Recently someone asked me the date on which Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Why, I don't know -- apparently I have gained the reputation of being a veritable treasure trove of useless information and I'm often asked such oddball questions. Nonetheless, once asked a question I try to answer it. I was certain that I had read about Amundsen and thus somewhere in my brain was the information -- all I had to do was dredge it up from wherever it was in my mind. I sat back, stared at the ceiling, and in about 2 minutes I came up with December 16, 1911. How?
TRIVIAL PURSUIT was the game of the early 1980s. Playing it, people sit around and come up with answers to questions that, in the main, have no value other than entertainment (in itself no bad thing). There are, I am sure, few people who have not played a trivia game of some kind, be it TRIVIAL PURSUIT, JEOPARDY, or a game of their own.
However, what is the process by which you find the answer? Obviously the information is in your brain, but where? How to do you find it again when it is something you have not consciously set out to remember? Storage and retrieval of input is vital to trivia games and thinking in general. If input simply goes into the brain and out again without being stored in some way it cannot be retrieved from storage. If it can't be retrieved it can't be manipulated. If it can't be manipulated you can't think. Virtually all animals store sensory impressions. Those that cannot can never learn from experience, but will always react to even old impressions as something new. Humans occasionally fall prey to physiological diseases that do not allow them to store new impressions and cause them to lose old storage. To them every day is a new experience, old friends and even a spouse are strangers every time they see them. Storage of impressions is called memory, the mental function of reproducing or identifying what one has experienced or learned. The exact system by which impressions are placed in memory is not understood, although theories include the growing of new snyapses in the brain and the altering of brain cells. However it is done, the mere remembering of experience or learning is not thinking. If it were, alligators and slugs could be Einsteins.
Two ways in which animals store impressions are instinctive and learned. Instinctive storage is "hardwired" into the brain and is in place by the time of birth. Usually such hardwired impressions arise through evolution, as ancestral animals react to sensory stimuli and react in such a way that they survive. For example, a proto-deer ("proto" from the Greek for "first") detects the odor of sabre-tooth tiger. It collapses to the ground and freezes as an unreasoned reaction. It simply does it because something in its make-up leads it to. Others in its herd run because that is in their make-up as a reaction to a threat. The tiger catches one that is running and drags it off. The one that froze gets up and walks off, alive.
Those animals that survive pass their genes on to descendants. Those that die, don't. Eventually the reactions can become hardwired into the brain -- the descendents of the freezing proto-deer automatically, instinctively, freeze when threatened. Thus it is that instincts evolve. (Side Note -- At one time there was a theory that characteristics and instincts could be inherited from a parent animal. This theory of acquired characteristics, called Lamarckism for its originator Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck, said, for instance, that because the ancestral giraffe stretched upwards for food, its young acquired longer necks. Lamarckism has long been discredited.)
Instincts make a creature react automatically to sensory stimuli. For example, a deer fawn, descended from the proto-deer above, instinctively freezes still, barely breathing, when it senses danger through sight, sound or smell. Birds such as chickens and geese run from the shadow cast by a hawk, or the cardboard cutout of a hawk, even though they have had no previous experience with either shadow or hawk. Predatory animals such as lions and dogs will fight viciously until one of the opponents does an appeasement gesture. The gesture can be exposing the throat or lying down and turning belly up. Upon seeing the appeasement gesture the winner instantly, instinctively, stops attacking, accepting the gesture and allowing the loser to live.
The brain carries out instinctive reactions without conscious control. If we follow the trail from perception to reaction we can see how instinct works. The brain is a mass of interconnected nerve endings. When a goose sees a shadow of a hawk the nerve endings in the eye detect the shapes and shades. These nerve endings trigger impulses along the optic nerve to the brain. The brain compares the characteristics of the hawk shadow to what is stored in the brain in terms of verticals, horizontals and curves. For example, some brain cells identify the horizontal line of the top of the wing. Other cells identify the verticals of the tail, yet others the various curves of head and feathers. Each of these cells trigger synapses which send impulses to other parts of the brain where they are assembled into the total impression of the hawk. Impulses are now fired at other brain cells. These cells, based on which synapses send them impulses, in a sense vote on how the body should react. If most of the impulses are from synapses that identify the shadow as "not hawk" then the brain's decision is not to react in fear. If, however, most of the impulses are from synapses that identify the shadow as "hawk" the cells "vote" for reaction and send impulses to the synapses that control the muscles, glands and organs of the body. Adrenalin surges, the muscles contract, breathing quickens and the goose runs in panic from the perceived threat.
