trips of the mind

What I find fascinating about the tricks of Derren Brown is the extent to which they display the passive dynamic nature of our behavior. Most of Derren’s magic probably happens at the periphery of our awareness, in the shadows of our attention.

According to some philosophers and theorists (like William James or Evan Thompson) it is the capacity for attention where (the possbility of) our free will resides. Free will in this sense is the ability to suspend, focus and orient our attention in a flexible and adaptive way within the given conditions we are (always already) embedded within. This is only the tip of the ice-berg, though. For the most part our behavior is orchestrated at a more primordial level. This is the level of, say, genes and memes. (This is not to deny the reality of individual intentions at the human scale of social relations; but simply to emphasize the role of dynamic co-arisal and co-dependence.) In effect, we humans rely on all kinds of information bearing external structures and props (like language or tradition) that auto-cue our various behaviors. I think that the way in which behavior is distributed across the loop of brain dynamics, bodily and environmental structures (and not simply centrally governed) could be well understood by applying the idea of passive dynamics.

I’ve already wrote about passive dynamics in previous posts, but as a quick recap: it is basically the principle in robotic movement conrol of using the specific physical/material features of the robot’s body and its enviroment and the momentum generated by their interaction (whereby behavior-generating computation is achieved through the dynamic coupling/interaction of different physical forms) instead of using a highly energy-consuming central governor. Behavior thus emerges at the interface where (allow me the place-holder:) ’different orders of structures’ couple together. At the human scale this means that in the form of cultural inheritance, traditions and all sorts of social rituals human behavior relies (or putting it in more active terms: exploits) socially/historically accumulated and sanctioned knowledge-structures.

Understandably, the more skills an organism acquires through its interaction with its environment the more complex its behavioral repertoire becomes. Skills are the capacities that knit an organism with its environment into a dynamic system. An organism is capable of affecting and in return of being affected by its environment in terms of the skills it acquires. In short, perception is skill-based, which means that perception is oriented towards the affordances that our skills bring forth out of the environment we inhabit. In the case of us, humans, the environment affords many possibilities for meaningful action. Think of the norms that dictate the appropriate behavior in a restaurant or a church, or the rules that govern a simple conversation at a workplace, a family gathering or a conference meeting. The interpresonal and symbolic schemes abounding in the socially engineered human environment orient and carry (i.e. passive dynamically engage) us in a manifold of complex ways. Situation are imbued with significance and meaning: engendering a momentum that determine the trajectory of our motivations. A queue in front of a counter cues/affords a certain specific clue as to the appropriate behavior. Students cringe before the authority of teachers regardless of the fact that it is they who invest the latter with power. Or think of the typical scenario that happens every day when we interact with others: as our conversation unfolds there is an imperceptible rhythm that underpins and guides the way in which we take turns and pace our utterances. The felt sense of a missing beat compels us to somehow save the (symbolically-laden) situation by filling in the gap that is ripping the texture of the conversation apart: we mutter something or silently laugh or smile or in some other expressive way compensate for the threatening onset of the deadlock. Usually, the flurry and flow of interpersonal situations command a certain pattern of (verbal, gestural, facial, etc.) engagement. I feel hard pressed to reply when… etc. But let’s get back to Derren Brown.

In light of these, one could say that a trickster of the mind exploits the passive dynamically shaped perception of people. Subliminal suggestion affects the nervous system of an individual without him consciously registering the subtle set of hints and solicitations deployed in the suggestion. In these moments we explicitly become what we really are: an enchanted bunch of megalomaniac zombies, to put it bluntly. When Derren Brown makes you hand your wallet over to him while he is asking for directions (and incidentally for your wallet): that instance also exhibits the extent to which human behavior is honed (over evolutionary time) by a complex set of social rules and cues that elicit certain specific behaviors or fixed-action patterns (to borrow Rodolfo Llinás’s apt coinage). Derren knows this, and he tries to tune into and manipulate these patterns as much as he is capable of doing so.

Again, our perceptions orchestrate and are orhcestrated by our behaviors.  Also, perception is not only geared towards environmental and social/symbolic cues but actively projects them into the environment and our everyday situations. This is why so many misunderstandings might arise when our intentions are out of sync. And this is why Derren’s baffling tricks of the mind may become possible.


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