Brain twisters and learned cognitive conflict

Tuesday, 12 Oct 2004

I’ve seen the following brain twister passed off as “left-right conflict” on a number of sites now, so I thought I’d write something about it.

Look at the chart, and say the colour, not the word.

yellow blue orange
black red green
purple yellow red
orange green black
blue red purple
green blue orange

Supposedly, your left brain hemisphere will try to say the colour, but your right brain hemisphere will insist on saying the word. In fact, this is not a left-right conflict nor is it amazing in itself so much as it is as evidence of what a stunning self-optimizer the human brain is.

Common tasks practiced sufficiently will eventually become subconscious, effortless. This teaser exposes the fact that any adult or teenager has exercised their textual shape recognition so much for such a long time that it has become as smooth and reflexive as walking. You don’t see letters arranged in words when you look at text any more than you think about which leg to put forward at which moment when you walk.

This becomes clear if you give this teaser to any kid, up to maybe a few years into basic school. They will do it with very little trouble, since they haven’t yet drilled their cognition to impulsively read.

I can easily get this twister right if I read like a kid, slowly and painstakingly consciously. Conversely, rattling it off would require enough training to undo some of the conditioned optimization.

It turns out that what I’m talking about is called “automaticity”: highly overlearned processes that are rapidly accomplished, uninterruptible, and without conscious volition. This particular test demonstrates what is called the Stroop effect.

John McPherson says maybe it’s the same thing, but I saw a program where they said that babies and toddlers can tell the difference between individuals of other species and races, e.g. tell zebras apart by the stripes, or Asians apart by their face. But as they grow up they are conditioned and forget how to, since adults don’t give positive feedback for recognising those things. I bet asian kids can tell white people apart too