Such reactions are unavoidable, just as flipping a switch will turn on a light. Instincts must be followed since they are not susceptible to intellectual control. The above description of a goose's reaction to a shadow is not a decision the goose makes. It is an automatic reaction carried out by the bird's brain. An animal doesn't even know that there is another way to react, and thus doesn't try to alter its reaction. It is much like a human who is suddenly startled: he or she jumps or runs, perhaps cries out, feels the heart thumping, the lungs laboring for breath, a queasiness in the stomach. None of those reactions are voluntary or a conscious decision based on the stimulus of someone shouting "Boo!" They are an instinctive reaction carried out by the brain in response to the stimulus.
Occasionally instinctive reactions do not occur. These occasions are aberrations. Such aberrations can be self-correcting: the example of the lion above is such a case. A lion that continues an attack after the appeasement gesture is ostracized by the rest of the pride and driven away. It thus is unlikely to reproduce and the aberrant genes that didn't install the instinct die out.
There can, of course, be evolution in instinct. On occasion an abberant instinct can be more efficient as a survival mechanism than the original instinct. Thus the abberation has a better chance of survival, of reproducing, and being passed on to future generations, the original instinct dying out.
Many animals can also store impressions of things that they experience. Such storage is learned storage.
Animals store direct sensory impressions. In this way they can identify features of new situations that match in some way what they have sensed before, how they reacted to that earlier experience, and what effect that reaction produced. They then can react in the same way if the previous action had a positive effect, or react differently if it had a negative effect. For example, a slug exposed to an electric shock will react by drawing away. If it is then exposed to another shock, and if drawing away reduced the unpleasant experience before, it will draw away again. If a rat finds that pushing a black lever produces an electric shock and pushing a white lever delivers food, it will avoid pushing the black lever and deliberately press the white. (Experiments have shown that if pressing a lever delivers a direct electrical stimulation of the pleasure center in the brain, a rat will continue pressing it until it dies of exhaustion.) A rat placed in a maze will run it faster and faster as it stores the sensory impressions of the turns and twists which lead to the reward at the end.
By learning an animal can make a decision on how to react to a situation. A dog has three basic reactions to all situations -- ignore, be friendly, be hostile. If previous experience has shown it that being friendly when meeting new creatures, be they other dogs or humans, is rewarding (getting food, petting, etc.) then it will be friendly when meeting other new creatures. The same is true for being hostile or paying no attention. A trained dog will be hostile to all but those that its trainer has identified as friends. From then on it will, if not be friendly, at least not be hostile. In each instance the dog has learned how to react to stimuli. Occasionally a dog is presented with a need to make its own decision rather than rely on its trainer's instructions. In the case of the dog meeting someone who has some, but not all, of the characteristics of a friend according to its instructions, it must decide how to react. Such a dog will appear confused, rushing forward barking and then backing away, perking its ears forward then laying them back, the synapses of its brain sending contradictory instructions to its body. It has no infallible instinct to guide its actions. Eventually something will tip the balance in how its synapses "vote" on how it should react. If the person just stands there the decision might be to ignore; if the person becomes threatening the balance may tip toward hostile; if the person shows further characteristics of being a friend the dog may become friendly.
In much the same way, a mother cheetah or wolf teaches her cubs how to hunt by showing them the sensory impressions and how to react to them. In the case of learning, the sensory impressions are not hardwired into the brain, like the shape of a shadow to a goose. The characteristics and how to react to them are learned by experience and stored in the brain as memories.
The ability to learn generally depends on the complexity of the brain and the body/brain mass ratio. For example, a cheetah must learn how to hunt; an alligator or shark is born knowing how -- it hunts by instinct, not learning. The greater the complexity of the brain and the body/brain mass ratio, the more an animal can learn and thus cope with new and/or unusual situations and experiences.
Humans, being members of the animal kingdom, also have instinctual and learned storage. We instinctively react to pain such as electrical shock by drawing back, and have fear reactions such as adrenalin surges and heavy breathing to perceived threats. Humans have the greatest brain (with the possible exception of the dolphin) complexity and body/brain mass ratio and thus have the greatest capacity to learn. Humans react less by instinct and more according to learned experience and reaction. However, that is a topic covered in Chapter 6. Humans learn in much the same way as other animals. They experience new perceptions and store perceptions in the brain. What they see, hear, smell, taste and touch are all perceptions that get stored in memory (see Section I, INPUT, for a discussion of perception). Thus, humans are the same as other animals. Or are they?
