General Question

wundayatta's avatar

What's the metadata for a brain?

Asked by wundayatta (58625points) December 13th, 2008

How do you organize your own thinking? How do you know what kinds of thoughts to think? Do you even have a language for this? Is this even an idea that is anything other than an inside-out kline bottle?

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17 Answers

DrasticDreamer's avatar

I don’t organize my own thinking. I don’t think it’d be possible for me. Come to think of it, I don’t know if that’s really possible for anyone. Then again, I could just be saying that because it’s really that impossible for me.

andrew's avatar

if i think too hard about things like this, I get caught in a recursive loop and have to take sedatives.

I’m only half joking.

sferik's avatar

I find my brain organizing concepts alphabetically.

Evidence of this: when I can’t remember something, often I will recall only the first letter—or if someone tells me the first letter, I will remember.

andrew's avatar

Oh! Well, I organize by image, specifically position of things in relation to others (I do this when adding numbers, for example), and through kinesis.

nebule's avatar

Eckhart Tolle has some great insights on this subject. Thought is simply part of the ego isn’t it, and ego is not what we are. I can’t remember how exactly Tolle states it (maybe someone can help me out here…just been trying to find it in the book but can’t! tut tut!) but its basically that we call ourselves I and therefore believe that that is what we are…but this is an illusion…we are the essence behind the i…the thing that asks the question “what am I thinking?”

So i personally believe…in line with Tolle that we can organise our own thoughts…with a lot of practise and meditation of course. I know that I am no good at this at the moment…but would like to think that at some point I will be able to put the effort in to do this.

A bit of a strange phenomena that I have found at the moment is that I can sometimes hear my thoughts “running away” – like when I’ve been around people (at a party for example) and then i go home…I can then create chatter conversations in my head. Imagined conversations with people i might have been talking to about subjects not even discussed and scenarios that haven’t been broached…. anyway my point is that I can then stop these conversations in my head and deliberately think of something else….

but I guess that all by the by really… It would be REALLY fascinating to have your thought stream printed down for a day…I mean EVERYTHING you thought to be printed out… because I imagine 75% of the time we are not consciously aware of what we thinking about….in the spaces in-between i mean…

am I bonkers??? lol

wundayatta's avatar

@lynneblundell: Clearly. But it’s wonderful!

augustlan's avatar

I wouldn’t know where to begin! I live a very active inner life. I never shut up in there! It even regularly keeps me from sleeping. I have to work very hard to distract my mind for long enough to fall asleep.

Mizuki's avatar

Daloon, you would really enjoy the study of NLP. Your question would require a master thesis to answer.

wundayatta's avatar

From what I hear, the science behind NLP, if there is any, doesn’t hold up.

Really, I’d love to hear people speculate, or even take a wild fly-by. It’s not like anyone could be right or wrong on this. I’m just curioius about the attributes we might be able to measure that would help us generate some kind of concept of an individual’s way of thinking.

Augustlan’s mind is full of jabber. What generates the jabber? How does it serve her? What kinds of things does it produce? What are the feelings of the jabber? How much awareness does she have of the jabber on a moment to moment basis?

I’m just making this stuff up as I go along. People who have studies the brain or psychology or philosphy might have much better insight into this.

Maybe I’m weird that way, but I like to reason my way into an understanding of things, rather than be taught it. People with isms and ideologies and methods have a vested interest in those things that may obscure their vision. I’m not saying my vision is clear—quite the opposite, when it comes to the subject of myself, but I do seem to be able to imagine things in ways that allow me to make pretty good estimations about the hidden information.

I’ve reasoned my way to a fairly deep understanding of things so that when I do learn about what is already known, I’m darn close to it. This is enough to give me confidence that when I disagree with what people believe they know, I should pay attention. Mistakes may have been made.

augustlan's avatar

Sure, use me as an example! ~ I have in the past wondered if it is normal to have a constant dialogue with oneself…but I’m over it. It may not be normal, but it is normal for me, so I’ve come to accept that.
I have no idea what generates my jabber, but it does serve me – sometimes well, sometimes not so well! I get loads of great ideas from all that talk and lots of insight, too, but like I’ve said it does keep me up nights. The feelings of the jabber run the gamut of human emotions, depending on my mood and the subject matter. I am aware of it almost constantly, but not in control of it’s direction for the most part. I will find myself ‘jabbering’ about some very odd thing and wonder how in hell I got there. Sometimes I can trace it back from Z to A, but other times I remain a mystery to myself.

