that referring to it as a ‘representation’ seems like overkill:

Freeman argues that each new attractor does not represent, say, a carrot, or the smell of carrot, or even what to do with a carrot. Rather, the brain’s current state is the result of the sum of the animal’s past experiences with carrots, and this state is directly coupled with or resonates to the affordance offered by the current carrot.

However, this is also where the problems come in. Everything is so closely causally coupled that there’s no room in this model for decoupling! The idea behind ‘cognitive decoupling’ is to be able to pull away from the world long enough to consider things in the abstract, without all the associations that normally get dragged along for free. In the olfactory bulb model, the rabbit is so locked into its surroundings that this sort of distance is unattainable.

At some point I was googling a bunch of keywords like ‘dynamical systems’ and ‘decoupling’ in the hope of fishing up something interesting, and I came across a review by Rick Grush of Mind as Motion: Explorations in the Dynamics of Cognition by Port and van Gelder, which had a memorable description of the problem:

…many paradigmatically cognitive capacities seem to have nothing at all to do with being in a tightly coupled relationship with the environment. I can think about the St. Louis Arch while I’m sitting in a hot tub in southern California or while flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

Even this basic kind of decoupling from a situation – thinking about something that’s not happening to you right now – needs some capacities that are missing from the olfactory bulb model. Grush even uses the word ‘decoupling’ to describe this:

…what is needed, in slightly more refined terms, is an executive part, C (for Controller), of an agent, A, which is in an environment E, decoupling from E, and coupling instead to some other system E’ that stands in for E, in order for the agent to ‘think about’ E (see Figure 2). Cognitive agents are exactly those which can selectively couple to either the ‘real’ environment, or to an environment model, or emulator, perhaps internally supported, in order to reason about what would happen if certain actions were undertaken with the real environment.

This actually sounds like a plausible alternate history for Stanovich’s idea, with its intellectual roots in dynamical systems rather than the representational theory of mind. So maybe my hallucinations were not too silly after all.

Final thoughts

I still think that the idea of cognitive decoupling is getting at something genuinely interesting – otherwise I wouldn’t have spent all this time rambling on about it! I don’t think the current representational story for how it works is much good. But the ability to isolate ‘abstract structure’ (whatever that means, exactly) from its surrounding context does seem to be a real skill that people vary in. In practice I expect that much of this context will be more of a diffuse associational soup than the sharp propositional statements of Leslie’s pretence model.

It’s interesting to me that the banana phone model and the olfactory bulb model both run into problems, but in opposite directions. Leslie’s banana phone relies on a bunch of free-floating propositions (‘this is a banana’), with no story for how they refer to actual bananas and phones out in the world. Freeman’s rabbit olfactory bulb has no problem with this – relevance is guaranteed through direct causal coupling to the outside world – but it’s so directly coupled that there’s no space for decoupling. We need something between these two extremes.

David Chapman pointed out to me that Brian Cantwell Smith already has a term for this in The Origin of Objects – he calls it ‘the middle distance’ between direct coupling and causal irrelevance. I’ve been reading the book and have already found his examples to be hugely useful in thinking about this more clearly. These are worth a post in their own right, so I’ll describe them in a followup to this one.

The cognitive decoupling elite

[Taking something speculative, running with it, piling on some more speculative stuff]

In an interesting post summarising her exploration of the literature on rational thinking, Sarah Constantin introduces the idea of a ‘cognitive decoupling elite’:

Stanovich talks about “cognitive decoupling”, the ability to block out context and experiential knowledge and just follow formal rules, as a main component of both performance on intelligence tests and performance on the cognitive bias tests that correlate with intelligence. Cognitive decoupling is the opposite of holistic thinking. It’s the ability to separate, to view things in the abstract, to play devil’s advocate.

… Speculatively, we might imagine that there is a “cognitive decoupling elite” of smart people who are good at probabilistic reasoning and score high on the cognitive reflection test and the IQ-correlated cognitive bias tests.

It’s certainly very plausible to me that something like this exists as a distinct personality cluster. It seems to be one of the features of my own favourite classification pattern, for example, as a component of the ‘algebra/systematising/step-by-step/explicit’ side (not the whole thing, though). For this post I’m just going to take it as given for now that ‘cognitive decoupling’ is a real thing that people can be more or less good at, build on that assumption and see what I get.