The difference between humans and other animals (with some possible exceptions) is that humans store not only the direct sensory impressions but indirect impressions. They store them not only directly but symbolically. This means that humans stick a label onto the impression and can retrieve an impression not only by its sensory but by its symbolic reminder. Let's see how this works in practice, differentiating it from other animals.
The goose from above sees a shadow and reacts to its shape and actions: it appears to be a hawk and it is above the goose. The goose therefore reacts to what its brain perceives as a threat by running from it. A human, on the other hand, applies a label to the same direct impressions that the goose receives. The human will identify it in the same way, but will also call up indirect impressions, determine possibilities and experiments, and finally look to compare the possibilities with the reality. They thus discover whether the hawk is real or cardboard, and react based on that new information.
A great advantage for humans is that they can recall all types of impressions from storage at will, not necessarily requiring an external stimulus. The label can act as a stimulus to recall.
The brain can store impressions in two ways, either directly or in symbols. Direct storage is taking sensory impressions as they come in and storing them in the brain as recollections of the sensory characteristics in toto. It is possible to store the smell of a rose, the feel of its thorns, and the sight of its color. In addition, it is possible to store sets of characteristics in order to identify a sensory moulage. For example, a sight can be saved directly as the brain stores the characteristics of that sight. If you look at a dog you save the characteristics of the number of legs, color patterns, length of snout and tail, height, weight, conformation, etc. You can also add the dog's smell, feel, or sound (I would add taste if you have a predilection to lick dogs). These are all direct impressions, and are stored as such. Each individual dog, or anything else you directly experience has its characteristics stored in this way. The storage of these individual sets of characteristics are what allow you to identify an individual item out of a group of similar items, be they dogs, trees, or people.
Humans have another way of storing impressions. This method is stereotyping. Much of the mental storage that people do is stereotyping.
WHAT IS STEREOTYPING?
The definition of stereotype is "a fixed form or convention," "something lacking in originality or individuality." It is a model for other things like it. What this means is that people use a set of characteristics, either direct or indirect impressions, as a means of identifying and thus recognizing a group of individuals as fitting within a certain category. It is creating a series of templates against which anything encountered can be compared to aid in identifying it. A large woody plant with branches and leaves, no matter what shape or configuration, is categorized within the stereotype of "tree". Thus any large woody plant with branches or leaves can be identified as a tree.
The human mind gathers information and stores that information in the memory. However, there is so much information coming in that the mind must sort and categorize it. Random storage of masses of information would result in total confusion.
For example, you see a tree. You observe its size, the limb configuration, leaf shape, the color and texture of its bark. You see another tree, and another, and another. They are all different. If you don't place them in a category but have to think about each tree as a distinct individual with no relationship to any other, your mind would soon become overloaded with all the sensory impressions. Thus you sort the trees into categories by characteristics they have in common. It might be leaf shape: maple, oak, pine, willow. It might be by limb configuration: spreading, symmetrical. Overall they fit into the category of "tree".
This categorizing I call pigeonholing. A pigeonhole contains all the information you have gathered about any particular item or subject. This information is not only the direct impressions, such as might be gathered by any animal, from a slug to a dog. It also includes any extrasomatic input that is applicable to the item or subject. Your mind sorts all the information that comes in and puts it in an appropriate pigeonhole. Every time you perceive the characteristics of something, you place those characteristics in a pigeonhole. When you identify something else that has the same, or what you perceive as the same characteristics, it goes in that pigeonhole. Therefore the pigeonhole "tree" contains the general features of all trees. Thus, the next time you see a tree it opens the appropriate pigeonhole. You can identify it as a tree without having to devote much, if any thought to it.
You create new pigeonholes whenever new information that you deem important comes in. For example, specific information about trees becomes important: evergreen or deciduous, maple, oak, willow, etc. When you then see a tree you observe limb configuration, leaf shape, etc., and the new pigeonhole "maple tree" is called up rather than the pigeonhole "tree". If, however, you do not consider the new information important, no new pigeonhole is created; the old pigeonhole will suffice.
Something special about a particular tree, such as it being the one you climbed as a child or hit with your car, will create a new pigeonhole.
The above example of a tree is very simple. Most stereotypes are not. They consist of a gestalt of impressions, many of which are stereotypes in and of themselves. Not only are there the sensory impressions but the emotions, collateral impressions, what other people have told you the impressions are and mean, all the extrasomatic input about the subject. All go into the pigeonhole.