finkelitis's avatar


The thing is, your brain organizes itself in ways that you will never completely understand. However, you can observe how you think, act, learn, and create, and try to encourage and develop the systems that are already in place. Poincare has an essay (or letter) about his creative process for example: it’s clear he doesn’t know exactly where the new ideas come from, but he has observed that they tend to come in a certain kind of way. Namely, he has to immerse himself in work, and only after he’s been frustrated for some time, take a break. Then the answer would come to him in some completely unexpected moment, like stepping onto a bus. But the data of the brain seemed to just scatter around and fix into place in a kind of accidental way.

This may be far away from answering your question, but the point is we have to begin by observing our mind (and body). Your question is a little problematic for me, actually, because it’s a bit to vague, and large. That is, you don’t organize your own thinking—thinking is organized by the process of thinking, and then you can try to understand it afterward, and possibly affect it in the future. Similarly, you don’t know what kind of thoughts to think. You just think them. So I guess what I’m saying is that thought seems to be an emergent behavior, rather than a premeditated one.

Now if you want to talk about specifics, I think they have been studied. I haven’t done this, but I have thought about it. For example, my sense is that there is a process of refining indivualization that happens as we go from being an infant and not being able to tell the difference between ourselves and the world, to realizing that things are more separate. Probably the act of categorization becomes more refined. I hear about children who go through phases of calling every animal “doggy” at first—they have only one category. Then the child says “moo doggy” for a cow. So it’s realizing that there are differences, and there needs to be a more specific kind of category to account for the world.

This is a kind of modeling: we end up with models in our head that describe how the world works. When these models work we trust them more. When they fail we refine them. When they catastrophically fail we lose faith in them, and turn to other places. Or we may choose to not accept the data and stick to our model, depending on many factors. So in this sense, I think the mind operates in along the lines of the scientific method.

Except, there are many different processes going on concurrently in the mind that are often in opposition to each other. So I think that you have to understand that there are layers of organization of the same material—metadatas, you might say.

But I find myself just going on and on here. Is any of this what you’re asking about? I feel like it would be helpful to me if you rephrased your question in another way, or let me know precisely what you mean by metadata, and where your thinking about it comes from.

wundayatta's avatar

@finkelitis: that was perfect.

In truth I’m not sure how to make it clearer. Sometimes I think things, and I feel very clear on what I mean at the time, and then later I wonder what the hell I was talking about.

Metadata describes a data set. You have information about what kind of data is it (video, audio, text, data, geographic, etc); how the data were collected (survey, observation, counts, etc); what it’s retrieval number is (in a number of catalogueing systems)...

So, by analogy, I was wondering what aspects of a mind we might catalogue. Perhaps there could be a categorization of thinking styles. A categorization of memory storage methods; An assessment of preferences concerning what they think about, or how much time they spend on various things.

Memory is a particular concern for me now. I’m on some meds that place certain kinds of roadblocks in my memory retrieval mechanism. I liken it to one of those gates leading from the corral where the sheep are waiting to be shorn. When a shearer calls for a sheep, one sheep is let through. But now the gate is stuck, and a certain, specific sheep can’t get through. Others can, but not that one.

In my mind this seems to happen in three ways that I’ve been able to detect so far. One way is that it seems to associate words with types of relationships. So when my brother and sister are around, I am constantly calling them by my son and daughter’s names.

The second type is that the words seemed to be organized in conceptual groups. Sometimes, by thinking of synonyms or things like it, I can come up with the word I want, after worrying for a while.

The third type of storage system seems to be by sound. So, yesterday, for some reason, I couldn’t remember the name of a food that we eat regularly. I reached for the food and came up with the name of the kids guinea pig. Well, it just happened that the pet’s name rhymed with the food name.

I very much agree with the modeling concept, although I’m not sure these models can catastrophically fail. In any case, when they offer a bad prediction, I think we tend to adjust the model. Over the course of a lifetime, the model becomes better and better, particularly about areas of interest. Although, I’ve found that lessons learned in one subject area generally carry over into another quite easily. For example, if you understand human behavior, say in the family, you can pretty well predict how humans will behave at work, or how nations will behave.

