Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Umbrella Syndrome



We are still in the midst of a scorching summer. But rains are not far away. Once the rains arrive, umbrellas will be everywhere. And with umbrellas on the scene, we will start hearing a strange complaint - ‘whenever I step out of my house without my umbrella, it invariably rains’. I call this the ‘Umbrella Syndrome’.
Do you believe in the Umbrella Syndrome or have met someone who does? Prima facie, it seems unlikely that the whole climatic system is conspiring against a lowly human being, keeping the clouds at bay so that he forgets his umbrella, and then suddenly coming down on him with full force, sending the poor fellow scurrying for shelter. Yet it seems to happen more often than not, at least to us.
I think I have a theory about why it happens. The explanation is based on two principles taken from two related fields - neuroscience and cognitive psychology. The names may sound weighty, but the principles are simple.
The principle from neuroscience is about how memories are formed. It is well known that our brain is a giant network of cells called neurons. Neurons derive their power from their connections. A neuron is on an average connected to 10,000 other neurons. The place where a connection between two neurons is made is called a synapse. This is where the outgoing link from one neuron meets the incoming receptacle of another neuron.
The of the most accepted theory is that memories are formed by strengthening of the synapses. Scientists like Nobel Prize winner Dr. Eric Kandel have studied this mechanism in depth. The details of the mechanism might be too complex for us to cover here, but there is one aspects that takes us closer to understanding the Umbrella Syndrome - synapses are strengthened more frequently under emotional circumstances, especially in painful situations. This is why people caught in accidents seem to remember even small details of that unfortunate incident even years later.
This then maybe the first hint of an explanation. Being caught in heavy rains without an umbrella is no doubt a painful situation. It is likely that our brain stores it more frequently than those incidences when we are not caught in this appalling situation.
Here spurs the second principle in action, this time coming in from cognitive psychology. This principle is called the availability heuristics, a part of a wider principle called heuristic bias. We are grateful to the scientists Amos Tversky and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahenman for this theory. In short, the availability heuristics means that if an event can be brought to mind easily and vividly, the mind overestimates its probability. The word heuristics here means a back of the envelope calculation, a quick guess. This is regular business for the mind, this is the way it has learned to work. It cannot wait for conclusive evidence to be collected. If there is a rustling sound in the bushes, the mind makes a quick guess that it’s a predator, and prompts us to run. If it had waited till more information is available, most of our ancestors would have been lunch and dinner in the wild.
Coming back to umbrellas, we can now see how it might be happening. The incidences when we forget the umbrella AND get drenched are painful, and are easily and vividly remembered. Working with availability heuristics, mind then calculates the probability of this incidence much higher than what it actually should be. Translated into everyday terms, it always seem to rain when I forget my umbrella.
At the toll nakas, the other lines always seem to be going faster, what do you think?

1 comment:

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