For example, you meet many people, some new to you and some old, every day. Each is a combination of facial features, coloration, size, shape, behavior, temperament, vocal characteristics, moods, etc. It would be impossible to carry all you know about each individual in your mind. Thus they are pigeonholed according to characteristics. There are pigeonholes for coloration (black, white, yellow, red), sex (male, female), size (tall, short, fat, thin), age (child, teen-ager, young, middle-aged, elderly). Let us say you have the following pigeonholes based on combinations of characteristics: white male, black female, short Asian, thin Indian, short fat black balding male with a bad temper and a lisp; tall fat white female with short hair, loud voice and a tattoo; tall slender young female with long blond hair; short, skinny, short-haired male with horn-rimmed glasses and a pocket protector.
You label these pigeonholes with stereotypes.
The label may be "black man," or "
Why then does stereotyping have such a negative connotation?
People generally perceive that stereotypes mean all things with similar characteristics, whether those characteristics are significant or not, are exactly alike. They are "lacking in originality or individuality." For example, all blacks or whites (women, Asians) think and act alike because they have the same skin color (they are women or Asians). When someone sneezes they must have a cold or allergy, and a sizzling sound in the kitchen means a steak is being cooked.
This is the basis of preconception and prejudice. When someone or something triggers a pigeonhole because of many like characteristics, you expect everything in the pigeonhole to be true.
What becomes important is not the stereotype, but the contents of the pigeonhole the stereotype triggers. Pigeonhole contents come from two basic sources, primary and secondary. The primary source is the information you personally put into pigeonholes, your direct impressions. Secondary is the information you get from other people, indirect impressions. A major source of secondary information is family and friends. What they teach you as the way to view people, places and things is the way you do. For example, if your father is a member of the Ku Klux Klan, then you will have a certain set of information about blacks, Jews, Catholics, etc. The pigeonhole may say that blacks are lazy, smelly, ignorant, oversexed, or that Jews are power-hungry, money-mad, devious, unscrupulous. Thus when you see a black person, or meet a stranger and someone tells you he or she is Jewish, the stereotype label triggers the pigeonhole and all that information is what you think of about that person. Family and friends produce many other pigeonholes of this type, particularly when you are young: best car to drive, political and religious affiliations, hair length and clothing styles, views about schooling, government, blonds, brunettes and redheads, gender, beer, smoking, bill paying, everything. Again, stereotypes trigger them all. Primary information is what you gather yourself. The information in each pigeonhole is not only what others have taught you is in them, but what you put there yourself. This information could come from what you read, what you see, what you experience. If a young, long-haired, scruffy looking man mugged you, then the pigeonhole of young, long-haired, scruffy looking men will include that they will mug you. This stereotype leads you to fear such a man when you see one.
Difficulties arise from the relative importance an individual places on certain characteristics in a pigeonhole. Each person assigns a rank to each piece of information placed in a pigeonhole. The rank comes from their own preconceptions, prejudices, education and/or experience. For example, to some people gender or race ranks higher than ability. Thus, seeing a woman apply for a job would trigger the "woman" pigeonhole and ability would be subordinate to gender. To others, ability is more important that gender or race. (Point of interest: when I said "seeing a woman apply for a job would trigger the "woman" pigeonhole and ability would be subordinate to gender," did you automatically assume that it meant she would not get the job, or she would? Either would be a "stereotypical" response according to your own pigeonholing of the information triggered by the sentence. Both possibilities are true.) The problem is that many times people perceive the information in pigeonholes triggered by stereotypes as negative. They believe the information includes such falsehoods as Jews are money-grubbing, Blacks are lazy, women are emotionally unstable, men are insensitive; Russia is dark and cold and miserable, Detroit is grimy and crime-ridden, Los Angeles is smoggy and glitzy and phony.
Stereotypes are neither positive or negative simply because they are stereotypes. Many stereotypes are negative or positive depending on the person holding them. For example, a stereotype that women are better child rearers is positive to many people. However, to a father denied custody of his child by a judge who holds that stereotype of women thinks it is negative.
Input to the mind is stored in the brain in a variety of ways. Physiologically the brain is a mass of cells that, according to current theory, alter when an impression comes in. Direct impressions are stored in toto. Stereotypes, a gestalt of direct and indirect impressions, are stored in mental pigeonholes that are labeled with a direct and an indirect impression. Through a combination of direct storage and stereotypes it is possible to store everything you encounter.
However, much of the storage is not susceptible to manipulation. To do that impressions must be converted to symbols, the subject of the next chapter.
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