Unconscious Search (US) is a process our embodied brain and mind uses to search for affordances (possibilities) in our multi-dimensional sensory environment.
Humans are variety reduction machines. Too much variety and we can hallucinate and too less variety, we can become bored, ineffective. Variety is the possible states of a system in a complex environment. Our world is full of billions of possibilities even if our “Variety Reduction Cognitive Apparatus” is unable to see the possibilities. There is a good reason for this as nature has programmed our cognitive systems to allow for limited variety in our consciousness. Unconscious Search is the process of actively and passively searching for all possible states of the system, finding which one are a match to our current belief systems and then excluding all of non-confirming possibilities from any further processing.
Our brain is automatically and unconsciously searching for affordances in our environment (simple, wicked and bizarre) and the search is an “always on” routine. Our brain uses this 24 X 7 unconscious search process to control the sensory inputs that can reach our conscious mind and to match it with the predictions generated by our mind based on our belief system.
Unconscious Search (US) is a multi-start metaheuristic which is a type of non-linear search and optimization process and works very well in achieving combinatorial optimization. The term “heuristic” originated from the Greek word heuriskein, which roughly translates into “discovery of new strategies or rules to solve problems“. To put this into context, think of trying to search for a lost ring on a football field. You can search the ring by starting from where you think you lost the ring or do random search. If you do not find it in that area, you define a new area and start your search again. If you reach a dead end using this method, you call for help from all your friends who earmark and define their area of search and everyone searches simultaneously till you find the ring or realize that the ring is not in the field so you should search in the locker room and so on. Unconscious Search of our brain uses similar search mechanisms. As someone who invented a way to reduce the Inventing Cycle Time (ICT) of Innovators and Inventors, I extensively documented many search strategies our brain uses in the service of our perceptions and goals.
Metaheuristics is a method of finding “acceptable” solutions in a reasonable time for solving hard and complex problems in the space. If we know how to tap into the immense power we already have, our brain and embodied mind has the astounding ability to continuously search for good solutions in the changing landscape (using various optimization methods) and bootstrap the solutions in cascades (brick over brick) to build a pretty good solution. The problem is that the Unconscious Search (US) is limited by what we want to search (passionate desire), what we expect to search (habituation) and the undeveloped ability to carry out constraint optimization (getting rid of our own internal mental blocks). As such even if have the ability and possibility of searching for the “best solution” (Global Optima), we remain suck in the “existing comfortable solution” (Local Optima).
It uses a process of predictive processing to reduce variety in our conscious frame to maintain patterns and stability in our lives. As discussed in more detail in another post, predictive processing is framework by which our brain makes predictions on what will happen in the now and the future and then suppresses the possibilities coming through our sensory feed in the environment to match the predictions it is making. William. T. Powers in 1960’s proposed the “Perceptual Control Theory (PCT)” which in essence claimed that our brain, mind and its sensory as well as kinematic system are in the service of our beliefs and mental models.
Our brain is automatically and unconsciously searching for affordances in the environment (simple, wicked and bizarre) and the search is an “always on” routine. The routine ramps up efficiency when we are sleeping effectively, are in a creative flow and works inefficiently when we are under stress or anxiety. Obviously, we will not discuss in this post, how to optimize the search process, but, we will provide some overarching information.
What are Affordances?
Affordances are possibilities inherent in a unique situation or event available to all agents in the system. Affordances allow degrees of freedom in which agents in a multi-agent system can move. The term was coined by psychologist James J. Gibson in his book “The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems”. Since then, other explanations of the term “affordance” have been outlined, but, all of them essentially means ” all transactions that are possible between an individual and their environment“. We must also note that most of the time, barring a few possible transactions, we are blissfully unaware of the rest of the possibilities in the system. The embodied mind and the environment act as coupling or as two arms of a scissor, take one out and the second will fail to operate effectively.
The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill – “James J. Gibson“
Let us use an analogy to explain. Please follow along and try and answer the question/query, before I provide the answer.
Here is a hypothetical scenario for you. You have been nominated as an event coordinator for arranging a meal for eight people. The group is racially diverse and is considered to have unique, independent preference of cuisines. It is unlikely that any two or more individuals will order the same food. You have a large list of menu items with hundreds of items listed in it and you have to read out each item till they say “Yes” to the selected Menu item. Now, in this situation, how many possibilities or affordances exist in the system. Before you scroll down, try answering it yourself.
Before we get to the answer, it is important to understand that we are trying to find out the possibilities inherent in this system by oversimplifying the transaction. As we add more variables, the possibilities will keep increasing. As we reduce variables, the possibilities will keep reducing. To keep things simple, we are using the Latin phrase Ceteris paribus which means “all other things being equal” or “other things held constant” or “all else unchanged“.