It’s been a good few decades for cognitive decoupling, from an employment point of view at least. Maybe a good couple of centuries, taking the long view. But in particular the rise of automation by software has created an enormous wealth of opportunities for people who can abstract out the formal symbolic exoskeleton of a process to the point where they can make a computer do it. There’s also plenty of work in the interstices between systems, defining interfaces and making sure data is clean enough to process, the kind of jobs Venkatesh Rao memorably described as ‘intestinal flora in the body of technology’.

I personally have a complicated, conflicted relationship with cognitive decoupling. Well, to be honest, sometimes a downright petty and resentful relationship. I’m not a true member of the elite myself, despite having all the right surface qualifications: undergrad maths degree, PhD in physics, working as a programmer. Maybe cognitive decoupling precariat, at a push. Despite making my living and the majority of my friends in cognitive-decoupling-heavy domains, I mostly find step-by-step, decontextualised reasoning difficult and unpleasant at a fundamental, maybe even perceptual level.

The clearest way of explaining this, for those who don’t already have a gut understanding what I mean, might be to describe something like ‘the opposite of cognitive decoupling’ (the cognitive strong coupling regime?). I had this vague memory that Sylvia Plath’s character Esther in The Bell Jar voiced something in the area of what I wanted, in a description of a hated physics class that had stuck in my mind as somehow connected to my own experience. I reread the passage and was surprised to find that it wasn’t just vaguely what I wanted, it was exactly what I wanted, a precise and detailed account of what just feels wrong about cognitive decoupling:

Botany was fine, because I loved cutting up leaves and putting them under the microscope and drawing diagrams of bread mould and the odd, heart-shaped leaf in the sex cycle of the fern, it seemed so real to me.

The day I went in to physics class it was death.

A short dark man with a high, lisping voice, named Mr Manzi, stood in front of the class in a tight blue suit holding a little wooden ball. He put the ball on a steep grooved slide and let it run down to the bottom. Then he started talking about let a equal acceleration and let t equal time and suddenly he was scribbling letters and numbers and equals signs all over the blackboard and my mind went dead.

… I may have made a straight A in physics, but I was panic-struck. Physics made me sick the whole time I learned it. What I couldn’t stand was this shrinking everything into letters and numbers. Instead of leaf shapes and enlarged diagrams of the hole the leaves breathe through and fascinating words like carotene and xanthophyll on the blackboard, there were these hideous, cramped, scorpion-lettered formulas in Mr Manzi’s special red chalk.

I knew chemistry would be worse, because I’d seen a big chart of the ninety-odd elements hung up in the chemistry lab, and all the perfectly good words like gold and silver and cobalt and aluminium were shortened to ugly abbreviations with different decimal numbers after them. If I had to strain my brain with any more of that stuff I would go mad. I would fail outright. It was only by a horrible effort of will that I had dragged myself through the first half of the year.

This is a much, much stronger reaction than the one I have, but I absolutely recognise this emotional state. The botany classes ground out in vivid, concrete experience: ferns, leaf shapes, bread mould. There’s an associated technical vocabulary – carotene, xanthophyll – but even these words are embedded in a rich web of sound associations and tangible meanings.

In the physics and chemistry classes, by contrast, the symbols are seemingly arbitrary, chosen on pure pragmatic grounds and interchangeable for any other random symbol. (I say ‘seemingly’ arbitrary because of course if you continue in physics you do build up a rich web of associations with x and t and the rest of them. Esther doesn’t know this, though.) The important content of the lecture is instead the structural relationships between the different symbols, and the ways of transforming one to another by formal rules. Pure cognitive decoupling.

There is a tangible physical object, the ‘little wooden ball’ (better than I got in my university mechanics lectures!), but that object has been chosen for its utter lack of vivid distinguishing features, its ability to stand in as a prototype of the whole abstract class of featureless spheres rolling down featureless inclined planes.

The lecturer’s suit is a bit crap, too. Nothing at all about this situation has been designed for a fulfilling, interconnected aesthetic experience.

I think it’s fairly obvious from the passage, but it seems to be worth pointing out anyway: ‘strong cognitive coupling’ doesn’t just equate to stupidity or lack of cognitive flexibility. For one thing, Esther gets an A anyway. For another, she’s able to give very perceptive, detailed descriptions of subtle features of her experience, always hugging close to the specificity of raw experience (‘the odd, heart-shaped leaf in the sex cycle of the fern’) rather than generic concepts that can be overlaid on to many observations (‘ah ok, it’s another sphere on an inclined plane’).

