Absorbing Information On Autopilot

Most of the time you’re absorbing information, you’re doing it on autopilot. The memetic consequences are significant.

Absorbing Information

In any given moment, you’re absorbing information. Typically we think of this as something that only happens when reading, or browsing the web, or consuming media or any kind. But every moment provides a source of information: even if you’re just looking out at a landscape.

Everything is information. Your senses give you access to information about your surroundings: what objects there are around you, what the temperature is, what smells are around, what is making sound. The structure of a building communicates: this is a garage, or an office, or a church. The color of a plant provides information about whether it’s safe to eat, or pretty, or poisonous.

Resource Management & Memetic Autopilot

Time and attention are limited resources. We can’t process every single piece of information that we receive. And so we develop methods to cope with the influx.

Our unconscious brain processes information on memetic autopilot. For example, consider looking at a landscape. If you’ve looked at it many times before, you won’t dedicate too many thought cycles to processing the environment. But you will notice if anything has changed. Say it’s a lake scene, typically devoid of human activity. If someone has parked a boat way over on the other side of the lake, your eye will be drawn to it immediately.

This effect works across the senses. You will typically fade out the noise of a ticking clock, becoming unaware that it’s even there. Until the ticking stops, that is – novelty is introduced, autopilot is turned off, and suddenly the senses are heightened.

Autopilot – unconscious absorption – is how you process the overwhelming majority of information around you.

Absorbing Information On Autopilot

Just as we process sensory information on autopilot, we do the same for memetic information. It’s hard to grasp quite how this works at first. But think about the words you’re reading right now: at one point, each of these words was new to you. You had to learn a definition for the word, and come to understand the context of how to use it through repeated exposure. Now, only truly extraordinary pieces of vocabulary will pull you out of the text. Otherwise, you just string them all together on autopilot.

Over time, we accumulate similar memes in the brain, and group them into memeplexes. A memeplex is a collection of memes with similar values: say, the Ten Commandments, and other tenets of Christianity. Or a “code of honor”, like chivalry. The opening chords of a Pink Floyd song, or the first lyric in every verse Tupac ever wrote.

When one meme in a memeplex is activated, the whole memeplex becomes activated, triggering autopilot for that memeplex. Say you’re reading about some political scandal: once the opening lines of the article set the tone, they activate your existing knowledge of the scandal. The barrier to acceptance of the new memes in the article is lowered, bolstering the illusion of truth. Those new memes get added to the memeplex, making the next article on the scandal even more easy to absorb, with even less conscious thought.

Recognizing & Managing Autopilot

Autopilot is the default mode for well over 90% of the cases where you’re absorbing information. As you deepen you knowledge of a subject, or become more and more exposed to memes within a memeplex, you increasingly turn to autopilot to process memetic information about the subject.

Recognizing autopilot is crucial. Without it, you’re path dependent in how you absorb information. You’ll be less able to think critically, and less able to build accurate mental models.

Novelty is the only thing that breaks autopilot. Just as the clock stops ticking, suddenly drawing your attention to it, only new information will snap you out of uncritical absorption. Anything that challenges the active memeplex is a threat, and brings you into the front seat. The mind absorbing information through memetics is much like a self-driving car monitoring the road ahead. It’s all automatic until something unexpected happens.

To engage critically with information, and prevent autopilot, novelty must be forced in to break path dependence. One way to do this is to expose yourself, intentionally, to new information. Read about things you haven’t read about before, and you’ll be at active attention the whole time. Another way is to force novelty into autopilot situations. Take pauses to reconsider what you’re engaging with from another perspective.

If you don’t, you become a memetic drone. Building a tower ever taller, without thinking about whether the land you’re building on is any good. If you’re not careful, it’ll all come crashing down.

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