It is possible that given a certain set of unique conditions, one set of individuals may experience “Worst case scenario” i.e too many possibilities and another set may experience the “Best Case Scenario” in which choices are limited, answers are quick and precise and the coordinator quickly, effortlessly succeeds. It is also possible that a smart and experienced individual may be able to innovatively collate the responses quickly. They can do this by inferring the ethnicity of the individual, subsequently predicting food preferences and start rattling the list in a certain order, while others may ignore this dimension/feature of the visitors and clinically read out each menu item till they get a “Yes”. As we can infer from the above situation, the situation offers a certain number of possibilities and the individual can make optimal use of their resources and competencies to reduce those possibilities to minimize computational load. In some cases, too many possibilities can be a good thing, while in others it can be a bad thing. Here, we are want to look at the baseline possibilities in a system instead of optimized ones. So, what the maximum number of possibilities inherent in the system given that “everything else remains constant” ?.
The answer is 256 possibilities. The simple way to calculate this is by calculating 2 to the power of 8 i.e 8 people with two choices each. The simpler way is to multiply 2 by itself 8 times. Sorry for making it sound like a kindergarten mathematics class. Now, let us assume that we increase the number of people from 8 to 32 and each has two choices for every menu item i.e. “Yes or No”. The possibilities in the system immediately skyrocket to 4.3 million. Make any changes on either side of the equation i.e provide three choices to each visitor “Yes, No or Maybe” and the possibilities soon exponentially spike into billions.
Searching for Affordances
Our brain is constantly searching for affordances in the environment to meet our objectives. Some players can actively and successfully capitalize on these affordances while others spectacularly fail at it. These possibilities are constantly evolving and based on the number of dimensions in the space, can become consciously incomprehensible.When we feel stuck in a problem, we fail to realize that there are so many solutions in the space, but, we feel stuck as we cannot access other possibilities. Of course, there are those who can access such possibilities easily.
Entrepreneurs perceive interstitial spaces in the market and create products/services that fulfill an unmet/ under-served or futuristic customer need. Politicians piggyback on campaign promises by understanding customer (voters) pain and state actors effectively utilize disenfranchised population to create insurgent movements. All of them are using “Unconscious Search for Affordances” in their environment. As we have already discussed above, the optimization process is riddled with pain and can also throw people off the curve. Take the optimization further to “Hyperforecasting” levels, and “Unconscious Search” can allow one to peek into the future using Future State Models. Using an example from history, certain events in the life starting with an early abandonment of Steve Jobs by his biological parents made him hyper-aware and well as hyper-vigilant. Over time, solitary meditative practices activated his intuitive faculties which allowed him to significantly improve his “Unconscious Search”. The result was the successful range of Apple Products, but it came with a lot of clinical and psychological stress for Steve Jobs. In geopolitics, Iran has been unruffling feathers in the Middle East by its proxy actions and outwitting its adversaries. In it, they cash on existing affordances in line with their objectives. While Jobs used his new faculties for market innovation and some use it for strategy or simply stroking trouble in our neighbor’s house, there are many daily use benefits of improving this skill. Those cashing on the affordances do not necessarily create those affordances and simply capitalize on them. If a state actor uses a segment of the disenfranchised population for its own use, it is simply acting as an opportunistic actor due to its optimal search function.
For those who cannot access possibilities easily, when we feel stuck in a situation, we are unable to see new possibilities due to stress, anxiety or an under-trained sub-optimal search hardware and software (brain and embodied mind). The impact is a deeply constrained and overloaded neural and cognitive level of the individual. Once optimally used, the same constraining process can be used to come up with new inventions or breakthrough problem solutions. Sometimes, the solution is few steps away, but, attention blindness makes us ignore those possibilities.If I could go back to school and learn the only skill required to succeed in life, then, I would give up the rest of my education for it.
While there are many sophisticated formal ways and many painful informal ways to improve “Unconscious Search“, the least expensive and free one is to try to remain calm and power down the stress level. Under controlled test conditions in which the subject was administered certain calming exercises while being monitored under a 25 Channel EEG machine, it was quite evident that the impedance level across various parts of the brain significantly dropped and the subject was able to see possibilities fairly quickly. High impedance levels were directly proportional to nominal stress (rated by subjects) as well as feeling stuck.
Based out of Dallas, Texas, Rohit Sharma is a product engineer, innovator as well as an astute hyper-forecaster who regularly writes on technology, psychology and all things bizarre. He works in the healthcare domain creating new innovation. Click on the name to read more about him.