Strong coupling in this sense is like being a kind of sensitive antenna for your environment, learning to read as much meaning out of it as possible, but without necessarily being able to explain what you learn in a structured, explicit logical argument. I’d expect it to be correlated with high sensitivity to nonverbal cues, implicit tone, tacit understanding, all the kind of stuff that poets are stereotypically good at and nerds are stereotypically bad at.

I don’t normally talk about my own dislike of cognitive decoupling. It’s way too easy to sound unbearably precious and snowflakey, ‘oh my tastes are far too sophisticated to bear contact with this clunky nerd stuff’. In practice I just shut up and try to get on with it as far as I can. Organised systems are what keep the world functioning, and whining about them is mostly pointless. Also, I’m nowhere near the extreme end of this spectrum anyway, and can cope most of the time.

When I was studying maths and physics I didn’t even have to worry about this for the most part. You can compensate fairly well for a lack of ability in decoupled formal reasoning by just understanding the domain. This is very manageable, particularly if you pick your field well, because the same few ideas (calculus, linear algebra, the harmonic oscillator) crop up again and again and again and have very tangible physical interpretations, so there’s always something concrete to ground out the symbols with.

(This wasn’t a conscious strategy because I had no idea what was happening at the time. I just knew since I was a kid that I was ‘good at maths’ apart from some inexplicable occasions where I was instead very bad at maths, and just tried to steer towards the ‘good at maths’ bits as much as possible. This is my attempt to finally make some sense out of it.)

It’s been more of an issue since. Most STEM-type jobs outside of academia are pretty hard going, because the main objective is to get the job done, and you often don’t have time to build up a good picture of the overall domain, so you’re more reliant on the step-by-step systematic thing. A particularly annoying example would be something like implementing the business logic for a large enterprise CRUD app where you have no particularly strong domain knowledge. Maybe there’s a tax of 7% on twelve widgets, or maybe it’s a tax of 11.5% on five hundred widgets; either way, what it means for you personally is that you’re going to chuck some decontextualised variables around according to the rules defined in some document, with no vivid sensory understanding of exactly what these widgets look like and why they’re being taxed. There is basically no way that Esther in The Bell Jar could keep her sanity in a job like that, even if she has the basic cognitive capacity to do it; absolutely everything about it is viscerally wrong wrong wrong.

My current job is rather close to this end of the spectrum, and it’s a strain to work in this way, in a way many other colleagues don’t seem to experience. This is where the ‘downright petty and resentful’ bit comes in. I’d like it if there was a bit more acknowledgment from people who find cognitive decoupling easy and natural that it is in fact a difficult mode of thought for many of us, and one that most modern jobs dump us into far more than we’d like.

From the other side, I’m sure that the decouplers would also appreciate it if we stopped chucking around words like ‘inhuman’ and ‘robotic’, and did a bit less hating on decontextualised systems that keep the world running, even if they feel bad from the inside. I think some of this stuff is coming from a similar emotional place to my own petty resentment, but it’s not at all helpful for any actual communication between the sides.

I’m seeing a few encouraging examples of the kind of communication I would like. Sarah Constantin looks to be in something like a symmetric position to me on the other side of the bridge, with her first loyalty to explicit systematic reasoning, but enough genuine appreciation to be able to write thoughtful explorations of the other side:

I think it’s much better to try to make the implicit explicit, to bring cultural dynamics into the light and understand how they work, rather than to hide from them.

David Chapman has started to write about how the context-heavy sort of learning (‘reasonableness’) works, aimed at something like the cognitive decoupling elite:

In summary, reasonableness works because it is context-dependent, purpose-laden, interactive, and tacit. The ways it uses language are effective for exactly the reason rationality considers ordinary language defective: nebulosity.

And then there’s all the wonderful work by people like Bret Victor, who are working to open up subjects like maths and programming for people like me who need to see things if we are going to have a hope of doing them.

I hope this post at least manages to convey something of the flavour of strong cognitive coupling to those who find decoupling easy. So if the thing I’m trying to point at still looks unclear, please let me know in the comments!