It is no accident that scientific method is like the brain’s own processes. Where did the method come from? How did the brain develop the method? Well, the people who couldn’t do science weren’t as good at survival as the ones who could, and over time, they got crowded out by more successful ones.

I will also add that religion also comes, in my opinion, from the same place. Religion is a coping mechanism that offers a survival advantage when we can’t answer a question scientifically. If science does offer us a survival advantage, then the religions that are too skeptical of science, and reject too much of it should die out over time, either because the adherents defect, or because they just can’t compete.

You are also right that the act of categorization is constantly becoming more refined. We see this in science, and following the reasoning in the above paragraph, it makes sense that there is an analogous behavior in the mind.

What is interested to me, is that there is a perceived struggle between scientists who focus on categorization activities, and scientists who focus on quantifying things, and determining if there is a relationship between things.

You can’t do the quantification behavior if you don’t have good, precisely defined, and useful categories to count things in. So good categorization has to preceed the counting. But, the categorizers of the world feel like they are second class citizens in science, because there is much more glory (they think) in being aboe to say whether something is true or not. Categorization is suspicious because it is subjective.

What counters have forgotten is that everything they do originally was based on a subjective categorization scheme. Oh well.

So, yes. There are layers of organization of the same material. How would you characterize and categorize these different layers of organization?

Mizuki's avatar

Different layers of organization are referred to as Meta Programs. Dr. Milton Erickson.

finkelitis's avatar

Great response Daloon. I see my problem with the word metadata now: it implies the mind is data. But it’s much more—that’s why I was drawn to saying metaprocesses. Meta programs seems fine too.

Obviously this is an enormous subject. One idea that I will posit is that, regardless of what the processes of the mind are, it is in their interaction that things get really interesting. How self reflection fits in is not totally obvious, but it is definitely crucial, and Hofstadter has a book on this very topic.

In other words, I think that we can use science to help us understand the brain’s processes, but understanding how they interact will take art, or at least artfulness. In a way, art has made some of the most serious forays into this area already.

Trustinglife's avatar

What are you referring to with art? Any examples?

tyrantxseries's avatar

for me I don’t/can’t organize my thinking, my mind seems like it’s a big tornado, all of my knowledge/thoughts/ideas are in one big cluster spinning in my head, when I need information to answer a question/identify an object/talk, I pull the information I need at that time, use how I need to, then toss it back into the tornado until I need it again. yes sometimes I get the wrong information and have to keep trying, other times I won’t get it at all(eg, Names, (peoples/places/objects), How to interpret other peoples emotions) other times I get too much information on one topic/idea and need to sort through ya It’s great fun

wundayatta's avatar

@tyrant: I half have a feeling that most people are like that, except they shut off their awareness of their minds. Some of us have those doors taken away, and when we venture to visit our own thinking, we are swept on a journey we can no longer control.

For high functioning bipolar or schizophrenics, I think we can gain more of a perspective on what happens inside us, even as we are being ourselves doing the stuff we’re watching. Of course, it’s kind of freaky when the watcher sees a train wreck coming, and screams and yells not to go that way, but you do it anyway.

It’s at moments like that when you become so much more aware of how you’re not in control. Probably most people aren’t. But they sure fake it pretty well.

In a way, becoming bipolar is a gift. Of course, it’s kind of changed me a lot. I like different things; I do different things. I see different things and I think differently. Which is kind of why I asked this. I have no language to articulate how my thinking has changed. I don’t know what to compare it to. I just know the tides are unpredictable inside, and they wash me where they will. I am constantly being buffeted by wicked cross-currents. God forbid the perfect wave should show up.

I read a story about a man descending into a wierd mixed bipolar episode ending in his hospitalization. I’m lucky. I got treated before I needed hospitalization. I didn’t even get sick until I was older than 50.

We make up reasons why the events in life happen to us. We are constantly telling our own stories, with us as heros. When we have to incorporate bad things into the story, the common instinct is to see it as a lesson, and a way to turn yourself around and make a good life.

It’s not that you wanted it to happen. Just that it’s the only sensible way to understand things after they do happen.

On some level, I have no idea who I am anymore. Why are my preferences so different? But on another level, it all makes a kind of sense, and turns me more into who I always was.

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